By Alison Bate
It was my last day in Khartoum, the dusty desert capital of Sudan. I lay spread-eagled on my bed, trying to keep as cool as possible, and planning the day ahead.
I’ll visit Omdurman Souk, I decided, follow on my grandfather’s trail. After all, it was thanks to Grampy and his “expert nose” that I was in Africa at all.
Omdurman is Khartoum’s sister city, and I first heard the name from my globetrotting grandfather. It was on one of his trips that the perfume Bint El Sudan was born, after a meeting with Omdurman merchants. It quickly became the best-selling non-alcoholic perfume in the world.
Eric Burgess, known in the style of the times as E.E. Burgess Esq., was a traveling perfume salesman for W.J. Bush & Co. of Hackney, East London.
His mission? To sniff out new markets for exotic perfumes. Like his father before him, Eric Burgess started at the company as a youngster and stayed with Bush for 50 years. It was a family tradition: his grandfather and great-grandfather also traded in chemicals of some kind. And as an export manager and buyer, he travelled all over Africa, the Middle East and Europe, often in very remote areas.
“He lived at a time when you could have real adventures,” his younger daughter Elizabeth – my Mum – recalled.
As a young child, she remembers him flying in a small plane over their garden in Kent, waving a large white hankie out the window as he headed across the English Channel on yet another long trip.
I grew up listening to my grandfather’s travel tales at his home in Kemsing, Kent – the cozy English village he lived in for 60 years.
NOTE: A shorter piece titled “The Bint Factor” was published by Reader’s Digest Canada in December 2009
Home full of elephants
Grampy’s home was full of elephants: ivory tusks carved with a row of elephants; book-ends with ivory elephants at each end; and a carved wooden elephant stool on the landing near the top of the stairs.
His wife Ann died when I was only eight, so my memories are of him living alone, but very comfortably, in the same grounds as Auntie Pat, Uncle John and our cousins Simon and Roger.
Even in retirement, Grampy dressed immaculately in a jacket, long-sleeved shirt and tie, waistcoat, carefully creased trousers, braces and well-polished leather shoes.
He’d tell of his adventures with an infectious chuckle, bushy eyebrows twitching, glasses at the end of his nose, and a cigarette with a full inch of ash wedged between his fingers.
My brother Tony, sister Gill and I would watch fascinated, wondering when the ash would fall off, as we listened to how he’d had to shoot a man in Africa or helped toss a dead thief off a train.
Grampy told one of his stories in the company’s Albright magazine in February 1965, shortly after he retired.
Journeys overseas took months in his early days, sometimes more than a year, and he was a regular on the Continental long distance trains. Late one night in the Balkans, he was in a sleeper when he heard a noise in the corridor:
“I left my compartment and saw the attendant bending over a fellow lying on the floor. Apparently the guard had caught him stealing, the thief had drawn a knife and the guard had shot him,” he recalled.
“I asked what he was going to do about it and he said quietly: ‘Give me a hand to shove him out’ – and we did, out of the window”.
Crossing the desert in Cadillacs
In another interview, this time with The Sunday Times of London, Eric Burgess recalled an unplanned six days in the desert.
“We crossed the desert from Damascus to Baghdad in a fleet of Cadillacs with enough food for a week in case we got stuck with the rain coming. But we reached one patch of mud 25 yards across and it took us two hours to get through it.
“We all fell flat on our backs and I arrived in my office in Baghdad covered in mud. I caught sight of myself in a mirror and, good heavens, I realised I hadn’t got a tie on.”
In Africa, he travelled on mules, horses or walked on foot. Dressed smartly in a jacket, tie and pith helmet, armed guard in tow, he’d visit the markets, tribesmen’s huts or little shops, tracking down new essences, exploring and opening up new markets for the company, and returning to collect new orders.
Bint is born
It was on one of his early expeditions that Bint was born, after Eric Burgess set out for Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and Sudan in 1919 with several large leather cases and a strong trunk, tightly strapped.
As he told it, one blazingly hot day a group of 14 Omdurman merchants “looking like brigands” crowded into the small office used by the company representative in Khartoum.
After squatting on the floor and drinking several cups of thick strong coffee, as was the custom, they produced a large number of exotic essences, including jasmine, lilac, lily of the valley, musk and amber.
