Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Old City of Nablus

Colorful fruits and vegetables. Pungent spices. The sticky sweetness of konafa. Shops whose wares of clothes and household goods spill into narrow alleyways. The aromas of falafel, shwarma, and occasionally donkey dung. Calls of “welcome!” This is the Old City of Nablus.

A Turkish bath awaits behind closed doors – for women only, because today is Sunday. Women lounge on cushions or chat at tables. Some sip cups of tea with mint or Turkish coffee, others puff away at flavored tobacco or shisha, the water-pipe known by a dozen names and common throughout the Middle East. Behind closed doors are hot stones under vaulted ceilings, mosaic walls, and steam rooms, the last of which is barely discernable through the clouds of water vapor billowing out of it. This is the Old City of Nablus.

Yet the doorway to the Turkish bath is not so grand as it once was. A closer look at the alleyways reveals countless posters commemorating martyrs and patches of crumbling stone. Above the smiling faces of shopkeepers and curious eyes of children, bullet holes riddle the sides of buildings which have yet to be restored. Some of the holes are decades old, others only a few years. This, also, is the Old City of Nablus.

Today is a normal day in the Palestinian city. The violent conflicts of the Second Intifada are no longer daily occurrences, but they are far from forgotten. The martyr posters commemorate the men, women, and children Nablus has lost at the hands of Israeli soldiers, whether directly or indirectly. Hundreds of citizens are still kept in Israeli prisons, and the military maintains checkpoints outside the city. Today, many of them are open and both Palestinian and Israeli vehicles pass through them easily. A few years ago the case was very different. Entry and exit into Nablus was strictly controlled, with students of An-Najah University prohibited from crossing the checkpoints into the city. Many resorted to passing by foot through olive groves in order to attend classes.

Reminders of the conflict are easy to see, and one doesn’t always have to look hard for them. In a handful of shops, ammunition belts and bullet-proof vests hang beside keffiyehs and baseball caps.

This, too, is the Old City of Nablus.

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