August 25, 2013

Yasmina Hatem

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NOW goes looking for odd jobs all around Lebanon, exploring different crafts and their environments. This is Part V of a five-part series. (See Part I,
Part II, Part III, and Part IV.)
A HISTORY
OF SOAP NOW EXPLORES THE PROCESS AND INGREDIENTS OF MAKING
A 600 YEAR-OLD SOAP BLEND.
A pinch of coarse sea salt. A dash of rosemary. A bit of olive, almond, and coconut oil. Blend together, put over fire, and stirred for about two hours.

Sound like a recipe? It is, but it's one used for soap. At Khan el Saboun in Daher el Aayn, Tripoli, the Bader Hassoun family is continuing a 600 year-old tradition: making handmade soap from recipes handed down from generation to generation.

The soap factory doesn't look like a factory at all. In fact, it looks like a big, traditional Lebanese stone house, overlooking a huge field of olive trees. That's where they use their olive oil from, as well as other main ingredients such as rosemary, lavender, green tea, and peppermint. Other ingredients are brought in from different parts of the world, like India, Egypt, Sudan, and France, depending
on what it is.

Each room of this huge house is meant for different parts of the process. The ingredients are mixed carefully, according to very specific recipes which have been improved over time, says Amir Hassoun, the son of Bader Hassoun, who currently runs the family business. Once they have finished fermenting, whether it's the soap, the body oils, the scrubs, or the facial masks, each product is individually bottled, or cut into pieces and packaged.

Every day, Khan el Saboun produces at least 5,000 bars of soap. Yet 99.9 percent of it is exported. "We work all of over the world," explains Hassoun. "We sell our products at the Gallerie Lafayette in Paris and Harrods in London. We work with hotels like Intercontinental and the Buddha Attitude Spa." In Lebanon though, they only sell their products to the Phoenicia Hotel and Hotel Le Royal. If anyone wants to buy the product, they can buy it online or at the Tripoli souk.

Amir Hassoun explains that their product is appreciated a lot more abroad, and trying to sell the product here in Lebanon is not worth the investment. "There is too much risk," he says, "and the current situation in Tripoli has greatly damaged our business."

Tripoli has a rich history of soap making. And the Khan el Saboun factory really prospered during the Mamluk era (14th century), when the Khan turned the coastal city into a soap hub. There were a number of families in the soap business at the time, and the Hassoun family was one of them. Women used to create the herbal blends, according to Hassoun, while the men manufactured it. But what makes the Khan el Saboun's soap so unique is the secret recipes that define the mixture of the herbs and oils, as well as its scent.


Walking into one of the rooms, large squares of soap that look like giant chocolate bars are wrapped in plastic and left to breathe on the floor. In a corner, two young boys carefully cut another giant soap bar. One of the boys slices every piece of soap by hand, and the other stamps each piece with the Khan al Saboun emblem, banging on each bar with what looks like a gavel. In another corner, a woman stirs a blend of oils in a big pot, while another fills it in bottles. Another man mixes coarse sea salt with rosemary to make a body scrub. But it is all these special ingredients together, and the 500 families working on each part of the delicate process, that makes this typical, traditional soap a brand of its own.
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