1 SCENTSPY + Dana El Masri Interview

 Jazmin Saraï        –       www.jazminsarai.com     –      twitter & instagram: @thescentinel

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 FOREWORD

As I write this foreword, it has only just been released that the winner of the 2015 Jasmine Literary Award is Dana El Masri, for her article “Reflection Eternal” in the Odou Magazine. Dana so happens to be the woman of the moment, and the focus of this interview.

I’ll start off by saying that Dana El Masri has one heck of a mind. It’s clear just from going over the interview as I type it up, that this girl has a passion, a clear vision, and a limitless amount of information about the work she does. Dana is a classically trained perfumer from the Grasse Institute of Perfumery, France, and like myself is blessed to hail from the Middle East. Dana is Egyptian and Lebanese, and grew up in Dubai though now resides in Canada.

I came across Dana’s work by her Instagram profile (@thescentinel) late last year, however it wasn’t until after I’d ordered a sample set of her collection that I’d realised I had previously visited her blog at www.thescentinel.com, which has been running for a few years now- if you’re ever after a music inspired perfume blog- this is the one to read.

Dana started her own perfume company- Jazmin Saraï- and dedicates her work to her other passion in life- music, and its one of the most intriguing artistic mash-ups I’ve come across. She describes her work as scent covers or olfactive reinterpretations, and really they’re a beautiful parallel when you consider that she’s working between two art forms that have no tangible quality when in play.

At the moment she has four fragrances released: Neon Graffiti (MIA’s ‘Sunshowers’), How You Love (Sade’s ‘It’s Only Love That Gets You Through’), Led IV (Led Zeppelin’s ‘Going to California’), and Otis & Me (Otis Redding’s ‘Cigarettes & Coffee’).

When I sampled my first Jazmin Saraï perfume- ‘How You Love’- it was magical. Dana told me to sample them listening to the corresponding songs. Now, I’ve read books listening just to one song, I’ve had whole 8 hour plane journeys, again, listening to just one song. In my mind, when I listen to that song I can remember exactly where I was, what I was looking at, the time of day it was etc. The only thing was, I’d never tried it out with perfume- it seems like such an obvious thing right? Unsurprisingly, when the moment came and I tested ‘How You Love’, everything just fit so perfectly and with complete harmony.

After sharing a few emails back and forth, Dana really kindly agreed to an interview for Scentspy. If I could sum up speaking to Dana it would be this: she has real energy when she speaks, and it’s kind of infectious. She’s extremely passionate about her work and when you read the interview, you’ll see what I mean. What’s more, if you get the chance to sample her work, it’s nothing like you’d imagine, each piece works so differently yet on the same wavelength, that after getting used to them, you’ll appreciate exactly how Dana works.

What I really wanted to examine in this interview was Dana’s way of working, what made her focus on music as a form of inspiration, and to get more perspective on each perfume- especially given the nature of these perfumes’ origins.
With that said, maybe listen to the songs when they’re mentioned? I hope you enjoy it.

 

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About Jazmin Saraï

“The idea of Sarai was where I got it- it’s an Oriental palace.

You know that ad? That J’adore ad with Charlize Theron? And she’s opening the doors and walking through this palace. Well its my palace, my palace I’ve invited them into right? And the idea that scent is coming in through one side, and sound is coming in from another; and it just hits you at the same time. You can’t help but completely be covered in feeling and motion, and self-acceptance, and gratitude, and all of these things. Its overwhelming, but at the same time it makes you feel alive!

What’s amazing is that scent and music are both invisible, and they can both connect to this primality within us. I mean we don’t even realise what it does to us most of the time right? They’re both linked to memory and they’re both linked to motion, and there’s usually an involuntary response to both of them. So I just feel like putting them together just strengthens […] your reality.”

