Hear in the Holy Land | Nablus
If you read my last post, you’ll remember that a server from Tiberias likened the West Bank to a “Wasteland.” Let me tell you—emphatically—it is not. The people of Nablus showed me a culture that is rich, unique, and modern.
Nablus, in case you’re wondering, is a modern city in the center of the West Bank, and is located on roughly the same spot as the biblical town of Shechem—which is an important landmark! So many things happen here, but to name a few…
It’s the first place in Canaan that Abraham and Sarah stopped after leaving Haran at God’s command, and it’s where God first promised to give the land to their descendants (Gen. 12).
It’s where Abe’s grandson Jacob dwells after reconciling with his brother Esau (Gen. 33); according to a very, very old tradition, he dug a well here—the one Jesus asked a certain Samaritan woman to get him a drink from (John 4).
It’s where the all-important blessings and curses were uttered by the people of Israeli after their entrance into the land, the former from Mount Gerizim and the latter from Mount Ebal (Deut. 11:29; Josh. 8:33).
Finally—and this obscure little gem is one of my favourites—it’s where Jotham tells a quirkly folktale involving talking trees in order to illustrate the consequences of accepting bad leaders because all the good ones have already refused the opportunity (Judges 9:7–15). Now I’m not super political, but I can’t help thinking this tale has relevance for the presidential race of our southern neighbours…
All that said, while I did visit the Eastern Orthodox church built overtop Jacob’s Well (the ancient well is preserved in a small room beneath the altar), that’s about the biblical sum to this stop. But that’s ok, because this trip round I’m most interested in understanding the people living there today. And there was lots of that!
The Lonely Wide-Eyed White Boy (i.e., Me)
One of the really notable observations that informed and shaped my experience in Nablus is that there are very few Westerners roaming the streets. Several things are worth mentioning on this front:
- It made things a little bit intimidating. As I walked around the city in my pasty skin, people stared unabashedly; children would often say ‘hello’ and then giggle uncontrollably; a few groups of men tried exercising their limited English lexicon on me, which promptly broke down each time and they’d stand there talking about me in Arabic saying who knows what, leaving me with a rather awkward and tenuous departure as I continued my way down the street. Also, given I hardly know a lick of Arabic, and given most of the people of Nablus only know a little English, it made normal and necessary things (like directions, ordering food, etc.) rather difficult.
- It’s a bit of a shame. My impression is that most people intentionally avoid going into the West Bank (and when they do, it’s usually on a guided tour bus that sweeps in to see ‘the important stuff’ and then sweeps out right after—this was my experience during my last trip here). There’s a lot of fear and insecurity associated with the West Bank, and it’s really too bad. People are missing out on a beautiful and welcoming culture (which I’ll get to in a minute).
- It was a breath of fresh air. I had the wonderful privilege of visiting an almost purely Palestinian culture, relatively untouched by the tourism industry (just you wait until I write about Bethlehem). Certainly, Western culture has had its influence here, but its integration has been much more tenuous than, say, Tel Aviv, which by contrast feels very Western to me. Walking through the old city of Nablus gave me a glimpse of a legit Arab marketplace (it’s been nicknamed “Little Damascus” because of its genuine, traditional atmosphere). People were hawking their wares, but they were hawking them to other locals; and their wares were real-deal materials for everyday life, as opposed to cheap souvenir trinkets for tourists to take back home with them.
Wandering the Bazaar
This leads us to the bazaar. The bazaar, in short, was really fun. A bunch of small lanes lined on both sides with tiny little shops. Crammed with people, resonant with shouting voices, odorous with a spectrum of smells from delightfully sweet to straight-up nasty. It was slow going as I made my way through these little lanes, and my (self-acclaimed) ability to weave people-traffic back home was rather insufficient here; when a rather large push-cart—one that takes up about half the width of the lane—passes you, you know you’re kind of sucking at it. I need to learn to be a bit more assertive here, I guess.
And as for the wares themselves, they were pretty varied: clothing, jewelry, furniture, pottery, Arabic sweets, bread and other baked goods, fruits and vegetables—the list goes on. I bought a sweet-roll for only one shekel at a bakery, and when I tried to buy a single apricot from fruit stand, the owner just smiled and gave it to me. And then there were the meat and poultry shops—now those were something! Mainly they boasted very smelly chickens in very little crates, and fully prepped goat and sheep carcasses hanging on big meat-hooks. But there were also stranger sights that my sanitized eyes weren’t at all used to: at one shop I saw goat heads all lined up in a row, skinned, eyes gouged out, and jaws hanging ajar to reveal intact tongues and removed dentals; at another I saw a man digging the brain out of a cow’s skull. I didn’t stop to take pictures (you’re welcome).
