Aleppo soap makes leap from flattened souk to Paris suburb

Aleppo soap has found a sanctuary in a suburb of Paris far from the ruined city that gave the famous product its name.

Aleppo soap makes leap from flattened souk to Paris suburb

A collateral victim of the Syrian war, Aleppo soap has found a sanctuary far from the ruined city whose elegant souks, many now reduced to rubble, have made the coveted green bars for centuries.

In an industrial zone on the outskirts of Paris, a Syrian master soapmaker is carrying on the tradition, mixing olive oil and laurel oil with water and lye to produce a deeply moisturising natural cleanser that has won devotees worldwide.

The scent of laurel oil wafts through the corridors of the factory in Santeny, about 30 kilometres (18 miles) southeast of the French capital, where big blocks of soap are drying.

Wearing white overalls, Hassan Harastani stirs a bubbling pea-green mixture in a giant cauldron while chatting with businessman Samir Constantini.

Constantini, a trained doctor, began importing soap from Syria's historic second city in 2004 and later began producing the soap under the “Alepia” brand.

His plan had been to open a soap factory on the outskirts of Aleppo with Harastani, a master of the art who learnt the trade from his father.

But Syria's brutal civil war, which has made a smouldering ruin of much of Aleppo, laid waste to his plans.

Harastani and his family fled the fierce fighting that turned the city into a global symbol of suffering.

“We could no longer go to the factory because of the shelling and kidnappings,” he said.

With all but one or two of around 50 soap factories destroyed in Aleppo, Constantini and Harastini decided to start producing the soap on French soil.

“We left our country, our houses, our businesses, our friends,” Constantini says, counting off his losses with a sigh.

“I used to have lots of customers, in Syria but also abroad, in France, Italy, Germany, the Gulf countries, South Korea, Japan, China,” he says.

“I was an ordinary person who loved his work and his family… It's the only profession I've known for over 35 years.”

'We will return'

On arriving in France, he resumed his trade, 4,000 kilometres from home.

Constantini is adamant that the Made in France soap is still essentially Syrian.

“If a top French chef opens a French restaurant in New York it remains French cuisine, not New York cuisine. It's the same for the soap. It is made by the master soapmaker Harastani and is, therefore, proper Aleppo soap,” he argues.

The entire soapmaking process — from the selection and mixing of the oils and lye through to the drying and cutting — is carried out according to family recipes dating back more than 3,000 years.

“I am very proud to carry on this tradition,” says Constantini. “The know-how is not being lost. It will endure despite what is happening in Syria.”

The nearly six-year war came to a head in the eastern part of Aleppo last week, as thousands of hungry, terrified residents began being bussed out of the city after weeks of bombings.

For Constantini the war has mushroomed into a “world war” pitting global powers against each other in a scorched-earth battle for control of the Middle East.

With no immediate end to the fighting in sight, he says the best thing he can do is “continue making this soap and hope that peace will return.”

Harastani says he does not know what the future holds but is “not so pessimistic”.

One thing is certain, he says. “We will return to Syria someday.”

by AFP's Diane Falconer


French group to open two hotels in Damascus

France's Louvre Hotels Group has signed an agreement to open two hotels under its own name in Damascus, the first with a western hotel operator since Syria's brutal civil war began in 2011.

French group to open two hotels in Damascus
Louvre owns the Golden Tulip five-star brand. Photo: Louvre Hotels Group
The confirmation of the two hotels opening, after recent media reports, came a day after the UN announced an internal investigation into the bombing of hospitals in Syria, and as at least six civilians were killed by the Syrian regime and Russian fire in northwestern Idlib province in the past days, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The region of around three million people, many of them displaced by fighting in other areas, is one of the last holdouts of opposition fighting against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance led by Al-Qaeda's former Syria affiliate controls most of Idlib as well as parts of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces.
The hotels “will open soon under the brand name of Louvres Hotels Group,” the company, which is owned by China's Jin
Jiang, said in a statement.
Louvre Hotels Group said the deal was signed between Syria's Nazha Investment Group and “a partner with whom Louvre Hotels cooperates in the Middle East”.
The exact number of people killed in Syria's war is unknown but hundreds of thousands have died.
Several dozen medical facilities with links to the UN have been damaged or destroyed by bombs this year. Russian has denied deliberately targeting civilian installations.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Friday said an internal inquiry would look into the bombing of hospitals in Syria which had previously flagged their coordinates to avoid air strikes.
“The deal is strictly in line with international law and all international directives regarding Syria,” the French company statement said.
According to the website, The Syria Report, it is the first agreement with a western hotel operator since 2011, when the devastating conflict began. Louvre Hotels Group was taken over by China's Jin Jiang in 2015 and it operates more than 1,500 hotels in 54 countries.