South Lebanon’s Disappearing Laurels

Ayta is the only village in the South which has soil suitable for laurel trees to grow. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Danny al-Amin

Published Sunday, December 23, 2012

Even though the amount of laurel trees have increased in the villages of Jabal Amal in South Lebanon, the amount of soap and oil made from them is dwindling. These laurel products used to be the basis of the area’s economy, but the industry is quickly vanishing as only two villages, Ayta al-Shaab and Hula, participate in this ancient trade.

Some say that laurel, despite its deep-rooted history in the area, has had its day. Before the appearance of industrial household detergents, this traditional soap was the go-to cleansing agent all over the South. Still, some prefer laurel soap because it does not contain any chemicals.

In Hula, some women still anticipate the laurel season as their livelihoods depend on it. One such woman, Fatima, explained the process of picking the berries and making the oil.

“We pick the laurel berries and cook them on a wood fire in a special metal container. Then we ‘water’ it with boiled water and press them in a different container. We put the oil in a clay urn, covered in mud on the outside. The urn is sealed tightly with grass or a sieve. It is placed upside down in a hole in the ground inside a tin container. Dry grass is placed all around it and burned. This makes the filtered natural oil seep out of the urn into the container underneath it in the hole.”

In Ayta al-Shaab, there are those who try hard to preserve this industry. Unlike in Hula, there are organizations here like Samidoon that provide women with the necessary equipment to develop their soap-making skills.

A resident of the town, Zahra, said, “We got special equipment for making laurel soap, including molds and pots. We also got a special stamp which says ‘Ayta al-Shaab soap.’ Our supporters have promised to market our products in Lebanon and abroad with subsidized and competitive prices. They have allocated a special permanent area in al-Tayyeb market in Saida to showcase the soap we make here.”

Ayta is the only village in the South which has soil suitable for laurel trees to grow. However, the most recent war caused much damage to the trees, with some still surrounded by cluster bombs.

Surur discussed the prices: “The price of a tin of laurel oil is LL40,000 ($26). If you turn that into soap, it can reach LL50,000 or 60,000.”

Soap manufacturing in Ayta began in the middle of the 20th century. Women say that they learned how to make soap from the Palestinian refugees who came from Nablus after the Nakba in 1948. They brought with them some Nablus soap they had made themselves.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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