Visiting Nablus, the ‘Little Damascus’ of Palestine

Hammam al-Shefa in old souk of Nablus

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.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly