The Secret Perfume Project: From Air Freshener to Presidential Musk

Eighteen years ago, on Eid Day, one of our private list members was executed by masked men!

First, I have to start by acknowledging and recognizing the suffering and pain that millions of people endured before, during, and after Saddam Hussein's reign in Iraq. Show respect, understanding, and sympathy to all the victims who suffered during this time and their families. I’m not here to talk about a regime, a state, a political establishment, or a party specifically, as I’m probably the least qualified person to do so. I’m simply sharing a story, my story, with a historic figure and a leader, simply stating the facts. I apologize in advance if there is anything in this story that may bring someone bad memories, offend, or upset anyone in any way, shape, or form.

The story started in 2002 at an event when I was visiting Baghdad.

It was the International Day of the Child, a large event held at the Palace of Meetings in the capital. There were many artists, poets, performers, and multiple activities. We were there one day earlier, as we were working with UNICEF to prepare support programs for the children. Going through the building, which was a large, cold, concrete-based structure, there was an unpleasant mix of humidity and smoke scent coming from the AC unit or ventilation system. It seems that there were a few meetings in the place the days before, and with indoor smoking and non-specialized smoke filtering machines, the scent lingered.

Noticed by a few people, the person who was responsible started freaking out and said that this could cost him his job or worse, as there was no possibility of changing or fixing the AC system in a few hours. Spraying low-quality colognes and air fresheners didn’t fix the issue and actually made it worse. Even though I was not there as a perfumer and had a totally different job, I felt bad and wanted to offer my help. I introduced myself and said I could help. One of the people there, dressed in an olive-colored uniform, which usually meant security or private services, said it was not possible to give me access to the AV or air ventilation system as it posed a direct security threat.

Given the fact that everyone on the team knew who I was and where I was working and that I was searched not once but twice before entering the building, it seemed like excessive security. But I didn’t want to argue; I simply wanted to help. I said I didn’t need access to anything and didn’t need to bring or make anything. I’ll tell you what I need; you get it, and I’ll show you how to make it yourself. Actually, if you wish, I won’t even touch it!

With surprise and astonishment, they immediately looked at someone who I believe was a minor officer or assistant, also in the same style of olive suit, and they said to get what I needed now! I asked for five new glass jars, one cotton cloth, a few chopsticks from a nearby restaurant, gift ribbons in any color they wanted, one bottle of denatured alcohol, and one vial of each of the following: rose oil, chrysanthemum, gardenia, cedarwood, basil, and cardamom. I picked those oils because I knew an old attar store in the main market area called “Shorja,” in a building called “Kishtaini Building,” that had those oils. It didn’t take much time to get the materials.

They asked me to do the work while they watched. I mixed the oils with the alcohol in a blind nose mixing (based on my senses, as I had no previous measurements or reference for what to mix or in what amounts). When they asked if I knew what I was doing and if I had done this before, I didn’t want to make them more stressed or worried, so I replied, "Of course I do!"

I added all the oils to the alcohol, keeping the rose for the end as it’s the trickiest one to work with, adding a little and mixing, then adding more and mixing, until I felt comfortable with the results. I added the final mixture to the five glass jars, placed each one on one of the entrance rows, covered the jars with the cotton cloth, wrapped the neck of the jars with ribbon, which was red, then stuck a few chopsticks through the cotton cloth, and voila! Here was my blind mixed, improvised air freshener! An idea crossed my mind, as I knew some rose oil with cardamom could be terrible if overmixed. Did I overmix it? In a place as serious about mistakes as the one I was in, I was going to find out very soon if I did.

Time went by, and the scent started coming out. The central AC system picked up the scent, and honestly, it was much better than I expected. I’m not sure if it was the pressure of the situation, the good old man who got me good stuff, or just luck. Maybe a mix of all. When we left, the scent was very light but very pleasant and aromatic in an almost unrecognizable way. It was settled, sweet, and non-intrusive, as a good air freshener should be (even though the multi-billion-dollar market of air fresheners in the US would strongly disagree with me).

