The scent of soap making returns to Aleppo

Syrian businessman Ali Shami arranges olive soap bars in a factory on the outskirts of Aleppo. (AFP)
Updated 23 March 2019
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The scent of soap making returns to Aleppo

  • Shami carried out limited renovations — just enough to produce more than half of his pre-war output of around 800 tons a year

ALEPPO: After years of war, the scent of laurel oil once again wafts from a small soap workshop in Aleppo, signaling the revival of a landmark trade in the battered northern city.
Surrounding soap workshops in the Al-Nayrab district still lie in ruins, badly damaged in the four-year battle for the former opposition stronghold. But for Ali Shami, hanging up his apron was not an option.
“I never stopped making soap throughout the war — even if it was just a little,” says the 44-year-old, who fled his home city during the fighting.
“But this workshop is special,” he tells AFP. “It was here that I started more than 30 years ago.”
Shami reopened his soap workshop last month after shutting it down in 2012, when Syria’s second city became a main front in the eight-year-long conflict.
The scars of war are still visible on the building, its walls punctured with holes caused by shelling. Rushes of wind gust through the gaps.
Shami carried out limited renovations — just enough to produce more than half of his pre-war output of around 800 tons a year.
He installed a new metal door and refurbished the main rooms where the soap mixture is heated and then poured out to dry.
He watches as five workers stir a thick mixture of olive and laurel oil in a large vat.
Beside them, another five workers slice cooled and hardened green paste into cubes and stack them in staggered racks.
Shami says he was able to resume operations quickly because Aleppo soap is handmade.
Its production “relies on manual labor, a successful mixture, the passion of Aleppo’s residents, and their love of the profession,” he says.
After closing down in 2012, Shami tried to continue his work in other major Syrian cities. “My existence is tied to the existence” of soap, he says.
He moved to the capital, Damascus, and the regime-held coastal city of Tartous, but Shami says the soap was not as good.
“Aleppo’s climate is very suitable for soap production and the people of Aleppo know the secret of the trade and how to endure the hardship of the many stages of its production,” he says.
Shami, who inherited the soap business from his father and grandfather, boasts about the superior qualities of Aleppo soap, the oldest of its kind in the world.
“Aleppo soap distinguishes itself from other soaps around the world as it is made almost entirely of olive oil,” he says.
“European soap, on the other hand, includes animal fats, while soaps made in Asia are mixed with vegetal oils but not olive oil,” he says.
The Aleppo region is well-known for its olive oil and sweet bay oil, or laurel.
Shami says the Aleppo soap industry was hit hard by the fierce clashes that rocked his home city, before ending in late 2016 when the army took back opposition districts with Russian military support.
While conditions are less dangerous today, soap producers still grapple with shortages of raw material and skilled labor, he says.
“We are struggling with the aftermath of the battles,” he says.
Dozens of soap producers are still waiting to complete renovations before reopening their workshops. Hisham Gebeily is one of them.
His soap-making center in the Old City of Aleppo, named after the family, has survived for generations, dating back to the 18th century.
The three-story stone workshop covers a space of around 9,000 square meters, and is considered among the largest in the city.
But the 50-year-old man was forced to close it in 2012.
The structure still stands, although damaged by the fighting: Parts of it have been charred by shelling and wooden beams supporting the roof are starting to fall apart.
“Before the conflict, the city of Aleppo housed around 100 soap factories,” he says.


Michael Jackson fans defiant as abuse claims loom over anniversary

Updated 24 June 2019
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Michael Jackson fans defiant as abuse claims loom over anniversary

  • Fans were aware of the sex abuse claims, but the adoration fostered from growing up with the “Thriller” megastar’s many hits supersedes all else
  • If the controversy has dampened commemorations, Jackson’s commercial clout remains substantial

LOS ANGELES: Defiant fans are preparing to mark 10 years since Michael Jackson’s death as fascination with the King of Pop remains undimmed despite lurid claims of child sex abuse.
On Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, the singer’s star continues to draw a constant scrum of selfie-snapping tourists, while nearby souvenir shops, street performers and even tattoo parlors report a brisk trade in all things Jackson.
Across the street at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum, a statue of the singer is strategically perched above the box office to entice tourists. Staff at Madame Tussauds say Jackson’s waxwork remains a top draw.
Yet according to the groundbreaking HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland,” released earlier this year, it was just a few hours’ drive from the heart of Hollywood that Jackson used his celebrity and glamor to molest young boys at his fairytale-themed ranch.
While most fans who spoke to AFP were aware of the documentary, the adoration fostered from growing up with the “Thriller” megastar’s many hits supersedes all else.
“I came here actually only for him. I don’t take pictures with any other star,” said Dutch tourist Hooman Nazemi.
“Some stuff that they were saying in the doc was kind of hard, but you cannot say 100 percent it’s true ... I just love him. I love him and I think everybody does.”
Antoine Baynes, 31, a Jackson impersonator who moonwalks along Hollywood Boulevard for tourists’ tips, said the allegations had done nothing to diminish his performances’ appeal — in fact, the opposite.
“After the HBO special came out I received just as much if not more attention than before. It kinda gave it publicity,” he said.
“Honestly I’ve married people as Michael Jackson. I have two weddings to do this Sunday, to do as Michael Jackson!“
The claims in the HBO documentary by two men who say Jackson sexually abused them for years as minors were not the first, but reignited the scandal after the star’s fatal overdose at age 50 in 2009.
In his lifetime, Jackson denied all child sex allegations and his estate filed a $100 million lawsuit against HBO for “posthumous character assassination.”
On Tuesday, the anniversary of Jackson’s passing, die-hard fans from around the world have planned an “MJ Innocent Love Rally” through Hollywood to gather at his star on the sidewalk.
Other events include a “zombie dance” on Venice Beach and screenings of fan-made tribute films.
Those who cannot attend are invited to donate money for an annual ceremony placing roses by Jackson’s grave in the nearby Forest Lawn cemetery.
Organizers did not respond to a request for comment, but claim on Twitter that a record of more than 18,000 roses have been bought this year.
Yet numbers signing up to the events’ Facebook pages are conspicuously low, and pro-Jackson messageboards are rife with complaints about the lack of mainstream enthusiasm for anniversary events this year.
If the controversy has dampened commemorations — with Variety reporting that TV networks and producers have pulled the plug on long-planned anniversary programs — Jackson’s commercial clout remains substantial.
T-shirts, keyrings and coasters bearing the singer’s likeness remain on prominent display at Hollywood tourist stores lining the boulevard, outnumbered only by images of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.
Of a dozen such shops visited by AFP, only one had removed Jackson memorabilia from its shelves, citing a decline in interest.
And for some die-hard fans, a throwaway souvenir just won’t cut it.
“We get people asking for the silhouette, with the hat, sometimes his signature,” said tattoo artist John Lopez.
“Maybe five or six each year. It’s no different this year.”