SINGAPORE--Most women splash on well-known perfumes such as Opium, Chloe or L'Air du Temps. I prefer exotic attars that hint at the mysteries of the East. One day I'm veiled in delicate, flowery Doa Jannat; another in the florid aromas of Jidda. On Fridays I daub on the fresh, green scent called Juma'at because its Arabic name means Friday.
These are oil-based perfumes created for Muslims who, for religious reasons, shun alcoholic drinks and avoid alcohol-based fragrances. I buy them in Singapore in the Islamic district that intertwines with Arab Street and the golden-domed Sultan Mosque. A stronghold of Malay and Islamic culture dating back to the days of Sir Stamford Raffles, this historic district has survived Singapore's relentless renovation campaign.
North Bridge Road, from Arab Street northeast to Jalan Sultan, is still lined with old shop houses, windows concealed by gray-blue shutters. Neighborhood streets have Arabic-sounding names such as Sheik Madersah Lane, Sultan Gate and Haji Lane or Malay names including Jalan Pisang (Banana Street).
Although Bussorah Street, which leads to the Sultan Mosque, is being transformed into a pedestrian mall, the design glorifies its Islamic roots. The shop-house look has been retained, and royal palms, regarded as a mark of royalty, have been installed. The project will be completed by the end of 1995 and from what I saw when I was there in August, the mall is being done in suitable style.
Regardless of the renovations, this area continues to be a part of the city where Muslims shop for prayer rugs and prayer beads, shawls, Arabic clothing, women's head scarves, carved wooden holders for the Koran and compasses that point toward Mecca, indicating the direction to turn for prayers. Some of the shoppers are tourists from the Mideast; others come from the neighboring countries of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, where Islam predominates.
The perfumeries, located along North Bridge Road, are dark shops crammed with large, glass-toppered jars, ornate flasks, colorful bottles and velvet boxes that contain the prized attars. Some are so expensive that a \o7 tola, \f7 an Arabic measure used in these shops, costs $62.50. A \o7 tola \f7 is 12 grams; less than half an ounce.
While this area is renowned for the contemporary scents it creates, perfume-making is actually an ancient art. Rare scents were formulated to enhance personal attractiveness, to create an atmosphere of luxury in the quarters of the aristocracy and to honor the gods. Perfumes were found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, and two components--frankincense and myrrh--were royal gifts to the Christ child. Crusaders returning from the Holy Land brought the attars to Europe.
In Singapore, men as well as women buy these scents. Since the custom is for Muslims to wash before prayers, you can see worshipers rinsing their feet at faucets outside Sultan Mosque. It is also the tradition to dress nicely and add a touch of perfume. Since Muslims pray five times a day, one of the shops, Kazura Co., has come up with a set of five vials--a different scent for each time of prayer.
My favorite fragrance, Doa Jannat, means "pray for paradise" in Arabic. It's a lovely blend compounded by Kazura from essences such as ylang-ylang, jasmine, vetiver and sandalwood. I prize it so, that during a brief stopover in Singapore on the way to Madras, I hopped a bus into town to replenish my supply.
I also revel in a scent blended just for me by the Muslim perfume-makers at V.S.S. Varusai Mohamed & Sons. It's a mix of florals including jasmine, \o7 cempaka \f7 and \o7 bunga tanjong. \f7 The latter two are Malay names, and according to my Malay dictionary \o7 cempaka \f7 means "frangipani." \o7 Bunga tanjong--\f7 the dictionary was no help on this one--is so loved by Malays that it's the subject of a folk song comparing its beauty to that of Malaysia. To complete my personal blend, Haji V. Syed Mohamed, V.S.S. managing director, prescribed a dash of 555, which is his company's copy of the Christian Dior fragrance Poison.
All the shops advertise oil-based re-creations of leading Western perfumes, and they range in price from a low of $3.50 to a high of $70, for precious rose. Although deep, strong, long-lasting scents are favored in the Mideast, younger Muslims are turning to modern, lighter European fragrances, explained Haji V. Syed Abu Thahir of VSA. That company's Poison copy is called Abu Nawaz 19, while Jidda simulates Joy, Eden copies Eternity and a scent curiously called Opec stands in for Opium. Men who like Aramis can try Aran, while Diraja imitates Dunhill.