A drive up on the scenic road from Batroun to Assia bears a glorious image of cordial heritage that attracts us to our roots. The area hasn’t changed much since ancient times and nor have their traditions.
The coastal city of Byblos is the world’s first stone built-up area. It is from Byblos’s rubbles that the first pottery items were exhumed and these are recognized as the ancestors of Lebanese crafted ceramics.
When it was first created, pottery was crafted by hand and left to dry in the sun. Later, man invented the oven which could provide heat up to 500°C. In the middle of the 5th millennium B.C., ovens were developed that could generate heat up to 1200°C.
The insistence of Assia’s people on adhering to their hometown and their grandfathers’ cultural traditions and heritage helped the village to surpass all the changes emerging from consecutive industrial revolutions.Up till the end of World War II, most of Assia’s people used to rely on pottery handicrafts as a source of livelihood. They used to stroll across different Lebanese regions for bartering pottery materials with consumed food products like grains, fruits, dried vegetables, clothes and light products.
The remote village of Assia’s Fokar is considered to be very distinguished and unique because the soil’s quality and the Qaq salty stone, which compose pottery, are only found in Assia. It is entirely handmade exclusively by women. Sana Jabbour follows her mother’s footsteps and continues to make pottery, a time-honored craft.
You can recognize Assia pottery by its traditional shape and reddish color. It is 100% handmade, meaning not a single machine is used, not even a turntable. It is the most ancient form of pottery. What makes it so unique is its health benefits, in that the pieces are made of natural components. It is not painted and no artificial material is ever used.
Assia pottery’s composition is quite simple: pottery sand that is extracted from the land and a quartz-like stone that is grinded and mixed with it. The process of making the pottery is a bit more complicated and can take up a couple of weeks to finish a single piece.
First comes the making of the clay. Cleaning the sand begins by wetting it, then letting it pass through a fine sieve which will separate it from any small rocks and stones. Then the quartz is finely ground and mixed with the sand. The mixture is laid on concrete to dry to get a clay-like matter.
Before starting any piece, the clay is kneaded and made more malleable to be able to shape it in any form. Once fashioned, the piece will dry for a day. With a pebble, the potter then proceeds to smooth the surface.
It is left to dry again, after which the craftsperson uses a knife to remove thickness from the piece. After a day or two left in the shade, away from sun and wind, another round of polishing with the pebbles is done. The piece should then dry for a week or two, after which it will get a final polish layer (also done with pebbles) to make sure all roughness is gone. At this point, the piece becomes shiny without the use of any varnish material, simply by polishing it with the pebble. The item is kept in a room to fully dry and then cooked in a wood oven. During the final phase, many of the pieces are ruined due to mishandling or small defaults in the fabrication, making the whole process quite tiresome.
For Sana, who learned the craft from her mother, perpetuating this tradition is her passion. She taught her husband, Simon, how to do it and he is now the only man in Lebanon to do fokhar by hand.
She continues to make the same shapes her ancestors did, refusing to make decorative items, as Assia pottery’s main feature is its health advantages for cooking and general use. The beauty of Assia’s trademark hand-molded bowl lies in its humility, simplicity, and connection to village traditions. The only glaze used is olive oil, applied when a bowl is used for cooking. If you havne’t had “beid bil fokhara,” I have to say you have missed on one of the world’s delicacies.