The next day we walked into the building, and it was the day. The place smelled like a garden, literally like a garden, and not in any bad way. It was a clean, sweet, rosy, and breezy scent, perfect for representing the International Day of the Child. The olive-suit people there with their oversized mustaches were not only happy but grateful. I was offered more cigarettes, coffee, and snacks in one day than in the past ten years of my life. The event went well, we concluded our program, which was health and education-related for the children, and I was happy that the whole thing went great—maybe too great!

Little did I know that the president and the cabinet would be there the next day. I hadn’t heard this, but I was told the first thing they said was, “This place smells amazing. What is this scent?” Something about dictatorship regimes (no insult to any) is that the chain of information is almost always factual, as you can always be sure that someone is watching! Probably writing or recording everything as well!

Two days later, I was contacted when one of the olive-suit men visited me and said that I was requested by the palace! He was sweating and looked very tired. Silly of me, I innocently asked him if he was drunk. He looked at me and didn’t even reply. I knew he wasn’t drunk! He said that tomorrow at 10:00 a.m., a car would be outside to take me to the palace, and I was requested there. None of my questions regarding where, how, and why were answered. I would lie if I said I had a good sleep that night! With many things on my mind—my work, my studies, and the fact that I was going somewhere considered by many to be the pathway to either heaven or hell—it didn’t make it easier.

The next morning, the car was waiting there at 9:40 a.m. I didn’t go down until exactly 10:00 a.m. I remember it being a cold, breezy day. There were two men: one in the driver’s seat and one who opened the back door to a curtained Mercedes Benz. I was asked not to look out of the windows. The car drove pretty quickly, seemingly without stopping at any light or sign.

When the car stopped, I could see from the driver’s window in front of me a huge entrance to a palace. The man in the passenger seat opened the door and asked me to follow him. We walked through the entrance. I remember a few other security personnel standing at the front door. We passed them into another large hall. A person in normal clothes—a shirt and black pants—greeted me and asked me to follow him; the first person who delivered me there said goodbye and left.

After a few questions and a short, friendly conversation, and security procedures like looking at my hand and asking me if I carried any suspicious materials, I was asked to go to another room, sit, and wait. There was one person in that room, sitting on the other side. He didn’t speak a single word; he just kept writing or looking at his desk as if he were working on something.

After about 30 minutes, another man came and asked me to follow him. We walked into a large office where the president, Saddam Hussein, was sitting. It was quite a surprise for me, as I had only seen him on TV before. He stood and greeted me very well, asked me to sit down in front of his desk, and asked the person who walked me in to bring me coffee and water. He felt warm and friendly, and he tried to make me feel comfortable, as he could tell I was very stressed and did not know why I was there.

He proceeded to say that he thanked me for coming so quickly and that the reason I was there was because the work I had done in the Palace of Meetings was very good and many people had noticed it. Because of that, he said, I should be a good example for other young men to follow and learn from. I thanked him for his recognition and kind words, saying that I just did what I thought was best and that I was sure anyone else would have done the same.

The coffee had arrived, and he asked me to drink it while he lit a cigar. He then proceeded to ask where and how I learned to make this, as it’s not common knowledge. I think he already knew the answer, as I’m sure they told him everything about me before seeing me, but I think he just wanted to hear it from me. After a short introduction, he asked me about the Rosa Damascena and its evolution in the region.

I didn’t want to say those are the facts, so I said, based on my simple knowledge and information, this is what I know. He listened carefully. Somehow, the subject turned to musk and the scent of prophets and heaven. Suddenly, I could see his body language change as if he were excited or intrigued by the subject. He asked about my grandfather, who at that time was an old man, and his musk recipes, which he had dedicated his entire life to. I told him that musk was and still is the hardest and trickiest material to work with in perfumery. He asked me what the best musk was to make into a perfume, and I said it was the mountaintop Nepal Tonkin musk and the Kashmiri musk, both of which are almost extinct and extremely rare.

The word extinct caught his attention, and he asked if it was possible to make authentic musk oil from it if it was found. I replied, Yes, of course, it’s possible. Speaking in general and not knowing that the heavy duty of making this would fall on me, he said, Great, then we’ll get you this kind and whatever else you need, and you will make authentic musk for us! At that exact moment, I knew I shouldn’t have said anything about musk or just said I didn’t know!

