There was one thing John Al Haddad couldn’t forget when he moved from Syria to Berlin 22 years ago: traditional Aleppo soaps made from olive and laurel oil. These days, the former cook imports his carefully-crafted products directly from a Syrian soap maker, selling saffron, frankincense and cardamom-infused bars from his cosy Schöneberg shop.
John Al Haddad’s life has been one long soap opera, so to speak. He moved to Berlin 22 years ago and met a woman, his “first love,” he says. Originally working as a cook, he then broke off to do his own thing: selling imported Aleppo soap at the picturesque open-air market on Winterfeldtplatz. Classic Aleppo soap has been produced in Syria for centuries. Made of olive and laurel oil, it is a purely natural product.
The soap starts out green, due to the fermented first-press olive oil. Over the course of time, it naturally turns a shade of ochre. Al Haddad lets his soaps cure for at least 24 months. “It is only then that the laurel oil begins to develop a fragrance equal to that of a perfume. I love the spicy aroma of laurel oil,” he says, rhapsodic, adding, “It has notes of rosemary and lavender.”
Bay laurel trees grow wild in John Al Haddad’s home country. The fruits are gathered, dried, and peeled down to the pit. These are boiled and pressed, and the oil is stored in barrels for at least a year. The product is still being produced in the old town of Aleppo. “There are only three soap factories still doing that,” says John Al Haddad. “They’ve been there for 700 years.”
John Al Haddad’s soaps were a success on Winterfeldtplatz, but he wasn’t always satisfied with the suppliers from Syria. That’s when he had the idea to make his own creations – with extra laurel oil. Back in Aleppo he met a soap maker who knew his way around Berlin after studying there in the 1960s. So they started talking – and then they started a business. The factory is part of a building complex which includes a mosque, and it remained relatively untouched by the war in Syria.
John Al Haddad opened his own store eleven years ago after four years at the market. Today he combines his creations with other fragrances and ingredients, such as henna, saffron, mate tea, frankincense, cardamom, and myrtle. In addition to soap, he also sells kilim blankets. Originally they were intended as decorations for the shop, but customers kept asking to buy them.
John Al Haddad is always coming up with new ideas. One of his soaps is made of 70 percent laurel oil. “That’s a lot,“ he admits. “But it’s the best soap on Earth.” He would know. At home he keeps a collection of soaps from around the world, some of which are half a century old.
All photos by Lena Ganssmann
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