From the coastal towns of the north, to the mountainous villages of Lebanon, basket making is rooted in Lebanese tradition
There’s a distinct nostalgia attached to traditional Lebanese hand-woven basket crafts, which are often seen piled up on the roadside for sale along the coastal roads of the country. Visit Saida or Tyre and you’ll see their connection to the sea, where they have a strong presence in the harbor, filled with fishing nets or used to carry the morning’s fish. In rural parts, these rustic baskets were used to carry figs, olives and fruits during harvesting season, or flat woven circular mats were used to dry keshik on the roofs of houses in mountain villages.
Beyond the rural regions of Lebanon, traditional baskets also found their purpose in daily urban life. Visit the old neighborhoods of Beirut and see baskets dangling down from the high balconies of crumbling heritage buildings. These woven vessels await the shop owner’s goods.
In Lebanon, the two types of basket weaving stretch back centuries. One is made from woven reeds and is common all across the region and sold cheaply; the other is a rarer tradition unique to Aamchit, made from woven palm leaves. The basket-making techniques and uses vary by region. In Al-Kouachra, 3km from the northern border with Syria, halfah, esparto grass, is used to create multicolored mats and trays. In Hermel prayer rugs are weaved from colored corn straw. And, in villages such as Zghorta and Bcharre in the North, Kefraya in the Bekaa and Saida in the South they specialize in rougher braided cane or wicker to create larger baskets for the transportation of fruits, report Manal Ayoubi and Rim Tizani in their book “Lebanese Handicrafts: Keep Lebanon in Your Mind.”
Aamchit itself developed its own version of basket weaving using palm leaves, a softer more delicate technique that is a time-consuming art, made entirely by hand. It can take hours to prepare, and weaving the leaves is a way of passing the time, which is why it was once a common tradition in these slow-moving sleepy seafront communities.
Architect and designer Mona Yazbek, who lives in Aamchit, is something of an expert in the tradition of basket weaving, specializing in the rare art of weaving from palm leaves. She first became interested in the Aamchit tradition for its long past and the potential for its form to evolve and find a place in contemporary crafts. Almost a decade ago she began to work with weavers to develop modern designs and play with the form. Yazbek believes the tradition of basket weaving in Aamchit stretches back to the 19th Century. “The people of Aamchit were traders, they would travel across the region from Iraq and Syria to Egypt and trade in dates and the oriental butter samneh, or ghee, [clarified butter with a rich taste,]” she says. “They also brought back the art of weaving from Basrah, in Southern Iraq. In Aamchit there were lots of palm trees; the horizon was full of them. Now we still have many but there used to be much more. It was natural for this art to begin.”
The palm weaving of Aamchit is unique in the Mediterranean for its simplicity. First the palm leaves are dried before being cut and prepared. Next they are woven and sewn together, depending on the shape. “If you compare the weaving of Aamchit with the [other] types that exists in the Mediterranean, Iraq, and Syria, it’s the same weaving. But somehow in these places it’s still used as a practical use for everybody. It takes the shapes and colors that they lost here. They have a simple way of doing it,” Yazbek says.
Though the coastal road of Aamchit is still lined with humble shops selling baskets, it’s now a struggle to find artisans still working on the palm-leaf basket weaving in the town, once the epicenter in Lebanon for the tradition.
Georges Zgheib’s modest family store (70 515600 – 70 154419) has stood by the roadside for 40 years in Helweh, bordering Aamchit. The store’s every corner is filled with hand woven artisan items; shelves are piled high with different shaped baskets precariously balanced atop each other.
Though foreign-made baskets have more recently infiltrated Georges Zgheib’s stock, due to cheaper production costs and easier access to materials, the Lebanese-made baskets stand out for their handmade weaving and simplistic rustic look. “Originally baskets were used during harvest season for gathering figs and olives,” says Katie Zgheib, the daughter of Georges, who has the relaxed character of someone who spends every day next to the sea. “They’re part of our heritage.”
Though baskets are now rarely used for harvesting the fruits of the land and sea, replaced with plastic crates as production has grown, Zgheib maintains there’s still a market for the handicraft, though it’s certainly seasonal. But as with many artisan crafts they are at risk of being lost to the past, with the effects of globalization and cheaper production costs in the Far East. “The tradition of basket-making isn’t dead, but you might say it’s half dead,” Zgheib says. “There’s not enough demand and the cost is expensive as the craft is so time consuming. Luckily we own our place, so there isn’t much cost. If we had to rent we couldn’t afford to keep it going.”
Further along the same road is Gharwy (03 243376), another well-known basket seller that stands opposite a big pile of reeds amongst the grassy wasteland overlooking the sea. Owner Walid Gharwy first established his shop 22 years ago, trading in basket products; he also works in decoration, landscaping and wood.