Editor of Comma’s forthcoming anthology, The Book of Ramallah, MAYA ABU AL-HAYAT writes about arriving and escaping from another Palestinian city, Nablus.
I’ve never been that romantic about the place. When I was growing up, Nablus was about my aunts and uncles and their kids who would visit us from the city. We’d meet at my aunt’s house in Amman (the one we used to call the hotel). They would bring tales of The Bridge and the metal containers filled with cheese and olives and the zalabya . My aunt’s tiny house would suddenly become even smaller and crowded.
When I was a bit older I went to live with my father in Tunis, Nablus then became this holy place according to him, obsessed with the dishes and delicacies of the city. We would go from one Lebanese restaurant to the next so he could find somewhere to eat knaffa , ojja or zalabya. All of these were now associated, in my head, with that legendary place that made weird and wonderful desserts we couldn’t find anywhere else.
As the news of the Oslo Accords and talk of possible return reached fever pitch, I started to hear from my father of his hopes, dreams and wishes to return to one of the ruinous houses in Nablus — he preferred that over living in any of the world’s finest cities. As for me, I had no choice in loving that city or hating it yet. They had taken me away from the things that I loved, from my bedroom in Tunis with my books and posters on the walls so we could return to Palestine. “Return to Palestine”, that phrase that was somewhat strange to me. Return means that you were there once and are returning, but I had never been there. So, my father was returning and I would return with him. Till then, any concept of Nablus in my head was from news reports on the first Intifada, of children being martyred and soldiers breaking the bones of young folk. “The youngsters have grown, Oh mountain of fire and they are now revolutionaries …” . My Nablus was all about myths and stories of the Old City, mystical beings and ghosts, the Yasmina neighbourhood and the onion market. I imagined a city with no streets or even apartment blocks, I may have even imagined a city of tents and dirt tracks.
It was hot when we came to Jericho for the first time after the Oslo Accords on 7 July, 1995. My sister and I were in a state of disgruntlement about all the decisions that were being made on our behalf. I remember being amazed at the paved road that went from The Bridge, via Jericho and on to Nablus, thinking that it would never end. We passed by Al-Badthaan Valley and stopped to drink from its cold spring. I dozed off in the car and when I opened my eyes I was so taken with the greenery and the trees I had never seen before. We travelled through Balata refugee camp and Askar refugee camp at the entrance to the city and all I could see were paved roads, tall buildings and so many cars.
Al-Ayishiya School where I finished my secondary education is on Amman Street in one of the less well heeled parts of the city, close to where my uncles lived having moved there from the Old City (my father’s birthplace) to Al-Dahiya neighbourhood close to a military checkpoint on the heights of Jirzeem Hill.
University life took me to western Nablus. In my mind’s eye, Nablus now had much warmer associations, with other ideas and more romantic notions — my teenage antics around the city roundabout and University Street where my sweetheart lived. Nablus was now short haired, with a broad forehead and thick set shoulders and a green sky. This was towards the end of 1998, back in the days when the summer never seemed to end. But it ended forever in one fell swoop with the start of the second Intifada: on its first day, there at the city’s entrance, on Amman Street, where I first came to Nablus, my sweetheart was martyred by a bullet to his head while on a student protest, and so the city died to me forever.
Nablus, the city built on the two hills of Eibal and Jirzeem, the city of stone that was a trading hub that meant it was the commercial capital of Palestine, the city that still has the mystique that all historic cities hold: of delicacies, myths and legends, feudal families and those that are poor and destitute, many mad folk and poems and poets, houses wafting with the scent of jasmin, lemon and roses and also maqlouba and knaffa and traditional Palestinian soap. Traditions and customs that pressure you but also bring pleasure at the same time.
My father would sit outside his house in the Old City for many years. He drank countless cups of tea and reminisced about his thick hair and his tailored suits, in the style that Abdel Halim Hafez wore when he watched his films at the only cinema in the city on Fridays. My father returned to Nablus as if he had never left it, he didn’t change and didn’t become someone else, he was never fully content or overly happy, but he was in his place. He put his suitcase in the cupboard and did not want to see it again.
For me, after university, Nablus became a vertical city, it forced me to think of the heavens rather than the solid ground. It didn’t allow me to have clear horizontal vision. When my father passed away, I had to escape the city where he lay buried in the eastern cemetery and my sweetheart lay in the western one; I had to escape to more horizontal cities nearby so I could breathe.
Translated by Mohammed Ghaleiny
About the Author
Maya Abu Al-Hayat is a Beirut-born Palestinian novelist and poet living in Jerusalem, but working in Ramallah. She has published two poetry books, numerous children’s stories and three novels, including her latest No One Knows His Blood Type (Dar Al-Adab, 2013). She is the director of the Palestine Writing Workshop, an institution that seeks to encourage reading in Palestinian communities through creative writing projects and storytelling with children and teachers. She contributed to, and wrote a forward for A Bird is Not a Stone: An Anthology of Contemporary Palestinian Poetry, and is the editor of Comma’s forthcoming Book of Ramallah.
For more information about The Book of Ramallah, click here.
The Bridge – The main crossing point between Jordan and the West Bank is situated by a bridge over the River Jordan and is colloquially referred to as The Bridge. There are several, but the most commonly used one is near to Jericho
Zalabya – A yeasted dough dessert that is fried and served sweetened with syrup.
Knaffa – A Palestinian dessert consisting of a sweet chesse base and topped with a fine vermicelli topping and nuts.
Ojja – Palestinian breakfast dish, a bit like omelette.
The youngsters have grown, Oh mountain of fire and they are now revolutionaries …” – A song broadcast on Jordanian TV in support of the Palestinian uprising.
Al-Dahiya – Literally means the suburb.