Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Serving kanafe in Nablus Photo: Sarah Irving
What does it mean to be a ‘radical city’ in Palestine? And for the visitor, what is radical travel? Not so long ago, foreign visitors to the West Bank tended to be activists, journalists, NGO workers or perhaps pilgrims. But the comparative quiet of recent years has seen the New York Times exploring Ramallah’s lively nightlife and the Daily Telegraph’s travel section covering Christmas in Bethlehem (albeit in an article that termed the vicious, land-grabbing Jordan Valley settlements ‘villages’).
Leaving behind Ramallah and Bethlehem, with their expat communities and religious tour groups, what of the West Bank’s other cities? Sleepy desert Jericho? Hebron, struggling to maintain its culture and economy under the weight of soldiers and fanatical settlers? Jenin, with its pioneering fair trade organisations, understated and beautiful old city and the defiant Freedom Theatre in the heart of its refugee camp? Invited to pick a ‘radical city’, I chose Nablus.
Nablus, in the northern West Bank, is one of Palestine’s largest cities. It was once an important stopping-point on trade routes between Jaffa or Jerusalem and Damascus. It was especially famous for its soap, made using olive oil from the surrounding villages. In the 18th and 19th centuries major local families such as the Abdul-Hadis, Tuqans, Arafats and Shaka’as (whose names will still be familiar to any student of Palestinian politics or culture) built ornate palaces, partly on the profits of the soap trade. Nowadays, two factories open sporadically, and are most likely to welcome visitors in the morning. Inside, the liquid soap is poured onto wide floors to solidify, before being cut, stamped and stacked into high, intricate towers to dry.
Nablus’s historical roads through the Levantine hills have been cut by international borders, the separation wall and a series of Israeli checkpoints. This sense of isolation was reinforced in 2002, when a massive Israeli invasion of the West Bank cut off Nablus from outside contact. The old city was besieged and placed under curfew, while Palestinian fighters were chased through its crowded homes by the simple tactic of blasting holes in wall after wall. Next to the site of the Al-Shu’bi
home , a plaque on the wall commemorates the nine members of the family who were crushed to death by Israeli military bulldozers. The old city’s walls are still plastered with martyr posters – some of young fighters brandishing their weapons, others showing the children and old people who just as easily become victims of the Israeli military.
Nablus’s history isn’t just that of the Israeli occupation, although the two are closely meshed. Locals may point out the
old city window from which Yasser Arafat is said to have leapt sometime in the late 1960s, fleeing Israeli soldiers. At the magnificent Orthodox church of Bir Yaqub (Jacob’s
Well) , Father Justinus happily shows visitors the architectural glories of the building he has painstakingly renovated over the last 30 years – but also indicates the charred spot where his predecessor was hacked to death and burned by settlers in 1979. At Tel Balata , massive Canaanite walls and temple foundations attest to Nablus’s antiquity; just beyond the archaeological site is the huge, overcrowded Balata refugee camp.
But Nabulsis are also keen to emphasise the less political attractions of their city. Beautifully-preserved Roman coffins are on display at two sites on the edges of the city, and the Roman theatre is set into the side of the hill next to the Ottoman souq. The churches and mosques of Nablus are a mix of Byzantine, Mamluk and Ottoman architecture, and the old city’s bustling
Market (where you can buy everything from fake designer trainers to herbal remedies, precisely prescribed by a man who studied his craft in Southampton) is peppered with intriguing little shrines and tombs of half-forgotten local Islamic saints and teachers. The famous Al-Aqsa bakery serves hot, fresh kanafe (the opulent sweet for which Nablus is famous) to an unseemly scrum of customers. And for the true pleasure-seeker, Nablus is home to two traditional Turkish baths.
The 17th-century Hammam Ash-Shefa occasionally hosts music nights and even Palfest literary events in its luxurious lounge. The rest of the time male or female customers (depending on the day of the week) can enjoy shisha, Arabic coffee and pastries, before or after steaming themselves and being pummelled by an over-enthusiastic masseur. Nablus is even home to Palestine’s first slow food convivium, the Bait Al-Karama (‘House of Dignity’) cookery school run by a local women’s NGO in a beautifully-restored building in the old city.
Golda Meir told the Sunday Times in 1969 that ‘there is no such thing as a Palestinian people’, and in December 2011 Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich repeated the line, calling the Palestinians an ‘invented’ people. Perhaps, then, to visit Palestine is in itself a radical act. To recognise Palestinian culture for what it is – a rich, vibrant, living indigenous tradition in this land – is to defy the project of the settlers and of the military occupation, with their aims of wiping Palestine and its people off the map, or of appropriating convenient pieces of Palestinian culture for their own ends.
Nablus can easily be reached by bus or shared or private taxi from Ramallah (or, via Ramallah, Jerusalem). A range of accommodation is now available in the city, from medium/upper range hotels such as the Yasmeen (www.alyasmeen.com), in the heart of the old city, or the Al-Qasr in Rafidia (www.alqaserhotel.com/firstie), to budget hotels like the Crystal (Hotel Crystal Motel on Facebook), or youth hostel-style options such as Damascus House and the International Friends Guesthouse (www.guesthouse.ps).
Nablus has little public nightlife, although Nablus The Culture (www.nablusculture.ps) runs occasional concerts and literary events and the park near the city centre sometimes hosts family concerts. Eating out ranges from high-end choices such as the Qasr Al-Jabi, Saleem Afandi or Saraya restaurants to street stalls serving kebabs or felafel. The Rafidia area and streets around An-Najah University are also home to plenty of cafes.
Dream Tours (www.dreamtours.ps) and West Bank Tours (www.westbanktours.com) are local companies that can organise day trips, longer visits and accommodation and have fluent speakers of English on their staff.
Sarah Irving is the author of the Bradt Guide to Palestine. Red Pepper reader offer: use the coupon code RP35 at www.bradtguides.com to receive a 35% discount off the retail price of £15.99 (p&p free to UK addresses). Sarah Irving also runs palestineguesthouse.com, which lists small-scale and community tourist accommodation in Palestine
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi