Monday, November 15, 2010

The Soap Factory

There used to be nearly 40 small family-run soap factories in Nablus - it was famous for that. Slowly trade dwindled, as all-purpose shampoos flooded (excuse pun) the market and soap went into decline. Add to this the disruption on the infrastructure since the Intifada, the willful destruction of hectares of olive trees, the restrictions on exports, together with the targeted bombing of some old factories in the Old City, and you arrive at the situation you have today: two remaining soap factories in Nablus.

I visited one with my local volunteer. There was no machinery! A huge old building, in the centre of town, with high ceilings and pillars on a stone floor. There were huge vats full of a glutinous slow-moving liquid: this was the soap, 50% olive oil, with added water, salt and sodium hydroxide (imported from Saudi Arabia). Other ingredients can be added to alter the texture, aroma, etc, but here it was back-to-basics soap. This liquid is mixed in the vat using a slow moving paddle (electricity-driven?), then poured onto the floors in the storeys above, between the pillars. There it is left to dry, and when dry enough is hand cut into slightly off-white square blocks. Then someone actually walks over this floor of soap, and hand stamps each block with the factory symbol.

The soap pieces are then individually wrapped in pieces of paper, and sold to locals, or sometimes tourists (although there are few) and not even to Hotels, as there is only one: this is not where people come on holiday. I am told that some soap is exported to Jordan, a sort-of life-line for exports from Palestine, and some of it reaches shops in the West - Brighton for example.

I asked about bulk export, and I was told the ex-factory price for the soap only, as freight would cost extra and he didn't know how much. Anyway for one tonne of soap, hand-made and organic, it would cost me $3200. I was trying to work this out, maths not being my strong point: he told me each 1kg contained a different amount of bars, as all bars were hand-cut and therefore slightly different in weight. But an average was 60-70 bars per kilo, so did he just tell me I could buy 60,000 bars for $3000+? This works out at 5cents, US, per bar, doesn't it?

I then wondered whether olive-oil soap would go off? If I bought 60,000 pieces, and filled a spare bedroom with them, would they go rancid before I had a chance to shift them? Images of Delboy and his various dodgy purchases drifted across my mind, and I dropped the whole idea, especially as the export taxes would be what increased the price considerably, but for a while there I was dreaming of washing in Nablus soap for the rest of my days...

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