There was a phone number carved into the door of the ‘cabin’. I called it. A girl answered and asked if I wanted to buy something. I said yes. She said someone will come down. I thought, coming to find the last potter of Beit Shabab was probably not such a good idea.
It was a very hot April day. I waited. Finally Fawzi arrived. “We’re closed at the moment”, he said, “we don’t start working until May. It needs to be dry outside for us to work. We can’t work in the winter”. In his late 60s, cigarette in hand, Fawzi opened the door to the workshop and the first thing that struck me was the dust. Dust everywhere.
This workshop was his father’s before him, and it was one of 40 pottery workshops in Beit Shabab. In fact this village was known for two things: bells and jars. None of the bell makers still exist, and Fawzi is the last of a lineage of potters who make jars the Beit Shabab way – apparently according to him, a way unique in the entire world. Fawzi then flicked on a switch that lit up the deep interior of the space: a large stone-built vault, where the air is cool and the walls lined with jars.
Fawzi makes only one thing: jars for storing Arak and olive oil. The technique is very difficult and involves hard manual labour. They start production in May, as the jars need to dry outside before being placed in the oven. He creates each jar by hand, with a technique that involves making the base on a pottery wheel, building the sides by carrying clay in a bag on his back and patting it into place with a special wooden bat and a lot of physical force.
Once they have 200 jars ready, they start the oven. This happens only once a year, in September. The oven is basically an underground chamber that you go down a set of stairs into, and that fits about 200 jars. It’s wood fired, and needs 24-hour monitoring: patient and constant feeding of the fire to maintain the temperature, over the course of an entire night when friends gather and the arak flows.
“I didn’t think we were going to open up for work this year”, said Fawzi, “but we got an order for 100 jars for arak for a Lebanese producer”. Can I come and watch you work, I ask. Of course he replies. Can I learn how to make the jars? “Well, it’s not a job for girls. It’s hard and messy”. Too bad Fawzi only has daughters. But apparently it’s not even a job made for all men. His neighbour’s son learned for 40 years but is still hopeless at it.
I ask him why business is slow and what killed it. I expected him to blame technology, China, or the lack of interest of the locals. Instead he replied: the war! “Our main market was the villages of the Shouf. We would fill a truck with 200 jars and drive to the Shouf and park the truck in the middle of a town. ‘Pots from Beit Shabab’ we would shout, and we would sell the entire load in hours. Our main business was between the villages. The war cut us off.”
Yes. Among the many casualties of the Lebanese civil war was village life, and handcrafts that relied on village trade could never really come back even when the residents did. It was refreshing to hear that Lebanese wine and arak producers are seeking Fawzi and his jars, perhaps creating a new wave of supply and demand that can keep this tradition going.
Now all Fawzi needs is a capable protege. He will be working from May till September, so if anyone wants to apply, now you know where to find him!