By Skylar Lindsay
Posters of Hamas fighters and other militants paper an old stone alley in Nablus. Outside his shop, a baker cuts squares of pastry from a wide circular pan.
The flat, crumbly pastry is golden yellow in spots, toasted brown in others. Each slice with the spatula reveals a layer of soft, white cheese underneath. A light syrup drips from each piece as he slides it onto a plate. Somehow, the old hajji manages to keep his long, beige shirt clean.
HajjiA term used to refer to a Muslim person who has completed a hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. In Muslim societies, it is used to show respect for an elder.
This is kanafeh. In the West Bank city of Nablus, kanafeh is an institution.
Nablus is the sixth-oldest city in the world. Since 1950, it has been the site of two refugee camps: Balata, the West Bank’s largest, and Askar. In the early-2000s, during the Second Intifada, the city and the camps were a hub for Palestinian nationalism.
But Nablus is also about dessert. If you tell any local that you've traveled to Nablus, they will ask you if you ate any kanafeh. You need to say yes – better yet, have some kanafeh to share with your friend.
A bite of kanafeh tastes like the climax of a Palestinian Thanksgiving. The semolina pastry, basted in a rose water syrup, evokes comforting honey and cornbread from the American South. But it’s just a little too Middle Eastern and a little too delicate to show up on grandma’s table. The cheese underneath is creamy and warm but far from salty. The best kanafeh sits on a bed of “Nablusi” cheese, made mostly from sheep’s milk. This isn’t mozzarella or feta.
The Al-Aqsa Bakery, where you need to have eaten said kanafeh, is a mainstay of Nablus’ ancient Old City. It’s tucked into the shadow of the pastel-green An-Nasr mosque. Right around the corner is the old Ottoman clock tower, the symbol of the city of Nablus.
The kanafeh pan in front of Al-Aqsa Bakery gives off wafts of semolina and Nablusi cheese that are light but unmistakable. The vendor slices the pastry and schleps it out as quick as he can. He periodically pours a fresh batch of syrup over the top and adjusts the wide gas burner beneath.
Like all streets in the Old City, the alley where Al-Aqsa Bakery sits is plastered with posters of Palestinian militants who died in the Second Intifada or other periods of violence. Many locals consider them to be martyrs.
Israeli and Palestinian friends who tout the glories of Nablusi kanafeh acknowledge the impact of violence and conflict on the city. Tanks have leveled houses in the Old City. Raids by the Israeli Defense Forces have been frequent in the area.
As one young Palestinian student in Haifa put it, “Yes, there is Hamas in Nablus. But there is also kanafeh.”
The way many outsiders speak about it, kanafeh is as much a part of the city’s identity as is Hamas or the children of the refugee camps. From the Arab cities of Ramallah and Umm Al-Fahm to the mixed city of Haifa, many restaurants push Palestinian cuisine into the realm of fine dining. But there is still no Nablusi kanafeh.
Despite travel warnings from the U.S. Department of State and my mother, Nablus feels fairly safe. This may be a privileged illusion, and not all visitors will feel this way. But the city was still welcoming in August, after clashes between Palestinian police and militants led to the death of a senior member of Fatah’s armed wing. “Hello-how-are-you” and “welcome-my-friend” fly from the windows of passing cars in downtown Nablus, the site of the Palestinian stock exchange.
Visitors should still be smart. Check the news. Know something about local customs – Nablus is a fairly conservative Muslim city. Don’t visit the refugee camps unless you’re with someone who knows these communities.
Locals frequently ask visitors what they “think about Palestine” or whether they like it there. One approach is to simply say that you’re there to learn and keep your ears open. Keep in mind that English proficiency varies dramatically in Nablus, so if you don’t speak Arabic, you may be forcing Palestinians to simplify their opinions and stories.
A visit to the West Bank is a chance to see and experience more than what’s covered by CNN or Al-Jazeera – the pastry, but also the politics. If you’re really concerned, it may be safer to avoid discussing Hamas, Fatah, Israel or a long list of other topics. But refusing to talk about the conflict also means denying a central reality of the place.
Outside Al-Aqsa bakery, a near-constant line of customers waits without complaint. A young man with slicked-back hair and shining white sneakers talks with the kanafeh-cutting hajji as he waits for a box of butcher paper-wrapped kanafeh. A cluster of women in colorful scarves carrying bags of produce from the Old City souq, or marketplace, each take a plate. One of them has brought her own Arab pita bread and constructs herself a kind of kanafeh sandwich. The women grab plastic chairs and sit at a small table on the tiled floor. The lighting inside is painfully fluorescent, as it is in all phenomenal hole-in-the-wall Palestinian eateries.
Across the alley, the process of making the kanafeh is on display at Al-Aqsa’s production facility. The workers here are pastry savants. One kanafeh craftsman spreads rose water syrup across a pan and covers it with semolina. Another sprinkles the Nablusi cheese – the brine completely strained off – over the top of the semolina. The pastry then bakes on a gas burner until one of the workers drops a clean pan on top and flips the whole batch, placing it back on the burner to toast further.
The bakers at Al-Aqsa are making what is known as na’ama or “fine” kanafeh, characterized by a flat, crumble-like top layer. There is also plenty of the khisnah or “rough” variety in the Old City, made instead with a layer of thin, noodle-like strands of pastry.
It’s difficult to know if, in supporting Al-Aqsa Bakery or any other business in Nablus, your tourism might be supporting a particular group or ideology. Nablus is an economic center for the West Bank. There are business owners who condone armed struggle. It’s possible the man selling you cardamom-infused coffee beans is the father of the militant pictured on the posters around his shop. But the discussion around boycotts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is much larger than kanafeh.
One option would be to do some uncomfortable inquiring about political allegiances. I often did not. But asking uncomfortable questions can also be a central part of visiting the West Bank.
The rest of the world holds a microscope over Palestinians and Israelis and continues to stare and stare, often without understanding much. More important than the economic impact of tourism in the West Bank, or Israel, for that matter, is the transaction of visiting at all. Visiting Nablus grants a new, if incomplete, sense of the reality in the area.
At the same time, visitors also operate in a different, privileged reality. Whatever perspective we hope to come away with, foreigners would do well to consider what it means to observe a conflict. Among tourists as well as NGO workers, there is a tendency towards a kind of conflict voyeurism – a desire to earn one’s stripes for having “seen some shit.” But there are chances to observe injustice or encounter “radical” viewpoints everywhere.
The bigger question is how to observe responsibly and how to carry away whatever is learned. What does it mean to lean against a wall underneath Hamas graffiti and savor bite after bite of kanafeh with a row of Palestinians? On the way out through checkpoint after checkpoint, we finish a transaction where, in some sense, we have consumed more than just kanafeh.
Skylar Lindsay is a writer and photographer publishing on social justice, travel, food, and human rights issues. A Seattle native, he grew up between statues of Vladimir Lenin and Leif Erikson and studied Peace & Conflict at Colgate University. He’s also worked as an ice climbing instructor, an organic tomato farmer and a Spanish tapas cook. Read his latest work at SkylarNoah.wordpress.com, and follow him on Twitter.