Sunday, 27 February 2011

Chapter 39 The Nablus Soap Factory

'Nabulsi soap is as old as the olive tree for the two are inextricably tied' he said as we began our tour.

'We are one of the last remaining factories. This building is over 800 years old and my family has been making soap for 200 years.'

I cast an eye over my class of teenage girls. They had not been impressed when I first told them the destination of our field trip.

'I don't like Nabulsi soap. It's just a big white block.'

'It smells weird. I prefer soap that smells like flowers.'

'I think the only person I know who uses it is my grandmother - she says it cleans better than anything else.'

'Yeah mine too!'

The entrance to the soap factory is nondescript. So much so we had to ask around in order to find it. A man in his early 40's sits in a room out front surrounded by towers of soap.

At its height, Nabulsi soap was exported all over the world and even Queen Elizabeth is reported to have had it sent in especially.

There used to be over 40 functioning factories in Nablus. An earthquake in 1927 damaged many of them and those left over took such a beating during the second intifada there are only three left.

The factory itself is a large dusty room with a massive stone vat in the middle. As the soap making process was explained to us it became clear just what an endeavor it was.

The vat extends about 2 metres downwards and huge sticks were used to stir the olive oil based soap.

Making the soap is a week long process and requires up to 10 people. Drying time takes a further three months.

Nablus soap is not doing as well as it used to. The factory was empty. The vat unused. The room deserted.

'The demand isn't there anymore. The younger generations aren't interested in Nabulsi soap. Even if they were it's difficult to find people who want to work in this industry these days. Those who can study to be doctors or engineers - nobody wants to sit around and make soap.'

I take another look at the girls. They hadn't realized there was a bigger picture. That one of their traditions was dying.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Chapter 38 Circus School - Deema's story

My after school group of girls is an advanced English class. We've been taking field trips around Nablus each week. Below is an essay written by one of my girls about the Nablus Circus School. Enjoy!

Strolling down the street, out of that school, with excitement and pleasure as we were thinking – what are we going to see?

It was warm, and the air was refreshing. Everything just felt so new and fresh. Tick tock, tick tock and it’s 2 pm. Time to start the trip.

I never ever imagined that the souq could be this nice. If you asked me about the souq two days ago, I’d just say “ewww, smelly fishes, smelly fishes”. Now, thinking through it, I don’t think it’s that bad because, beyond that smell, there were much better things.

Colorful vegetables, colorful clothes as well as shoes were all there on the sides of the streets spicing up the souq! Shouting people were nicely annoying and crying baby were annoyingly cute.

Women, men, adults, children… some were striding and some were pacing. That is the beauty of the souq. All are there, just as a loving community.

Our much smaller community which contains me, Miss Sara and other friends at TFP finally got to that place. That place with the colorful curtains and the sofas in the office. That little room with so much that it has accomplished.
Out of that room we went to the ‘pictures room’ as I like to call it. It was nice and full of wall pictures of all that this other little happy loving community achieved!

Now to the exciting room. The rehearsal room! Stilts and unicycles, juggling and trapeze is all that my brain can remember!

To do something useful with your extra time; to develop your talents and to be healthy. I think that is just the place for you.

Oh by the way…. It’s called…. Assirk Assaghir!!

For more information on TFP visit

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Chapter 37 The boy with the sad eyes

Akka is only about 30 minutes by train away from Haifa but a different world from the chilled out city we left behind.

Passing through the metal detectors feels just a little more serious than in Haifa.

On the street people’s faces seemed more drawn. Weary even.

It didn’t help that the day was gloomy and fairly chilly lending itself to the depressing atmosphere.

We were on our way to the Al Jazzar Wall in Old Akka. It’s a massive stone structure with a moat dating back to 1799. It now acts as a divider between Akka’s Arab and Israeli populations.

About 10 minutes out from the station we passed a run down, fast food type restaurant with chickens roasting outside. Immediately we lost a member of our group to the promise of meat sandwiches.

As we waited for him outside I noticed a young boy staring at me from the restaurant terrace.

He was a teenager, sitting alone at a table waiting for his mother and siblings. No more than 15. Dark skinned and dark haired with surprisingly light eyes.

I looked back at him.

We stared at each other in silence for a moment. His eyes didn’t waver. His face etched with misery.

So taken by the sadness in his gaze, I was momentarily startled when a shout in Hebrew came from a bus full of Israelis. As the bus passed the restaurant a young teenage boy stuck his hand through the window, accompanying his yelling with an obscene gesture.

I looked back at the boy with the sad eyes. His shoulder seemed to slump a little bit further.

As his mother joined him on the terrace our friend found his way back out to the street and we continued on.

Old Akka:

The port:

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Chapter 36 Ola's miracle

'A miraculous recovery'. That's what they're calling it.

A few months ago, little Ola was days, weeks maybe even minutes away from death.

After a long, difficult journey of operations and radiotherapy, six year old Ola is still alive.

Alive and well according to her doctors in Meyer Children's Hospital in Italy.

Thank you to everyone who shared her story, donated to her fund and helped to save her life.

Thanks to @Diya_khalil for the photos.

Chapter 35 Haifa - Part 3: The Baha'i Gardens

UNESCO Word Heritage Site.

Baha’i holy site.

Built in 1987 by Iranian architect Fariborz Sahba.

It is misleading to call them gardens. Genuinely it is.

Really what they should be called is the aweinspiringperfectlymaintainedtieredupamountainwonderthatisthe Baha’I Gardens.

I stand and gawp at how picturesque the soaring terraces are for a minute before walking in. As we are scanned by security, the rules are stated formulaically:

No smoking.

No eating or drinking of any kind.

Do not drink from the water fountain.

Do not, under any circumstances, climb into the fountain. No… not even for a photo.

The guards let us in and go back to their conversation:

‘Well it’s the borders that are our first line of defense. They…’

Okaayyy... yup - flowers beautiful, gardens - a feat of absolute genius, all great, thumbs waaayyy up.

I shuffle back towards the gate, unconvincingly pretending to be fascinated by the flawlessly aligned blades of grass as I strain my ears to overhear.

I know. Eavesdropping is rude. I did feel a little guilty.

‘After 9/11 the US called on us to train them in security. They were not tight enough on the borders.’

The man dominating the conversation was speaking English with a strange almost-Spanish accent.

‘Now they understand better how to do it. Israel has always been the best at these things.’

I didn’t really get much else as my studied staring at the grass was starting to look, at the very least, faintly moronic.

I ambled away and up the stairs to gaze down the mountain, over the garden and onto the sea.

Absolutely amazing.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Sidenote You can't run away from a bad review

A few days back I posted about Benihana opening up at the Avenues and yesterday night I decided to pass by with Nat and try it out. The service wasn’t too bad for a restaurant that’s just been open for a few days and the staff were really friendly. The restaurant itself is made up of islands and bars with a grill in the middle of each one. You sit around the grill and the chef will come to your table and prepare the food right in front of you which makes things entertaining. It’s actually why I prefer sitting at the bar in Japanese restaurants in general, since you can talk to the chef and watch them put your dish together. The problem with my experience last night though was with the food, it was disappointing to say the least.

We ordered beef negimayaki for starters followed by an Orange Blossom maki and a Hibachi Chicken. The negimaki arrived looking good and was probably the best thing we had there even though I prefer Maki’s negimaki which has a richer teriyaki sauce. The Orange Blossom was very ordinary, wouldn’t order it again. Now the Hibachi chicken which is basically grilled chicken, that was the worst. The chicken was very chewy (I could swear it was undercooked if not raw) and tasted terrible. Even after I had the chef add some more teriyaki sauce in hopes of improving the taste it didn’t work. I tried to dip it into the sauces that came with the chicken but it was hard to figure out if they were actually making things worse or not. Nat only ate one piece of chicken and left the rest while I needed my protein since I’m on a strict diet and forced myself to eat my whole plate (I can do that) but the after taste was really bad. Even the rice and the veggies that came with it tasted bad AND were under cooked. Once we left I considered picking up a frozen yogurt from Pinkberry even though I hate frozen yogurts but I just needed something to get rid of the aftertaste. A few moments later we ended up at Chocolate Bar ordering the gooey chocolate cake (bye bye diet).

I shot the two videos [video one and video two] above of the chef preparing our meal. Benihana are known for the live shows they perform when preparing your dish so I was expecting to see [This] but ended up with the above. Would I go back to Benihana? No I wouldn’t. Their sashimi and maki’s are pretty cheap (KD1.5 for 5 pieces of Salmon sashimi for example) but there are two other Japanese restaurants at the Avenues, Wasabi and Maki, and I would prefer either one of those to Benihana.


This was written by a blogger in Kuwait after visiting Benihana. The result was a $18,000 lawsuit filed by the Kuwaiti franchisee.

A lawsuit for voicing his opinion. Not even an excessively harsh opinion. A lawsuit for writing what he probably told his friends anyway.

As a gesture of solidarity this blog post is being reproduced by bloggers around the world.

Just as importantly - as a reminder to companies, corporations and organisations that blogs never were, nor will we ever allow them to be subject to lawsuits and accusations.

They have always been an area of free speech and should remain so.

Benihana Kuwait tried to silence one voice. Now they are being bombarded with hundreds.

If you are a service provider then you have to be prepared to listen, accommodate for and be attentive to what your customers are saying. Cause you just can't run away from a bad review.

Join us by reproducing this on your blog or follow the hashtag #BenihanaKUW on Twitter and Like the Boycott Benihana Kuwait page on Facebook,

Mark Makhoul's blog.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Chapter 34 Haifa - Part 2: the city

Exiting Haifa bus station

Haifa has a mixed Arab and Israeli population, a large Russian community and is strangely full of Chinese restaurants.

It is one of the more successfully integrated cities and we saw little evidence of the tension that is so palpable in other Israeli cities.

It’s clean and it’s quirky. The city extends from the Mediterranean up to Mount Carmel meaning that whichever way you look, you’ve got a fantastic view.

Some areas sport brand spanking new Dubai style buildings sprinkled among the older architecture. Others seem abandoned and battered.

Following the recommendation of what has been a vital part of my travels here – my Lonely Planet Guide to Israel & the Palestinian Territories – we make our way through the Arab market in Wadi Nisnas. It was late in the day so the stalls were all closed but we still got to wander through and take a look at public art displays.

After the market we made our way to Hadar, one of the commercial centres and a busy shopping district. I found myself some moisturizer with built in sunblock – I know I know, but it’s near impossible to find in the West Bank. Plus it’s super expensive.

We then wandered back to our hostel before going out for dinner (Chinese – I was being serious before) and an evening of pool and live music at Eli’s (That’s pronounced Ellie’s by the way, not Eelie’s as we were pointedly told by the lady at the hostel).

What? How could I have known?