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About synaesthesia

“It’s all merging of the senses. So generally it could be anything, it could be colour graphing […] It’s an involuntary condition which affects your perception. And for me, I have synesthesia in some forms, and I haven’t been able to 100% pin-point whether I have scent-sound synasthesia -because there’s also sound-scent- so it’s actually sound-scent for me […] With me, I’ll hear something, and I’ll smell it.
[…]

So when I’m listening to music on my own, I’ll always have a general feel of what I want. So when I was thinking of Bei Ru [Armenian American Musician from LA] for example, I mean I hear hip hop, which in my head I think of grit, and that translates to cedar wood or incense. Or, when I hear the oud or the tabla- well, the tabla has a very interesting tang to it, so I put a bit of sandalwood in there- a little bit of dustiness. Because you know it has a smack! Its flat, and it has its pitch, its tempo, its beat.
When I’m working on my own stuff, I really dissect a song. More than anything else, I’ll literally listen to every aspect of the song. When I was in Communication studies, I went into sound production, and there’s this thing called Pro Tools- Pro Tools is how most of the people nowadays make music. But this means that you’ve got in front of you, visually, all of the different sets of either instruments, or vocals. Well they’d put them altogether, and then play it at the same time- it’s kind of how perfume works. So I take those kinds of elements, and it really, I don’t know, it makes more sense.”

 

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About your process

“Honestly- so many people for the longest time people have asked me you’know ‘whats your process?’ and ‘how do you explain this?’ and I think for a while, I didn’t know… I was still getting used to it and trying to understand it myself. I think the best way I can describe it now is really- the way I see it is that perfume and music are so correlated that I’ve never been able to disconnect the two; and it’s all about harmony.

Harmony is really the way it goes. Like everything has to work in a certain ways, and I think of lines, and I think of curves and waves, and diagonal lines and all of these working together to create this strong sense of feeling.”

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You style of perfumery

“I think I’m more minimalist, I’m a very less is more kind of person. I don’t use, or just in my perfume- you can’t see it now but usually I’m adorned with a lot of jewellery, and I can’t leave the house without perfume or earrings or something. Umm, but, I took Jean Claude- when I met Jean Claude Elena it really hammered a few things in for me. He always said play with your ingredients, and always know why your using the ingredients. So, in sense of every ingredient has to have a purpose. So for me I don’t like to muddle up anything, so every ingredient has- ok, Neon Graffiti: you have your sparkle ingredient, you’ve got your lush ingredients in the middle, and then you’ve got florals, and then you’ve got your cedar in the bottom. You’ve got grittiness in the bottom. I’ll be able to use certain ingredients that work to that effect, and if there’s something that doesn’t work for it, or too subtle to notice… I’ll take it out completely.

I think maybe that’s why my intentions are clearer, because I’m clear of what I’m using. I don’t use anything that’s redundant or waffle.
[…]

When I first started making perfumes, I noticed I had a very heavy hand with Orientals. I have no problem making Orientals by any means. I feel very comfortable making them, but the way that I’ve evolved as a perfumer, with my very limited pallet […] I don’t have any surplus, and because some people have claimed that my perfumes are transparent- which I thought was interesting- I think it’s just a matter of- its not muddled with all this stuff in it.”

 

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How would you describe your work? I found they weren’t an olfactive punch, but something that you developed with.

“Exactly! Continuous […] In terms of the perfumes, I still want them to be good perfumes in the end.

With the music, I want people to make the connection upon first sniff, but still understand that it’s still going to work with your body, and it’s going to keep changing. It’s meant to evolve and it has a story. It has its beginning, middle, and end also. In terms of construction, you always have a top note, middle and base- unless you’re the type of perfumer who likes linear scents which is also really hard to do that. In the sense that you have one block and it doesn’t change that much- and that’s artistry right there- it’s a very well-constructed perfume. But it also really depends on the song. It’s a matter of how I want it to evolve, or how that song evolves, or how each song has that character- I want each perfume to have that character.”

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Instruments, ingredients and the process…

“For each perfume, it’s a bit of a different process I guess. In the sense that there are certain sounds that will always smell like something to me- no matter what. And they also happen to be some of my favourites. Its kind of an accident.

