May 16, 2010

All around the Mulberry Tree

Some history today. We don’t have mulberries in Holland. At least not that I know of. I even had to look up the Dutch translation for the word ‘mulberry’. (It is ‘moerbei’, in case you didn’t know either) Mulberry has a distinctive old-fashioned quality to it. But here in Lebanon, the fruit is quite common.

The first time I ever saw it sold, was on one of the old wooden push-carts (the one that slowly seems to disappear out of the city) in Hamra. They were advertised as ‘toot’. I thought they were brambles, or some type of blackberry. I actually thought that for many years, until last fall, I saw some construction workers raiding a tree next to a building site. When I passed by, they offered me some. What do you know! Those blackberries grow on trees? “Toot,” they indicated, as they pointed upwards.

Only then did I make the connection. They’re not blackberries!

Mulberry trees are quite common here, there used to be entire mulberry plantation around here. Not for the mulberry though, that was just a by-product. They were cultivated for their leaves, which were quite popular with the silk worm, which at one point in time was a thriving industry here in Lebanon.

According to Mona Sader Issa, who is connected to the silk museum in Bsous, silk was aslready a booming business before the Romans got here, but we used to import it from the Chinese to make the famous purple colored silk. Emperor Justinian the Great (537-564 AD) figured that what the Chinese could do, we could do better, and mulberry trees were cultivated. For quite some time it was a booming business.  The decline of the industry started somewhere around the 1900’s.

With the dawn of the nineteen-hundreds, the growing of mulberry trees began to decline because of the competition of the Far East on the silk market. The mulberry trees were replaced by citrus on the coast and by tobacco, vines and fruit trees in the mountainous regions. (Source)
Picture comes the Keystone-Mast Collection, 1870-1963 (web site)

All that we have left now are a silk museum, and a large number of mulberry trees. The mulberry season runs from the end of May to the end of August, when the mulberry leaves needed for the silk were harvested. And that’s when they appear on the market. You see them in shades from milky white to almost black. I never acquired a taste for them though. But my colleagues swear by the taste of mulberry juice, so if you have a tree in your back yard, here is a recipe.


Ms. Tee said...

Very interesting topic, Sietske. The silk industry is the closest thing we got to industrialization in these parts and it played an important role in a 19th century gender revolution:

I look forward to visiting the silk museum this summer. I hope it is good.

Anonymous said...

Hallo Sietske,

Ik volg natuurlijk natuurlijk nog steeds je stukjes en geniet ervan.
Helaas dit jaar niet in de gelegenheid om naar Beirut te komen, maar hoop dat het volgend jaar weer lukt. Even aanhakend op je stukje over de mulberries: ken je het boekje Wild Mulberries, geschreven door Iman Humaydan Younes? Dat verhaalt over een familie in de zijde industrie. Ik heb het met plezier gelezen!
Blijf lekker schrijven Sietske, zo snuif ik toch af en toe toch de Libanese cultuur weer op.



Dalila said...

The current exhibition at the Bsous Silk Museum is fantastic- I highly recommend you go see it (and raid their fig tree, yum!)