Lebanon’s cedars, resurrected

by on Nov 19, 2012

Lebanon’s cedars, resurrected

The wood will tell you what to do.

Joy El Khoury learned woodcraft by failure, feel and deduction; he  has never taken a class. I chat with him in his sun-doused workshop high above Beirut while three German Shepherds laze about the grounds.

El Khoury settles slowly into the story of his re-purposed cedar furniture line, Wood of Joy. But the story is anything but slow. He launched the craft works in late spring of this year, completing his first collection of tables, chairs, shelves and other pieces in a whirlwind. It took him a mere three months to erect the workshop and studio. He finished a four-bedroom home extension (in cedar) during that same time.

Sometimes I’ll work an 18-hour day to finish a piece,” he explains.

He says he is unable to pinpoint what started the flood. To an observer, it seems wood has become a savior, an inexplicable craving for him. His father worked with wood, but the younger El Khoury initially showed little interest. When he finally did, it was as if a dam had burst.

A kind of resurrection, his furniture gives new life to cedar from demolished buildings. He collects his material (live cedar is protected in Lebanon and is its national symbol) from demolition sites. The old beams and struts might come from buildings damaged from bombing or from traditional Lebanese homes, torn down to be replaced by modern summer homes. In any case, they are treasure given a new form.

This smells incredible,” he says as he wipes his finger across a spot of cedar resin on finished piece. The wood is more than 200 years old. “Cedar never dries.”

I’d returned from the Chouf Mountains the day before, from the cedar preserve of Batroun, just East of Beirut. The cedar forests have been severely reduced, with few of the ancient trees remaining. But the future may not be all bleak, and replanting has filled once drastically thinned areas (Druze leader and political chameleon Walid Jumblatt has been leading the fight to preserve the cedars, which are located in a Druze stronghold).

Joy El Khoury in his workshop

I came to Lebanon for a number of reasons, but mainly a dream of cedars brought me here. A professor of Middle East geography prompted me almost fifteen years ago to fall in love with these ancient trees. He’d shown slides of geographic formations across the region, but the cedars stayed with me. I knew that one day I would find my way to them, and to a peaceful porch under an overhang of grapevines just like the one in the professor’s slide. It happened.

Now I’m here at Wood of Joy; a German Shepherd nudges his tremendous head against my leg. El Khoury takes me into the narrow studio where he and an assistant craft a long five-beam-wide dining table. “You are going to witness the oldest method of woodwork,” he says. He prefers to work alone, but he met a young man at a construction site who was unable to return to Syria due to the war there. They’ve already squeezed the beams together with a vice, and El Khoury begins drilling holes for cedar dowels. They fit them in snug with glue. And that’s it. Nothing else is required.

The long dining tables found in Lebanese monasteries became the inspiration for his first piece. Now his house and workshop are filled with unique designs.

For a new business, he is quickly gathering fans and clients. Through the encouragement of his friends and family, he launched his business and gave his first exhibit in August at the Mzaar Summer Festival in mountainous Feraya. He landed ten orders. He is not daunted.

I’m very quick. Efficient. A piece like this table takes two days or so.”

With his speed and loose creative process, El Khoury is less virtuoso than improviser. His improvisation also applies to practical matters. When he needed a bar and sink for his workshop, he poured the concrete himself. There was an accident, but he was intrepid. (A dog sleeps where once wet concrete gushed along floorboards). Improvisation lends an openness to his pieces, a reflection of his headlong approach. Yet they are exquisitely elemental: wood, glass, metal and the lingering smell of the forest, all combined together. A glass cabinet is adorned with chicken coop wire and filigreed hinges. A side table is held up by heavy, curled iron from an ancient singer sewing machine — his grandmother’s.

He explains that his work is not for everyone. Many in Lebanon, he says, would find his furniture, raw and “holey” — not fit for display, much less for use.  But he sees a new generation that appreciates artisanal Lebanese objects, attracted to the cedar’s symbolism — and its repurposing.

Haleh Hatami’s poems, essays, and translations have been published in various journals, including Brooklyn Review, Phoebe, Faultline, Chain, FO A RM, ZZYZYVA, and Fourteen Hills. She received the CPIC Life Poetry Award at San Francisco State University and the Ann Fields Poetry Award judged by Gillian Conoley. She has taught courses in Creative Writing at San Francisco State and at Mills College. Currently, she applies her poetics to the production of short videos.