Incense for me- incense, I smell incense whenever I hear synths. Like scratchy, sharp, metallic. Its not wide, its very long, right? So for me that’s incense. It depends on what kind it is, like incense resinoid which is a little bit sharper- but I think that’s also a matter of nose. That’s where the nose comes in- you go, ok, how can I make this kind of effect in terms of other ingredients for example? So I have favourites, but those favourites are also olfactive favourites more than anything.

When I listen to music I want to translate it to the best of my ability. So there’s times –I don’t generally like listening to synths in music- but to know that their effect will be able to work well with what I’m creating.”

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On Methyl Eugenol

“It was actually one of my first accords… because for the first few months [at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery] we weren’t allowed to touch anything, you weren’t allowed to play. Once we did, you know we had to make the regular florals, or woody accords or what have you. And then one time, once I realised how things worked, I went full force into creating musical accords; and my first one was the smell of old records. So Methyl Eugenol has a very dusty quality, and I found that Methyl Eugenol had the same- it’s that kind of vintage dusty, scratchy vibe.”

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About ingredients- are there some that you love to a point of overuse, or ones that you can’t stand?

“I’ve learned it the hard way, like I’ve used a lot of incense, and I use a lot of cassis base, which is an ingredient that for me smells like lush green mangoes, but to a lot of people smells like blackcurrant. Depending on your culture really. [Umm] and those two ingredients I’ve used extensively in Neon Graffiti. If you notice, and a lot of people- I didn’t even realise this happened- but, I’ve used cardamom in three of my perfumes!

Again, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the cardamom smells different in each perfume because I’ve used it differently and I’ve used different types of cardamom. So it’s also a matter of how you use it. So in Otis, the cardamom is only a little bit to enhance the coffee note, to give it that faint Arabic coffee.
[…]

There’s cardamom in Neon Graffiti that the way I used it there, it pushes the green, wet leaf accords. You’know, to give it that herbaceousness as opposed to anything else. So it’s really all about how you use your ingredients. [But] I am learning to stop using things I generally like. I do make things for other people, so it always, again, super hard.”

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Analysing Songs for translations

“I listen to everything together.

I listen to everything together but because I have- not an educated ear- but in the sense that I can listen to a lot of things happening at the same time, I can isolate the sound. At the same time, I can also hear it with a lot of different things. Yeah, so it really depends on the song, but also in terms of how it’s constructed.

[…]

I’ve been working on a Jimmy Hendrix perfume for a really long time but I still feel like I can’t get it right almost. I’m almost there but I’m not. Its inspired by ‘Little Wing’ which is a really short song, and when it starts, there’s like- it starts with a ping! Like a glockenspiel- [and] it’s very very high pitched, and to me it’s very sunny and bright.

When I hear it I smell citrus or specifically citral, which is a derivative of many many citrus ingredients. So I have something techno, but it’s also extremely bright and extremely tenacious. And for me that idea of PING! and its isolated- then that one was really obvious.

Then it mixes in with all the other stuff, you’know you’ve got his voice, guitar and that- well you realise, ok, well I’ve got to try this and this and that. He was also talking about ‘girl with a circus mind’ and ‘butterflies and zebras running round’ and I’m like- I’m the girl with the circus mind! I have that connection. I think that the songs that I choose are also songs that I’ve been listening to for a very long time, so I know them very well and I also have a very strong connection to them. I don’t know maybe it’s a little self-indulgent…

I also listen to a lot of music in terms of different genres too, so I look at it in the sense that I want to also create perfumes that have different genres. Whether they’re inspired by different songs, or from a perfume perspective, that they don’t smell the same.”

 

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Do you prefer to translate the initial meaning of a song, or are you influenced by your
connection to the song over time?

“Well, it’s a little bit of both in a way. Because… I’m not here to make it about me, right? Like this is a business, and this is my artistic expression. Its pastiche essentially. I’m taking work and they’re scent covers. I’m describing someone else’s work, through my view or my vision, and trying to bring out a different aspect of it.

I’m taking elements of the original, but still making it different enough that it appeals to someone else.
At the same time, I think the fact that I know them so well makes me -or helps me- be accurate in what I’m trying to give you. Like you out of all people, you really got what I was doing. Like you understood what I was doing, and I think that’s amazing! That meant a lot to me, because I had a really clear vision; and when it comes to perfumery especially, […] if you have a muddled vision and you don’t know where you’re going, that perfume isn’t going to smell good. It’s going to smell like a lot of things and it’s not going to connect.

Otis for example- Otis only has 10 ingredients in it- which is really rare for a perfume [… ]I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I knew what I wanted to evoke in someone else. I know how it made me feel, and not to say that it would make another person feel the same way- of course not! It’s subjective- but because I think I know my work so well; I’ve dissected it and worked with it so often, that I’m able to take out nuances- take myself out of it- but still but myself in it. If that makes any sense? They’re essentially scent covers or olfactive reinterpretations.”

 

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Was there a specific reason why you picked the songs you did? Or do you have an idea of what you want to do, and then choose a song that you think would work well with it?

 

“Both. They picked me. These songs picked me. Like Led Zeppelin […] I heard that song for the first time when I was 18 (18 years old) and it’s synonymous with my first love. He showed me that song, and we loved Led Zeppelin and he lives in Thailand now- he bought my perfume, and loves it- he just got it- awesome you know? So there’s that.

 

Neon Graffiti came to me. I heard that song a while ago, and I had this off moment when I remember writing mango, green, pepper, neon on wet cement. And neon on wet cement stuck with me. Then I went back to the song and just listened and listened- and listened and listened and listened- and I tried to extrapolate everything I could from that song.

 

Led IV I think I had more of an emotional connection. So, I mean I love Led Zeppelin in general. Again these are all I think more authentic that way because I’m connected to them[…] In the sense that like- these are not just songs that I’m picking here and there, let’s just do this […]

 

They either mean something or they’ve gotten something out of me which I hope to bring out of you. Or I feel like they have a strong enough message that I want to be able to bring out with more people.
Again the same thing with Otis. I had a really clear vision that I just really wanted to create something that was simple [..] It’s the story, it’s the story that if you listen to what Otis is saying, it’s like me sitting with my baby getting some coffee- it’s everyone’s love story! […] everyone’s been there in one way or another- you know what I’m saying? I want to play on social relationships […] I want my perfumes to have a commentary, that’s not just generally just a fact. That it opens people’s world that becomes olfactive.

 

For me, the Sade one, I just wanted to do something about lovers- I wanted something for people who didn’t like old perfumes- that’s also in the sense that I’ve sold them perfume. From a business perspective, I didn’t want to feel self-indulgent either because I’m making perfumes for other people.”

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Is there a large back-catalogue of perfumes that didn’t make the cut? Or are they still on going?

“It’s ever revolving; it’s your battle between yourself honestly! My initial first perfume was going to be a Billie Holiday inspired perfume, inspired by ‘crazy you called me’- and it was going to be coffee- weak coffee. So a different coffee from a tech point- like the construction way would have been different, tuberose and gardenia. Then a bunch of people came out- Maria Candida Gentile came out with a Lady Day- and all these people started talking about Billie Holiday. And it’s funny because I have so many- I’ve been working on a D’Angelo for about a year now, and D’Angelo jut came out with an album for the first time in ten years, so I’m thinking- Uh Oh! Should I push this perfume out? Should I not?
You know so there is the idea of redundancy […] that I think about quite often. I really want to be different, I don’t want to be like everybody else, so I gave up the Billie Holiday.”

 

 

“When I was at school I created a Simon & Garfunkel fougere which I still love to this day […] There’s a lot of unfinished formulas, but Jean Claude Elena always said that you should keep your formulas no matter how terrible they are. There’s a lot of formulas [that] I’ve worked on many years ago- when I went to LA and did my residency at the IAO [The Institute of Olfaction, California, USA) I resurrected them.

