There was a time when Nablus in the northern Palestinian territories was not a place for leisurely wandering. During the Israeli invasion at the height of the second intifada in 2002, the city suffered badly. Many buildings were bombed and people killed.
Today, Nablus is a happier place and the continued Israeli military occupation of the West Bank is not stopping the defiant city’s growth. Since last December, Nablus has been twinned with Boulder, Colorado, in the United States, and April features the second Nablus Festival, celebrating local and international literature, visual art and music in venues across the city.
Preparations were under way recently with bunting fluttering in the breeze above the Old City’s winding streets. Venues, including the Khan al Wakala, a caravanserai that was reopened in 2012 after a restoration funded by the local council and the European Union, were preparing to welcome artists ranging from traditional dabke dance performers to Belgian choirs.
Away from the tourist trappings of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, which draw the majority of visitors to the territories, Nablus is a working city that has retained its elegance despite military incursions. Its network of khans, mosques, souks and working hammams may be smaller than those that weave the streets of Baghdad, Sana’a or Cairo but Nablus is every bit as captivating.
The city is known as “little Damascus,” thanks to its Ottoman-era architecture, similar to that of the Syrian capital, and its reputation as a centre of learning. Its Souk al-Tajari, a covered area where material and clothing sellers are clustered, is even known as “Souk al Hamidiyeh,” after the roofed market in the centre of Damascus.
“The hammams of Nablus and Damascus are like one,” said Adel al-Lubada, who works in Hammam al-Hana, one of the city’s public bathhouses.
Although he said most of the clientele were people from outside the city and he bemoaned the lack of official or government financial help for restoration and operating costs, he said he believed the hammam would stay open.
“There is a future here. Young people come here before their weddings with their friends, eat, celebrate, relax in the hammam. People don’t talk politics here. It is a place for relaxing.”
Nablus’s other working bath house, the 17th-century Ash-Shifa, was hit by Israeli rockets in 2002, damaging the roofs of the steam chambers. The missiles, which narrowly missed a party of 40 people who left 5 minutes before the attack, caused about $40,000 worth of damage.
The hammam has been returned to its former glory, with thick, hot black and white marble tiles, ready for the day’s customers. Bath access costs about $10 and a 30-minute massage is $14 extra. Post-scrub, shisha, tea and coffee are at hand.
Nablus also remains a hub of Palestinian industry, echoing its past as a trading point for soap, olive oil and cotton across the Levant.
Basil Break owns the Break Mill, opened by his family in 1936 in a 400-year-old building near the city’s Al-Khadra Mosque, supposedly where Prophet Jacob wept after discovering the death of his son Joseph.
Originally a coffee and spice mill, the shop sells those products alongside a small museum displaying objects from Palestinian villages.
“We created this to show off old ways of working and crafts in Palestine,” explained Break, perched next to a low-slung, faded sofa. “My favourite object is the coffee grinder — the mehbaj. I like people from outside coming to my city — visitor numbers are weak and we want more to come. There is safety and stability here now.”
At the Al-Aqsa Bakery on Al- Naser Street, the smell of hot sugar wafts from giant lily pad-like metal trays. The establishment is renowned for knafeh, the Nablusi pastry made from soft cheese, wheat and syrup. The huddles of waiting customers say something about the quality.
“We don’t count how many knafeh we make in a day but we finish one every 5-10 minutes,” said Majdi Abu Hamdi, pointing at one of the metre-wide pastries and slicing it into portions. “This crowd is nothing. Sometimes there is a queue down the street,” added the seller, who has been working at Al- Aqsa for 45 years.
Nablus remains a place that sparks immense pride. “If I leave Nablus for one week, I find myself wanting to come back,” said Mustafa Ajdad, an ambulance driver and shopkeeper in the Old City.
“I want my children to go to study in Germany but I want them to come back here to Nablus and develop and improve this place. I live with this city, and I am proud of that.”
Lizzie Porter is a Beirut-based freelance journalist focusing on the Middle East.