ZOUK MIKHAEL, Lebanon: Wander down the Old Souk in Zouk Mikhael this weekend and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d entered a time capsule, with a Lebanon of yesteryear on display for all the senses.
The Old Souk is one of the country’s finest, and until Sunday it is open in the evenings for a captivating tour through the nation’s cultural past, by way of traditional handicrafts and skills.
The gorgeous Ottoman souk, which was renovated after the 1975-90 Civil War, is one of the many idyllic spots in Zouk Mikhael – along with the amphitheater, the Youth and Cultural Center (complete with library), the public gardens and the Elias Abou Chabke Museum – and the annual summer fair offers the perfect excuse to get out of the city and escape to the breezier Mount Lebanon town.
The annual fair – held since 1996 – runs from 7 p.m. until 12 midnight, and is teeming with families and people of all ages, right through the evening. The atmosphere is lively, with traditional music being played, balloons and bubbles everywhere, and stalls selling lemonade, manqoushe, coffee and nuts dotted throughout.
Enter the souk, which has a terrace of restaurants above, open year round, and at first you will come across Ahmad Kanjoun, from Tripoli, who has been making stools and chairs since the age of 14. He works at the northern city’s port, creating the wooden frames and then weaving the seats.
There are various stalls lining each side of the souk, selling everything from jewelry to olive oil, rugs and woodworks, but the most captivating are those with live displays, as with Kanjoun’s.
Walk further and you will come across Maurice Habib, of Habib honey. With a live display of honey-making and honey and honeycomb to try, Habib is happy to discuss the family business, in which his father and grandfather before him worked. Today Habib and his wife manage around 400 beehives, most of which are based in Jezzine, in south Lebanon.
“I have been working in honey for 32 years,” Habib says. “It’s hard work but I love it.”
He sells mainly to the Lebanese market, but also exports to Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and the U.K., and the family business create orange blossom, cedar, oak, wildflower and original honeys. Habib highlights the health properties of his honey: It’s rich in iron and good for people with diabetes, he says.
At the next stall, Talal Ibrahim Fakhoury sits at a potter’s wheel, displaying the skill he learned at the age of 11. Fakhoury also follows his father and his grandfather in the craft and his 8-year-old daughter has already showed signs of following him into the trade. Fakhoury is also happy to invite young onlookers to take his seat at the wheel themselves.
Fakhoury is a member of the Syndicate of Lebanese Craftsmen, and has a shop in Naameh in Beirut, and gorgeous earthenware dishes, mugs and vases are on sale at the souk, either with simple glaze finishes or with intricate traditional patterns.
Further along in the Souk, two men perched on chairs are weaving beautiful, intricate baskets from bamboo. But what is not immediately obvious is that the men are blind. They are members of the Lebanese Institution for the Blind, a charity which provides care, rehabilitation and entertainment for blind adults, with the aim of integrating them into society. The huge range of baskets is only sold at festivals and exhibitions such as this, but they attend many throughout the year.
At the other end of the souk is a stone oven, where Hussein Khalife, the country’s last glassblower, is hard at work, creating beautiful shapes out of sand. The audience is captivated, despite the heat, and Khalife’s creations, colorfully hand-decorated by his niece Nisrine, are on sale at a stall nearby. From Sarafand, in south Lebanon, Khalife says glassblowing has been in his family for longer than he can remember, but recently told The Daily Star in an interview that he fears he will have to close shop by the end of the year for lack of sales.
Another traditional craft on display comes courtesy of Georges Murr, who carves detailed designs into limestone, which he sources from old abandoned houses across the country. Originally from Zahle, where he used to teach manual arts, Georges Morr, who was mentored by poet and philosopher Said Akl, says he draws inspiration from nature and from God.
Wherever he goes to display his works, Morr creates site-specific pieces, and is currently working on an incredibly intricate impression of the Old Souk itself. But he is not possessive over his work, and invites keen audience members up to help chisel away, and help create his art.
Once he is finished with a piece, Murr takes soil from nearby and mixes it with water before applying the paste to the limestone, giving it an antique look.
The Zouk Mikhael fair offers a charming walk through Lebanon’s cultural and artistic history, with interactive insight into these ancient crafts, for all of the family to enjoy. Leave with a token of your evening, or a list of places across the country to visit in the future.
Where to find artisan goods
- Habib Honey is on sale at Souk al-Tayeb in Beirut every weekend and at the shop in Jdeideh. Call 03-512 446 for more details.
- Talal Ibrahim Fakhoury sells his pottery from his shop in Nameeh, Beirut. Call 03-688-921/03-908-482 or email email@example.com for more details.
- Contact The Lebanese Institution for the Blind at 01-383-839 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to make a donation.
- Hussein Khalife’s glassworks are on sale at his shop in Sarafand. Call 03-644-746 for more details.
- George Morr’s workshop, where his designs are on sale, is in Bikfaya. Call 01-886-014/03-663-791 or email email@example.com for more information.