"This city has been blessed with wonderful soap
It made her pride among cities and countries
The spirits have searched in vain its formula
And the secret remained hidden, spiritual
A tiara [tawq] of perfection has embellished her
And her way is perfection
But his soap, and no surprise,
Two diadems [Tuqan] embellished
in its perfection"
In this poem, Fadwa Tuqan defines, in an exemplary manner, the relationship between soap, the soap industry and the city of Nablus in the mid 20th century, as well as the relationship between soap and the family of the poetess, the Tuqan family. The city of Nablus is defined by a key product, soap, for which it is "blessed" by God. This is primarily because it comes directly from the beloved tree of God, the olive tree, as olive oil is the key component. Fadwa Tuqan alluded to this in her poem; in addition, a long tradition of writings by travelers from the 14th century described the city as "blessed" due to the quantity of olive trees, which formed an important center of oil production for the entire region. In the great tradition of praise, Tuqan praises the perfection of soap, opening with a representation related to the tradition of this product in the Bilad al-Sham and specifically in Nablus. Soap belongs to the city as the later is defined by the soap, but it is also attached to a name; the Tuqan family. The last verse of the poem can be read in two ways. The Arabic word Tawq means "necklace" or "crown," and the dual form of the word is Tuqan, "two diadems." Fadwa Tuqan plays here with the meaning of her name in Arabic: soap is already in its essence, as crowned by its manufacture in the city of Nablus, but "two diadems" give it an even greater halo of perfection. You can replace "two diadems" by the surname "Tuqan," and then the verse stresses and praises the importance of Tuqan family in the production and excellence of Nablus' soap.
"Nablus is a city in which it is so pleasant to walk (...)
The High and Almighty God has filled it with the blessed tree, the olive tree and its oil is transported in the Egyptian regions and the Levant and the Hijaz (...) in caravans, (...) and a delicate soap is made, which is carried in the countries we mentioned above and on the islands of the Mediterranean"
Sheikh al Rabûh al Dimashqi, geographer who died in 1327
The production of soap is a very old tradition in the region of the Middle East called Bilad al-Sham (the name given to the geographic unit of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and historical Palestine, which was before World War I a subset of the Ottoman Empire. This is a sub-set in a representational way as the Bilad al-Sham was never an administrative Ottoman district). This tradition is based primarily on the growth of olive trees. Whether on the coast or in the hinterland, the centers of soap are all former olives press centers. Soap is primarily a domestic production of the villages, where they used the remains of the oil production. Gradually urban centers of production developed "soap cities." The most famous are Aleppo in Syria, Tripoli in Lebanon and Nablus in Palestine.
Water sources, fruit trees, and an abundance of olive trees: there are many Arab and foreign travelers who were struck by the natural characteristics of Nablus. "The small Damascus," as it was called, was admired for its vegetation, fresh water sources, and was described for a long time, according to Shams al-Din al-Ansari, (died 1327) as a " palace in a garden." (Quoted by Doumani ). The abundance of olive trees made it an important center of olive oil production since at least the 14th century, as evidenced by the words of Ibn Batuta (a famous Moroccan traveler) who died in 1355: "The city of Nablus (...) is a big city with many trees, and abundant rivers, the city of Bilad al-Sham where there are the most olive trees, and the oil made from them is brought up to Egypt and to Damascus."
It is from this olive oil that soap is being manufactured in Nablus. At the time of the Crusaders' occupation (when the industry was the king's monopoly) (SHARIF ), Nablus gained a growing reputation for the quality of its soap, that surpassed that of other cities of Palestine, and became an important centre of regional manufacturing.
The Crusaders would have been so interested in this activity that they brought the soap manufacturing process to Europe, to the city of Marseille in France, where an olive oil soap industry has developed that closely resembles the product of Bilad al-Sham (SHARIF ).
Throughout the Ottoman period, the industry grew to become a flourishing and urban industry through the acquisition of many soap factories located downtown by large families in the city (old urban families first, then big traders families).