They asked my grandfather to use them to make the perfect perfume for Muslims. Strict Muslims don’t touch alcohol, so the perfume had to be oil-based, a more expensive process.
In the East London laboratories of W.J. Bush & Co., it took many experiments to achieve the right smell, and even more to make it cheap enough to produce. Legend has it that they threw “everything but the kitchen sink” into it, but finally 48 essences were blended together and it was time to design the perfume label.
Grampy was an avid photographer and one of his photos was of three topless young Sudanese women in elephant skirts. He called them “The three princesses”.
One of the women was cropped out and set against an ornate turquoise and gold background for the new perfume label. In those days, brides-to-be dressed to “show their wares”, but nowadays the label looks decidedly politically incorrect.
Africa’s Famous Love Fragrance
Launched six months later, Bint El Sudan became a huge success, carried by merchants traveling in camel caravans all over North and West Africa and into the Middle East.
By the 1960s and 1970s, it was the biggest selling non-alcoholic based perfume in the world and a separate alcoholic-based version was also released.
In this period, more than a million 12-millilitre bottles were exported from the UK each year, and even larger quantities were diluted and bottled in northern Nigeria using perfume concentrate supplied from the UK.
Bint el Sudan became one of the most recognized smells of Africa: women used it enhance their sex appeal, and men used it as an aphrodisiac. It was even marketed as “Africa’s Famous Love Fragrance” in the U.S.
“Do you dare to wear it?”
– 1974 advert for Bint el Sudan perfume
An advert in Ebony magazine in April 1974 trumpeted: “Down through the years, the unmistakable fragrance of Bint has become the unmistakable fragrance of Africa. Treasured by African women for its sensuous appeal…Do you dare to wear it?”
Off to Sudan
When my grandfather died in 1977, I mourned his passing, but never really thought much about the perfume trail that took him overseas.
Then in November 2006, my brother Tony emailed a family history file he’d put together, and my mother and I read it together. The stories and pictures of Grampy’s escapades in Africa sparked my curiosity and gave me the traveling itch once again.
Three months later, armed with a job offer to teach, tourist visa and a body peppered with very expensive jabs, I was on a plane from Vancouver heading for Khartoum.
Visiting the souk
I had an unforgettable time living and teaching in Sudan, especially living with a local family, although my adventures did seem pretty tame compared with my grandfather’s.
Now after five months, I was heading home to Canada. It was my last full day in Sudan, and a local friend, Sarah Elgasim, had offered to take me shopping. I was determined to get there this time. My first attempt had been a pathetic failure, as I hopped from one rackety minibus after another in the blazing heat, somehow managing to miss Sudan’s largest market.
This time around, Sarah and I took a taxi from Khartoum across the White Nile, and half an hour later arrived in the blazing heat at Omdurman market.
Red and green motorized rickshaws swirled around, men in long white robes and colorfully dressed women traded noisily as we walked through endless little alleys.
After a couple of hours of shopping, we were exhausted, but I was still wondering what to get my mother as a gift.
I’d always assumed Bint El Sudan was no longer sold – gone along with those colonial days. But as we passed a small pharmacy, on impulse I asked Sarah if you could still buy the perfume.
“There are many places that sell that,“ she exclaimed. “It’s used in marriage ceremonies and by married women. Only married women can use it.”
Sarah talked to the storekeeper and to my great excitement, he pointed immediately to two small bottles on a shelf above him, with the familiar Bint label unchanged after all these years.
I asked hopefully for another one and he disappeared for a short time and returned with a third bottle. I handed over the equivalent of $7.50 US and he carefully wrapped the bottles in an old cardboard box and presented the parcel to me with great ceremony.
The wedding ritual
No Sudanese wedding is complete without Bint, I learned later. “It’s a tedious three-day process,” Alawiyya Jamal told me. She’s a Khartoum-based humanitarian officer who helped prepare the Bint concoction for her nephew’s recent wedding.
Sandalwood, small beans, sweet-smelling seeds and flour are mixed into a pungent gritty paste, which is then slowly smoked with three types of acacia wood: one for cooking, one for color and one for smell.
Once the paste has cooled, Bint and several other perfumes are added and the scrub is used to make the bride’s skin soft. Bridal perfumes are also sprayed at weddings and kept and used by the bride for as long as she is married.
