The power of perfume: how scent connects one woman to her homeland

Nehal El-Hadi believes the power of smell can be better-harnessed to create a mood, evoke memory and maintain a connection to people and places.When her first child was born, she reached for sandalwood, a scent that reminds her of her birthplace in Sudan, in hopes of instilling a love for it with her daughter too.
Nehal El-Hadi is a writer, researcher and editor living in Toronto. (Liz Ikiriko)

Nehal El-Hadi thinks the power of scent is underrated.

Born in Khartoum, Sudan, El-Hadi moved to Toronto, but never forgot the importance of the scents she had grown up with.

Nehal El-Hadi and her seven month old daughter Kenza. (Submitted by Nehal El-Hadi)

"The smell of sandalwood is the smell of home. It's the incense that we burn, it's the oils that we use on our bodies. … It's a very warm, very rich scent. It was what my mother smelled of too. Not just her — my aunts and my grandmother and all the women around me. So it was not just the smell of home, but the smell of being female, of womanhood."

So when El-Hadi gave birth to her first daughter, it was only natural that she, like generations of Sudanese women before her, reached for a very specific oil to perfume her baby with, in a deliberate effort to associate the scent of her homeland with her newborn daughter. 

"When I was pregnant," El-Hadi said, "a family friend had given me a bottle of sandalwood and she said to me, 'This is for you and the baby. This is the good stuff. There's no chemicals in it. It's from India. And I started off with just putting a little bit on her clothes and using it on myself. Then eventually it was just a tiny, tiny little dab behind her ears, the top of her head. And that particular blend of infant and sandalwood was really heady and intoxicating. The way those two scents blended together was divine."

El-Hadi said scent is a sensory experience that registers at a subconscious level. 

Crafted perfumes at a market in Khartoum. (Submitted by Nehal El-Hadi)

El-Hadi has experienced the way smell registers at a subconscious level, evoking memories and deep connections to people and places. And she believes there is great potential to harness the power of scent to manipulate environments.

"We're so careful about how we clean [our homes], what kind of decorative items and art we put up on display, how we arrange the furniture, what colour scheme. But it's so rare to think about what we want our home to smell like... what scents make us relax, which ones feed into more creativity, which ones create a mood, which ones produce a welcoming environment for guests. I think equally important as the colour scheme that you choose, is what your home smells like."

Here are El-Hadi's suggestions for easy home fragrances:

  • Burn frankincense for cleaning

  • Burn sandalwood over the frankincense for a pleasing, welcoming scent

  • Boil cinnamon bark and orange peel to clean out kitchen smells

  • Fresh eucalyptus leaves

  • Jasmine in a bowl of water 

Nehal El-Hadi is a writer, researcher and editor living in Toronto.


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