[…]

I played around with Circus Mind, my Jimmy Hendrix. I worked with my Joni Mitchell, which is inspired by ‘A Case of You’. […] Then I played around with The Mamas & The Papas because we were in California- so I thought of California Dreaming. It was inspired by the song ‘Creeque Alley’, and ah, ‘California dreamin’ is becomin’ a reality…’. I don’t know, I think California was very different for me- I grew up in the Middle East, in Dubai- you know what I’m saying? My mother’s Egyptian, my dad’s Lebanese, so flowers and desert and Palm trees- all of those things are a huge part of me. Montreal is not a natural habitat, and so California has been something.

I was actually told by my friend Ashley, who I met at school, she’s a native Angelino, and when I created Led Zeppelin for the first time, she said ‘You know what? It reminds me of California’, and I thought woah! That’s amazing!

So it really really depends. Oh yeah- I worked on a Tom Waits one also- he had a song called ‘Circus’ and there was a line; that one was just inspired by the lyric ‘the music was like electric sugar’. So I recreated electric sugar. It was cold, it was metallic, it was sweet- it had a hint of mint. And I resurrected those four perfumes in LA […] because you know Saskia, the founder [of IAO] she gave me carte blanche to do whatever I want. She was like ‘go ahead!’ […] So I busted out all of these formulas I had sort of created skeletons for- […] just made everything I wanted. That’s how I work, more or less. I work very fast.”

 

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What was the most number of trials you ever had?

“One hundred. Which is not big actually. Some perfumers have done like three hundred […] One hundred, and that was at school, again because I had access so I could do that. Now not so much…”

 

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For every one perfume that would be completed, how many test runs for other ideas would be behind it? Essentially, what makes the cut from idea to perfume?

 

“Ideas are ever flowing right? So for me it’s a continuous process. I’m always creating something and I never stop making stuff- at least I try not to. So, it could be up to twenty vials to create a perfume, it could be up to five. Again, it really depends.
[…]

Neon Graffiti and Otis Redding [Otis & Me] are the most obvious for me because [Neon] Graffiti took the longest, and Otis Redding [Otis & Me] took me the least amount of time. Led Zeppelin [Led IV] and How You Love were in between. Neon Graffiti has almost thirty ingredients, Otis has ten.

From a technical perspective I found it kind of hard to make Neon Graffiti because I don’t generally don’t make very bright citrus perfumes, so it really took me a year of ‘how do I recreate her [MIA] political commentary plus the idea of flowers, plus the idea of lushness, plus the idea of brightness, juxtaposed with greenness.”
[…]

 

 

“If you look at it, MIA as an artist- I’m trying to extend their reach in that sense […] she uses the juxtaposition of soft and hard, right? She plays with colour- which I’m obsessed with colour! She plays with the political commentary which is not generally easy to understand, or generally easy to take in and absorb; but it’s also with a more approachable melody.

There’s the beat, there’s the melody, there’s all these different elements to it- and the video! She’s on an elephant, she’s in the jungle. It’s really lush, its vibrant, its tropical […] So to bring all of those things together, it’s a whole different story. But then, when you isolate it- my mom wears Neon Graffiti, and she doesn’t listen to Sunshowers- ever – and it smells so good on her![….] I’m like, mom- how does it make you feel? She goes: it makes me feel vibrant!

And you know what? That’s exactly what I wanted because the song in its essence is vibrant. […] That’s something I like to play with, the nuances of each song, the nuances of each ingredient- because these ingredients are special. Its also about the perfumery aspect of it, you’know I’m using good quality ingredients. But at the same time, I’m trying to encapsulate the feeling of that song, the feeling of the perfume, or how does that person make you feel?
[…]

With Sade, its romantic- its quiet, its not loud. It’s for a woman who’s like, you’know, like the sweeter things in life, who is maybe a little calmer, a little tamer, a little bit older. You’know you think about these things, so it’s a different way of looking at it too I mean, what does Sade encapsulate? Smooth, soulful, romantic, I want you to feel like that when you wear the scent also. So it’s a lot of different things going into it.”