I spent most of my time wandering aimlessly around this exciting environment, feasting my eyes and ears (and playing roulette with my nose). Simply the experience of walking through it was a multi-sensuous rush. Whenever I got to the end, I’d often just turn around and dive back in to try find the little laneways I hadn’t ventured down yet.
However, I did make some stops here and there—some planned and some unexpected. I’ll share a few below.
Kunafeh | Palestinian Sweet and Savoury
If you tell a Palestinian that you’re going to visit Nablus, the almost inevitable response is, “Try the Kunafeh!” Kunafeh, which is unanimously done best in Nablus, is a surprising Palestinian sweet — it manages to successfully combine pastry, goat cheese, and a sweet sugary syrup, creating a pretty excellent sweet-and-savoury experience.
I ordered a plate at Al-Aqsa Café, which, aside from being consistently viewed as the best kunafeh makers in Nablus (according to every travel site I perused, anyway), is purportedly the only place you can actually see the stuff being made in front of you.
It was quite a different sort of sweet, but it was delicious.
Before I left Vancouver, my friend Jenny told me about this place that makes traditional Palestinian tiles. I wanted to, but I had no idea where to find it. In my random aimless wandering, however, I stumbled on a place that looks like this:
I ventured warily up to it, hoping it might be the place…and it was! None of the tile-makers spoke English, but they were incredibly welcoming, and they invited me into a section of the facility where I could watch one of the tiles being made.
The process was fascinating: first they thoroughly clean the base of a mould and place a stencil into it; then the tile-maker carefully pours some super vibrant pigments into the various sections of the stencil, filling them up a good inch or so; once this is done, they delicately remove the stencil and then press some sort of cement-y powder down on top of it—I’m not quite sure what this powder was made of, but they pressed it down in two different layers, using two different types of powder; after that, presto! you have yourself a pretty stunning tile.
These tiles used to be simply practical—they’re hardy, and they make good flooring material. But now, given the industrialization of such things, big factories can make tiles for a fraction of the price. So now, this has become a unique art-form that captures some of the Palestinian tradition. Aslan Tiles’ method is a diamond in the rough, though: they’re the last remaining factory that creates these Palestinian tiles in the handmade traditional way.
If you’re interested in learning more, read this Al Jazeera article.
Mustafa Azizi | I didn’t know he was a filmmaker until it was too late…
After Aslan, I sat down for lunch at a random café in the Old City—mainly because the shop-minder at the entrance was friendly and charming and spoke the best English I had heard all day. His name is Mustafa Azizi.
I ordered some food and began a conversation with him, which quickly turned to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Mustafa is by far the most strongly opinionated Palestinian I’ve spoken with thus far (though not in a belligerent, ignorant, or violent way), and he was quite ready to speak his mind about ‘the occupation.’
For me, the most interesting element of our conversation was learning that the Palestinians trace their heritage waaaay further back than I thought—i.e., all the way back to the Canaanites we read of in Genesis. Before Israel ever arrived, Mustafa told me, they were here (and, of course, scripture agrees with him here: “Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.” Gen. 12:6 ESV). Moreover, Mustafa looked at historical patterns to gain confidence that the occupation would eventually cease. Ancient Israel came, and then they left, he told me; The Greeks came, the Romans came, the Byzantines came, the Ottomans came…and they all left—but the Palestinians have remained throughout all these occupations. He chuckled a bit when he told me that this occupation hasn’t lasted all that long yet when compared with those of the past.
We talked of other things, too: of food (how I love Palestinian fare!), of Handala (a political cartoon character I talk about in an Instagram rant), of the various holy sites in and around Nablus. Unfortunately, I only found out in my last few words with Mustafa that he is a published filmmaker, an educated journalist, and that he runs an organization called Karakeeb, which acts as a creative catalyst for local Nabulsi artists. How I wish I would have learned of this sooner! All the same, our conversation over lunch was still wonderful.
If you’re interested in learning more about Mustafa, there’s a great interview published at Beyond Violence; you can read it here.
Mohammed Abu Al-Soud | Tour, Tobacco, and the Nitty-Gritty
This is Mohammed. He just graduated med school here in Nablus. His brother, Amir, is a friend of my friends, Dave and Rachel Laird; Amir was going to show me around the city, but he ended up needing to go to Tel Aviv for some meetings, so Mohammed volunteered to hang out with me in his stead. Very nice of him.
Mohammed is so cool. He’s smart, insightful, and is very conscious of his deep roots in Palestinian society; thanks to his generosity and hospitality, we hit it off right away.
