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NABLUS, West Bank (Reuters Life!) - Walking on water may be a familiar tale from the Holy Land, but in the heart of ancient Nablus, Majoud Malawani walks on soap. Roomfuls of it.
The white slabs an inch thick are made from pure olive oil, drying slowly under the airy, bleached vaults of a large, scented workshop that seems to have set in another age.
Skipping over hardened floes of soap that have been poured and dammed into place across the factory floor, Malawani wields a long-handled cutter with a dexterity that belies his 75 years and a cataract-clouded eye, slicing the creamy product into bars along lines measured with string and marked up using red dye.
Now that the Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, has receded and the Israeli army is easing roadblocks around Nablus, long the industrial hub of the West Bank, those of the city's once ubiquitous soapmakers who have survived a sharp decline in sales are eyeing new markets abroad for their all-natural product.
Under the arches and buttresses on the ground floor of the Ottoman-era building, beneath the drying loft, Malawani, who like many of his half-dozen colleagues has worked there most of his life, showed off the barrels of olive oil and white bags of soda that, with water, are the only ingredients of Nablus soap.
Among the few concessions to modernity are an electric arm to stir the bubbling open cauldron. There the soap mix "cooks" like a thick pumpkin soup for five days over a gas burner which has replaced the olive-wood fires that once powered the process.
"We are proud to use this because it is pure," said the foreman, Mohammed Fatayer, 71, who has followed in his family's soapmaking tradition since he was 13. Unlike the animal fats and chemicals typical of modern, mass-market hygiene, he said, it was simple and clear what went into the soap from Nablus.
The consumer trend toward that organic simplicity gave him hope that this factory, run mostly by old men, did have a future: "Demand is growing for pure products," Fatayer said.
Once manhandled up the stairs, the liquid mixture dries on the floor before being cut into blocks and stamped with a brass hammer bearing the cross-keys mark of the Touqan family firm.
These are then stacked in tapering, hollow towers, higher than the heads of the workmen, to harden for a further three months. That's where Izzedeen al-Johari comes in.
Chatting easily as he squats on the floor under the cones of drying soap, the 60-year-old's hands fly over paper and glue to wrap each bar individually and neatly in just a few seconds.
Working on a piece rate, he reckons to wrap 600 bars an hour or nearly 5,000 in an eight-hour day. These are then packed into 10 kg (22 lb) cases that sell wholesale for about $30.
Touqan's manager, Nael al-Qubbaj, said the firm is now only one of two commercial soapmakers in Nablus, compared to 17 in the 1990s, before the Intifada brought Israeli tanks, curfews and streetfighting into a town the locals call "Little Damascus" because of the traditional stone alleys of its central souk.
Even before then, the old industry had been in decline -- there were more than 50 soap factories in the 1960s, Qubbaj said. But occupation and violence had taken a toll, pushing down output at the Touqan works to 300 tonnes a year from 680 tonnes annually before the Intifada broke out in 2000.
Most of the oil still comes from Palestinian olives, though seasonal supply difficulties mean imported Italian oil is used at times. Some two thirds of the output goes to Jordan and thence further afield in the Middle East. But Qubbaj has spotted a potential market among eco-conscious shoppers in the West.
"I am studying investment. We could increase our capacity," he said this week. "Natural products are very popular with Europeans. I hope that we can open a small market there."
Back on the factory floor, where the workers take Turkish coffee at low stools, bathed in a milky light filtering through the drying stacks of soap, Mohammed Fatayer has heard the message: "Yes," he said, "We hear foreigners are interested."
Additional reporting by Atef Saad, editing by Paul Casciato