Balsam from a war zone
A green and white box peeps out of the dust and rubble. On it, written in red, is an Arabic name: Hussein Zahra. This piece of cardboard is the only indication that this was once the site of a workshop, a soap factory. All that remains of what were once two-storey buildings is a concrete skeleton riddled with bullet holes.
Aleppo, once a thriving city in northern Syria, has been destroyed. First came the rebels, then the jihadists, then the Syrian bombers and most recently the Russian bombers. Yet despite this destruction, one of the region's most famous exports, Aleppo soap, still finds its way onto the shelves of health food shops, pharmacies, drug stores and organic shops and supermarkets in Germany. But where does the soap really come from?
Aleppo soap made in Turkey
Hussein Zahra began making handmade soap out of olive oil and laurel oil almost four decades ago. The family-run company was situated in Sheikh Saeed, a district in south-eastern Aleppo that has been at the centre of fierce fighting for a very long time. Three years ago, his son Mohammed, who now runs the company, fled the war. Today, Mohammed produces Aleppo soap in Mersin in Turkey, from where he ships it to Europe and Asia. He shuns the use of modern technology, choosing instead to produce soap the way Arab soap producers have done for hundreds of years. In these times of crisis, however, raw materials, transport and shipment are more expensive and more difficult. 'We hope we will be able to return to Aleppo soon,' says Mohammed. 'We are very tired.'
Most of his fellow soap-makers feel the same way. Where once over 200 soap factories of all sizes produced soap in and around Aleppo, almost all have either closed or are in exile. Because soap does not actually have to be produced in Aleppo to bear the city's name, most companies have shifted production to safer places abroad. One has set up shop in France; most have settled in Turkey. After all, the Turkish-Syrian border is only 60 km from Aleppo.
Talal Anis also moved production, first to Afrin in the Syrian Kurdish part of the country and then further – across the Turkish border – to Gaziantep. These moves cost him dearly; many items were stolen each time he moved.
In the line of fire
Before the conflict began in 2011, Talal and his partner were producing up to 800 t of Aleppo soap every year. Today, this figure has shrunk to a maximum 250 t. He saw no future for himself in Aleppo: ″Many soap factories were razed to the ground. They suddenly found themselves on the front line,″ he says. What's more, factory owners were kidnapped and held for ransom. Others were killed and some just disappeared off the face of the earth. Very few have stuck it out. One of the few to stay in the city is a friend of Talal, who is now producing soap at home. 'He now lives upstairs and manufactures soap on the ground floor.' With all the power cuts and water shortages in the city, people in Aleppo have to be creative: they work with generators and dig new wells.
When most people think of Aleppo, they think of barrel bombs, jihadists and mass exodus. Aleppo has become synonymous with a bloody war for which there is no solution. Six years ago, things were very different: Aleppo, situated at the heart of one of the most fertile regions in the Middle East, was known for its fascinating old quarter with its bazaars, caravanserais and ancient mosques.
Aleppo is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world. Until the opening of the Suez Canal in the year 1869, it was situated on a number of important trade routes, including the Silk Road. Legend has it that Abraham, who is revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, milked his cow on the hill where the citadel stands. Indeed, it is this legend that gave the city its Arabic name: Halab al-Shahba (which translates as 'he milked the grey cow').
In the seventh century, resourceful craftsmen in the region revolutionised the production of soap: they boiled olive oil and lye in large vats, adding laurel oil to the mixture. The first hard soaps were born. To this day, Aleppo soap is made according to this ancient recipe.
After the mixture has boiled to a paste, it is poured into shallow basins and spread out. It is then allowed to cool and harden. The mixture is then cut by hand into blocks, the name of the manufacturer is stamped into the soap and the blocks are then stacked and left to dry for up to nine months. At this point, the surface of the soap is ochre in hue. Inside, however, the soap is still olive green. In theory, the soap can be stored in a dry place for decades without diminishing in quality.
Soap – a huge export success story
″Soap was a huge export success story and the foundation on which many of the region's most affluent families built their wealth,″ says Christian Sassmannshausen of the Institute for Islamic Studies at the Freie Universitat Berlin, who has taken a closer look at soap production in the Middle East as part of his research work.
Soap-makers in the region that now comprises Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan had a major advantage over others in the business: their raw materials were all produced nearby. This was a boon at a time when the transportation of olive oil or laurel oil was very expensive. In the early twentieth century, however, the Arab market was flooded with mass-produced soap from Europe, causing a collapse in sales of the local product. It was only the organic trend and the growing popularity of natural cosmetics that brought Aleppo soap to the attention of the Europeans once again. It has one major advantage: it is produced without palm oil and without any artificial ingredients.
The war in Syria made Aleppo soap a product in exile. Nevertheless, most of the manufacturers are in no doubt: some day, when peace returns to Syria, they will return to Aleppo and rebuild their factories.
© Qantara.de 2017
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan