Sharkass Soap

Traditional Artisanal Soap-Making in the Heart of Tripoli's Souks

Mahmoud Sharkass takes evident pride in what he does: making artisanal soaps. It becomes apparent whether he sits on a stool, wearing his work coat, polishing soap bars or posing with a group of Turkish tourists, temporarily invading his atelier on the first floor of the 14th century Khan Masriyin (Egyptian caravanserai).

He is surrounded by soaps stacked up to dry, boxes of small and large soap balls, soaps with flowers or cedar trees carved on them, soaps in the shapes of birds, fruity soaps shaped as pears or apples or grapes, soaps to pray with (prayer beads made out of soap). The centuries’ old walls are deeply imbibed with the smell of soap.

The old khan walls that used to be sleeping quarters, many years back, are furthermore covered with soap-making tools, shelves and racks filled with drying or finished soap, soap prayer beads, as well as images of Mahmoud posing with various foreign dignities, the last ones who came by were the French, Swiss and Canadian ambassadors – and a big group of Turkish tourists. 

The Sharkass family, originally from the Caucasus from where it fled due to political turmoil, has been based in the Khan since 1803. As a boy, Mahmoud was slightly obsessed with soap and enjoyed assisting his father in making soaps more than studying at school. He begged his father to allow him to leave school and only aged 13, took over from his father.

The business has always been a family business, whereby roles differ: The men – Mahmoud, often helped by his son Ahmad, 25 – make the soaps (the women, notably his wife, know how to make it and do at times step in), and the women, his two daughters Lina and Safa, take care of sales, customer service and social media, besides carving soaps and also creating new products. Safa carves soaps and invented the grape soaps. Together, the two sisters have refined the design, which now sells also in Beirut.   

According to Lina, the right ingredients are key for soap making but there is also skill, know-how and patience that are important in order to obtain high quality soap and not lumpy porridge. The old traditional method used is the cold method for which olive oil sourced from around Zgharta and Koura’s abundant groves, water, caustic soda, coarse sea salt, food colourants and essential oils from Grasse, in France, are used.

Once the ingredients are mixed together, they are heated up but only a low heat. When the mix has the right consistency, it is poured in a mould to set. The big block is cut into squares and stacked up in round pyramids to dry for one month, the equivalent of 60kg of soap. Sharkass Soap manufactures about 500 kilo per month.

The other method used, referred to as the hot method, allows the soap to remain somewhat soft, even after drying. It allows for the soap to be shaped into balls or carved into shapes, like birds or soap grapes.

The soap shavings that fall to the ground where Mahmoud is polishing are kept and used as natural washing powders. According to Lina, her mother never uses commercial washing powders or shampoo. Great efforts of the advertising industry to promote these products have raised the popularity of shampoo and chemical washing powder and led to traditional olive oil-based soap manufacture to decline. Natural soap, however, which has been used for millennia, is far better as it contains no cancerous elements, is gentler on the environment and the scalp. Natural soap in general is recommended for people with eczema. Ideal for sensitive skin is Sharkass’ honey soap.

There are 10 different flavours to choose from, among them musk, lavender, jasmine, mint, pine, rose and belle de nuit. 1kg of soap bars costs LL15,000 ($10). Among the most popular items are soap balls, the birds and grapes soaps. The prayer beads tend to be used for decoration.  

Besides working on commissions, there are tourists, some local customers, Lebanese from the diaspora and visitors from the Arab world who buy Sharkass Soap, ensuring that the savoir-faire of an old traditional artisan is kept alive.

Advice: When you enter the Khan from the side of the copper traders, pass by the fountain and underneath the tree and go straight towards a passage. Inside the passage, to your left, you will find a staircase going up. Go up here. There is one Sharkass Soap – and this is how to find it.   

Directory: Sharkass Soap products are available in Beirut at Orient 499.

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Words By Nathalie Rosa | Photography Courtesy of Nathalie Rosa Bucher

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