Fethiye-based soap maker and sustainable farmer Muzaffer Çetin gives us a glimpse into the story of his craft...
A question I’ve been pondering recently is how much the creative journey is affected by the external environment. Most visitors to Fethiye will agree that it is images of the region’s stunning natural scenery that they lock away in their memories. The beauty of living in a small community surrounded by nature, is that most creatives and crafters here are totally in tune with the natural environment, and share the same ethos of sustainable crafting, while supporting each other through collaboration and cross-promotion. Among some, there is also a shared passion to use their skills and knowledge to educate the younger generations. I sometimes wonder if the work of city-based creators is somehow more insular and competition-driven. Perhaps due to life being, in general, more artificial. Personally, with each of the past six years I’ve spent living and working in Fethiye, my connection to nature has further strengthened and my mission to promote local, conscious crafters has flourished.
I was first introduced to Fethiye soap maker Muzaffer Çetin via a mutual friend who thought, being two local crafters, we might be able to give mutual support. Our first meeting was at a local farmers’ market ‘Ata Tarımsal Kooperatif, held bi-monthly at the town’s main square, where Muzaffer was selling his handmade soaps. Assisting Muzaffer were a handful of his students (at the time he was also working as a teacher in a local private school). They were there to gain experience in direct sales, customer relations and cash handling, general ‘life skills’ to which Muzaffer was keen to expose his students. You see, this initiative lay outside his role as an English teacher, in fact it was part of a special project he had set up within the school. A ‘Natural Life Skills Club’, where students, aged 10-15, would learn a wonderfully fun and eclectic range of crafts and practices such as constructing chicken coops, milking and herding animals, fire making, hut building, in addition to creating products such as natural lollipops, pine cone pekmez (molasses), and of course, soaps and balms. He even assigned the kids the task of designing a brand for their products. The profits from sales contributed to the purchase of equipment for under-funded village schools. With his teaching work having ended last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he remembers all this fondly, especially the time he took goats and sheep into the school for educational purposes, much to the bemusement of his fellow teachers.
Tragedy marred Muzzafer’s own childhood. From the age of three he grew up in an orphanage with his two older sisters. He watched his sisters head on to university to pursue careers in teaching, a journey he later embarked upon himself, though in a bid to break free from his institutionalised upbringing, as soon as he finished his undergraduate degree in English teaching in Istanbul, he spread his wings and flew away. He completed his army service as a peacekeeper in Kosovo, and spent years either learning or teaching in Ukraine, Afghanistan, South Africa, Albania, the USA, and Bosnia. Along the way he learnt Russian and Spanish, started a PHD, got valuable experience in organic farming and permaculture practices, and met his Ukranian wife, Valeria. They now have two children, Maryan (5) and Tigran (2 months).
“To have, or to be. I started life with nothing, not even family. Material things are not so important to me. If I invest in myself, I am happy.”
In between his travels, Muzaffer would return to Fethiye to visit his maternal grandfather, Cafer Çavuş. Cafer was a landowner and olive farmer with a passion for making soaps, salves and homeopathic ointments using his own olive oil and botanicals collected from around Mendos mountain. It is rumoured he was inspired to begin his craft by the local Greeks. He proved to become a rather strict fatherly figure to Muzaffer, though he instilled in Muzaffer an inquisitiveness for local nature, a strong work ethic, and inspired him to eventually follow in his footsteps, producing skincare products using pure, natural ingredients. Nowadays Muzaffer sells his products under the brand name Cafer Çavuş, an ode to the closest connection he had to his family, a man who taught him the beauty and importance of nature.
