Shahinaz Palace: where the scent of the Orient is a high art
Cairo — The very term ''Orient,'' by which Egypt and some points south were known to 19th-century travelers, evokes a scent. And in fact, upon arrival in Egypt I discovered that the land is subtly perfumed. This holds true particularly in the south (or Upper) Egypt, where a host of heady flower scents assaults one at every turn.
Directly across from that marvelous repository of Egyptian treasure, the Egyptian Museum, lies tiny Mariette Pasha Street, where at No. 9 a haven for the fragrance-lover can be found. The sign over the curtained doorway reads ''Shahinaz-Palace Perfumes - Dessouky Gouda and Company - Great Manufacture of Oriental Perfumes.''
Inside the Shahinaz Palace, soft Persian rugs cushion the feet. Slowly the eyes become accustomed to the softer golden light (Egyptian daylight is notoriously white and bright.) There are numerous cabinets and cases of inlaid rosewood intricately patterned and designed.
Behind the glass of the cases is a profusion of perfume bottles. Some are hand-painted antiques that are topped with twisting spires and turrets. Multicolored globes in brilliant primary colors compete for attention with more subtle hues.
A turbaned figure approaches. He is a shop assistant, wearing the long robe that is the traditional garb of Egyptian men, the galabia. He smiles and says the word that seems to spring so easily to Egyptian lips: ''Welcome.'' It is, one feels, heartfelt.
Farther inside the shop there are comfortable stools and velvet-trimmed benches conveniently positioned for customers. Beverages are offered, and as the assistant goes into another room to prepare them, Ali Gouda enters. A tall, handsome, brown-skinned man of middle years, Gouda is one of four brothers (Dessouky is the eldest), the third generation of a family that has been in the perfume business for 125 years.
At home, Ali Gouda is a family man. Here in Cairo at Shahinaz, he is a businessman and a bit of a performer. ''The presentation of scent,'' he explains , ''is a high art.'' And it becomes immediately apparent that he is an expert at it.
Most of the perfumes are sold to women, who are often (but not always) escorted by men. But sometimes men stop in to purchase gifts for their wives and friends, and to choose among several men's colognes.
The trays of samples are set out on a nearby desk, and between bits of information about the individual scents, Gouda begins artfully to dab scent on his customer's wrist, finding a new place along the hand and arm for each new scent until she chooses her preference.
''Not many people are aware of the fact that Egypt exports approximately $1 million worth of essential oils to foreign countries for the manufacture of perfume,'' Mr. Gouda explains. Of these, France heads the list. Others include Russia and the United States.
In Egypt, two or three top families grow and manufacture the pure essence of flowers. ''We collect the flowers very early in the morning, before the sun rises,'' says Gouda as he waves a tiny glass stopper, trailing an invisible veil of scent in the air. ''Then we press the petals, using a steam distillation process that releases the essence concentrate drop by drop.'' Gouda savors each word as he speaks in a rich Egyptian accent.
''We can divide the scents into three categories. The scents that we produce are 100 percent pure essence of flowers, which may be diluted with alcohol to produce a perfume or may be used as is. We give instructions on how to take these little bottles home and make them into as strong a perfume as you like.
''First there are the flower scents. They are the pure one-fragrance oils: Attar of Roses, Violet, Jasmine (and a headier version called 'Double Jasmine'). Then there is Narcissus (a fascinating wild scent that is not for the lightheaded or fainthearted) and the more familiar lavender. There is also Lily of the Valley, Orange Blossom, Sweet Pea, and the more down-to-earth Carnation.''
The flowers grow on the 50 hectares (120 acres) of family land in the Oasis of El Fayoum 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the south. The oasis is a legendary spot; its great natural salt Lake Karoun is mentioned in the Bible and was King Farouk's favorite spot for duck hunting.
Ali Gouda finds a new place on his customer's arm. ''This Egyptian Jasmine is the finest in the world,'' he declares. It is used in Jean Patou's ''Joy.'' The scent that reaches the nostrils as he speaks is haunting, conjuring up romantic summer evenings.
But Gouda moves on. ''Now this Lotus, so rich and pungent, is produced only in Egypt. It was King Tut's favorite oil. My business is only 125 years old, but the Egyptian perfume industry dates back 5,000 years.''
Next come the blends. He explains that the family employs expert noses to create new blends, but some that they already have were created almost 50 years ago. There are some house favorites. Among the most popular are ''Secret of the Desert,'' a spicy sweet fragrance that is a blend of 14 flowers; ''Queen Cleopatra,'' a blend of Jasmine and Rose so akin to Jean Patou's ''Joy'' that it is a favorite of Americans; ''Queen of Egypt,'' a mixture of seven flowers; and Shahinaz, a very fresh and light special blend that is Mrs. Gouda's preference.
Next come the spice scents, which come from plants or animals. Frankincense and Sandalwood, Amber from the ambergris of whales, and Musk from the gazelle.
Exotic as some of these fragrances are, most are suitable for European and American tastes.
Questioned about the preferences of his varied clientele, Ali Gouda replies, ''European ladies like 'Secret of the Desert' - but you must be careful when you wear it, it is so bewitching. They also enjoy Shahinaz and Lotus. American visitors enjoy Rose, Lotus, Queen Cleopatra, and Amber (which, incidentally, has the same fragrance as Yves Saint Laurent's 'Opium').''
Some of the famous who have entered these exotic portals include the Italian actress Claudia Cardinale, whose favorite was (what else?) ''Secret of the Desert,'' and Katharine Hepburn, who was particularly fond of Lotus. Jack Lemmon liked Amber and Musk Oil.
On leaving Shahinaz Palace, where one's reflection is mirrored a hundred times in shimmering glass cases and the ceilings are covered with tapestries even more beautiful than those that line the floor, visitors have a chance to buy incense of every variety.
Perhaps the best part about these fragrances is their price. Each of these 100 percent pure essences is sold at $11 an ounce and may be ordered in gift sets of 2, 3, or 4 two-ounce bottles. There is no duty to pay since the oils are considered raw materials.
Dessouky Gouda & Co.
9 Mariette Pacha Street
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday, 10 to 8.