Adonis Diaries

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Last potter in town of Beit Chabab, Lebanon?

In this town of traditional pottery, bell casting, Silk clothes… that No longer fabricate anything?

Who is Fawzi Fakhoury?

Note: Re-edit of “Last potter in Beit Chabab? In this town of traditional pottery? Who is Fawzi Fakhoury? June 22, 2013″

BEIT CHABAB, Lebanon:

Fawzi Fakhoury’s hands are calloused and brown. Hours  of shaping tough clay and standing in front of a burning wood oven have stained them shades darker than the rest of his body and toughened them so they are like  leather.

Fakhoury stand of potter. There were at least 6 families making a living from that art 3 decades ago, and their products were exported to the adjacent States of Jordan, Syria, Palestine and even Iraq.

Fawzi is rather short for a western standard, with salt and pepper hair and bushy eyebrows, and dressed  in simple, mud-stained clothes.

His weathered hands stand testimony to the  thousands of pots he has created for the better part of his life. He inherited that job from his father and the entire family helped in the family “factory”, until one of the members decided to resume the work.

Actually, it seems that Fawzi is the last working potter in Beit Chabab and pretty soon will retire: No vaible trade to export to.

I have posted many articles on Lebanon, and Michelle  Ghoussoub has this latest.

Michelle  Ghoussoub published in The Daily Star, this June 20, 2013: “Meet  the last potter in Beit Shabab

Fakhoury, left, works with his brother Assad, who helps out occasionallyin the shop. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

The scenic village is nestled in Lebanon’s mountains just 17 km outside of east Beirut.

Sixty years ago, dozens of Beit Shabab  families produced traditional  pottery, and the heat from 40 burning ovens could be felt on the streets during  the summer, Fawzi explains.

The town’s name was synonymous with pottery, and people came from around the  country to purchase the artisanal clay pots, used for storing everything from arak to grains, olive oil and wine.

Now, he is the only one left.

Fakhoury’s workshop resembles a hermit’s cave.

Though dark and dusty, it  remains well used and loved.

Perched precariously on the edge of a small but  steep ravine, Fakhoury’s working space has a crumbling old stone facade nestled into the mountain itself.

An elegant stone archway frames the entrance, with rusted scrap metal and  broken pieces of mortar piled on top to prevent rainwater from flooding the  small room. Bits and pieces of fragmented pots are piled haphazardly in a back  corner.

A traditional stove, or babour, for kerosene burner, commands the  center of the room. It doubles as the only heat source during the winter months, as nighttime temperatures can occasionally drop below freezing.

An old television set crackles in the background, the colors and shapes on  the screen disfigured by poor reception. A fine, white film of dust covers every surface, and it puffs out of antique pillows on the faded couch when it is sat  upon.

No one knows or remembers exactly how long the workshop has been running.

Fakhoury believes the family folklore. He says that Roman potters trained his  forefathers when they came to construct the ancient, colonnaded citadel of  Baalbek in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley around 300 B.C. (Baalbak is as ancient as 7,000 years, before Rome or Athens existed)

When the Romans left, his ancestors searched for the purest clay in the  country, and eventually settled in Beit Shabab to be close to the best natural  source: a small and muddy lake in the forest beneath the village (the mawsel).

Fakhoury’s creased wrinkles deepen and his brown face cracks into a crooked  smile as he recalls a childhood of running among the clay pots.

He’s worked as a  potter for 60 years. His father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and  great-great-grandfather all worked in this same space before him.

At no moment in his life did Fakhoury, now 66, wish for an alternative career  path. He loves this job, he says.

Years of hard labor have given him a worn appearance and demeanor, but they  have also kept him strong and tough.

Toiling in the workshop where he was  raised, he cuts the figure of a surviving Chinese terracotta warrior, stained  by the mud that has defined his livelihood for half a century.

Fakhoury left the village temporarily during the Lebanese Civil War and  worked in trade in West Africa. He always dreamt of returning to his workshop to  continue his family’s legacy.

“I lived there, but I dreamed in Lebanon,” he says with a smile.

Fakhoury returned to find a wall of the workshop blown out by a bomb, but his  tools intact. He wasted no time in repairing the room and reopening his  business.

His wife and he have three daughters, all of whom are married and have long  since left the house.

Women don’t do pottery, he says, at least in Beit Shabab.

His face falls, however, when he reveals that he has no heir to continue Beit Shabab’s trademark industry when he retires.

“This workshop has been running for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, and  when I go, it may all have been for nothing,” he lamented, looking wistfully  around the chamber.

Though customers used to flock from across the country to hand pick his pots,  the advent of plastic containers has slashed demand massively.

Nowadays, customers are often decorators seeking a rustic look, or tourists looking for authentic Lebanese craftsmanship.

He still ships a couple of hundred pots every year to a Jordanian arak  producer, who uses them to store the anis-flavored liquor., like Ouzou in Greece

Producing pottery is like cultivating a crop, he muses. The clay is collected  in the spring when it has the right consistency, then handspun into pots using a  potter’s wheel.

The kiln, an oven designed especially for pottery, is fired up in August, the hottest month of the year, to accelerate the baking.

During these scorching weeks, Fakhoury stays up throughout the night to  monitor the ovens and rotate the pots, making sure that months of intensive  craftsmanship and exertion do not go up in flames.

The work is hard, and the fruit of his arduous labor much less plentiful than it once was.

While his father would light the oven 8 times in one  summer, he now only produces one batch of pots a year.

A pottery festival and exhibition in Normandy, France, once invited Fakhoury  to learn different pottery techniques.

He says it was an honor to be recognized,  but that he found himself underwhelmed by the developed industrial techniques of French potters. Having made thousands of pots in his life, he says he prefers to stick to what his father and grandfather taught him as a child.

Nassar Fakhoury, Fawzi’s neighbor and former landlord, says “Fawzi is a part of this village in the same way that these streets are. He’s  always in his workshop and his family has always been there. The children call  him ‘the pottery man.’ There’s just no other way to describe him,”

Nassar shares Fawzi surname but is not sure exactly how they are related. Family lineages and histories go so far back in the village that they are sometimes impossible to keep track of or  untangle.

When asked what has changed about the business since he began over half a  century ago, Fawzi’s answer is simple: “Nothing. I still do business the way my father and grandfather did.”

It’s a legacy that may end without an apprentice or heir devoted to following  in his forefathers’ footsteps.

It is almost impossible to picture the village without its main attraction,  and for now, Fawzi will continue to fill that role. He says he cannot imagine  himself anywhere else.

“My grandfather and father died here, and one day, I will join them,” he  says. “What I want is to die here.

Note 1: In my childhood, I visited and was acquainted with three families of potters in the lower part of Beit-Chabab, like the Tannous family. The entire family members participated in the production, especially in summer time. Traditional pottery is vanishing quickly in Lebanon, and not even replaced by mass production facilities. There are a few potters in Rashaya Fokhar, and are closing shop for no family members are willing to replace the older ones.

Note 2: A couple years ago I assisted in one of these night vigil. It was supposed to be the night the fire in the kiln (oven) for the pots to be suffocated. Annish played the guitar and sang Lebanese songs. We were a dozen gathered around the oven and a few kept joining in. Fawzi would get up from his couch and check on the readiness of the pots and add a few more woods. Around 2 am Fawzi decided it was time to kill the fire. We joined in bringing to the entrance of the oven the special “bumblebees” to stuff in to kill the fire.

Note 3: A couple centuries ago, pottery was started in the upper quarters of Beit Chabab, but the clay was whitish. The potters in the lower part of Beit Chabab had the reddish and better clay to use, and they supplanted the upper families in that art and industry.

Note 4: A  version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June  20, 2013, on page 2.
Read more:  http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Culture/Lifestyle/2013/Jun-20/220923-meet-the-last-potter-in-beit-shabab.ashx#ixzz2WpopbDU6 (The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::  http://www.dailystar.com.lb)

Beit-Chabab: Hometown of my parents and grand parents and mine….

The late Lebanese writer Youssef (Joseph) Habshi Ashkar did an excellent job describing my village Beit-Chabab, which is his village.

Youssef told stories of the numerous ancient people and traditions in a simple, heart wrenching language and these stories were very funny most of the time. My father loves these stories because many of them happened during his time in the village and he can figure out the real protagonists. It would be nice to have all the works of Youssef translated, even if it would lose much of its original flavor and meanings.

When you see Beit-Chabab coming from Beirut you notice that it is vast and opening her arms to hold all its original main four quarters. Every house is visible with its red tiled roof, distinct, and having a sight to the sea.

The government encouraged new buildings to have red tile roofs for tax deduction but it turned mainly a paper promise because dad didn’t get any benefit. Beit-Chabab is a far cry of those villages scattered along a main road or hidden behind a mount or a valley.

Beit-Chabab is 700 meters above sea level and climbs over 100 meters in altitude from its bottom, west to east, and it is expanding mostly southward because the north side plunges toward the Nahr El Kalb River valley (Dog River).

