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Leaving Balata with a couple of the friends we had made, we got into a couple of taxis for the short distance ride over to the nearby city of Nablus (maybe 2 kilometers away?). We got out of the taxis in the main square of the city, and I was finally in one of the largest Palestinian cities, one that is firmly pro-independent Palestine. The square itself was a testament to this; the banners and crisscrossing lines with small flags depicting the colors and symbols of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, the Palestinian National Liberation Front, and a couple other groups which have resorted to political violence. As per usual with Palestinian places, I was again immersed in a much more real type of “bustle” than any Israeli or American city could ever claim. People walking past and in between and around and through each other, all on their way to something but with a completely different sense of “personal space” and the lessened necessity of feeling the need to be on time. We met up with an acquaintance of the guys from Balata, a Brazilian man who works as a tour guide, or more accurately, head of public relations for Nablus. With him as our volunteer guide, we got quite the amazing tour of the Old City there that we couldn’t have gotten otherwise.

That guy knew EVERYONE.

Our first stop was an unexpected one; just like every other stop. We went into an olive oil soap factory, apparently a large part of the economy of Nablus (or at least it once was). We went inside a huge building where the the smell of olive oil was in the air, and got to walk in and amongst the boiling contraptions that prepared the oil for turning into soap. We walked up very narrow stairs that were slick with spilled olive oil, as all of the movement of things between levels of the building are done manually. The upstairs room of that soap factory is one of the coolest places ever… like the sort of place that is the dream of every child (and not a few adults), as half the floor is taken up by a giant cooling-to-a-solid retaining area for soap, and the other half is slippery enough that it puts most ice skating rinks to shame. Yes, even though I am now 21 (!), my shoes were worn down enough that I did me a little bit of “soap” skating, as it were. We slid on over to the next room over, which can only be described as the soap cooling towers room. They stack up the soap into chimney-like structures, and leave them there to age – as we were told, soap needs to be aged like fine wine, especially since they only offer fine soap 😀

We each bought some of the soap (which I have yet to use, now that I think about it), and departed for our next stop… a walking tour through parts of the Old City of Nablus. Amongst other things, we saw a famous old mosque whose name escapes me at the moment (but you can see it too in the photos); we also walked by an unbelievable number of small shrines and commemorative monuments to people, innocent or engaged in (sometimes armed) political opposition to the state of Israel, who have been killed. Although I don’t particularly appreciate the fact that many of those memorials have weapons and guns and calls to continue fighting as part of them, it was overwhelming to never walk more than 20 meters without seeing another plaque proclaiming that this person was killed at this spot by the IDF on this date. These were no fakes or mere propaganda, either – many of these sites, and plenty of stretches of walls in between were riddled with bullet holes. Hearing some of the accompanying stories to the destruction we witnessed was also horrifying. Attached is a photograph of a house undergoing reconstruction for the 11th time… and the 9th time it was destroyed, it was bulldozed by the IDF without any warning given to the occupants. The mother and 7 of the daughters of that family died, leaving a father with one son and his last surviving daughter to try and pick up the pieces. Perhaps it is “understandable” for outsiders and Israelis to subscribe to the “security” argument, but think for a moment – what good came of that IDF incursion? Innocent people were killed in a very graphic and public way; private property was treated with callous disregard and destroyed (again); the IDF didn’t get whichever alleged terrorist they were looking for; and maybe 1, maybe 5, maybe 20 more residents of the West Bank now had additional impetus to consider political violence as their only course of action. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard an Israeli/foreign supporter of Israel tell me that “this is what those terrorists do to us; how can we make peace with them?” in a tone of moral indignation and with the assumption of automatically holding the moral high ground. Now, forgive me for trying to apply systematics to my experiences and the way the world works, but is it so different for innocent people to get killed by a terrorist attack with a bomb (thus destroying a building) as compared with other innocent people getting killed by a bulldozer (thus destroying a building as well)? Did either of the sets of innocent people have any warning? Did either of the sets of innocent people do anything wrong? This is the point in time when far too many people I know would make an “it was in the name of security” argument, which I categorically reject. That sort of argument has the built-in assumption that somehow it is worse for innocent Israelis to die as compared with innocent Palestinians, which is racism at its ugliest (particularly since I routinely hear these sorts of sentiments from individuals who are in the liberal American system of higher education, supposedly).

That put out there for your consideration, we eventually stopped into another outstanding little anomaly… a former British Mandate prison converted into a candy factory. Nablus, it seems, is known as the “sweetest city in the West Bank,” as it apparently adds sugar to EVERYTHING. As my experiences that afternoon proved to be true. The candy factory was probably the best-smelling place I have ever been… imagine going into a place where very fine sugar powder and dust is in the air constantly, so the very air you breath in is a riot of various [delicious] flavors and sugary heaven, essentially. We also had some candied chickpeas, which were surprisingly delicious.

We stopped into a spice factory and retail shop, which holds a special place in my heart: to date, of all the places I have been in my life, this one wins the Most Eclectic Pile of Stuff award. As you can see in the photographs, they had everything from authentic Turkish fez and scimitars (check out the photo of me modeling them, Ralph Lauren-style) to World War II artillery shell casings-turned flower vases to everything in between. The spices also made the air in that place almost too strong; one breathed in a mix of the freshest coffee, cumin, saffron, cinnamon, and then HUGE barrels-worth of zatar… it smelled good, but when mixed together, it smelled… strong, lets put it.

We visited one of the original Turkish bathhouses in the city, and since it was a men’s day (they alternate genders on different days), only a few from our group were able to go in and see. I have never been to a place as humid as it was in that area… I actually couldn’t breath, it was so hot and steam-filled. It seems like I am not cut out for working shoveling coal into any trans-Atlantic ocean-liner’s boiler room. We were told that we HAVE to return and set up appointments to get the full body treatment, as we would feel like brand-new human beings afterwards (I have to wonder if that experience will renew my warranty).

The last major stop of the day was two-fold: first we stopped and got authentic, fresh kanafeh. Let me be a bit more emphatic… our buddy the tour guide brought us into a kanafeh shop’s kitchen and put us in the way of the poor guys just trying to cook the stuff, so we would know EXACTLY what we were about to eat and why we should expect to enjoy it. And my goodness gracious did we enjoy it… it is a base of fresh goat’s cheese on top of very thin pasta, and then all sweetened with fresh honey…. Even with that description and the photos of it, I still cannot successfully impart to you just how incredibly delicious that experience was. After eating that and walking around a little bit more, we eventually went for lunch in a hole-in-the-wall place owned by a buddy of our guide… but not just any buddy. This kindly old man was 1) a really good cook and 2) a retired HARDCORE Communist from back in the day, when he did prison time under the British and so forth. Good times, and good food… although I think some of the vegetables were unwashed, as I was very, very sick for several days after returning home.

We had some intensely sweet drinks at a cafe (like, fresh lemonade + 2 lbs of sugar and then some sort of fruit syrup + whipped cream ambrosia mmmmmmm), and then departed for the long, long trip back to Jerusalem. Check out the next post for the end of the story. (I am aware that this post and the last post have some pictures not flipped the right direction; I tried fixing it and nothing worked, so they remain as they are for now)

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