Despite Challenges, Soap Production Continues in West Bank

While the majority of Palestine’s soap factories have closed after years of occupation and economic hardship, a few have managed to hang on. Giving a modern twist to ancient practices, some producers are not ready to wash their hands of the business yet.

Jul. 29, 2020
By Pia Koh

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The city of Nablus, in the north­ern West Bank, has long been known for its pro­duc­tion of olive oil soap.

These small, white, nearly scent­less blocks of Nabulsi soap have been man­u­fac­tured in the area since the 10th cen­tury, with the prac­tice pro­gress­ing to an indus­trial scale around the 14th cen­tury.

We’re deal­ing with these prod­ucts emo­tion­ally, not only for money.- Mujtaba Tebeileh, owner, Nablus Soap Company

By the early 1900s, 42 Nabulsi soap fac­to­ries were sup­ply­ing half the soap in Palestine, send­ing prod­ucts across the Arab world and even export­ing as far afield as Europe and the United States.

However, a myr­iad of envi­ron­men­tal, eco­nomic and socio-polit­i­cal hard­ships that have struck the West Bank in recent decades has reduced those 42 fac­to­ries to a mea­ger three.

See Also: Olive Oil Culture

The Tuqan Factory, the Nablus Soap Company and the Shaka’a fam­ily have con­tin­ued to develop and adapt their busi­nesses despite adver­sity, rang­ing from ris­ing olive oil prices to mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion.

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The Tuqan fac­tory is owned by the Tuqan clan, a promi­nent Palestinian fam­ily that dom­i­nated the polit­i­cal and eco­nomic spheres dur­ing the 18th cen­tury.

Historically, the Nablus soap indus­try was run by polit­i­cal lead­ers, nobil­ity and pow­er­ful mer­chants, who used their asso­ci­a­tions to con­sol­i­date the main forces of pro­duc­tion: farm­ers who pro­duced the olive oil, Bedouins who pro­vided the labor, arti­sans who crafted the soaps and traders who were able to reach broader mar­kets such as those in Egypt and Syria.

In order to estab­lish and finance a cen­tral­ized rule over the city, the Tuqan clan acquired sev­eral Nabulsi soap fac­to­ries. Although most of the fac­to­ries were lost with the family’s decline in the 19th cen­tury, they retained the Tuqan Soap Factory, located in the Qaryun quar­ter of the old city of Nablus.

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Traditional olive oil soap production is still done by hand in Palestine.

The Tuqan fac­tory is housed in a large, rec­tan­gu­lar stone struc­ture, sparsely dec­o­rated with a spa­cious hall where the soap is made. Traditionally, each fac­tory had a par­tic­u­lar archi­tec­ture, and each room, as well as each indi­vid­ual involved in the sys­tem­ized process, held cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance.

The three ingre­di­ents – olive oil, water and bak­ing soda – used to be mixed by hand in a large cop­per pot. Now, an auto­mated mixer cuts the process down by sev­eral days and the soap is heated over gas instead of the dried olive husks that were burned in the past.

Once the mix­ture is fin­ished cook­ing, it is tasted for qual­ity, spread over the large stone floor and left to cool. As it solid­i­fies, indi­vid­ual bars are cut and stamped with the family’s al-Muftaheen logo.

Finally, the bars are stacked into the large, con­i­cal tow­ers for which the Nablus soap indus­try is famed. The tow­ers allow air from the open win­dows to cir­cu­late between each bar. This final dry­ing process can last a month or longer, depend­ing on the time of year.

Once dried, the bars are hand-pack­aged in a wrap­per also bear­ing the family’s emblem.

It hardly comes as a sur­prise that this ancient prac­tice strug­gles to sur­vive in light of mod­ern soap-mak­ing tech­nolo­gies, which require fewer work­ers, hours and dol­lars.

One of the major fac­tors con­tribut­ing to Nablus’ van­ish­ing soap indus­try is the scarcity of afford­able olive oil within Palestine.

The Palestinian pop­u­la­tion is expand­ing, mean­while there’s a short­age of land allot­ted to grow olive trees,” Mujtaba Tebeileh, owner of Nablus Soap Company, told Olive Oil Times. So in the last 30 to 40 years, the amount of land where we can plant trees has become less and less, because of the con­trol of Palestinians.”

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Once the soap has been cut into blocks, it is stacked into conical towers and left to dry.

Tebeileh added that olive oil con­sump­tion in Palestine has risen over the pre­vi­ous decades, along with the pop­u­la­tion, and olive har­vests have stag­nated. This com­bi­na­tion has meant there is less avail­able olive oil for soap pro­duc­tion.

The his­toric abun­dance of olive trees in Nablus made the city an impor­tant cen­ter for olive oil pro­duc­tion, and thus Nabulsi soap. When cash crops began dom­i­nat­ing the area in the late 19th cen­tury, about 40,500 hectares (100,000 acres) of olive groves were planted on land now belong­ing to both Israel and the Palestinian ter­ri­to­ries.

However, this abun­dance ulti­mately led to exploita­tion, as Israel claimed much of the land and the trees that were grow­ing on it. Tebeileh men­tions an addi­tional imped­i­ment.

Foreign inter­na­tional coun­tries have started to buy Palestinian olive oil because it comes from the holy land, so the price has become very high,” he said.

The Nabulsi soap com­pa­nies, Tebeileh said, could not com­pete.

Foreign occu­pa­tion has also heav­ily affected how trade works in the soap indus­try. Raw mate­ri­als, such as the olive oil being imported from Italy and Spain, as well as large quan­ti­ties of bak­ing soda, must pass through an increas­ing num­ber of check­points intro­duced by Israeli author­i­ties.

Tebeileh says that export­ing his soap back out to the 72 coun­tries he serves is even more dif­fi­cult; a 100-mile trip to the sea­port can take more than three days.

That means costs, many costs.” he said. Passing through the Israeli check­points also means that Tebeileh needs to have the nec­es­sary per­mits.

If they want to give me a per­mit, they can,” he said. If they don’t, there’s no rule in the world that forces them to give me this per­mit.”

Despite these dif­fi­cul­ties, which are only exac­er­bated in the COVID-19 pan­demic, Tebeileh said that his com­pany is doing well.

He makes 400 vari­a­tions of Nabulsi soap – some con­tain­ing hemp, essen­tial oils or fruits – and exports them across the globe.

He has trav­eled to every soap-mak­ing des­ti­na­tion, shar­ing the tech­nique and cul­ture of olive oil soap and learn­ing about its pro­duc­tion else­where.

Perhaps most impor­tantly, Tebeileh takes immense pride in his work. He said that his fam­ily has been in the soap mak­ing busi­ness for 1,000 years, and even­tu­ally he will pass the legacy on to his chil­dren, who he says insist on con­tin­u­ing the com­pa­ny’s sto­ried legacy.

We’re deal­ing with these prod­ucts emo­tion­ally, not only for money,” he said.

Although Palestine’s impos­si­ble cir­cum­stances threaten to shut­ter nearly every Nabulsi soap fac­tory, the indus­try has man­aged to retain its craft.





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