Beit-Chabab has mainly 10 family clans that gathered around specific districts; each clan who could afford it had its own “nawbeh“, sort of a club of youthful members who could play instrument, sing and dance the ancient ways during happy and sad ceremonies.

Almost each major church, belonging to a clan, has a club of ladies “akhawiyeh” that cares for the less fortunate members of the clan. There was a time when a single policeman designated by the mayor would suffice to keep the peace and the streets clean.  Beit-Chabab grew bigger and clans permitted a few members of other family clans to purchase pieces of land in their own district, but out of town people still have hard time purchasing land.

Beit-Chabab could have been an ideal tourist attraction or a destination for summer residents but it blocked this kind of business by not allowing rental apartments or building commercial hotels and restaurants or movie theaters and thus discouraging outsiders to settle in.

Beit-Chabab used to be the main large town for miles around and it was called “The Town”.  It cultivated varieties of fruits and vegetables and hosted all kinds of industries like clothes “dima“, silk factories, church bells, potteries, fowl and cow businesses and supplied Lebanon with its products and produces and even exported to France until artificial silk was invented and other alternatives to potteries and cheaper clothing were manufactured.

Most of Beit-Chabab’s current  14,000 inhabitants immigrated abroad during and after WWI to Africa and returned to rehabilitate their houses; the immigration is still going stronger with the new generation after our latest civil war and the incapacity of our political system to bring peace, security and work opportunities.

The new wave of immigration has diversified its destinations to the USA, Canada, Australia, Europe, South America and also Africa for the less educated.   The worst part is that the new educated generation is not ready to come back, simply because the old ways of visiting and caring for neighbors are dying and Beit-Chabab is far behind with the amenities of modern life.

Youssef described his dad as a true ancient personality.  His dad didn’t wear “al ghenbaz” (the traditional long tunic) since he wore European attire, and he didn’t cultivated his land since he commuted and worked in Beirut but he was an anciant. But Youssef lived the  ancients did.

Youssef’s dad is ancient because as soon as he arrived from the Capital Beirut he would change into comfortable clothes and walk to the valley where he had a grotto which was supplied with the implements of a water pipe “arghileh” and coffee and candles. He would spend the evening contemplating nature and returning with loads of wild fruits and vegetables and greens like “3erkbanieh”, “zbeizbeh”, sumac, “za3tar”, “zaizafoun”, “kouwissa”, “khatmieh” and an oak stick to supply the winter reserve for fireplace, not because his house is not centrally heated which is but because he loves to see and feel the winter fire.

Youssef’s father is ancient because he eats meat only on Sundays and eats it raw like “kebeh” and “smayskeh“, because he loves to hear the pounding of the “mdakah bil jorn“.

Youssef’s father used to do his own coal and his own “arak” and he raised his own chickens and had always one goat for the milk and one mouton for the winter meat and fat.  Youssef’s dad is ancient because he refused to pour concrete on his patio “mastabah” but would pass “al mahdalah” on the sand, mud, small stones and “kash”.

Youssef’s dad is an ancient individual because he kept the traditional ways for preserving food, oil, cheese and other condiments simply because it reminded him of the environment and climate in which his forefathers lived contented.

Youssef’s father lived the real life without discontinuity when his grandfather died and when his father died.  He loved to narrate the ancient stories of people and stories of imaginary ancient heroes while sitting on the sofa and drinking Turkish coffee without sugar “sada”.  His stories reflect the concepts that hell could be experienced on earth and the feeling of heaven is an earthly experience too.

I do currently live in Kunetra, a mile away from our original town called Beit-Chabab.

Kunetra is split among four municipalities of Beit-Chabab, Kornet Hamra, Kornet Chehwan, and Ain-Aar.  Our building is within the municipality of Kornet Chehwan that Dad finished constructing in 1970 .

Kunetra was relatively a virgin estate; it is now expanding and becoming a favorite Real Estate development with modern villas studded all over.

Beit-Chabab is the hometown of my parents and their parents.  I was an interned student for six years in its boys’ school affiliated to the Christian Maronite Order.  From 1963 to 1975, I spent the summers in Beit-Chabab until I graduated from university

I am reverting to the ancient ways of life: I garden and gather all kinds of vegetables and greens; I love to eat everything natural without addition of salt, sugar, or peppers; my mother still prepares all kinds of preserves of jam and “kabeess”.

Unfortunately, I am not a narrator of stories and cannot sing and have no intimate friends to share the bliss of ancient living.


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

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