The social entrepreneurs of Nablus and Sebastia

Travel diary, day 8 of 14 (OMG it’s week 2!)

Pre-post disclaimer: highly educational, serious content here …for once, you know; just to spice things up or down, depending on your taste 😛

It’s a cloudy, cold but luminous morning and our ascent towards the Northern border of the West Bank continues: goodbye cozy Hostel in Ramallah, hello Nablus!! And hello super stylish and clearly hip guy without whom we would probably never have found, or even gotten in, our new house for the night – just another example of fantastic Cisjordanian generosity 🙂

First stop of the day is Project Hope,

a community nonprofit and registered charity which works in refugee camps, cities, and villages in Nablus in teaching English and delivering other essential education, arts and sports programs to Palestinian children and youth. Further, it is the largest volunteer organization of its kind in Palestine, it fosters dialogue and cooperation between local and international volunteers, while encouraging its volunteer alumni to remain involved with the issue of Palestine afterwards.

We have been put in touch with Hakim, the director, by my friend Elisa (merci chérie!) and our chat with him is totally worth our time and energies. While drinking tea on his sofa and in between admiring the remarkable graphic novels and photography books realized by the organization to collect and distribute its kids’ creative works, we learn that every week Project Hope works with about 2000 children of at least five years of age in around 40 locations in Nablus and beyond (consider a regional population of approx. 400,000); that it has welcomed more than 100 international volunteers since the summer alongside its many Palestinian volunteers, who always accompany the non-locals in their activities to make sure all cultural and linguistic barriers are taken down; and that after this year’s big success, Hakim and his team are working on having a second, free, 15-day Nablus festival for culture and arts this coming spring, involving tons of artists from twelve countries and in collaboration with carefully selected partners that only include other NGOs and cultural centres. Man, I wish I could go!!

I’m fascinated by how much hard work and passion Hakim obviously puts into the Project, which he has been leading for eleven of its thirteen years of life if my notes are correct. It’s all about sharing know-how, he says: based on the volunteers’ skills and availabilities different workshops are offered to the kids that will be repeated as long as there will be requests. Paid staff amounts to 8 people, funding comes from a variety of international supporters small and big, and even though the situation is getting harder because many mega-donors are shifting funds to the Syrian crisis, every now and then an amazing story comes up and saves the rocking boat. For example, he tells us about that time that two South Korean ladies who didn’t speak a word of English suddenly showed up in a taxi with some prearranged questions and interviewed him for Buddhist TV, eventually winning a prize of $10,000 for their work which they of course proceeded to share! How it all came to happen is something that will remain in the fog of mystery…

Over the course of our conversation, Hakim also introduces us to some other cool people: first is a man from one of Nablus’s historical families, whose grandfather was once mayor of the municipality, whose father was a prominent translator from classic French literature such as Voltaire’s and Montesquieu’s, and whose brother was friends with Moravia and assassinated in Rome in 1972. Yeeeeah. And second is Habeeb, friendly Nabulsi Spanish speaker who graduated in Musicology in Barcelona and now teaches in multiple universities while also importing musical instruments from China and, most importantly perhaps, directing Nablus’s cultural children centre’s music school – which we gladly also visit.

Said centre is truly unexpectedly beautiful, and it truly unexpectedly used to be… a biiig stable! Now it’s very gracefully dotted with cute arts and crafts and has started hosting the music school just three months ago, hence the piano, drums and little else – but the collection will grow. This place and its activities are super important to local kids, just like Project Hope’s, as public school only runs from 8am to 12noon for reasons that we do not manage to unpack. The music school, in particular, opens at 1pm and aims to offer each child eight hours of high-quality music lessons per month at the incredibly low price of 150 shekels i.e. about $30/€38!! Instruments for rehearsals are rented out on an annual basis by a sister company, and electricity etc bills are covered by donors. Amazing. Habeeb’s childhood dream come true.

But Nablus’s success stories are not over yet: as Hannah and I wander around the old city and its market like we always do, looking for food like we always do and actually finding a staggeringly high number of dead animal heads like we do not always do, TA-DAA there we stumble upon the city’s old soap factory! Now, you have to know that everybody everywhere quotes Nablus as being famous for two things: its fantastic soap and its delicious kunafe. So of course we venture in the factory to snap a couple of pics… And don’t we end up spending a good half hour there learning how to make olive oil soap in the minutest detail?! Our improvised professor is one of the heirs of what has been a thriving family business for, he says, 850 years – most of which actually spent in there, as production has only recently been moved elsewhere. I won’t share all my amazing soap knowledge with you right now, but please do ask if curiosity on the matter doesn’t let you sleep at night. Personally, I found especially interesting that from 1971 to 1973 harsh Israeli regulations forced the soap family to look for olive oil outside of Palestine, and that their choice then fell upon Italy (oh, my national pride!); and that apparently there are entire groups of doctors from Sweden or somewhere else that travel to Palestine every October to stock up on soap for professional as well as fundraising use, and then reinvest the acquired money in Palestinian-based projects. Nice, no? 🙂

The most famous shop in the most famous city for the most famous Levantine sweet ever is just opposite the soap factory: kunafe, kunafe, kunafe all around, constantly, fresh and warm and instantly eaten by the eyes and mouths of never-decreasing crowds!! It’s quite a sight. And, no joke- the very best kunafe we have ever had, just like we had been told. Kudos, Al-Aqsa sweets! You will very evidently never run out of clients…

After some more idle wandering, finally, we take a servees towards our last planned destination: the ancient Greek-Roman town of Sebastia, on top of a neighbouring hill, of which I can tell you nothing historical because I forgot to take notes! There we also meet our last social entrepreneur of the day, Ayham. 16 years old, first of eleven children one of whom will be born in five days, a couple of years ago he bought a metal detecting machine from an American guy in Tel Aviv for the non-indifferent sum of $2,000 and he uses it to find archeological coins in the remains at the summit of his hometown. He shows us what he’s got and even gifts us a couple: they’re a good bunch, cleaned with lemon juice, and he knows exactly what each of them is, from which period, and what they are worth. At times, he tells us, he finds such good ones that he can sell them to Tel Aviv collectors for up to $3,000 each! He has also clearly studied his history, as he explains to us what each of the ruins used to be and leads us to the church of John the Baptist in his fairly good English.

Frequent tractor sightings accompany our short, albeit meaningful, Sebastian visit. And as night falls and we employ every single brain cell in a desperate attempt to understand why, why, why our taxi driver seems to be convinced that we are perrrfeclty fluent in Arabic, telling us what sound (perhaps!) like fun geography facts, we realise that we will miss Palestine sorely; and I for sure will miss being surrounded by that splendid, splendid language that is Arabic, in all its shapes; and by these people who are most often so hospitable, so kind, and so encouragingly strong.

I will miss, among others, the social entrepreneurs of Nablus and Sebastia 🙂

to see more appetite-inducing kunafe pictures and more, click HERE! 🙂 🙂


Food of the day: same breakfast as yesterday, in Ramallah; shameful fettuccine all’Alfredo because I realised that I just can’t go without pasta for more than a week; kunafe; a beetroot, pomegranate, and orange juice; tea; almonds

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