He pressed a button on his desk, and a man in a green suit walked in almost immediately. The president instructed him to ask someone—I don’t remember his name; I feel like he was a minister or a high-ranking official—to contact the ambassador of a specific country (which I won’t mention to protect the privacy of the person) and ask him to get this musk. Then he told him to make sure I got what I needed to make this musk and all the resources that I required.

Shortly after that, he said he had to go. He thanked me again for coming and said he would be looking forward to me making this musk. I politely asked if I could ask him one last question, and he said sure. I asked what kind of cologne or perfume he liked or wore just so I would know what style to make the musk. He smiled and asked me to join him.

He stood behind the desk and opened a drawer. It was a green bottle of Hermès Concentre d'Orange Verte. I immediately knew the bottle, as my father had one that he used regularly. (I doubt that any perfumist would praise or mention what his clients used other than his own work, but I state this for historical fact and accuracy only.) He gifted me the bottle and said I could keep it so it would help me with the process.

He said he had one other favorite cologne that he used occasionally, which he would let one of the guards give to me later. It was Van Cleef & Arpels pour Homme. Needless to say, the man had good taste. I thanked him and left, thinking that this would be a next-season project, knowing how hard and difficult it was to find Tonkin or mountaintop Kashmiri musk at that time. I was wrong!

One week later, I was contacted and asked to wait for the curtained car. I was taken to another palace or compound, where there was a package. I was told this was my musk, and I knew it was the musk as I could smell it. Even without opening the package, the scent was strong enough for my nose to immediately recognize it. The men there looked at me with suspicion, and one helped me open the package. It was wrapped with diplomatic tape and many stickers. The second we opened it, the musk smell dominated the room, and it was a big room. For anyone who has not smelled fresh musk, especially Tonkin or Kashmiri musk, you are in for a surprise! It doesn’t smell good at all. Actually, the worse it smells in its fresh, raw form, the better it will smell when it’s completely done.

The men covered their noses, and looking at them, they asked me if this was what I was expecting. Did they get the right thing? And I replied, Yes, you got the best thing—exactly what I wanted. One of them walked nearby and whispered, “Are you sure you will make a perfume with this stuff?” I don’t blame him; anyone with no trained nose will think it’s impossible to make any kind of perfume with this, but again, this is the magic of musk.

For the last two months, every day after that, I was working on this musk. This was not just a musk oil; this was the musk oil. The task was taken very seriously, not only by me, as this was actually my first Tonkin/Kashmiri musk project on my own, but by the guards as well, who I personally believe enjoyed the project. They would rush to the market without stopping or even slowing down for any of the obstacles, which may include a wide variety of objects and traffic signs.

In the package, there were six or seven of the best and highest quality musk pods, but the problem was that they were fresh. This meant I had to dry them and break them down using an old Arabic technique, which I will share for the very first time, as you won’t find it in any book or manual. This method was passed down from my great-grandfather, Said Mohammed al-Attar and used throughout the generations in my family. It works miracles in quickly drying musk and aging it without complicated methods or the risk of destroying it with overheating. I asked the guards to get me sand, salt, and rice.

I placed the musk in a cloth, then placed it in the salt, then the salt in another cloth, and then placed it in the rice. Then the musk with the salt and the rice were placed in the sand, and a much bigger pod or cloth was needed for that. The whole thing was then placed in the direct sun for a few days. The heat and the sun in the capital, Baghdad, were more than enough to do the job. After breaking it and pasting it, so I didn’t have to wait for maceration, two pods were more than enough to make a few liters of the highest concentration of musk in the world. I sourced from the local attar market a few oils to mix the musk with, a mix of different roses, oud, patchouli, neroli, sandalwood, cedarwood, jasmine, gardenia, ylang-ylang, lemon, and sweet orange, along with a few other herbs.

Mixed, shaken, stirred, and mixed some more, with love and dedication, and with the support and stares of the totally oblivious-about-perfumery guards, I was able to complete this oil in about two months. I layered it three times and filtered it twice. Out of the large few liters pod that I initially made, only about one liter was the final result. I didn’t spare any cost. I knew if this was not the crème de la crème of musk, the president wouldn’t be happy, and I didn’t want to see him unhappy because of my musk.

