During the Palestinian revolt against British colonial rule in the 1930s, Nablus earned the name, “Mountain of Fire,” for its fierce resistance. It retained that moniker through Jordanian rule and Israeli occupation. In this decade, Israel dubbed the city “capital of terrorism.” Today, despite a cooling of the conflict – most Palestinians and Israelis consider the second Palestinian uprising to have ended – Nablus is surrounded by Israeli military checkpoints. Men in their 20s and 30s who reside in Nablus and its three refugee camps are not allowed to leave.
Last Saturday, my friend, Jon, visiting from Amman, and I set off for the Mountain of Fire. Our taxi stopped at the Hawar checkpoint outside Nablus because taxis and service vans are not allowed to enter the city from the outside. We crossed the kilometer or so on foot, as most all Palestinians must do to pick up another taxi on the other side.
The three soldiers manning the point asked us why we wanted to go to Nablus. To eat kanafeh, I told them. They looked confused and so Jon repeated the answer. What do you mean, kanafeh, one of them asked. We explained.
Kanafeh is a pastry made of sweeted goat cheese and filo dough, drizzled with syrup, a desert delicacy in the Arab countries of the Eastern Mediterranean. Nablus is widely considered among Arabs as home of the best kanafeh. In Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, kanafeh is often referred to as kanafeh Nabulsi (meaning, of Nablus). Israeli cuisine has adopted many Arab staples such as hummous and shwarma. Falafel is considered Israel’s national food. But, kanafeh hasn’t made it onto the Israeli desert menu.
The soldiers checked our passports and waved us through. We picked up another taxi and headed for the city center. Nablus was founded by the Roman emperor Titus in 72 AD, making it modern compared with surrounding villages. It was one of the most prosperous cities in the region during the Ottoman period, which earned it the nickname, “little Damascus.” We explored the city’s sprawling old city, a stone maze of archways and alleys. It reminded us of Aleppo’s old city, in Syria. Some of the centuries-old buildings were still in ruins from Israel’s 2002 siege of the city and numerous plaques commemorated “martyrs” who were killed in the fighting.
We found “al-Aqsa” sweets, behind the Great Mosque and bought a half-kilo – an assortment of the four types of kanafeh made there. We returned to a restaurant where we had eaten lunch upstairs – away from the gaze of passersby fasting during Ramadan – and consumed the kanafeh. It was the best that I’ve tasted, and among the best deserts I can remember eating.