The Syrian town of Aleppo is famous for its laurel soap. The war has destroyed most of the city's 50 factories but the product has found a new home 4,000 kilometres away on the outskirts of Paris.
The fragrance of laurel seed oil wafts through the Alepia soap factory in Santeny, 30kms south-east of Paris.
In the laboratory Hassan Harastani, wearing white overalls, pours the hot dark green gel that will become the soap into wooden trays while chatting with factory owner Samir Constantani.
“We leave it here for 12 hours in order to solidify,” explains Harastani, a master soapmaker for more than 30 years.
He learned the ancestral tradition of making Aleppo soap from his father.
“The whole process of [making] any traditional soap takes three days, the first day is called the preparation day, the second is called the saponification and cooking day, the third day we start pouring the soap in the moulds, and we let it rest in the molds and the next day to be cut and stamped.
“Certain historians claim that this type of soap has been manufactured more than 3,000 years ago and now we are manufacturing it the same way.”
From Aleppo to Santeny
Alepia Samir Constantini CEO began importing soap from Harastani’s factory in Aleppo back in 2004; an average of 30 tonnes per year under the Alepia brand.
The men struck up a friendship and when war broke out in Syria in 2011 Constantini foresaw difficulties both for his friend and his supplies.
“I went to Aleppo shortly after the war broke out and I saw the situation was likely to get worse,” he explains. “So I asked Mr Harastani to make me 100 tonnes of soap as quickly as possible. It took him a year, and he sent me the merchandise just in time, just before the war intensified and the factory stopped production.”
Harastani does not care to dwell on what happened to his factory, but his friend is more vocal.
“The factory was shelled four times, his house was looted, his car was stolen, he fled to Lebanon [in 2012]. He called me and I said ‘Listen the easiest thing is for you to come to France and together we’ll mount a soap factory and make Aleppo soap here’.”
Harastani arrived in France with his family in 2014. Together the two men now make four tonnes of Aleppo soap a week, supplying the French market mainly but also Spain and Poland, and they are making inroads into Asia.
Different location, same recipe
Aleppo soap or saboun al ghar (laurel soap) as it’s known in Syria has four main ingredients: laurel seed oil, olive oil, water and soda. Constantini is adamant that the Made in France version is essentially Syrian.
“It’s the same soap, with the same ingredients, the same manufacturing process done by a renowned master-soapmaker from Aleppo,” he argues.
There are, however, one or two small differences.
“The olive oil is not from Syria, it’s mainly from the Maghreb - Morocco and Tunisia - but it has a similar character to Syrian oil. As for the laurel seed oil which gives Aleppo soap its qualities, it’s the same one used in Syria: from the famous bay tree forests in Turkey.”
As in Aleppo, the French-made soap is made in winter when temperatures are at their coolest. Once cooked at 110°C, the gel is poured onto the factory floor to dry. Harastani admits they’ve slightly adapted that part of the procedure.
“They pour it on the floor and leave it for 24 hours in order to solidify and then they cut it the traditional way. Here, we pour it in [wooden] moulds and, instead of stepping on it, we cut it with an artisanal machine into the required size.”
Once cut, each cube of soap is stamped, just as it was in Aleppo.
“Every soap has a stamp,” says Harastani holding up one of the fresh pea-green bars with Arabic writing on it. “This stamp indicates the owner of the factory Mr Constantini, the manufacturer Harastani, that's me, and here we are indicating that it is momtaz, meaning excellent.”
Behind him are pyramids of soap, ranging from a bright pea-green through to a caramel and mid-brown depending on their age.
“When they are slightly brown it means they are dried and so we can sell them,” says Harastani.
Constantini says they sell the majority of the wares afer nine months when they’re fully matured, but some French people like to take part in this ancestral tradition.
“They buy the soap young and let it mature at home."
Harastani has found a safe way to carry on his family tradition, far from the bombings of his native city. He believes one or two factories may still be producing Aleppo soap in Kurdish-held areas away from the centre.
But he has little information about his own factory.
“It's in the suburb of western Aleppo which is very difficult to reach or to ask a friend to go there. It’s a war.”
But his heart belongs to Aleppo. Should peace return, "I prefer to leave and go to my country,” he says.
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Text initially published on: RFI