As curbs ease, ancient Nablus soap eyes new market

Tue Oct 13, 2009 11:19am EDT
 
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By Alastair Macdonald

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.   Continued...

 
<p>A Palestinian soapmaker counts the stock in a workshop in the West Bank city of Nablus September 28, 2009. 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 produce. Picture taken September 28, 2009. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis</p>