Ever since I came to the Middle East, I have been looking for authenticity. Tourists and visitors often search out authentic food. As product designer, I wanted to find local, truly authentic products: things invented here, made here, and used here by the locals and their families. This proved to be far from easy. The vast marketplace – from souks to supermarkets – offers products that inevitably fall into one of the two categories: multiple reiterations of European/American prototypes, or commercial items specifically concocted for tourist consumption.
Then I discovered something called mabkhara. The proof of these objects’ authenticity starts from the fact that the word itself does not translate well into the English language. Most often we use a descriptive expression “incense burner”; there is also little-used and confusing word “censer”. (“Distinguish from sensor, censure, and censor”, warns Wikipedia.) In all cases, both the word and the object itself come to stand in Western culture as a symbol for something alien and exotic – a component of sensorial Oriental allure, much celebrated in the European literature and the arts of the last two centuries.
To be sure, incense burner has been a familiar presence in many religious services outside the Middle East. In the Catholic Church, a censer suspended on chains is called a thurible, and is used during important masses. In Greek and Russian Orthodox Church, the use of censers is even more widespread. Every church prayer and ritual, from christening to burial, features a deacon swinging a censer (panikadilo) back and forth. It is significant that in both religions laypersons are not allowed to handle and swing the incense burner; this is a right reserved only for the ordained.
In ancient China and Japan, the use of censer was more open-ended and democratic, yet the object clearly retained its spiritual connotations. On the contrary, the Middle Eastern mabkhara is not a religious object. First and foremost it relates to the home, where it is a part of daily family traditions and some uniquely Arabic domestic rituals. There is, for instance, the habit of airing and perfuming the clothes, when a man or a woman would stand over a burning censer for a few moments to let the aromatic smoke permeate everything under the long robes. Other traditions guide the use of the object at gatherings of friends or family. During the meal and conversation it is common to have the incense burning in the majlis (special living room reserved for entertaining guests). At the end of the evening, the hostess will walk with the burner around the room, as if to refresh the air. For the guests this serves as a clear signal that the party is over.
Daily use of incense burners is an inseparable component of sensorial culture of the East. The famous scents of the Orient: frankincense, myrrh, laudanum, sandalwood (oud), which to date remain the mainstay of all perfume manufacturing, derive from resins produced by desert trees grown only on Arabian Peninsula. Since ancient times, harvesting and trading these substances has been a source of wealth for the region, and the cause of many attempted conquests. From literature (e.g. sensual stories in The Arabian Nights) to architecture, with its elaborate secret gardens, the celebration of the sense of smell has reached a high level of sophistication.
Early on, it was discovered that burning the incense was the most efficient, and perhaps more spectacular way to generate and transmit the scent. According to Diane Ackerman’s seminal book A Natural History of the Senses, the hand-me-down model was probably applied to incense burning: first it was reserved for gods, then for rulers and their court, until eventually it reached the people, becoming a truly popular tradition. The burner itself has likely followed the same trajectory – evolving from a precious vessel to a basic object for domestic use.
Functional requirements for an incense burner are very simple. The object has to be sufficiently stable, and a good handle for taking it around is a plus. The top, where one places a burning charcoal briquette, must obviously be fire resistant. Beyond these simple needs, the object can take any imaginable shape and almost any size. And it does. Form does not follow function here. If anything, form follows the objects’ material and their traditional way of making. Every Middle Eastern country has a preferred material, special techniques, and a particular formal expression for its own version of mabkhara. In addition, there are many contemporary kitsch versions, which simply defy description. (Presently I have started collecting and cataloguing various regional varieties of the object.)
When a designer stumbles upon a new, relatively unexplored product typology, he and she immediately start thinking about making a design contribution of their own. Does the world need a new, designer version of incense burners? What would be the nature of “design improvement” for these objects, which already serve their purpose so well? Perhaps I need to stay in the Middle East a little longer before I am able to answer these questions.