Short Docs

He fled Syria and crossed the Mediterranean in an inflatable boat to pursue his dream of becoming a perfumer

After the civil war in Syria, the path to becoming a “nez” became far more complicated for Abdulkader Fattouh

After the civil war in Syria, the path to becoming a 'nez' became far more complicated for Abdulkader Fattouh

Abdulkader Fattouh studies a new perfume ingredient in class at ISIPCA, a world-renowned perfume and cosmetics school in Versailles. (Karine Aulnette/MARDI8)

By Mélanie Gouby, director, L'essence des souvenirs: Itinéraire d'un apprenti parfumeur

When Abdulkader Fattouh was a teenager in Aleppo, Syria, he set his sights on an ambitious dream: to become a "nez" (a master perfumer).

In 1958, Fattouh's grandfather opened a store that sold colognes and essential oils in the old city's souk. Growing up, Fattouh often helped in the shop after school. He fell in love with the "magical liquids" that brought small, everyday joys to the store's customers.

When I met Fattouh in 2018, he had begun his master's degree in perfumery at ISIPCA, a renowned perfume and cosmetics school in Versailles. But the path he had taken to France was nothing like the one he envisioned as a boy working in his grandfather's shop.

A little over a decade ago, the revolutionary winds of the Arab Spring reached Syria, carried by a young generation yearning for democracy and a life lived on their own terms. Demonstrations swept cities like Aleppo, Homs and Damascus and people dared to dream of a future in a free, modern state — and dared to demand it.

But it wasn't long before the regime of Bashar al-Assad orchestrated a brutal campaign of repression to extinguish this flame. The Syrian civil war did more than end hopes for democracy: the individual hopes of an entire generation lay amongst the rubble of bombed-out cities.

A complicated and dangerous journey to France

In the past, Fattouh would have simply applied for a visa, paid school fees and bought a plane ticket to France. After the civil war broke out in Syria, he had to risk his life crossing the Mediterranean, travel through Europe, move in and out of strangers' homes as part of a housing program for migrants, and sometimes sleep on the street as he awaited official refugee status — his future entirely in the hands of a French judge.

Like millions of Syrians, Fattouh was forced to flee his country. He crossed the Mediterranean in an inflatable rubber boat. (Rama Duwaji/Mardi8)

My documentary L'essence des souvenirs: Itinéraire d'un apprenti parfumeur (The essence of memories: Story of a perfumer's apprentice) follows Fattouh in his final year at ISIPCA, where he must create his own perfume as a final graduation project. The film is a co-production between CBC Short Docs, ARTE France and Mardi8.

Fattouh's story mirrors the determination of hundreds of thousands of men and women who chose to not follow the rules of Europe's increasingly restrictive asylum system. Instead, they crossed the Alps or crowded into a migrant camp in Calais, refusing to let their destiny be determined by administrative rules. While Fattouh's friends stopped in Germany in 2015, he pushed on to France — because this was where he could realize his dream.

In making L'essence des souvenirs, I hoped to give this determination a face: the face of a young man in pursuit of his hopes and dreams, occupying the space he chose rather than the place he was given.

L'essence des souvenirs is a film about the cost of war and what exile should not prevent: the right to believe in oneself.

'Europe is perfectly capable of welcoming and providing for people who need our help, but we chose not to for Syrians'

While we were putting the final touches on the documentary, war broke out in Ukraine. Ukrainian refugees started pouring into the EU in the same way that Fattouh and hundreds of thousands of Syrians had in 2015.

The stark contrast in the reception they were given only underlined what many suspected: Europe is perfectly capable of welcoming and providing for people who need our help, but we chose not to for Syrians.

When making the film, I was blown away by the generosity of families across France who had opened their doors to refugees like Fattouh — to offer them a roof over their heads and a home through a little-known settlement program.

With Ukrainian refugees, this program suddenly became mainstream. Ukrainians are predominantly white, resembling the majority of the French population, and many feel that they share our culture.  Somewhere along the way, it seems we decided that they are more deserving of our compassion.

Modern perfumery is the result of thousands of years of global exchange

The art of perfumery provides an interesting counterpoint to this belief. While today perfume is an undisputed symbol of the French art de vivre, modern perfumery is the result of thousands of years of global exchange.

The story begins in ancient Egypt, with the burning of kyphi incense for the gods, and takes roots in Mesopotamia, where the the name of the first known perfumer — a woman named Tapputi — was found on a cuneiform tablet dating back to 1200 BC.

Over the centuries, chemists and traders travelled the world to find new raw materials and distillation techniques, building bridges of flowers, precious woods and craftsmanship across Europe and the Middle East in particular.

Fattouh must create his first original perfume as a graduation project. (Karine Aulnette/MARDI8)

Fattouh is a new stitch in the age-old fabric that weaves sensory bonds between our continents, rooted in our shared human experience.

One day, his creations will be available on shelves in a shop near you. And like so many feats achieved by refugees, no one will mind for a second who made those perfumes.

We'll just wear them, unbeknownst to the fact that we're wearing the olfactive identity of a Syrian man who chose his own path.

Watch L'essence des souvenirs: Itinéraire d'un apprenti parfumeur on CBC Gem.

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