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Nablus: The City of Strong Women

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 05.03.2007:

By Aref Hijjawi

Even though I was born and raised in Nablus, I have never had any homosexual experiences. Most probably, homosexuality is as widespread in Nablus as anywhere else in the world, but jokesters prefer to attribute specific human qualities to a particular geographical location.

But there are ready-made stereotypes that I know of and can talk about.

I have forgotten the name of that man from Nablus who, if he had eaten a portion of our local sweet, knafe, in the market, would go back home and pay his wife eight piastres so that she would have the vicarious experience of the joy of life.

This incident gives a true picture of the men of Nablus. They are complaisant and docile family men. They are also skilled kitchen labourers who spend most of their time at home.

For some hundred years, men in Nablus lived as storekeepers, tradesmen, or landlords. Many were merchants who sold the products of the surrounding villages. Many more were teachers or scholars of mediocre learning. Others were labourers who carried on their shoulders huge bowls full of stinking boiling liquid that was to become soap. Others were servants who were tied to the households of the wealthy and who lived from the crumbs of their bread. And still others were farmers who cultivated and lived from the yields of green orchards that, until recently, have filled the valley between the two well-known mountains in Nablus, Ibal and Jerizim. The valley was irrigated by rain and sewage water.

In the past, men from Nablus hardly engaged in government jobs or entered the world of politics. The current meagre presence of politicians and conflict-resolvers from Nablus is partly attributed to this fact. Nablus has always been a second or third city; Jerusalem was a historical political capital; Jaffa was an important port on the sea; and Gaza became prominent in its region as a result of uninterrupted invasions. Nablus, on the other hand, remained like a second son with no birthright.

Hardly anybody from Nablus has ever worked in the politics of the nation, but the city produced local leaders who defended its limited interests. However, as the feudal system weakened, the leaders and their leadership vanished like bubbles in the air, and the community of Nablus comprised extended families with little influence and decorum. Families did not coalesce into tribes headed by individuals who would become charismatic leaders and enjoy the fellowship of loyal and faithful retainers as we see happening nowadays in Hebron, for example. Nablus has always been distant from the Bedouin style of life both in geography and manner.

I am talking about the urban society of Nablus, and before expatiating further on the subject, I see no harm in making a brief digression to talk about the effect of the 1948 nakba on Nablus society. Thousands of refugees arrived in Nablus, but the socio-economic system could hardly assimilate them, and therefore they remained a marginalized minority and there was always a degree of hatred between them and the local inhabitants of the city. On the other hand, the 1967 naksa alleviated feelings of animosity perhaps because the refugees benefited from working inside Israel and were able to upgrade their living standard and provide their children with better education.

During the past forty years, Nablus might have witnessed more emigration from rural areas and refugee camps than during the past few centuries. We actually began to see intermarriages between the children of the second and third generations in Nablus and newcomers from the countryside and refugee camps. But intermarriages in Nablus take place at a much lower rate than in other West Bank cities. Thus arose the proverbial hostility between Nabulsis and refugees and villagers.

We return now to talk about Nablus City before the latest social coups took place. We have already talked about the men of Nablus, but women have their own story as well.

My father’s aunt inspected the vegetables that her husband had bought from the market and discovered some rotten pieces. She said to him, ‘Shopkeepers in the Souk al Basal (onion market) see you coming and tell each other, “Here comes Abu Ziyad, let’s make a fool of him” ’. Her jest has become part of the family’s heritage. I once heard her curse and imprecate metaphorically perhaps hundreds of times: ‘May seventy evil eyes strike you dead’.

The Nablus woman has a strong character, and she is the master and decision maker in her house even if this leads her to disobey her gentle husband. She is fluent and adept in the choice of words, and she has her own profuse store of idioms, curses, proverbs, and imprecations that men do not usually use.

I strongly advise whoever is thinking of getting married to a Nabulsi woman to be on the alert. The Nablus woman is not easy to deal with. A man cannot control her after marriage using the argument, ‘I am the man’. The Nablus woman knows this very well; her mother and grandmothers before her taught her that this argument is rubbish. The Nablus woman is like quicksand; no one marries her except the one who wishes to settle down and abide by her rule.

This is at least the outcome of my observations.

The Nablus man is not good raw material to transform into a machismo. He is rather a negotiating character who seeks dialog and understanding. He tends to vent his anger through words, self-consolation, and capitulation to the status quo.

During the 1936 revolution, Nablus had been given the name, ‘Mountain of Fire’, though it is not fiery. It is, rather, a mild baby sleeping on the breasts of his mother. Some anthropologists have indicated that mountain inhabitants have rough and coarse behaviour unlike the easy-going and peaceful valley dwellers; but the behaviour of Nablus people has always been genial. In 1936, it was the countryside of Nablus that was untamed, and the city was contented with taking off the fez and wearing the kaffiah to bluff the British forces and distract them from the movements of the revolutionaries.

Nablus sprawls through a valley and has recently begun to creep up the versants of Ibal and Jerizim. Anywhere in the city you can detect four-fifths of its houses, and if anyone asks you for somebody’s house, all you need to do is take him up the roof and point to the house.

