RASHAYA AL-FOUKHAR, Lebanon: Adib al-Gharib greets visitors to his workshop with a clay-spattered shirt and an air of resignation.
At 73, he is one of just two potters left in this village famous for its clayware, (foukhar means pottery), and he knows his art will not outlive him by long.
“This is my heritage,” he says, gesturing at the piles of half-finished water jugs, potted plants and several vats of water containing clay in different stages of extraction. Two small rooms open onto a rough concrete terrace, overlooking the valley, where he does most of his work.
“My grandfather was a master potter, my father was a master potter, and I learned from them.”
“The potter is the god and master of his own work,” he continues, explaining how he was drawn to his forefather’s profession.
Today, his most popular designs are traditional spouted water jugs, water pipe heads, ashtrays and egg plates. Other designs, such as clay amphorae used for transporting water, have fallen out of style as modern amenities render them obsolete.
Gharib starts by collecting clay-rich earth from the land near the village. The mineral makeup is unique and renders a strong final product when fired, he says.
He then breaks the hard-packed earth into “walnut-sized” pieces and stirs them into a large vat of water to loosen the rocks and debris from the clay. He then strains the mixture into a large, shallow pool, where the water evaporates and the clay sinks to the bottom. The clay is then collected and worked until it is the texture of bread dough, Gharib explains, at which point it is shaped into its final form and left to dry in the sun before firing in the kiln.
“Before, we used to sell our wares in Beirut, before the ’70s. Then the war came and those who died, died, those who shut down, shut down, and those who moved, moved, and we stopped selling in Beirut,” he says. “Now I just sell from the workshop.”
Archaeological evidence, including potshards, indicates Rashaya al-Foukhar has been producing pottery for thousands of years.
“Many years ago, they used to bury people in clay caskets, and then they started using it for oil, honey and other things,” he says.
Clayware has several advantages over glass or plastic, he says, as it is environmentally friendly, nontoxic and keeps water cool naturally.
Gharib, who has been making pottery for over 55 years, seems resigned to the fact that pottery is a dying skill.
“This is an art; not anyone can learn it right away,” he adds.
Jihad Esber, the other potter in the village, was the only one of his seven siblings who chose to carry on the family pottery tradition.
“I’m not so young, I’m 50, and when I die no one will be left,” he says. “Then we’ll have to change the name of the village from Rashaya al-Foukhar to just Rashaya.”
Esber says Rashaya al-Foukhar’s pottery is unique, from the clay itself to the natural paint used only by village potters.
Twice, initiatives have been started in the village to keep the tradition alive, but they “don’t have enough equipment,” and the projects did not last, he says. He called on the Lebanese government to step in to sponsor a pottery school.
“All over Lebanon, pottery is dying. Nobody makes it like us; if you go to Palestine, Syria or Jordan, they do it differently. I would like to have some young people learn it.”