| Look through the Rough Guide to Israel & the Palestinian Territories and you will find barely 20 pages devoted to Palestine. From that the city of Nablus receives just a few skinny paragraphs and a map, reinforcing the popular perception that the 7000 year old city stands for little more than the violence and occupation that has scarred it.
That is, until Project Hope, an international NGO based in Nablus, unveiled the first ever web guide last month, both in French and English. We spoke with director Abdul Hakim Sabbah.
Old city market: overflowing with delicacies
“It first occurred to me in 2003, when I saw the ‘Guide for Jordan’, that there was no similar guide for Palestine!” explained Hakim. “At the time I was in France. When people asked me questions about my city, I could not lead them toward any other website than Arabic-written ones”, he continued. “A guide on the whole of Palestine would have been time consuming, so I decided to focus on Nablus, where I am from”.
Nablus Guide was born from an individual initiative, a one man dream that has been growing since a smaller scale version launched in 2008, with the help of a volunteering French web designer. “At the start, the website aimed mostly at intern use. The volunteers at Project Hope and our friends could discover the city through it. It was pretty modest but contained useful information”.
This has now become a gift for the city, as well as promoting the work of Project Hope. Its influence will raise Nablus’ profile, which in turn should help to attract tourists; “It is a way to help develop the district”, believes Hakim. “The main goal of such a website is simple: Make foreigners discover the city. I care about where I come from and I would like people to see the city the way I do.”
Unfortunately, Nablus’ most enchanting features are not well known. 7000 years old, with a population of 200,000 including four refugee camps, the character of the city is reflected best by its idiosyncrasies. “Many initiatives have been taken to promote Nablus’s cultural heritage,” explained Project Hope treasurer Salem Hantoli, “we wanted to be in the Guinness book of records for the world’s biggest Kanafeh.” “This guide seeks to fill in the blanks”, agrees Hakim. “Nablus is a place that deserves to be visited”.
Al Najah University
For Salem Hantoli this web site is a way for internationals to experience a fresh perspective on Palestine. “We don’t want people to see Nablus as an area of war and crisis anymore”, he said. “We want to tell the world that our city exists through other things: its diversity of communities, their cultures and their ways of living”, adding “for us, the website is a way to build bridges between and among the people so they can understand and learn from each other”. Moreover, internationals are eyewitnesses taking testimonies back to their own countries, lending a solidarity to a population that has suffered greatly. “During the second Intifada, as long as there were internationals in Nablus, the violence from the Israeli decreased”.
Although the guide is mainly directed at potential tourists, it has gained widespread support among locals. “Many people ask us ‘why am I not in the Website?’” laughs Hakim.
“Cooperation is the only way to achieve the project”, added Salem. No empty words these. The website is run by Palestinians, with contributions and ideas from Project Hope’s international volunteers. The aim of serving the city and raising its popularity is a passionately shared goal.
The guide delivers historical facts, rather than emotive appeals. But despite this there is an unavoidable sympathy for an oppressed community. “We are a neutral NGO, we are not meant to do politics”, says Hakim. When pressed Salem concedes that “putting Nablus back on the map and exposing the life of its people’s life is our way to resist the occupation. We can’t fight Israel with weapons. I think that the only and most valuable way to resist is to lead a normal life”. The website seeks to highlight that another life in Nablus is possible and does exist.
Nablus is beginning to recover after ten years under siege, during which time many businesses and industries chose to leave, restricting its citizen’s choices and freedoms. Salem now sees light at the end of the tunnel; “since 2008, people go out more and enjoy themselves again, but still the occupiers try to restrict our social life. This is about being or not being. Today, the only choice we have is to stay and live, like normal people do.”
Even if the future of Nablus remains unclear, Hakim has faith that he will see his city come back to life. “We are ‘Project Hope’ after all, how could we give hope to people if we gave it up ourselves?”