September 23, 2023

When Scents Define Places and Times

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The Circle of Spices: by Emirati Novelist Salha Obeid

In The Circle of Spices, Emirati novelist Salha Obeid takes us on a journey to multiple places and different times. Studying the characteristics of each, she shows how historical events influence the course of her characters’ lives and fates.

Odours are ubiquitous in the novel. They are like invisible threads that connect characters, events, places and times.

In so doing, they form a complex network of associations, taking readers on a sensory journey. It is as if the novel reveals its secrets through the traces of scents.

Everything has a special odour that makes it unique, and defines its nature and character. Grief has a distinct smell, and so do happiness, love and even death. Intimacy has its special aroma, while remoteness has a distinctive tang. The scent of the sea is different from that of the land. Things cannot exist independently of aromas. They are integral to existence and beauty.

The book opens with a story about the Abbasid Caliphate, Abdallah ibn Al-Mu’tazz, and the power struggles and bloodshed that characterised it. The location is Samarra, Iraq. The time is 247-267 Hijri (corresponding to 861-881 CE). Titled “The Fallen Head”, the tragic tale shows how 40 days could be enough time to expose a boy to all the harsh challenges of life, and teach him the concepts of blood and vengeance. His grandfather, Al-Mutawakel, is killed and then his father, Al-Mutaz, is taken prisoner.

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