by Susana Pint
© 2005 by John and Susy Pint Updated September, 2013
THE ROSES OF TAIF
My husband, John, by then, had gotten a contract to work in Jeddah, which is relatively close to Taif, and I was eager to join him before April, the main month of the year when rose buds bloom only at dawn, making it easy to pick them at precisely the right moment. Their marvelously scented oils are then transformed into rose water from which attar, a highly appreciated perfume, is obtained. Yes, I wanted to be a witness to what I considered to be a magic phenomenon.
One afternoon in
the middle of April, my husband, and our two good friends, John and
Maggie Jenkins, drove up the spectacular escarpment which leads to
Taif. The Jenkins knew the caretaker of one of the rose farms, and they
had invited us to come along. We were following the Jenkins in our own
vehicle, a hardy Blazer stuck (by the former owner) with the unlikely
name of Petunia. At the very top of the escarpment, a gang of furry
baboons, including some mothers carrying their babies, looked at us as
if they expected every visitor passing that way to give them a treat.
We couldn't join the people who stopped to feed them or to look at them
because the Jenkins had warned us about the many twisting dirt roads
which we would have to take in order to reach the rose farms. "And
there'll be a few mountains to go over as well", they told us.
Suddenly, the Jenkins stopped to talk to someone who was driving a pick-up truck which was working its way up the steep slope. "What!... Are we seeing things?" I asked my husband. But it was true: it was a simple Toyota pick-up! This, I must say, did give us new hopes... which were quickly dashed the moment we entered a very narrow stretch of road along the mountain side. Here we found rocks even bigger than the ones we had laboriously succeeded in passing. We were convinced that that a simple pick-up could not have gone down this road, and much less up it. No way! And we were also convinced it was time to throw Petunia into four wheel drive, whether it worked or not, because otherwise we would have to turn around and go back -- a mighty dangerous proposition on that narrow ribbon of road. We were lucky: The 4WD low gears engaged and suddenly Petunia began to lumber along like a powerful, unstoppable tank. So, we continued, now far more confidently, following a road which at times was so narrow that Petunia had to scrape along the side wall to keep us from plunging to the bottom of the gully.
We finally saw
the first rose fields nested among the wadis protected by the
mountains. The dark green bushes were covered with tiny pink buds of
Rosa damascena trigintipetala --known as ward taifi to the locals--
which were waiting to open up the next day, before the sun's rays
diminish the oils which contain the esence of their perfume. A soft
breeze was blowing, filling the atmosphere with the pleasant aroma of
the flowers. This idyllic scene completely changed my state of mind.
From that moment on all I concentrated on was absorbing the beauty
which the rose farms had added to the already magnificent mountain
panorama ever since the rose farming began, three centuries ago.
Ali abd al-Hamid was the name of the farm's caretaker and he was already at work when we arrived. He was a lively young man with a broad smile and he seemed delighted to see us. Ali passed out baskets in which we would place all the roses we could pick before 9:00 AM, when they had to be taken to the al-Gadhi plant, where we were invited to observe the distillation process.
As soon as the
first rays of the sun had touched the roses, the bees began their daily
job of pollination. It was quite a strange feeling to work in
competition with them, going from one rose to another for a very
different purpose. And I must say I felt bad about taking away the
bees' source of food as well as plucking such beautiful and delicate
flowers from what, up to that moment had been their source of life.
However, when I saw a basket full of them and I caught the scent of
their amazing perfume, I could not stop myself from picturing them in
my mind being transformed into rose water and attar --from Arabic 'itr,
"essence" or "perfume"-- which have been used for centuries in so many
countries. And then I had a lovely inspiration: "those roses were
destined to live for many many years and to make many people happy."
The visit to the distillery in Taif was the next exciting chapter in our adventure. Just inside the entrance of the factory, there were two people with scales since the quantity of roses is normally calculated by weight. Inside, several other people were in charge of carrying out the distillation process. There were several tin-lined copper pots which can hold about 50 liters of water each.
The process of distillation is, really, very simple. To those 50 liters of water aproximately 10,000 roses are added. The pot is then tightly sealed with a cover which looks like a mushroom-shaped hat. This mix simmers for six hours. The steam collected goes through a tube which passes down through a pool of cold water and ultimately reaches a large glass jar called al-Arousa, where the rose water is collected.
At this point the droplets of attar are still dispersed in the rose water, so a second distillation takes place, in which the globules of attar rise to the surface as the liquid cools down, facilitating their collection with a device similar to a syringe. The attar collected in just one of these containers produces one single tolah (about 11.7 ounces) which, understandably, sells for between 2000 and 3000 Saudi riyals.
At first, the main purpose for distilling these delicate roses was to
produce rose water which is used at different festivities and
celebrations, like the two "Eid" or at weddings, for example. It's also
used as an ingredient in the kitchen for some dishes and, especially,
for desserts, sweets and some drinks. It is said that it is used as
well to perfume the Yemeni Corner of the holy Ka'bah.
I too can vouch for that. After coming back from our trip to the rose farm, I chose the best among the roses which Ali had kindly given us. I put these in a wicker basket but I couldn't bring myself to throw away the ones which, sad to say, now looked crumpled, brown and withered, so I tossed them into a clay bowl. Some days later I happened to need that same bowl, so I put those dismal-looking remains into another container and I washed the bowl. Days later, that humble clay pot still retained the unmistakeable, unforgettable scent of the lovely roses of Taif.