The few educated men who returned to Nablus from Al-Azhar University did very little to upgrade religious studies in their city. But Nablus has always loved learning, and the acquisition of knowledge in the city was mainly granted to the children of wealthy families due to the absence of other investments during the first half of the twentieth century. The first learners were males and females and the contagion of higher education spread among many.

The public municipal library, established in 1961, had been the biggest library in Jordan for many years and, even today, it is an important reading resort for students. But the public also use it as a centre for learning. Those who, like me, have passed the age of fifty insist that the current era of decline has restricted library visitors to youngsters who come to the library either to amuse themselves or do their school work in a quiet atmosphere.

Once in the late sixties, I saw Nablus Mayor, Hamdi Kanaan, visit the library, accompanied by a group of guests. After touring the library with the librarian and looking at the books lying on shelves, he headed toward the door holding an English book that he had picked up during the tour. At the exit, the employee at the circulation desk stopped him and obliged him to check the book out after registering it. They engaged in a conversation, and the mayor said that he would certainly return the book, so there should be no problem. The circulation desk employee simply smiled and told him that rules were rules and that they must be followed by everybody. I witnessed this incident with my own eyes, and it has left a mark on my soul: Nablus, it seemed, had come to realize that law and order is a good thing. Unfortunately, it was only a midsummer night’s dream.

I borrowed several books from the Nablus library that were written or translated by Nablus men and women of letters such as Adel Zuaiter, who translated Voltaire and Montesquieu and is considered one of the translation giants of the modern period; Akram Zuaiter, the historian and orator; Fadwa, Ibrahim, and Qadri Tuqan, who lived and died in Nablus and influenced countless people; and the important woman novelist, Sahar Khalifeh.

The contradiction in the characters of Fadwa Tuqan and Sahar Khalifeh has always fascinated me. Tuqan was meek and mellow and a poetess in the very strict sense of the word, whereas the other is a real woman of Nablus according to the criteria I arbitrarily set at the beginning. Khalifeh is audacious and revered. She has a strong character and a daring, original literary vision.

I knew Tuqan only a little. She related to me her well-known narrative about her despotic father who deprived her of formal education. But I tend to believe the old women of Nablus who aver to the contrary. They maintain that Tuqan exaggerated her situation in order to get people’s sympathy. Who knows? Fadwa Tuqan lived to be eighty-six, and she was the only source who could describe her experience with her father. But I have often considered registering the narrative of the old women of Nablus because they did not have the chance to talk with the media.

The dialect of Nablus has its own uniqueness. The educated people in neighbouring villages are the most ardent lovers of it, and they see it as an unusual creature that has its own distinguishing features. The dialects in Palestinian villages lose their distinction because they are similar in vocabulary and pronunciation. In addition, several urban dialects have been coloured by the city-village interaction. Only two distinct dialects have remained in Palestine: the dialect of Hebron and that of Nablus.

The dialect of Nablus is much more difficult to imitate than that of its sister dialect of Hebron, perhaps because the Hebron dialect has become more popular and more widely used as a dialect for jesting due to the early immigration of Hebron people to Jerusalem and Ramallah.

What is recognisable to the ear in the Nablus dialect is the distribution of accents on the various syllables of the word. Almost each syllable has a stressed accent, which gives the dialect a slow and sluggish tone. The ancient dialect of Nablus even articulates every single syllable in the same word separately. Moreover, word endings blatantly slant according to a regulated system. For example, you may say sharqa with an [a:] sound at the end of the word to refer to the eastern part of the city and gharbeh with the [e] sound at the end of the word to refer to the western side of the city. You may also want to describe the colour of your bag and say safra (yellow) with an [a:] sound at the end of the word or sode (black) with an [e] sound at the end of the word. The nun and ha (n and h) are always slanted and end with the [e] sound; and they are the bases for the distinctive Nabulsi accent. The two letters appear frequently at the end of words in the form of inescapable objective pronouns. In the ancient dialect of Nablus, the letters tha’, thal, thaa’, and qaf do not exist. The dialect of old Nablus is now to be found among the followers of the Samaritan faith who have managed to preserve the old dialect in its purest form.

Sometimes the hamza [a], [i], or [u] sound is added to the beginning of words: ’Biddosh yiji? Wen rah? (Doesn’t he want to come? Where did he go?) And we address a man, ’Bidkeesh truh? (Don’t you want to go?), and we say the same to a woman, ’Bidkeesh truhi? Thus, bidkeesh is used both for the masculine and the feminine, an interesting point of usage that I haven’t found in other Palestinian dialects.

And we are fond of the use of the damma vowel [u sound]. Fulful (pepper) is pronounced with two dammas. And the verbs are decorated with a damma in completely unexpected positions.

When I waited in line before the registration office at Birzeit University thirty-five years ago, the secretary asked me, Esh biddak? (What do you want?) I replied, Biddi ahjuz (I want to register) with a damma on the j. She burst out laughing, and I realized that what she saw before her through the glass window was a fresh head from Nablus.

When I turned eighteen years old, I left Nablus; but I still visit the city once or twice a year. I realize that my stories give a blurred and distant picture of days gone by. Whatever has happened in Nablus during the past few decades is something I cannot describe or talk about.

Aref Hijjawi was born in Nablus and presently works as Director of Programs at Aljazeera TV station in Qatar. He is married and has two daughters. Mr. Hijjawi can be reached at


This Week in Palestine

March 2007

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