The Tuqan Soap Factory
The Golden Age of Nablus' Soap
The 19th century was a truly decisive period for the soap industry; it played a key role in the social transformation the Nablus area called Jabal Nablus (Nablus and its rural hinterland). At that time indeed, despite the decline in some manufacturing sectors such as textiles due to the penetration by European markets, the manufacture of soap became the dominant economic sector, and the most dynamic one of Nablus.
This success is primarily due to the abundance of olive trees, the main source of wealth from Jabal Nablus. Nablus is also located near the east bank of the Jordan river, where was growing the second most important element in the manufacture of soap after oil olive: a semi-desert plant, which, once burned and reduced to ashes, provides an alkaline product, called "qelî" (the origin of the word "alkali"). This product was made by the Bedouins and the location of Nablus on the commercial crossroads of the region completed this favorable momentum.
If investing in soap production required a large capital to start (building a soap factory and purchasing raw materials for its manufacture) and financial stability (it took about two years to reap the revenues), it was nevertheless an investment that could bring much; it was not a risky activity because the quality of Nablus' soap induced a strong and stable demand. Its reputation was already established long before the Ottoman period, and kept the same reputation of quality throughout this period.
If one needed to be rich to invest in soap, political power was also important in order to consolidate the main forces of production: farmers who brought olive oil; Bedouins who brought the qelî; artisans and workers to cook, cut and wrap the soaps, and traders. The production of soap was closely intertwined with politics and remained so at least until the British Mandate.
Possession of soap factories, a symbol of wealth for families of the city, quickly became a symbol of prestige and of urban membership. A period of social transformation begins in Jabal Nablus, in which the soap industry was a key element.
The old urban elite of Nablus was composed of former ruling families like the Tuqan and Nimr families, whose antagonisms have marked the life of the region (Doumani , LEGRAIN ). This elite's relative decline from the first half of the 19th century gave room for a new recently urbanized elite, and the merchant's community, and getting the status of a notable person was possible through the purchase of soap factories. The first step for someone who wanted to acquire this status in the city was to acquire a soap factory, and enter the very exclusive club of owners of soap factories. The soap factories themselves were both stakes; symbols of power and sometimes part of antagonisms. During the Egyptian invasion (1831-1840), during which Nablus was divided between allies and opponents, a member of the Jarrar family fomented a plot against Ibrahim Pasha (head of the Egyptian army and son of Muhammad Ali Pasha). The project was to invite him in a soap factory and to push him into the tank full of boiling soap. His project failed however, and his soap factory got confiscated. This period saw the rise of a family which became very important, the Abdelhadi family, ally of the Egyptians, who then bought a soap factory.
In the mid-19th century, the composition of “the soap factories owners club” changed from once dominated by old religious and political elite to being comprised of members who were mainly oil traders who had recently acquired a soap factory.
At the end of the 19th century, all members of the Consultative Council of Nablus (with the exception of the Samaritan member and the Christian member) were soap merchants and soap factories owners. The Consultative Council (established during the Egyptian occupation) had the means to resist the central authority of the Sublime Door and sometimes to impose its views, particularly regarding taxes on soap factories.
After a renovation program of the soap factories, the industry became flourishing at the turn of the 20th century. With some thirty active soap factories, Nablus soap was exported mainly to Egypt and throughout the Bilad al-Sham. This means that the soap industry had led to exceptional economic growth, on which large families have built the material basis of their economic success, as well as the social prestige and political power at the end of the Ottoman period.
In the early 20th century, the most important was the Nabulsi Family, who had three of the largest soap factories and exported mainly to Egypt.
Muftahein / Muftahein Seal / Masri and Shak'a
The Soap Factory as Political, Economic and Social Center
The soap industry had long been a major actor of the relations between Nablus and its rural hinterland, as well as of the relations on a wider scale between the Consultative Council of the city and the Ottoman power. The economic relations between Nablus and the villages were based on the relationship between operating owners of soap factories or oil traders and farmers providing olive oil. Those economic relations were based also on daily relations ensured by the frequent visits of villagers in the town at the Friday market or when farmers were bringing the oil in hide containers brought on donkeys or camels.
It can be added that, unlike other industries, the soap industry is totally linked to the buildings where the soap is manufactured, which are recognizable at first glance and have a particular architecture. The soap factory buildings were also often an architectural structure including the soap factory, the family home and the diwan (family counseling).