Sudanese culture has great respect for marriages and death alike, and Bint is used as well to perfume the corpse. For daily use, it is sprayed on acacia wood to scent the home, bed covers and even clothes.
“Personally, it is one of my favorite smells, not only in the perfume mix but as a daily freshener,” Jamal said.
At least 5.7 million bottles still produced each year
The original Bush firm has changed hands several times since my grandfather’s day. It was bought by Albright & Wilson in 1961; became part of Bush, Boake and Allen (BBA) in 1966; and in 2000, the U.S. conglomerate International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) bought out BBA and took over the rights to the Bint formula.
The Bint formula has been reworked and synthesized. Non-alcoholic and alcoholic based versions are sold in different shaped bottles, and plastic plugs used instead of corks.
But it’s still a best-seller, ninety years after the first bottle left the production line in East London.
An average of 5.7 million bottles of Bint El Sudan are now produced every year for Africa, according to Nicholas Evans, the IFF fragrance sales manager for Africa. The vast majority, about 80 per cent, still comes out of the original W.J. Bush company in Kano, northern Nigeria.
In Kenyan and Saudi versions, the topless woman in the label has been covered up, but in Nigeria and Sudan, she remains bare-breasted, resisting all change.
According to a company article printed in the 1970s, forgeries of Bint were common, and when a more modest label was tried out in Sudan, sales were affected, as customers assumed they were forgeries.
Evans, based in South Africa, added: “Bint el Sudan is today still the biggest selling and most successful perfume Africa has ever known.”
It is packaged and distributed in Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, South Africa, Sudan, Zimbabwe as well as in Saudi Arabia for the Middle Eastern market.
Trevor McCauley, who holds the current license for Bint El Sudan in South Africa, said that lipstick, soap, hair and skincare products are now also made, all marketed under the Bint el Sudan label and made in African factories.
“It’s one of those smells that’s almost hypnotic,” he said.
McCauley produced the perfume in Zimbabwe in the 1990s and has many memories of his own. Bint was often smuggled across borders to avoid strict import duties, and he recalled finding the perfume for sale in the remote fishing village of Inhassoro in Mozambique, about 1,000 kilometres away from retail outlets.
Guess what I found?
After returning home to B.C., I took one bottle to my mother in Nanaimo and carefully placed it on Grampy’s old oak dining table.
“Guess what I found?” I said.
“Oh, Ali,” my mother said quietly, picking up the Bint El Sudan. The perfume uncorked all kinds of memories. “My father always said it was too strong for European noses, and had to be smelt in a really hot country,” she said.
My brother Tony phoned from New Zealand to remind me that Grampy used to be called “the man who walked in straight lines” by Africans. My sister Gill reminded me of his cooking advice: “Always cook steak seven minutes a side.”
I gave one of the other Bint bottles to my Auntie Pat in Spain and she wrote about her father’s “expert nose” and recalled: “He loved the Sudanese people and he loved the Arabs he met in those parts and particularly enjoyed their sense of humour.”
Meanwhile, the third bottle remains unopened at the bottom of my fridge, a reminder of my grandfather’s tales of Africa, and of my own memories of Sudan.
Of days of blazing heat and power cuts, eating ‘ful’ beans for breakfast, and friendly people – and to stumbling across a little piece of the past in a pharmacy in Omdurman Souk.
Are they fake?
My story should really end there but, as I learned from living in Africa, things rarely end so neatly. And so it was with Bint. Earlier this year (2011), I learned that my three bottles – so proudly valued – could easily be fake.
I was chatting with Lubna Ali, a Sudanese lady who sells Bint el Sudan here in Vancouver, when she pointed out a bottle looking remarkably like the ones I bought in Omdurman Souk, marked “Made in Sudan” on the back. “These are not original,” she said.
Whoops! But the good news is that I definitely do have the real oil-based Bint, sent to me direct from the W.J.Bush factory in Nigeria. These bottles are in little cardboard boxes in a cupboard above my fridge, kindly sent to me from Kano.
As for the three bottles I bought, I really don’t care whether they’re counterfeit or not. Without them, I never would have uncovered the full story of Bint, and linked the past with the present – ninety years later.