After 22 years and a devastating war, longtime Syrian in Berlin John Al Haddad continues producing soap for locals, updating a centuries-old formula from his native Aleppo. A compromise isn’t in the cards.
The year is 1996, and a 24-year old John Al Haddad was to finish his economic studies in Frankfurt am Main, having freshly arrived there from his native Syria.
But, well, after a couple setbacks in life and love he found himself working as a chef in a Berlin restaurant. He had lost something. It was neither the girlfriend he met in Germany nor the cultural heritage of a country 3,000 something kilometers away. It was less abstract. It was hair and he did not like that.
He recalled, though, that in Syria they used Aleppo’s traditional soap (a word which comes in many European languages from the Arabic al-Sapun) to treat hair loss and all kind of ailments: So, off to Aleppo he went.
1400 years in the making
Despite Aleppo’s rich history as a trade hub along the Silk Road, there weren’t very many traditional producers of soap left when he arrived in 2003. He bought a few bars from various sellers at a bazaar and tried them out. Al Haddad spent three weeks in Syria and bought a chunk of what Aleppo natives call Sapun-Ghar and out-of-towners Sapun-Halab.
The thick shock of hair he again sported proved the old saying true. While this soap is no fountain of youth, it is able to give back fat to skin and hair, no other soap can pull off this trick.
Aleppo soap consists of two components, olive oil and laurel oil, in varying degrees. Laurel berries grow close to the coast, around Latakia and Tartus, while olives are traditionally farmed around Hama, Idlib and Halab (the Arab name of Aleppo).
For some 1,400 years, locals produce al-Sapun. Alkali – another Arabic word, much like alchemy – is mixed with olive oil and then heated, thus you get sodium hydroxide or lye. After that, laurel oil is added. Laurel works antibiotic and antifungal and is what cleanses skin and hair.
In these big pools the soap is cooked for two days. Photo: John Al Haddad
Soon and rather by accident, Al Haddad created a demand for traditional, hand-made soap when he handed samples to friends in Berlin. He decided to sell soap for a living as “the news spread mouth-to-mouth, parents sent their kids and vice versa. I was taken by surprise but happy,” he says.
Still, why just sell soap if you can produce it yourself? “Cut out the middleman” they say. Back in Aleppo, one of mankind’s oldest still inhabited cities, it took him three years to find a producer who could produce small quantities exclusively for him, as indicated by the Arab seal engraved in the still soft soap.
The Walter White of Soap
It takes one to two days to cook the soap in huge pools, the age process takes another six months. Usually. “We add another 18 months for our soap to age properly. I could sell it earlier but I will always opt for quality.
This kind of soap is like vintage wine,” Al Haddad says. What’s time in a country like Syria where traditions and handicrafts like pottery, Damascene brocade and the art of weaving persist for centuries? The very site in the old city of Aleppo where Al Haddad’s soap is cooked since 2006 exists for 900 years.
During the course of time, manufacturers dropped the percentage of laurel to cut costs, which makes the soap less effective. Al Haddad increased the percentage of laurel dramatically to relive the past and create a high-end product.
Like a Walter White (from Breaking Bad) of soap, the career changer updated a formula that dwarves everything else in terms of quality. He set the bar (of soap) very high.
Setting up a soap shop
Al Haddad, now 46, set up his Lorbeerseife shop eleven years ago in Berlin-Schöneberg where the avid Cuban salsa dancer also sells kelims.
These little rugs, some of them a hundred years old and deemed indispensable in any household between Dagestan and Yemen, add to the Oriental flair of his shop. Once you pass the threshold, the unmistakable smell of countless bars of Sapun-Ghar embraces you.
The shelves are stacked with new lines, as well, since the man who draws inspiration from rare fragrances has launched varieties that also contain herbs, cardamom or even mate tea. Of course he also offers his products online, with customers scattered across beyond Europe.
Al Haddad’s shop in Kreuzberg. Photo courtesy of John Al Haddad.
After having a sample tested at a Frankfurt laboratory, a Chinese man requested an immediate shipment of soap whose amount equaled the price of a brand new car. Al Haddad declined since the soap has to age for two years.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
Soon other producers followed his lead to go back to the roots. Demand was surging. But while famed local produce such as champagne, cognac or prosciutto di Parma are protected by law and can only be produced within said region, there is no such legal standard for Aleppo soap.
Today, the majority of so called Aleppo soap comes from France or Turkey. But you know that you are good when they copy you. Or if they try to sell you your own stuff.
The phone rings. Unknown caller, the area code says +33, France. Al Haddad gets calls all the time from people who try to sell or buy soap. He always declines. He is happy selling small quantities of his self-produced soap.
This caller though makes an offer he cannot refuse: A hundred kilos of high-grade Sapun-Ghar from a certain Aleppo-based facility that the caller got his hands on. Al Haddad already knew. This load is part of a bigger stash of his that was jacked in Aleppo during the war three years ago, now repackaged and relabelled.
Since the French reseller did not know that or the quality, Al Haddad managed to buy back his own product at a bargain price.
What does the future of the past look like?
Of course, the devastating war in Syria affected both John Al Haddad’s personal life – his brother just arrived in Berlin – and his business. “Prices for ingredients soared, whereas the Syrian Pound dropped to 1/10 of its 2011 value. It became challenging to get the product out of the country since there are no commercial flights out of Damascus anymore. I had to establish another route through Lebanon and the overall output of my production facility plunged to 20-25%.”
The war notwithstanding, there were always zones in Syria that were considered safe. He frequently traveled back and forth to secure production and logistics for his small but thriving business. Thus far this Berlin soap opera has a happy end.
However, the man who probably kicked off Sapun-Ghar’s renaissance makes clear that he will only produce in Aleppo. If this is not possible anymore, he will quit, inshallah!