North Africa, West Asia

The city of soap: Nabulsi identity beyond the communal experience of occupation

Nablus' soap - a potent symbol of Nabulsi identity - at the height of its popularity was exported to the Middle East, western Europe and beyond. However, restrictions have negatively contributed to the industry's volatility over the last three decades. 

Jonathan Brown
28 November 2013

In October, the Washington Post described Nablus as a former "crucible of terror and resistance," producing, "more suicide bombers than any other city in the devastating Second Intifada...". The city's international reputation is much improved since the end of the uprising, but for Palestinians, Nablus has always been celebrated as the city of soap. 

In its turbulent history, Nabulsi soap has faced extinction. Now entering a period of relative economic stability, the recovering industry reflects the city's aspirations for a life beyond the frustrations and antagonizing realities of conflict and occupation.

Nablus Soap Wikimedia/G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress. Public Domain.

A symbol of resistance 

In the absence of a tourist information centre, the internationally funded NGO, Project Hope, acts as a hub for visitors to Nablus. Among the trinkets on sale at its reception - as a momento of Nablus - is locally produced soap. Purveyors of the industry suggest it is a millennium old, dating from the tenth century. Soap is one of the few distinctive features of the city's economic and cultural history, distinguishing Nablus in industry and heritage. 

Nablus' old city, though irrevocably damaged in both Intifadas, is a shrine to soap production. The walls of former soap factories are plastered with posters depicting mytars wielding automatic weapons. But it was within the old city that the Nablusi soap industry was inaugurated. 

In the nineteenth century, the old city housed more than thirty soap factories, while over forty operated beyond the old walls. Only one remains: Al Badir Soap Manufacturing Company. Its cold, stone interior bears little evidence of modernization or technological advancement. Barely a ten minute walk away, the Tuquan family soap factory stands yards outside the old city. It was built in 1872, during the Ottoman Empire. It stands today, 141 years later, in its original stone building. Nablusi soap, though much diminished in its floor-space, is carved into the architectural and historical heart of Nablus.

Soap has close and lasting family ties with Nablus. The Tuquan, Shakaa, and Masri families all feature prominently in the industry's biography - and their factories continue production to this day. The Tuquan family have been prominent in the political and cultural vitality of Palestine and Jordan since the Ottoman Empire. Members include: a former Prime Minster of Jordan, a Jordanian Queen, two renowned poets and writers, an award winning architect, and Jordanian Ambassadors to the United Kingdom, Italy, Turkey and Egypt. Their reign over the political and cultural life of Jordan and Palestine is as formidable as the soap industry they garnered in Nablus. The continued success of the industry still relies on these family connections.  

The essential connection between product and place often features on the product's packaging; usually the city's name features prominently. Nablusi soap's crystalised place, both within the architecture of the old city, and within the industrial and historical identity of the town, renders it a potent symbol of Nablusi identity.  

Soap politicized 

In August 2010, Rawan Shakaa, whose family factory still produces soap today, emphasized the role of the Israeli military intervention in the industry's recent history: 

" ...  Most soap factories are located in the old city of Nablus. Unfortunately, not many of these factories are working today due to the Israeli occupation and incursions into the old city, where Israel’s main goal is to destroy and erase any heritage related to Palestine. In the case of Nablus, destruction of the old city, soap factories included, is particularly devastating since soap factories are considered symbols of industrial and social enterprise as well as wealth and influence." 

While Shakaa's remarks reveal the significance of Nablusi soap economically and culturally; more importantly they affirm the importance of soap for Nablus' heritage and identity. 

In Véronique Bontemps' 2012, Soap Factories in Nablus: Palestinian Heritige at the local level, she noted of the Second Intifada,

"Articles in the local newpapers and on the internet started to refer to Nabulsi soap as a vestige of a glorious past, an icon of Palestinian culture and national heritage, as well as the symbol of Palestinian resistance to occupation." 

Having solidified a central place within Nabulsi history and heritage - even becoming a symbol of resistance, the industry has been endowed a political voice. The General Managers of both Al Badir Soap Manufacturing Company, and the Toukan family factory recognize this. Both were reluctant to comment on the industry at all, while one noted he required the approval of the Board of Directors to make public statements. The longevity of their industry and respective companies renders them political spokesmen - not only of their companies - but of Nablus' culture and heritage too.  

Circulation and economics

At the height of its distribution, Nabulsi soap's reach was not limited to the Middle East and western Europe. Purportedly, it was Queen Elizabeth of England's soap of choice. Although Nabulsi soap continues to be exported to Jordan, Kuwait, and areas of Israel populated largely by Palestinians, its international distribution is much diminished in recent years.

Before the first and second Intifada, the Tukan family factory produced upwards of 600 tonnes of soap per year. Na'el Qubbaj cited, "obstacles imposed by Israeli Authority," in describing why soap production decreased by 50%. Since, production has been increasing. Overall production was hampered greatly during the second Intifada. Two thriving soap factories inside the old city were destroyed. Now approximately only 400 tonnes are produced per year - a mere 63% of pre-Intifada yield. 

Approximately 270 of these 400 tons, are exported to Jordan, where it is again distributed throughout the Gulf, and to European countries including Switzerland, Italy, Germany. The remaining 130 tons of the Tuquan yield is reserved for the local market.

The World Bank's October 2, report, West Bank and Gaza: Area C and the Future of the Palestinian Economy, affirms: "the complex system of restrictions on movement and access imposed by Israel is the most significant impediment to Palestinian private sector growth." The Nabulsi soap industry is implicated in these complications of movement, as is any other private sector industry; and these restrictions have negatively contributed to the industry's volatility in the last three decades. 

With the expansion to the online market, the distribution of soap made in Nablus has stretched beyond Palestine's constricted borders - but not without further complications. Soap retailers' access to tools necessary to operate successfully in the online marketplace is limited. Considerable frustration is evident on PayPal's Palestinian Community Forum over the financial service's absense from the West Bank and Gaza. This frustration is only amplified as PayPal operates extensively throughout the Middle East and even in Israel. 

Ingredients and production

The recipe of Nabulsi soap has remained largely unchanged since production began approximately 1000 years ago. The ingredients, unique to the region, are another important tie between the product and the region. The primary ingredients are entirely natural, botanically based, and biodegradable. Virgin olive oil and a salt solution form the basis.

According to Na'el Qubbaj, his factory's soap is produced according to standards prescribed by the Jordanian Royal Scientific Society and the International Organization for Standardization. Recent variations on the traditional recipe include: essential oils, honey, milk, mud from the Dead Sea and dried herbs. 

Muath Majed, of Al Badir Soap Manufacturing Company, has put on display the handheld tools of wood and metal still used today to stamp and cut the soap. Despite the industry's longevity, it has voluntarily persisted within a technological vacuum, opting for traditional modes of production. Drying is an essential and well-documented stage in production, lasting between three to twelve months. The blocks of soap are stacked, floor to ceiling, in hollow conical towers. 

Despite the difficulties inherent in life in Palestine, even unrestricted access to competitive markets would be seen as a defining victory for Nablusis, and their soap manufacturers.

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