Aleppo soap is famous the world over for its hydrating and soothing properties, but enthusiasts will find it hard to come by now that the war in Syria has brought exports to a halt, one manufacturer says.
And Juan Semo, a 33-year-old Kurd whose family business has been manufacturing the soap since 1850, said the outlook is even grimmer because the prices of the bay leaf oil and soda used to make it have skyrocketed.
At a warehouse in the olive grove-covered Afrin hills, there are boxes and boxes of individually wrapped bars of soap.
“We might not produce any soap this year,” Semo told AFP. “Our inventory has grown and grown because all the shops in nearby Aleppo have shut and the routes for exporting our products, especially to northern Iraq and France, are cut.”
Aleppo, Syria’s second city and commercial hub, has been rocked by intense fighting between rebels and regime forces since mid-July. It has become the focal point of the conflict, making delivery extremely difficult.
“We use smaller roads for delivery, avoiding the army and its bombing by staying off the main routes. But many of our clients have fled Aleppo anyway,” Semo says.
Semo himself left his house in the Salaheddin district of the city “when bullets hit my sitting room and tanks started to roll past my windows.”
He went back to his family in Afrin, a Kurdish enclave of 360 villages that has thus far remained neutral since the Syrian anti-regime uprising broke out in March last year.
Before the war, soap being exported to Paris would leave Aleppo and go through the port of Latakia to be shipped to Marseille ahead of its final destination.
Latakia is a stronghold of the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which President Bashar al-Assad’s ruling elite belongs and a minority in Syria, while the rebellion is led by the country’s Sunni majority.
Afrin’s 15 manufacturers face the additional obstacle of sky-high raw material costs due to rocketing inflation.
The higher-quality soap contains a high proportion of the expensive bay leaf oil and is destined for export. The humbler version in times of peace, with a higher proportion of olive oil, goes down the road to nearby Aleppo.
The Semo family produce their olive oil on site thanks to the tens of thousands of olive trees surrounding them, but bay leaf oil and soda must be imported.
“Even if I manage to get bay leaf oil from Antakya in Turkey, its price has doubled in the past year,” says Semo.
The same is the case for soda, which he gets from Kuwait, Iraq or China. The cost for one litre (1.8 pints) has doubled to 50 Syrian pounds (73 US cents/57 euro cents).
Before the war he exported 50 tonnes of soap a year and produced 250 tonnes for the Syrian market. The warehouse now contains 150 tonnes.
The soap will not deteriorate anytime soon; it actually improves in quality by aging and drying over six years. But Semo said he does not know how long the conflict will last. For now, he has no stable source of income, he adds.
At the beginning of October, the olives ripen. The whole process from harvest to extracting the finished soap takes four months.
Five or six people are required to pick the olives, which are then pressed for oil and mixed together with the other products in a large extractor, from which the soap itself is eventually produced around February.
The problem is that the soap extraction requires special labourers from Aleppo.
“I don’t know if they’ll be able to come this year” because of the conflict, Semo says.
His neighbour, Ahmad Kefo, an older man who sports the thick moustache worn by many men in the Kurdish region, sighs as he offers fresh pistachios and pomegranates.
“This situation will last a long time. This year, I will stop 80 percent of my soap production,” he laments.