‘Soap, knafeh, cafes…that’s Nablus’, said our tour guide for the day, teeing up the places he would take us. It was a rainy Saturday in January and we had come with several other families for an insider’s tour around Nablus. In keeping with the generous spirit of Nablus, our guide was actually not one but two Nablusi guys, coincidentally both called Moath, who had offered to show us the sights.
I love Nablus. We’ve been several times before and are always extolling its virtues to those who will listen. Somehow, it’s a place that suits us and where we feel comfortable. Towards the end of the day, when one of my friends said, ‘I’ve been trying to figure out why you love this place’, I realised there are many reasons, but also that they might not be that obvious to the first-time explorer. The list goes something like this:
Nablus is ‘no frills’ authentic – there aren’t too many sights for visitors to trouble themselves with, so instead of feeling like you’re on a tourist merry-go-round visitors can relax into the sort of casual exploration that leads to a more authentic experience. That’s not to say that Nablus isn’t steeped in history, and it’s surrounded by some fascinating ancient and historical sites to rival any other part of the Holy Land. The Moaths told us that the current Old City was built in the Ottoman era and the ‘real’ Old City was around the area of Tel Balata which is now a rather neglected archaeological site. Looking into many of the shops in the Old City you’d be forgiven for thinking they hadn’t changed a bit since Ottoman times and holding on to ancient techniques is a Nablus speciality. In one of the famous soap factories the owner told us that the factory was 850 years old and that they ‘would lose the spiritual side’ if they moved to a new location. In a solid testimony to the quality of their soap, he syringed some olive oil out of a barrel and invited us to taste it. There were no chemicals here, just high-grade natural products. As someone with sensitive skin, I adore Nablusi soap and plan to use it forever more.
Nablus is a foodie place – Much of the Old City of Jerusalem is given over to the sort of merchandise that a local wouldn’t be seen dead with, gaudy rucksacks, t-shirts, religious tat, overpriced souvenirs. Nablus on the other hand is free from these shackles and the result is more genuinely local products and that means more food. There are spices and dried fruits galore, nuts, sweets, coffee, herbs, meat…the full Palestinian larder. Every time we visit Nablus we leave with a new foodie obsession. Last time it was sahlab (the rose water equivalent of hot chocolate), this time it was a dusty red spice exotically named ‘Gazan Thyme’. Thyme is big in Palestine as it’s the main ingredient in Zaatar (a gentle herb that improves most dishes). We were intrigued at how thyme could be red and it’s still a mystery but the mix is a big hit. It’s gently spiced, salty, sweet and yet easy-going enough to sprinkle on a salad. The Moaths told us that the spice shop was the oldest and the best and it was a real Aladdin’s cave of curiosities. Then there is the knafeh. Nablus is the proud home of Palestine’s most famous desert made with cheese and honey. We learnt that this was invented by someone looking for ‘something heavy’ to have after a day of fasting during Ramadan. Knafeh is part of everyday life in Nablus and around fifty men jostled to get to the front of the busiest Knafeh place. It was a classic no frills Nablus spectacle to watch it being made in massive trays on one side of the street and then precariously delivered across to the baying masses.
Nablus is an undiluted Palestine – A cloud of tension hangs over Jerusalem, strangling the Eastern Palestinian parts of the city and preventing normal life. Ramallah grew fast with an influx of foreign investment and doesn’t quite have the heart of Palestine. Nablus on the other hand feels like the closest proximation of what Palestine should feel like. There are very live issues with Israeli settlements which continue to encroach on Nablus and surrounding villages, but the shadow of the occupation doesn’t hang over the centre of Nablus the way it does in other places. People are friendly and generous. There weren’t expecting an English-speaking group, but they were inquisitive and warm rather than suspicious of us. In the city centre there were no guns, no soldiers, just everyday life in all of its colourful and well-worn manner. It isn’t manicured and even in winter the smell of the chicken coops in the middle of the busy main street were revolting but that’s what you get if you seek out real life.
Nablus might never be on the tourist map, and you might go and not appreciate the things I love about it, but I still think it isn’t to be missed!