The area of the soap factory was also at the center of a number of economic practices (the soap factories were used as banks for instance) and an area where various components of the urban society were represented: indeed the workers of soap factories often belonged to the Nablus' family lines (such as Asi, Hudhud, Ma'an, Marmach specialized in cooking soap, and Tbeila, Hijjâzi, Kukhun specializing in cutting it). The Tbeila have acquired such a reputation that "tbeilî" became a nickname for "soap factory worker." (More precisely: worker cutting soap. The name persists to this day).
The Soap in the 20th Century
The first half of the 20th century saw a number of transformations within the soap industry of Nablus, regarding the ingredients and the manufacturing processes. The constitutions of most major soap companies and brands permit to streamline the production, although this did not rule out counterfeiting.
Following the First World War and the creation of customs between Nablus and the Eastern steppe, qelî trade ended and got replaced by caustic soda, from Alexandria and Europe (JAUSSEN [1927 ], Tamimi and Bahjat ). The soap producers benefited many advantages of this transformation. The soda is cheaper, easier to use, allows the production acceleration: a tabkha (content of the tank, ready to be spilled on the ground. It is also a measurement unit which varies from soap factory to an other and the size of the vessel) is cooked in three days instead of eight, and the soap dries faster ... (Tamimi and Bahjat op. cit.).
In the 1920s, the Hajj Nimr al-Nabulsi and the Hajj Ahmad al Shak'a, owners of soap factories and great merchants of Nablus, organized workers to come from Egypt to work in the soap factories. They hoped to break family monopolies regarding soap manufacture, especially the one of the Tbeila family, in order not to have to accept wage demands from the soap factories workers. The arrival of Egyptian workers did break the monopoly. According to another version, these workers were brought in to alleviate the shortage of manpower following the First World War, where many soap factory workers have been forced to enrol in the Turkish army. One of the Egyptian workers, the Hajj Fahmi al Masri stayed in the community's memories under the name 'amm as-sinâ'a (uncle of the profession) because he taught the job to generations of workers. These workers have made a number of changes in the soap manufacturing process, which have been preserved thereafter. The descendants of Hajj Fahmi are always present in Nablus.
According to the father Antonin Jaussen whom visited Nablus in 1927, the "growing prosperity" of the soap industry was due to two factors: a serious manufacture process and the good quality of raw materials (he speaks of a "wonderful oil”). This contributed to the soap's wonderful quality, free from pharmaceutical mixtures, which doesn't wear off and washes well (JAUSSEN, op. Cit.). Jaussen also specifies that it does not melt, unlike the European soap does. It also specifies that at this time, the soap manufacturers are forced to import olive oil from the Mediterranean islands, because of the destruction of thousands of olive trees by the Turkish soldiers during the war, for firewood.
If Jaussen admired the quality of raw materials and of the soap made of it, he nevertheless warned Nabulsi manufacturers against competition from foreign products, manufactured with the same raw materials and produced with more advanced technologies.
Numbering the tabkha/ Constructing the Tananirs
The Soap Nakba
This warning takes a particular importance at the dawn of the 30's, where Nablus' soap experienced its first important setback (TAHER , SHARIF op. Cit.). In such a way, that the year 1936 has been renamed by some (Sharif) the "Soap Nakba", in reference to the “catastrophe" of 1948.
Two reasons are usually given for this decline:
- First, the lack of protection of the name "Nabulsi” caused numerous cases of counterfeiting. Nablus' soap was competing with Egypt in particular, by a local soap production which used its name. Nablus' soap was known in Egypt under the name Hassan al-Nabulsi, one of the largest traders. The soap factory owners agreed to give one of their sons the name of Hassan, in order to be able to affix the mark "Hassan" on their soap, a process that took the name Hassaniya. On the Egyptian market, brands such as "Nabulsi Hassan al-Nimr," "Hassan al-Nabulsi Shak'a," "Nabulsi Hassan al-Masri" could be found.