 

 

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Whats more important? The overall vibe of the song, the instrumental or the lyrical?

“Everything. I can’t help it. I can’t help but translate it all. I really want to think about it all too. Like, I think about it from an ingredient perspective, I want to use the best ingredients to be able to translate the spot, or the feeling. I also want to be able to translate what the person is saying, what their message is.

 

I want to be able to give credits to the person, give credits to my work, and at the same time transport the wearer to something else, AND make them feel good. I want it to be like […] detail, depth, perception. You’know what I’m saying? You see the details before you look back, and you see it all as a whole. I want it to be all of it, I don’t want it to be one or the other- it has to be a complete mixed full experience.”

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Would you ever move to somewhere with a larger perfume scene?

“I want to move! I want to move so bad. I’ve been in Montreal for almost ten years, I think its time. I really want to go to California- I feel a really strong sense of community there. I love sharing info with people. Everyone- like the IAO is doing such incredible work, either with their workshops or with Ashley’s teaching accords- how to build accords there.
[…]It’s just a really open-minded setting, its sunny, and filled with people interested in the craft.
[…]

If not, the Middle East is somewhere that, if I don’t live there, I definitely want to go there for a some period of time to get in touch with who I am again […] with my family- also I love where I’m from! I want to be able to give something back to that community, I want to do that.”

 

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About the online community and being nominated for a 2015 Jasmine Awards

“I want to be in perfumery whether its musically, culturally, academically, socially, emotionally… whatever, I want to do the best I can. I want to connect to it whatever way. London [the Jasmin Awards] would have been phenomenal; it was a beautiful surprise and such a pleasure.

 

What’s really nice about the online perfume community is that I’ve gone to LA and New York a couple of times and it’s such a pleasure to meet people, finally! Because we’re all online, all kind of know about each other but we never get to meet each other face to face. When you do, it changes a lot, it really does. Because you finally- I don’t know- you connect and you smell stuff together in real time which makes a really big difference.
[…]

There’s a really big special community that is really lovely.”

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The Future

“You know I’m trying to find a way to be portable. I think that’s something that’s really difficult. I mean, you know you can go around, and walk around and hand out your samples, but… I’ve been contacting people who work with scent-technology.
[…]

I think that’s one of the things I’m missing as an online business predominantly, and its tough. I have to use words and visuals all the time for an actual smell.”

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Dana is currently working on a very exciting Arabic Collection, which between you and me, sounds pretty exciting, but as of yet it quite hush hush. Here’s a snippet of what she told me…

“Right now I’m creating an Arabic collection, so I’m going really old school, very homage.

Arabic music is completely different to western music in the sense from a construction perspective. The way that its composed, in terms of composition, Arabic music has a very different way- you read it different, you play it different, and so that’s been a really big learning curve for me because I’ve been trying to understand.”

 

Update

Since this interview was published, Dana has added another member to the Jazmin Sarai family: Solari, inspired by D’Angelo’s ‘Africa’ (2000).

Below is an extract from www.jazminsarai.com:

“Fragrance Notes
Ginger, Osmanthus Absolute, Cocoa, Allspice, Labdanum, and Musk.
Musical Genres
Neo Soul, Funk, Soul, R&B, Gospel.

A hint of ginger shimmers in along with the soft, rustling chimes.
The beat of the drums calls out bringing you home.
Homage to one’s descent, exploring where you’re from. What you are, who you want to become.
Osmanthus brings its beauty, with vulnerability and unconditional love.
Subtle cocoa envelops a comfortable layer, the seed of the fruit grows stronger.  Glowing musk and honest amber.

The rest is up to the skin.
His voice resonates:
“From which you came was love,
And that’s how it all should be.
You and my soul are one,
Through all the time and history”
Inspired by D’Angelo’s ‘Africa’ (2000)”

 

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Acknowledgements

Thank you to the enigmatic Dana El Masri for sharing her time and brilliant thoughts for the purposes of this interview.

It was a real pleasure and I wish you all the success and happiness in the future.

Huda Jaber
SCENTSPY