Knafeh in Nablus
Last week I visited Nablus, in the company of my wife, our friend Sameer (not his real name) and his two children, aged 9 and 6. Sameer lives in East Jerusalem, beyond the wall, in a permitless high-rise, and is an expert at negotiating checkpoints of all kinds. Friends in Nablus kept him informed of the situation in the area, where ad hoc roadblocks are often erected. As Israelis, we risked not being allowed into the city, or getting stuck there. The coast was clear, and we entered Area A without a hitch. There was a lot of traffic, and a taxi driver suggested we park at the “kanyon i-kbir” (the big mall) – an interesting Hebrew-Arabic-consumerist hybrid. We pulled into our spot on the fourth parking level, and exchanged pleasantries with a self-appointed parking attendant who was happy to take some sesame-coated ka’ek (Palestinian bagels), falafel and za’atar we had brought with us from Al-Quds. He assured us that the Jerusalem ka’ek were the best, and that he hadn’t tasted any since Ramadan. We heard music and had a perfect view of Martyr’s Square, where celebrations were underway, marking the 47th anniversary of the founding of Fatah: flags, speeches, music, street vendors selling hot fava beans and corn, and a giant banner featuring Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Arafat.
During the drive through the beautiful stony-terraced hills of the West Bank dotted with olive groves, Palestinian villages and red-roofed settlements, Sameer asked the kids what Nablus is famous for. The immediate response was “soap and sweets!” (He also quizzed them on where we were from, should we be stopped. The clever children answered: “min Italya”). Dutifully, we visited two of the remaining soap factories (best soap in the world!), and sampled incredible knafeh at Al-Aqsa Sweets in the Casbah. A man at the next table, who watched his young son gobble down a plate of the stuff but did not himself partake, informed us that we were eating “villagers’” knafeh, and that those in the know (all the “real Nabulsi”) wouldn’t touch a bite before early evening. Our nine-year-old didn’t like sweets and wanted kebab. Our next stop was thus a “popular restaurant” in the old market, where we shared the crowded space with families taking advantage of the holiday. The only overt Israeli presence was an old bilingual sign on a mosque, reading “holy place”, and the currency of the former-present occupier, the shekel. It was a beautiful day and the atmosphere in the bustling market was friendly, welcoming and normal. We had a Palestinian guide and were careful not to speak Hebrew, but the thought that we were standing in the “notorious” Casbah, enjoying its architecture, people and wares, and feeling completely safe, was striking and wonderful.
On the way back, Sameer commented that it was a shame that the only Israelis allowed into Nablus by the Israeli authorities are the extremist settlers escorted by the army to the Tomb of Joseph.