A few weeks ago we took our quilt in to be dry cleaned at a little Mom and Pop Korean laundry after one of our cats had a little mishap on it. The weather had been steamy so it wasn't missed, but during the first cool night in a week, we spread our newly cleaned quilt on the bed sans cat hair and kitty butt smell. As we fluffed it over the sheets, a familiar scent washed through the room, vaguely floral, but very clearly the smell of detergent. Crisp and specific. As it filled my senses, I was drawn back to my room in the West Bank, where I spent a summer in college seven years ago.
The olfactory memory is mysterious. While I can recount many things about my stay in the West Bank (although it is, like all things, fading with time) this smell brought back specific details that I wouldn't have remembered without this scent. I could, for instance, remember the packs of feral dogs that ran through the streets at all hours, parking under our window to howl deep into the night. I could remember my roommate and I washing our clothes in the bathtub as if we were squashing grapes at harvest, stepping on the clothes to wring out the dirt as we chugged pseudo-Coke hoping to reclaim a little taste of home. I could feel the heat of the nights, and even though we were sweltering in our room lit only by a naked bulb, we would sleep covered head to toe to protect ourselves from mosquitoes, slathered in noxious bug repellent and buried deep in blankets. Inevitably, we'd wake up with bites on the few square inches of flesh that had crept out during the night, searching for a cool breeze.
The smell transported me back to the West Bank completely, to a little tiny village called Birzeit, home of the Palestinian University which was the center of so much conflict in the first Intifada. And even though the West Bank was under closure for the second half of my stay and was more or less a war zone for a month, it was also very homey and truly magical. I could remember the sounds on the tiny empty streets and the smells of the dinky restaurants. I could remember smoking argile with friends and eating chicken with homemade bread. I could feel it deep in my bones.
Now the smell has faded and I miss it even though it's not even a very nice smell. But I think I'll get all my blankets cleaned at the Korean laundry, since it takes me back to Palestine.