The soap factories also constituted themselves as registered companies with brand names, and a printed logo on the soap's wrapping paper. These brands are often symbols or names of animals: Muftahein (the two keys), al-Jamal (the camel), al-Na'ama (the ostrich), al-Najma (the star), al -Baqara (the cow), al-Badr (the full moon), al-Assad (the lion) and others.
To this were slogans added on the packaging such as “al-Sabun Mumtaz al-Nabulsi” (Nablus soap extra) or “al-Ma'rûf” (the famous one). The registration of these companies was to ensure the quality of the soap, including the fact that they were exclusively made from natural products.
- The second reason of the decline of Nablus' soap in the 30's was the imposition of taxes on the import of soap by Syria and Egypt. In addition, higher oil prices following the 1929 crisis helped to raise the price of Nablus soap.
It should be noted that this soap is for a consumer who favours the purity of olive oil. It, therefore, became too expensive for a consumer less concerned about quality to sustain the competition with other imported soaps in Palestine in the mid-30's. In addition, there was increasing competition with the Jewish mechanized industry, which also succeeded to obtain customs benefits from the British Mandate (GRAHAM-BROWN ).
Through this first soap crisis, we see that the effects of Jewish immigration began to be felt indirectly in the region of Jabal Nablus, hitherto relatively protected from the consequences of the purchase of land and the Zionist colonization. In general, it is the absence of a sovereign state capable of controlling borders and taxes that prevented the Nablus soap from being protected, while the French Mandate granted customs benefits to the Zionists factories and traders, and the fact that the Egyptian and Syrian states were able to impose barriers to protect their local production.
Nablus Soap After 1948
After 1948, the market of historic Palestine closed as well as the Egyptian market. This particularly affected the Nabulsi family, who maintained close ties with this market. It is the eastern shore of the Jordan which became the main market for Nablus' soap after the annexation of the West Bank made it a part of Jordan in 1950. Because of the destruction of olive trees and the high cost of oil, soap producers were gradually forced to import olive oil. The sources were diverse: Syria and Lebanon, following bonds of family intermarriages of major Nablus family members with oil traders in Bilad al-Sham, then Spain and Italy. This has effectively cut, at least in part, the production of soap from its local roots.
The soap factories remained, however, places of meetings and decision-making centers. A room in each soap factory is called dîwâniyya (Sharif). It is said for example that the decision to participate in the 1936 strike was taken during a meeting in the Shaka'a soap factory (SHARIF, interview with Maher Shaka'a 2005, Bassam Shaka'a 2007).
Halla or Qidra / The boiler
The Green Soap
A real turning point was reached in the 50's when Hamdi Kana'ân, brother in law of the soap producer and trader Ahmad Shaka'a, introduced green soap in Nablus. Following his relations with Lebanese merchants in 1952, he got the idea to extract oil from the gift (solid remains of first press olives, mainly kernels) (Interview with Basel Kana 'An, 2005). The quality of this oil is considered secondary. He began to produce soap: the "green soap" was born, a lower-quality soap used to wash the floor and do the laundry.
This introduction was a small revolution. Indeed, the exploitation of this new type of oil, much cheaper, allowed less wealthy families to rent soap factories and exploit it for their benefit. Thus, new families joined the soap industry such as the Sukhtian family, the Abd al Haq family, or the Rantisi family, in the manufacture of green soap.
The 1970's was a period of prosperity for this different kind of soap, the "second class" soap. The construction of a second soap factory by the Kana'ân family in the industrial zone of Nablus in 1953 demonstrates this. The Shaka'a family did the same and Shakib Ya'îsh, a great Nablus trader, purchased the soap factory of Hajj Nimr al-Nabulsi in the old city, reviving a family "tradition" of a century or two. But it was also a period that allowed the assumption of some soap factory workers to the status of small manufacturers, by renting a soap factory in the old city to make green soap. In the memory of the workers, this period is a period of "gold." The work did not stop and teams of workers went from one soap factory to another. The green soap took the generic name of "Kana'ân." Most of these soap factories also produced soap powder.
