Soap is slippery business in Nablus

Nablus has been historically known for pioneering soap-making in Palestine, but the once-booming industry there is now facing some hurdles.

al-monitor Palestinian workmen stack soap bars in hollow towers in a soap factory in the West Bank city of Nablus, Sept. 28, 2009. Photo by REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis.
Aziza Nofal

Aziza Nofal

@azizanofal

Topics covered

water, tradition, olive oil, nablus, israel aggressions, industry, business

Sep 9, 2015

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The city of Nablus in the northern West Bank is famous for its soap industry, and some historians believe the craft originated there more than 1,000 years ago. Soap is a hallmark of the city and of Palestine, which once exported soap products globally.

Moaz al-Nabulsi, 67, is the son of the late Hassan al-Nabulsi, a name well-known in the soap industry. The Nabulsi family once owned more than 20 soap factories in Nablus.

Nabulsi was introduced to the family business at an early age. During school holidays, he accompanied his father to the soap factories to study production methods so he could eventually take on the management of the family business.

He told Al-Monitor his family has been working in the soap industry for 240 years, and that in the last 100 years the city had 52 soap factories of which the Nabulsi family owned almost half. Today, however, only seven soap factories produce and sell Nabulsi soap.

It is in these factories that oil is heated and mixed with the other ingredients before the liquid is poured into large copper vats that are designed to withstand high heat. After it sets, the soap is cut into the classic cubes and stamped with the Nabulsi trademark seal.

The brand name of the Nabulsi family is al-Badr (Full Moon), and the other brand names that are famous in Nablus are al-Muftahayn (Two Keys) and al-Nemr (Tiger).

“The secret of the Nabulsi soap industry is water, specifically the 70 natural springs in the old city. Each soap factory was established over a spring of running water. Moreover, the ingredients used to produce soap are 100% natural,” Nabulsi said.

In the early years, he explained, soap-makers began using alkali to improve their product's effectiveness. The Nabulsi family imported alkali from the Balqa governorate in Jordan "in light of the growing relations between Nablus and Balqa.”

Ayman Abu Sir, who works in the Tukan soap factory, told Al-Monitor that the soap factories in Nablus use a special three-level well dating back more than 800 years that is supported by one column and a series of arches.

He said, “This industry does not involve the use of any machine. [The soap is handmade] from beginning to end. It mainly relies on the worker's experience and skill.”

Abu Sir added that the soap industry relies mostly on olive oil, and the city is known for the cultivation of olive trees. In fact, he said, the large surplus of olive oil drove the city to exploit it in the soap industry.

But a bevy of new products and manufacturers have diluted the area's business.

“The soap industry has significantly declined in the city in light of the proliferation of numerous types of soap and modern products such as shampoos and detergents," he said. He also blamed deteriorating business on blockades "and invasions by Israel during the second intifada, when some of these factories were partially destroyed and others were entirely destroyed, such as the Kanaan soap factory.”

Saed Kanaan, who managed the Kanaan soap factory, confirmed that the plant in Nablus' al-Gharb quarter was destroyed in 2002 as a result of an Israeli airstrike. “The factory was completely demolished along with all of its equipment, oil and soap destined for sale and marketing,” he told Al-Monitor.

He said, “The soap factory was not rebuilt because of the architectural features of soap factories that are difficult to reconstruct, as well as the high price that the family cannot afford.”

The Kanaan family owns three soap factories, one of which is in the eastern area of ​​the city and which continues to operate despite its limited production.

Kanaan recalled that his family once marketed soap to the Gulf states, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. He said that sales are now limited to the domestic market and Jordan, and that the industry must be supported by the authorities in order to allow its development and preservation as one of the most important Palestinian industries.

Nabulsi said that product development is the reason that the family business is still doing well today. "The family developed their products to include shampoos and liquid soap with the same traditional ingredients,” he said. “This is what helped us to continue. We renewed the packaging and the shape of the soap and developed a production line for liquid soap," which helped with marketing the Nabulsi brand.

Today, the production of Nabulsi soap takes place in only a small number of factories. Yet, what distinguishes Nabulsi soap remains unchanged. It is enough to say that one is from Nablus — in any Arab or foreign country — to be asked for a Nabulsi bar of soap.

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