Nablus is, according to the Israelis, the largest terrorist den in the West Bank. This is why the Israeli army raid the city on almost a daily basis. The main aim of the raids is to shut down various shops and institutions that are in some way or another related to Hamas. At the same time, access to the city has been made very difficult with a series of checkpoints whose main purpose is to ensure that leaving is made almost impossible. This morning, Pola and I took a service taxi-bus from the bus station in Ramallah heading for Nablus. After a wild ride through the landscape on the settler road that leads to the settlements around Nablus we were let off in front of the Hawara checkpoint. I’d been counting on the bus driving through the checkpoint like they do at most other places in the West Bank, but here we had to walk through on foot and then take a taxi on the other side. As usual it wasn’t a problem to ‘get in’, and we just walked through a metal barred turnstile to enter the Nablus side which was full of street vendors and taxis that were parked all over the place. As usual a friendly Palestinian helped us find a taxi. He was quite interested in speaking to us and said that he was married inside Israel. He asked if we knew anyone in Nablus. Nope, not really; although we’d asked in Ramallah but people tend to isolate themselves in their enclaves and there wasn’t really anyone we had talked to who knew someone in Nablus. Together, with our new guide, we drove in to the heart of Nablus which is known for its old city and souk. In the end, he didn’t even allow us to contribute to the taxi fare!
We didn’t have a guidebook or map, so we had to wander around a bit aimlessly. The souk, though, quickly revealed itself and we started exploring the small and chaotic streets. The number of shops and goods were impressive and you wonder who comes and shops here. Nablus is the second largest city on the West Bank (after Hebron), with 135,000 inhabitants, but the amount of stuff on offer was still incredibly overwhelming. The streets went here and there, spreading out like an endless labyrinth. Unemployment is high here especially, because any kind of production is almost impossible due to the occupation, which makes it difficult to export goods and sell them outside the city. There is no tourism whatsoever. We only saw two or three other foreigners during our visit. The souk had small workshops inside the narrow shops: furniture makers, blacksmiths, tailors, etc. It was fascinating to see a city that functions on the basis of pre-industrial principles. However the working conditions didn’t look comfortable at all and it was often children who were working away at the sewing machines. One can only hope that the Palestinians will have the chance to develop their own economy and improve their wealth, because at the moment it is not going in the right direction at all.
Nablus is known mainly for two products: cakes and soap. We called Ismail who I knew had taken photographs for one of the old soap factories in the town. He guided us to the oldest factory that is right in the centre, facing the city’s large main square: Tjukan soap. The gate was open and we walked inside and met a man who was packing down some large cases with cardboard boxes. People could only speak a little English here but we managed to explain that we were interested in the soap factory, after which he took us on a little tour. First we saw the mixers and then we were taken upstairs to see where they make the soap bars. The soap mix is first spread out on the floor, approximately 5 cm thick, where it is left to dry for a while. After this, the bars are cut out, stamped and piled in beautiful, curving piles. Here they sit and dry for five months. Everywhere in the old building you could smell the scent of olive oil, the key ingredient in the famous Tjukan soap. We bought ten bars of soap and thanked them for the tour and the time travel back to the 1900s.
At one point in the small streets of Nablus, a young man came up to us and asked in perfect English if he could show us around a bit. We said ‘yes’, and that was the beginning of a very peculiar tour through Nablus. First, Najir (that was the young man’s name) took us to a Turkish bath where we saw the waiting room and coffee house but for some reason we couldn’t access the actual baths. Then he took us to visit one of his friends who works at the local Jawwal office as a sales and marketing manager. Jawwal is the local mobile phone company, and we had coffee in their slick offices while all the staff stood around and spoke with us. After this, the tour continued to a shopping centre where Najir’s IT teacher worked in the arcade game area. This shopping centre had just been reopened. The Israelis had kept it closed for a while as they suspected that it was related to Hamas in some way (http://www.maannews.net/en/index.php?opr=ShowDetails&ID=30546). The arcade game area seemed quite innocent with a bouncy castle and a whole load of arcade games. From here we walked through the only official park in Nablus, which is excellent in comparison to the other cities on the West Bank where, without exception, there are hardly any green public spaces at all. Najir tried to make us stay longer but we insisted that we had seen plenty and had to get back to Ramallah for a wedding. It was now nearing 6pm and Najir helped us find a taxi so that we could get out to the checkpoint. He admitted that he’d like some tips for his services. We gave him 50 shekels, although he didn’t think this was sufficient. After a hot day in Nablus, the taxi whisked us back to the Hawara checkpoint.
The only experience we had had of a different and rougher Nablus was when we entered a little square where a group of men were fiddling with a sound system. They were testing it at the loudest volume with some very agitated speakers talking in Arabic. We took a few pictures after which one of the guys drew his hand over his throat, as if with a knife, while he looked at us. The city is an occupied city and has suffered a lot since the Israeli attack in 2002. Nablus, just as Jenin had been, was the site of violent battles and the city experienced serious destruction by the Israeli military bulldozers. There are still open wounds in the old city where entire blocks of houses are gone. Martyrs’ posters are everywhere. Although people are friendly and welcoming, one shouldn’t ignore the state of permanent war that this city suffers from. We were definitely reminded of this when we got to the checkpoint, an ‘old school’ checkpoint in which people are led like cattle through steel barriers and fences and into the metal turnstile that leads people to the ID check area. The queue of people is controlled by heavily armed Israeli soldiers who bang on the barriers if there is something they aren’t happy with. They push through the row of people, searching people’s bags at random without even asking, mainly just to demonstrate their power. One of the soldiers put his hand into my bag without searching for anything really. If he had been really interested in my bag, he would have probably looked a bit closer at my ten bars of soap. When I reached the front of the line, I had to wait for the light to turn green after which I could enter the turnstile over at the metal detector and ID control point where there were more heavily armed soldiers. The woman at the ID control was, just like all the others, wearing a military helmet but she also had a special security neck brace supposedly to protect against explosions. I was told that I could have just gone around the control as I have an international passport, but I thought it was fair to walk through with the Palestinians.