Kefraya,SIDON, South Lebanon: Matta Makhoul sits in his yard for hours each day, carefully interlacing cane strips into baskets for his village’s farmers.
Basket weaving was once widely practiced across southern Lebanon, but knowledge of the craft is quickly disappearing. In his 70s, Makhoul is one of the oldest and best-known basket weavers in the town of Kefraya, to the east of Sidon. His hand-woven baskets are made with a deft precision that comes with 50 years of practice.
Makhoul learned the art of basket weaving from his father, who had been taught by his father before him.
But in a village historically known for its basket production, craftsmen like Makhoul have become rare. “Today, there are no more than five people who still produce cane baskets in the village,” Makhoul said. “In the past, most of its residents practiced this craft.”
Makhoul recalls making his first basket. “It was 1962. I sat next to my father, and watched him meticulously weave the canes,” he said. “A few days later, I learned the whole process – since then I have never stopped.”
Citing the benefits of his craft, Makhoul said it doesn’t require much initial capital, just artistic skills, patience, good taste, and experience. The only tools he uses are a pair of scissors and a knife. “The most important advantage is for the craftsman to like his craft, and I do.”
There is a careful process for transforming the cane into baskets, which begins long before Makhoul sits down to weave. “We bring the cane strips that are found on riverbanks, as they only grow in the wet grounds during February, and stack them next to the house. When the canes are green, it’s easier to divide them into thin shoots for interlacing. I then build the basket step-by-step from the base on up.”
With the start of summer, the cane dries, and the production process becomes more involved. The cane is soaked for several weeks in order to rehydrate it and render it pliable.
Used mainly for gathering and transporting produce, especially citrus fruits like lemons and oranges, handmade cane baskets are favored by many farmers, agriculturists and orchard owners in rural areas across Lebanon, particularly in the south.
“Gathering harvest in cane baskets protects the fruits, especially oranges and loquats, [better than] plastic baskets,” said Abdel Wahhab al-Ajami, a Kefraya orchard owner.
“In the past, people used to carry their produce on jennets and donkeys in cane baskets, as they preserve the fruits and vegetables better by letting air in,” added Abu Hekmat Jeradi, an experienced farmer from Kefraya.
It takes just over an hour for Makhoul to make an average basket, which can hold roughly six kilos. “The bigger the basket, the more time it takes and the heavier it gets,” he added.
Larger baskets utilize 12 canes, each 4 meters long, and are used for carrying 20 kilo loads of citrus fruit.
“I make a thousand of those baskets each year,” Makhoul said. His sales reach their peak during the harvest season, when farmers rush to gather their crops.
He also produces decorative cane baskets. “I make mini-baskets for children and special baskets for many occasions, like Easter Sunday.”
Makhoul sells his standard baskets for LL8,000, while larger sizes go for LL20,000.
But none of Makhoul’s children have learned the craft, and he laments its disappearance. “There will come a day when no one will know how to weave a basket.”