When the day came, it was a Friday, and I was asked to put the final musk in a decanter that was given to me, which I did. There was some musk left. I asked if I should get another decanter, and I was told no, it was fine. The decanter was placed in a box; it was a nice wooden box, and I believe it was made for it ahead of time. Again, I was driven in the curtained Benz to a palace. This palace was on the river Tigris. I remember the scent of the river and the trees. I was welcomed by a person and asked to wait.

After ten to twenty minutes, I was asked to enter a room. This was not an office but more like a guest room. The president was sitting with another person next to him. He introduced himself as the head of receptions or something along those lines. After we sat down, he asked me how everything was and how the project had gone. I told him it had succeeded and that I thought he would like it. My heart was beating so fast, and I was truly stressed. It was not only my first Tonkin Musk project by myself but also my first project for a president and my first project where I didn’t follow a specific recipe but rather did my own thing.

The moment of truth came, and the guards brought the box with the decanter. He opened it and smelled it. A big, wide smile appeared on his face. He said, “Great job, great job,” and repeated it twice. “This is how musk should be.” He asked the man next to him to smell it, and the man confirmed with almost identical words, “Great job, young man. This is great!”

The guards placed the decanter on a table on the side, and he proceeded to smell the back of his hand while the musk was opening. “What have you used with
the musk?” he asked. I told him it was local oils that I sourced from the local attar market in Baghdad. He asked me about my family and grandfather and mentioned that he admired Sultan Abdulhamid for his actions and support of the arts of perfumery. I can’t say I was not impressed by his knowledge or charisma. Whatever he said, no matter how simple, sounded fascinating.

He had a specific charm to him in the way he said things and the tone in which he said them. He proceeded to ask me what I wanted as a gift or compensation for my work. I replied that what I was asking for was a little too much, but I hoped he would accept it. He smiled and said not to worry, just ask. I replied that this was one of the best and most amazing projects that I would remember for the rest of my life, and truly, it was.

It was also an honor for such a young person like me to make a perfume upon the request of a president like him. I didn’t want anything other than to have lunch and be a friend. He laughed and said that was already done. “You are our friend and son,” he said, and he turned to the guards and asked them to get lunch ready. The person next to him said, “But sir, we were meeting someone after this meeting.” Saddam Hussein told him with a direct tone, “He can wait.”

After ten minutes, the food was ready on a table outside the room. We had lunch, and he proceeded to tell me that he likes to fish and get fresh fish from the river or the lake and that he usually barbecues the fish himself. He said he liked dark black tea. The food was some of the best I had ever had. After that, we drank tea. It was an amazing black tea that he mentioned came from the northern part of the country. He left, but before that, he instructed the man next to him to stay in contact with me and assist me if I needed help with a perfume project. He said goodbye and left, and that was the last time I saw him in person.

On the day of Eid, he was executed based on the judgment of an Iraqi court for war crimes. Many years later, someone who knew me and knew that I made musk oils for the president contacted me and said there was a documentary with his granddaughter, and she mentioned and showed a bottle of musk and a perfume that he used. “Is this your musk?” Luckily, my friend recorded part of it, and later I watched it with tears. It wasn’t because I followed him or liked him as a person, as I know millions of people were harmed and suffered because of his regime and actions, but because he was a client, and I would even say a friend, for whom I made one of the best musk oils, and I will remember it for the rest of my life.

I was given the remaining musk pods that I worked with. Throughout the years, I made some into musk oils, gifted some to people who I knew would cherish them and share them with others, and saved one last pod for a remake—a musk oil similar to the original one I made for the president, from the same musk, made the same way.

Without the budget or access to all the olive-suited men who would do anything, it took me years to source the same materials with the same viscosity and structure and finally make one last bottle of musk, very similar if not identical to the original one I made for President Saddam Hussein. Not to break my promise to a private client of never selling one of their oils, and not to diminish my desire to share this beauty and history with the world, this oil will be offered for free in the Eid package. It will be gifted and not sold, and gram by gram, in monetary value, it is worth more than the cost of the entire kit.

Consider it our gift to you for Eid. A total batch limited to 300 ml will be offered in 3 ml bottle sizes only, complimentary to 99 people worldwide. Once this is gone, it’s gone forever!.This is Presidential #1.

This is the Official Hand Written Letter from Saddam Hussein's office.