The schools here have an unusual finals schedule where all the children (K-12) attend school for 1/2 days for two weeks, taking one final exam per day. I don’t know how much you remember about 2nd and 4th grade, but rigorous final exams usually aren’t part of the mix. Since these are pretty much down weeks for Will, as he’s not needing to study much (he’s not taking the Arabic language finals), I checked him out of school early on Thursday and we took a trek to Nablus!
Nablus is a beautiful city about 30 km north of Ramallah. It’s a very old Roman city, having been established by Vespasian in 72 CE. With all of its history, you really get a sense of the place touring through the Old City and seeing random Corinthian columns in one of the main squares.
To get there, Will and I took the Ramallah-Nablus bus for 21 shekels. The ride was really easy, as none of the ‘flying checkpoints’ were in operation, so we drove right through in a little over an hour. In Palestine, the buses don’t run on a regular schedule as far as I can tell — they run whenever the bus sells out. Sometimes that means you might have to wait a few minutes for people to arrive, but in our case, we were one of the last ones to buy a ticket, so it didn’t take long at all. On the way up, we watched the terrain change from the rolling hills around Ramallah to more mountainous terrain as we got closer.
We got off in Nablus at the city center and made our way to a great shawarma place. This shop was Will’s favorite one in Palestine because they give you a plate of bread and you get to put your own salad on it from a buffet before they add the meat and wrap it up. At most places, you ask for (or in my case, point to) the salad items you want. He enjoyed making a Will special, which consists of pickles, french fries, and lemon slices with beef. I went with pickled beets, roasted eggplant, sliced zucchini, shredded carrots, french fries, extra fil (peppers), and delicious yogurty tahini sauce.
After our lunch, we wandered the city a bit and found an old school barber. I convinced Will that a haircut would be a great way to surprise mom (she’s been on to us for a few weeks now about getting a trim!). The barber was great — Will hates getting haircuts, so the barber avoided using the electric razor and instead did a really nice scissor cut. He finished up Will’s neckline with a straight razor, but thankfully Will stopped wiggling long enough to make it through that part. The guy is actually a Roman Catholic and we chatted for a while about the local churches. (Nablus, like Ramallah, has a small minority Christian population — approximately 1-2% of Palestinians in the West Bank are Christians.) He told us about the local Christmas tree lighting that night and gave us some things to check out in town.
We then made our way toward the central market. The Nablus sook is really cool. It’s very large and the vendors are not pushy like in parts of Jerusalem that cater to the tourist crowd. My favorite section surrounds the central mosque (Gallileo calls it the Big Mosque on the map). Many of the market stalls are built right in to the outside walls of the mosque with beautiful domed ceilings for each stall. Will and I saw all kinds of unique things like cleaned sheep and cow heads ready for stewing I suppose, lots of spices displayed in open bags, perfume and incense stalls where you can make your own scented combinations, fishmongers with huge lake trout that had to weigh 50 pounds, a staggering array of vegetable vendors selling every kind of fruit imaginable, and lots and lots of chicken vendors offering both the live chickens and their eggs. There were also vendors selling ducks, guineas, pigeons, doves, and sparrows. Our favorite avian booth was guarded by a falcon roosting above the cages!
Our primary mission was to find some of the famous Nablisi soap. Lynn picked up a bar when she visited Nablus and we decided we wanted to stock up for some gifts. At one time, the city was a major soap manufacturing center dating back to the Crusader era with its peak in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There are over 30 factories in the city, though only a few are still producing soap due to the difficulties associated with the occupation [this article has a fascinating history of the Nablus soap industry]. After some wandering, we found a factory owned by a family who has been in the soap business for hundreds of years. We had a brief tour and picked up a backpack full of soap! The soap is made from Palestinian virgin olive oil, water, and a sodium compound. Nablisi soap isn’t usually scented, so it’s perfect for skin. In fact, all the ladies in my ESL class raved about how good the soap was for their complexion. I also picked up a few bars made with goats milk, which makes the soap rich and creamy. In Jerusalem, the soap sells for 20 NIS a bar — Will and I paid 5 NIS from the soap factory. I was pretty proud of myself until one of my Palestinian students told me that I paid the tourist price — she buys Nablus soap for 2 NIS!
Our next stop was to pick up some of Nablus’ most famous confection, knefeh! The best place to enjoy knefeh is from al-Aqsa cafe, right near the big mosque. Knefeh is made from sugar (lots of sugar!), orange tinted pastry dough and warm, melted cheese. We were able to watch the guys make the large trays, which were promptly brought out of the ovens to the stall in the street, where the large tray was quickly divided and distributed to the eagerly waiting crowd. The best way to eat it is to grab a plate for 5 NIS and chow down in the alley in front of the store. After you’re done, just take your plate and spoon back inside. While Will and I were enjoying our plates, they sold 3 large trays of the dessert. It looked like they kept a constant flow of the syrupy dessert flowing! This time, I took our friend Mohammad’s advice from his childhood not to drink water with the knefeh to enjoy the flavors even longer.
We then made our way to Jacob’s Well, the site where a Samaritan woman drew water for Jesus while he was passing through. As you know from Lynn’s retelling of story after her visit, Jesus didn’t actually drink the water. In keeping with that tradition, neither did we (although the fact that we arrived at 4:12pm after they close at 4pm during the winter might have also been a contributing factor).
On our way back to the city center, we had a great taxi ride in a servee with Imar. He talked to us the entire way back about Nablus. Even with his very limited English and my even more limited Arabic, we actually had a productive conversation centered around how beautiful Nablus is and how expensive Ramallah and Jerusalem are by comparison. His example? My 5 shekel knefeh at al-Aqsa would be 8 shekels and 1/2 the size in Ramallah and 12 shekels and 1/4 the size in Jerusalem. We had a good laugh over that one. Game. Set. Match.
After getting dropped off, we had to find the bus stop to get back to Ramallah. I made the mistake of exiting the bus early on the way in to town, so I didn’t know where the station was. I asked around and gradually got closer and closer. Finally, the last guy I asked smiled and asked if I knew Arabic. When I told him la, just schweh-schweh (bit by bit), he told me that he would take me there. I thought he was just going to walk down the street to show us where to turn, but actually, he took us to his car and drove us over to the station! On the drive over, we chatted about his work and family. Ansem was just the last in a long line of incredibly friendly people we met during our short visit. I continue to be impressed with the generosity of the Palestinians we’ve met. Hopefully we can visit Nablus one more time before we go. I have plans to rent a car for a few days to do some end-of-trip sightseeing and a return visit to Nablus is high on the agenda (mmm…knefeh!).