Soap, sweets and Fatah

Knafe in Nablus
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.

Fatah Day Nablus
Fatah Day Nablus

About Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel

Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel is a Canadian-Israeli translator living in Italy.
Posted in Israel/Palestine, On the ground reports

{ 11 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Elliot says:

    “the thought that we were standing in the “notorious” Casbah, enjoying its architecture, people and wares, and feeling completely safe, was striking and wonderful.”
    “The Casbah” evokes an oriental exoticism for English speakers: nargilahs, Oriental carpets, intrigue.
    For Israelis, the Nablus Casbah is notorious as a battleground for Israeli troops. The Government of Israel prevents Israelis from seeing Palestinians, the better to demonize them. The checkpoints, laws and Area A, B, C system are as much about keeping the Israelis in as keeping the Palestinians out.
    How wonderful – and liberating – to transgress these rules and re-humanize the enemy.
    How long would the Occupation last if Israeli children were sent on school trips, not to Auschwitz but to Nablus?

    • Philip Weiss says:

      i was recently in that Casbah myself. beautiful spaces. with marks of invasion during the 2nd intifadah. and i was with a young feminist palestinian woman bringing me to the spice market to buy the dark dried lemons they sell. using them in my rice these days. i agree: the occupation would not last if there were field trips to Nablus….

      • i was with a young feminist palestinian woman

        I was with a middle-aged Muslim man and his kids :-) The kids really boosted the fun factor (the knafeh photo was taken by our friend’s six-year-old, btw).

        Beyond the Fatah celebrations, other reminders of history and politics were a couple of posters of armed fighters in the market, and a very loud German tourist at the sweets shop, lecturing two young Palestinian men in leather jackets on the evils of Zionism.

        @Elliot – Thanks for spelling out the Israeli associations with the Casbah. That is exactly what I had in mind.

    • Israeli teenagers on their trip to Poland are not allowed to talk to local people.
      They are not allowed to to any extra sightseeing, only Auschwitz and that’s it.
      They are fed with a usual bogeymen propaganda of anti-Semites hidden around every corner of the Earth waiting to attack.
      The movie “Defamation” shows it very clearly.

      Btw, this knafeh looks yummy, my tummy is growling.

      • whoa, your link is the whole Defamation film dumvi,cool.

      • Elliot says:

        Yes, “Defamation” does a great job exposing the indoctrination of young minds in Israel against Poland and other Eastern European nations. Of course, it’s more work managing the demonization of Palestinians. You build a wall and allow the kids in only as enforcers of the Occupation.

  2. wonderful reporting Shmuel..

    i want more…weekly updates!


    • Thanks, Annie. Next installment: Jericho.

      • LeaNder says:

        If you meet another loudly lecturing German tourist, ask the kids to take a photo for us. But if I may be curious, how old was s/he?

        • If you meet another loudly lecturing German tourist, ask the kids to take a photo for us. But if I may be curious, how old was s/he?

          With all due respect to German tourists, our little photographer was after far more interesting subjects, like knafeh and animals :-)

          I would say he was in his late twenties or early thirties.

        • Walid says:

          After having done it with falafel, hummus, tabouleh, fattouche, Arabic bread, zaatar and manakeesh, it’s surprising Israelis haven’t yet claimed knafeh as one of their national dishes. The Nablus knafeh is said to be the best. A couple of years back, 170 Naboulsi bakers made the world’s biggest knafeh, 74m X 2m weighing 1765 kg to make it into the Guiness records.