Muzaffer’s soaps have a rustic appeal. He favours cold-process soap making, which retains much more of the ingredients’ goodness than the alternative hot-process method. He never intentionally colours his soaps, any variation in colour comes from beneficial ingredients, such as coffee or clay. He likes to add seeds, stems or leaves if the recipe allows, and mainly uses molding and pouring techniques which retain a handmade texture. Almost all Muzaffer’s soaps are olive-oil based, using oil from his own crops. He has recently bought a large, established olive grove, so oil supply will be abundant in the years to come. In addition to olive oil, Muzaffer adds a wide range of local ingredients including; black seed (çörekotu), lavender (lavanta), nettle (ısırgan otu), tar (katran), thyme (kekik), sage (adaçayı), spirulina, eucalyptus (okaliptüs). A few non-vegan ingredients also feature in Muzaffer’s product range. He often collaborates with local beekeeper Beyza Yavuz to make honey and beeswax soaps, he makes donkey and goats’ milk soap with surplus milk sourced from farmers who farm cruelty-free*, and he also produces snail mucin soap, reputed to be beneficial to the skin, by hydrating and reducing fine lines. This involves collecting hundreds of snails, massaging them in rain water to encourage mucin production, gathering their excretion, then releasing them back to the wild. When I ask Muzaffer his favourite manufacturing process, ‘collecting snail mucin’ he answers, with a twinkle in his eyes, which makes me wonder if he encounters his lost childhood when he has his hands covered in snail slime.
‘I want my little girl to be as strong as a man.’
Digging deeper into Muzaffer’s backstory, it becomes apparent that his mission to educate the younger generation, especially his desire to give his own children an upbringing focused on freedom, exploration, and adventure, stems from the tragedy that tainted his own early years. During our conversation, I question Muzaffer’s decision to feature his daughter so frequently on social media, something which many modern, free-thinking parents would avoid. Muzaffer explains his intentions are to promote authentic, ‘real life’ parenting and learning through trial and error, being exposed to the reality of life and death through animal rearing. Getting their hands dirty together instead of posing for pristine photos in immaculate clothing whilst in sterile environments. I admire Muzaffer for this. And Maryam is definitely a local role model for wild education. “She learnt to deal with death at the age of one, by helping me take care of our animals’, Muzaffer tells me. ‘A lot of parents aren’t aware that the most important education comes from real life experiences, they are just concerned with exam results’. I turn my questioning to Maryam, a truly beautiful little girl, with huge brown eyes that seem prematurely ready to absorb the woes life will throw her way. ‘What’s your favourite thing to help Daddy with?’, I ask her. She tells me she likes to feed buğday (wheat) to the ducks. Muzaffer goes on to tell me she’s so protective of their ducks that a few weeks ago she saw a falcon swooping down on them and, unprompted, ran to protect them.
Our conversation moves to the threat our species has seen over the past twelve months. Aware that the past year’s pandemic saw him moving away from teaching in schools, I ask if the outbreak of COVID-19 has further changed the way he lives his life. ‘It hasn’t affected me much at all’, he replies, an answer which comes as little surprise, moreover expected, from someone who lives a life so connected to nature, and so disinterested with consumer culture. ‘ I cut ties with the popular, mainstream lifestyle and media years ago. Covid-19 has given me the gift of time. I’ve removed myself from the rat race’.
Always seeking ways to promote his crafts, and ever open to collaboration, Muzaffer regularly works with hotels & eateries to produce products for their customers. He’s collaborated with a local coffee shop, using ‘waste’ coffee and grinds to create soaps. He has also recently begun holding workshops with guests at a nearby hotel, and will soon host students at his atolye, below his newly built home, on his late grandfather’s land, at the foot of the mountains in Karapınar.
There’s a sweet connection that lies in the fact Muzaffer now lives, breathes & creates, with his wife and children by his side, on the land once owned by his grandfather, the man to whom he dedicates his chosen path in life. After years spent roaming the world, it feels like this return to his birthplace to make soap not only binds together the lessons he learnt from Cafer using the harvested and foraged fruits from his forefathers’ land, but also the experiences he has garnered through his travels. His loss and his gain. Muzaffer’s soap truly is symbolic of the story of his life. Not many soaps hold so much meaning. Not many soaps have ingredients so intangible they could never be listed in words.
Follow Cafer Çavuş (Muzaffer Çetin) on instagram for regular updates on his (and Maryam’s) creative adventures.
To shop Muzaffer's current range: www.cafercavus.com
*opinion may vary as to the ethics of beekeeping, milk farming & snail mucin collecting, though it can be argued that the relatively low supply demands of cottage industry ensure these practices can be carried out in a way as least detrimental to the creatures as possible