BEIRUT: Surrounded by pine forests, steep cliffs and impressive waterfalls, the city of Jezzine is a top holiday resort in Lebanon. It is renowned for its old residences, which recall the glorious period of this city perched 950 meters in the south of the Cedar country.
On the spot, one finds the restaurants established near a high waterfall of more than 40 meters and famous for their kebbe; the old souk is also worth a visit. The main street is dotted with cafes where the village elders come to play cards or smoke hookah. But it is above all the shops and stalls of the artisan cutlers that make Jezzine special.
There are currently about ten cutlery workshops which belong mainly to five large families of the city and thus perpetuate a century-old tradition which dates back to the 18th century.
“It’s a craft born locally around 1770”, explains one of the “last Mohicans”, Antoine Chahine. “The inhabitants were mainly farmers who needed tools, hence the emergence of blacksmiths who at a certain time turned into sword and dagger makers, when the region was immersed in feudal conflicts. . Over time and the evolution of society, they have become artisan cutlers,” he explains.
The particularity of Jezzine’s cutlery lies in the handle of these tools. Most of them are fashioned from buffalo or sheep horn.
“The main form used since the 1960s is the phoenix”, the legendary bird which dies and is reborn from its ashes, which has become one of the symbols of Lebanon, explains the old craftsman. Its cutlery has been offered to many Heads of State and Government, such as the Pope, the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and various Gulf monarchs, such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates… Hundreds of years ago , the princes of Mount Lebanon had offered them to the Ottoman sultans. Tourists snatched them like hot cakes during the 1960s.
“Besides the fact that I love my job, it is for me a great pride to perpetuate a centenary craftsmanship which carries high the name of Jezzine and that of Lebanon”, affirms Mr. Chahine, with tears in his eyes.
He was barely 5 or 6 years old when he came to his father’s workshop to play or to watch him work before gradually starting to help him. He remained for hours watching him carve, paint and polish these buffalo horns, which became almost living objects. His first object, he made it at the age of 12. This know-how requires patience, a rigorous technique and an artistic gift.
Unfortunately, this ancestral craft is now on its last legs, for several reasons. First, there are only a few irreducible craftsmen left to perpetuate this century-old tradition. Antoine Chahine has a brother and a sister, but he is the only one to continue this profession inherited from father to son. For her part, her two sons studied medicine and left Lebanon. He thus regrets that, among the new generation, no one wants to learn this trade. “On its own, this job is insufficient to support a family decently,” he admits.
Also, according to him, young people in Jezzine prefer jobs that do not require more than ordinary attention and patience. They turn to the internal security forces or the army. Mr. Chahine now has six workers who work from home, but, he insists, they also have another livelihood.
“Before 2019, I worked all winter to sell during the two summer months. Today, with two torpedoed seasons, our financial situation is catastrophic,” he laments.
Apart from the current crisis, another danger awaits this century-old craftsmanship: the invasion of low-quality and less expensive materials which, for several years now, have been competing more and more fiercely.
Originally, everything was handmade, on site, in the workshops. Some merchants, however, resorted to much cheaper industrial work to order cutlery in series. Other artisans use a mixture of resin or bone meal instead of animal horns. “Some make plastic handles, which has had negative repercussions on them, but also on all craftsmen,” explains Mr. Chahine.
The latter also regrets a lack of support from the ministries concerned. “What is unfortunate is the fact that the state is not at all interested in our fate, while our craftsmanship is the pride of Lebanon. A few years ago, the Italian government supported us through projects, exhibitions… Which is not the case with the Lebanese authorities”, he indicates.
With the economic and financial crises that have hit Lebanon and the coronavirus health crisis, tourists – whether foreign or from the Lebanese diaspora – have almost disappeared. To cope with this lack of customers, an unprecedented phenomenon, he had the brilliant idea of resorting to online sales, and this is what currently allows him to keep his head above water. He hopes that, one day, this ancestral craft will be able to develop again, like the phoenix rising from its ashes.
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The first literary prize of the new school year for Blandine Rinkel