Mohammed gave me a really insightful historical tour of the Old City in Nablus. Not only did he show me places that go way back in time, like the An-Nasr Mosque and the old spice shop…
…he also showed me some of the darker, more recent sides of history. As we wound our way through the old stone streets, Mohammed pointed out certain buildings I wouldn’t have otherwise given a second look: here, in a home that used to be his uncle’s before he and his family were driven out, was where a sniper killed three Palestinians during the Second Intifada (which happened in 2000–05); here, in this parking lot, there used to be a beautiful old Ottoman facility that catered to travelling merchants—but it got bombed out in one of the Intifadas (the Israeli Army thought rebels were hiding out there, but it turns out the only one in the building was a senior who wasn’t able-bodied enough to get out before the building crashed in on her); here, where a new building now stands, a whole family was killed when the Israel Army toppled over the old one during the Second Intifada. This last one made quite an impact on me as I looked back and forth between the building and a memorial plaque on a nearby wall.
Apparently, because there are limited, narrow entrances to the Old City, Palestinian rebels easily sealed it off during the Second Intifada; as a solution, the Israel Army simply created their own entryways by knocking over walls and houses. “They didn’t even check to see if anyone was in there,” Mohammed told me.
Now, if you’ve been following previous posts about my travels, you know I’m not here to take sides or render judgments—I’m hear to learn, to have my eyes and ears opened by the individual local people I engage with on my journey.
But regardless of what I may think of the violent uprisings of the Intifadas (honestly, I really don’t know what to think!), these stops along the tour explained to me why I saw pictures of martyrs everywhere in the city; why Yasser Arafat’s portrait was painted and printed all over the place; why the little cartoon Handala kept showing up on random walls.
I’m trying to stick myself in the shoes of a Nabulsi of my generation: Mohammed was only a kid during the Second Intifada (I would have been in Grade 10 when it started)—and when bombs are blowing down houses, when your kith and kin are being killed in your own hometown, how can that not get ingrained into your memory?
With that at the forefront of my mind, the grace, the optimism, and the incredible resilience I saw in Mohammed during my few hours with him are practically inconceivable. Rather than turning to bitterness, Mohammed is working to help the West Bank stand strong and proud despite its difficulties.
After Mohammed’s tour, we grabbed some falafel from a local hole-in-the-wall eatery and then sat down at a café off the beaten trail (travelling with locals is the best—they know where to find all the good food). I slowly sipped what is probably the best coffee I’ve had in my travels so far, and we smoked some really good shisha for a good two hours (i.e., hookah, or ‘water-pipe’). We talked of politics, we talked of Islam and Christianity (Mohammed is Muslim), of the intricate and beautiful Arabic language, of current Palestinian realities…
I learned way too much during this conversation to include here, and much of it has spilled out of my memory in the overflow. That said, there were two things Mohammed took care to emphasize, and I think it would be irresponsible not to pen them down here:
- Muslims do not hate Christians or Jews. In fact, it’s quite the opposite—the Qur’an explicitly commands Muslims to honour and respect them. They view the Bible as a sacred text, and they treat all the important figures of Christian and Jewish traditions as Prophets of God—Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Elijah, and most certainly Jesus Christ (they just don’t believe He was God, which is admittedly where we get into some important distinctions). The only time Muslims are permitted by the Qur’an to kill a Jew or Christian is when it is done in self-defense. It is so important for Westerners—especially Christian Westerners—to understand that the Qur’an is a book of peace, and that Muslims are a people of peace. My experience in Nablus absolutely confirms this.
- Palestine is not a dark place, void of culture or education. Again, it’s quite the opposite. Mohammed proudly told me that Al-Najah University in Nablus, where he just got his medical degree from, is the second best university in the Arab world (second only to an institute in economically loaded Qatar). The education system is good here. So is the healthcare system—Nablus, apparently, has an excellent and fully equipped hospital (the only thing they can’t perform are procedures that involve radiation, because the Israeli government won’t permit anything to do with radiation into the West Bank). There is a thriving culture here that is full of art and beauty. Why is this important to note? Because false stories spread around regarding the ‘primitive’ Palestinian society somehow (don’t ask me why) make it easier for Western citizens to turn a blind eye to Israeli occupation. Remember that, in the eyes of the international audience and according to UN sanctions, Jewish occupations inside the West Bank are illegal (I’m going to visit one in a couple days, and I’m looking forward to hearing their perspective).
Even though I felt somewhat isolated because of my inability to speak its language and because of the scarcity of foreign visitors, Nablus was a great experience. The people were warm and welcoming (honestly, if the people there only knew one English word, it was usually, “Welcome!”), and I hope to visit the city again.
But for now, I had to leave after only two days—onward and southward!