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This town of traditional pottery in Lebanon: Beit Chabab

Last potter in Beit Chabab?

Who is Fawzi Fakhoury?

BEIT CHABAB, Lebanon: Fawzi Fakhoury 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.

He is rather short, 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.

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 is the last working potter in Beit Shabab.

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

The scenic village is nestled in Lebanon’s mountains just outside of 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 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, Arabic for kerosene burner, commands the  center of the room. It doubles as the only heat source during the winter months, as nighttime temperatures can 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 and 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.

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 terra-cotta 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 anise-flavored liquor.

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 seven or eight 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, shares his 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.

“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  says.

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, Fakhoury 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. 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 is few potters in Rashaya Fokhar, and are closing shop for no family members replacing the older ones.

Note 2: 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 3: 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)


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