Monday, November 8, 2010

A visit to the souk

Today I was given a tour of the old city of Nablus by one of the local volunteers. I've found it very useful to speak French, as the volunteers speak either very good English, or failing that, very good French. I have found myself swapping from one to the other, as one of the hard-working office girls, who gave me my very first Arabic lesson today, speaks French. Our lesson was from French into Arabic, and vice versa.

The history of the souk goes back over 4000 years, and the city is a myriad of stairways leading no-where, or disappearing up and around a corner, of windows half bricked-up, of arches covered up by another building cutting across, of balconies long fallen into dis-use. Beautiful buildings next to piles of rubble, and all the while shop after shop after shop.

As with most souks, it is divided into sections which sell different wares: there were heaps of dried herbs and spices, giving off aromas reminiscent of Zanzibar, there were coffee shops where the coffee was ground before your eyes (imported from Costa Rica and Yemen), there were sheeps' heads in buckets of water, staring up in resigned acceptance of their fate, there were heaps of almonds, cashews, olives, pink cauliflowers, sweets, tomatoes.

There were tailors, full of men working away under the arches at their old Singers, there were pizzas, Palestinian-style ( a square piece of freshly-cooked dough filled with local goat's cheese, spinach or both, probably pre-dating the Italian version), there were falafel makers with their piles of chopped salads ready to fill the pitas, freshly cooked next-door, and there were cages full of chickens, rabbits and pigeons. Piles of white eggs, heaps of shoes, rows of ladies fashions and childrens' clothes, and butcher's, with carcasses hanging from large meat-hooks.

Now that's what I call a market, and the thought struck me, not for the first time, that our lives in the homogenous West seem to me to be so much more barren, dull, lifeless. On a recent trip to London, the small family-run businesses that I used to know even when I lived there 30 years ago have long given over to the wall-to-wall Starbucks. It is difficult to find a place to get your keys cut, your shoes mended, etc. Here they have imitations of KFC and McDo, all painted locally and with Colonel Sander's squiffy nose elaborated upon by a local artist: infinitely preferable, and I expect the burgers are better too!

I bought a falafel maker, for ten shekels. The question remains as to whether they'll let me take it through customs, or whether it'll be deemed a dangerous weapon.

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