The 1970's were years of attempts to mechanize and development the Nablusi soap in its form, its packaging and its ingredients. It was also a period of diversification in the use of oil, partly resulting from the Israeli occupation of 1967. On that date a soap called Tet Bet arrived from the Israeli market, made from animal fat. Some small workers started to copy this soap, and then introduce the animal fat in the soap manufacture. In general, all kinds of oils were used, although it is understood that olive oil is best for Nablus' soap. Some soap factories such as the Tuqan soap factory modernised their equipment in 1975: A pump was installed to bring oil from wells to a tank, a mixer for mixing soap, and water and soda instead of the dukchâb (kind of big wooden spoon used to mix the tabkha). Finally, the fire that heated the mixture in the tank, traditionally fed with gift and olive pits, was replaced by a boiler. At that time, a small number of soap factory workers were still involved in union activity.
The Tananirs / pilled soaps
The Decline of Nablus' Soap
Even if the soap industry was experiencing a steady decline in the second half of the 20th century, it was the first Intifada which marked the final decline. Small soap factories producing green soap and soap powder were the victims of the introduction of detergents and washing machines. Their lack of capital prevented them from maintaining their production. They did not survive the crisis nor the new taxes imposed on the soap.
For many of the old city's soap factories, the work became dangerous from the first Intifada, as the old city became the target of Israeli attacks. Thus, many soap factories closed in the 1990's.
But the most important reason for its decline is probably the competition of foreign products such as Lux and Palmolive, which were cheaper, and the introduction of new consumption patterns that led young generations to prefer shampoo and scented products as well as attractive designs.
The situation has worsened since the start of the second Intifada in September 2000. Mobility has become very difficult because of numerous checkpoints and military closures of Palestinian cities. The city of Nablus in particular is in a state of permanent economic siege, which causes many difficulties for transport and export.
Presently, only two soap factories continue their activity, two or three work occasionally. They belong to families with enough capital to preserve this part of their business, who keep them as a heritage: the Tuqan and the Shaka'a families.
These soap factories export the vast majority of their production to Jordan, taking advantage of long-standing relationships with the owners of the eastern shore of the Jordan, and of the importance of the Palestinian population in Jordan. From there, a small part of the production is sent to Kuwait and the Gulf.
There are more than thirty soap factories in the old city of Nablus; they represent a considerable architectural and memory heritage. Several of these soap factories were damaged by the Israeli invasion of 2002; two of them were completely destroyed. While some soap factories have been redeveloped or reused, they are most often left in their state and neglected, because of the security situation. Some development projects are underway, including the restoration of the Arafat Soap factory into a cultural center for children. If the political and economical situation permitted it, the space in the soap factories offers great opportunities for development and reuse.
The Fabrication of Soap
The Nablus soap is made in five stages: cooking, laying, cutting, drying and packaging. Traditionally these steps are supported by four different teams of workers.
At the ground floor of the soap factory, in a large bowl called "halla" or "qidra," workers pour the olive oil stored in wells under the soap factory and mix it for three days with soda and water, sometimes adding salt. Under the tank, a fire is lit, traditionally using olive pits. Boiling helps accelerate the process of saponification, the result of the reaction of soda with olive oil. Periodically, workers mix the dough by using a special instrument, a sort of big spoon measuring almost 3 meters long, which in some cases has been replaced by an electric mixer, while adding some water to the mixture in order to reduce the acidity. The water of Nablus, naturally rich in iron, is the cause of the main characteristic of Nablus soap, which does not melt quickly, and lathers only when dirt disappears.
Once the mixture is ready, the head of the team, called "Rayyis," traditionally tasted the soap or crumbled it on his palm to check its texture. Then a special team of porters loaded up the mixture on the first floor of the soap factory by the staircase with the help of buckets especially used for this purpose, with a capacity of about 50 kg. The mixture is poured on the ground called mafrach, where it dries for a day before being shaped into a small square with a wire dipped in red dye, stamped with the brand of the soap factory, and then cut by a team of three to four workers specialized in this task. A day later, the same workers pile the pieces of soap into scholarly pyramids called "Tanana.'' The soap has to dry for two to three months. It is then packaged by a third team of workers in a paper bearing the brand of the soap factory. These workers pack an average of 500 to 1000 bars of soap per hour.
Text, Véronique Bontemps © All rights reserved
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