I really wanted to like Nablus. I wanted the risk of arrest and/or possible beheading to be worth it. I wanted stereotypes of Palestinians as haters of Israel and Jews to be false.

IDF signs leading into Nablus warn us that Israelis are forbidden from entering, that they risk danger to their lives. In defiance of this forced segregation, I took my new anti-Zionist but friendly friend’s offer to visit Nablus to humanize my supposed enemies.

Nablus became my Shabbat outing. Nablus is, after all, the ancient Biblical city of Shechem, where Joseph is buried and where Jacob had settled only to have his sons brutally avenge the rape of his daughter Dina.

It is also the most happening city closest to my home in Ariel. The checkpoint into Nablus has been removed a while ago. Anyone could really drive in.

As my friend, whom I’ll call Frank, drove us in with a car with yellow Israeli plates, I couldn’t help but notice how dirty the streets were. Street cleaning doesn’t seem to exist. Unlike roads leading into Ariel, where almond trees blossom, trees growing along the litter-lined highway divider looked like they were dying. My friend partly blamed the Occupation, saying trash collection is very expensive and that it requires resources the Palestinian Authority can’t provide. Say that’s true, what about garbage cans?

It saddened me that Palestinians walk around among filth, that they don’t take pride in a historic city under their control. I don’t see why Jews and Arabs can’t work together to make Shechem beautiful if we both value it so much. The push for segregation that is the two-state “solution” would render that nearly impossible. Then I wonder: is beautifying Shechem a value to the people living there? Would Jewish help be rejected simply because it’s Jewish help?

Frank seemed to think that Palestinians would welcome it.

As we continued to drive through a loose patchwork of buildings, I wasn’t scared. People had no idea who or what I was. We just worried about fighting traffic. It was nice to feel like an anonymous minority, almost like in a different country. 

My friend paid for parking at a dirt lot near the packed Kasbah. It reminded me of the shuk in the Old City of Jerusalem, filled with open sacs of spices; meat shops advertising their goods with displays of slaughtered lamb and cow heads; and clothing that might have been fashionable in the 1990s.

But Nablus is best known for knafe—cheesy, honey filled treats so sweet I could only handle one bite. My last offer for knafe was at the Arab village nearby, Harara, where we stopped on a day tour with the Arabist NGO, MachsomWatch.

There, the bakery’s walls were plastered with posters of that baby killer, Yasser Arafat, so I boycotted the place. This knafe joint had no signs for Arafat, but, mid-chew, I noticed a different sign on the wall. It was of a Palestinian shahid killed in IDF operations. The victim was holding a rifle.

Frank explained that it’s not a religious poster, i.e. Hamas, and that it’s common for Palestinians to honor whom they deem resistance fighters, just like Israelis honor their own fighters. I don’t remember ever seeing portraits honoring fallen IDF soldiers as they hold their rifles. Sorrow, not belligerence, is the only appropriate emotion when someone dies.

Then, as we continued walking, I realized guns were the theme of the day. It was right after Ramadan, and parents keep their children busy by handing them toy guns. But they didn’t look like toys. They looked very real.

Frank argued that Americans give their kids toy guns all the time. Maybe so, but not as a recreational event on the heels of, say, Christmas. After Yom Kippur, most Jewish parents I know shove food—and books—in their kids’ hands. Frank further argued that arming 18 year-olds IDF recruits with real guns is not much better.

I felt people’s glares. I was different, despite my ethnic-looking face and T-shirt. Most women wore hijabs, some with jeans, some dresses. Frank heard whispers of someone guessing I was a foreigner. My Jewish origins were not obvious. And if they were?

Nothing like shopping to calm nerves. Frank took me into a dusty spice shop, quick to point out a poster map of the land of Israel which delineated the Green Line. Not all maps, he assured me, show “Palestine” replacing Israel. No Arafat posters were around. In gratitude, I bought some famous Nablus olive oil soap—date flavored!

We capped our day at Nablus with delicious Arabic coffee at an overall clean and cleanly designed café where they also serve up nargilas. I could have very well been in a big city in Jordan. I relaxed, thinking how cool it was that I was in Shechem, feeling semi-normal.

I admit, though, as we drove out, I was relieved. I was even relieved when I saw guns–those grown-up guns of the IDF at the busy checkpoint–knowing their purpose is to protect life. Guns are not child’s play.

My Nablus souvenir, the soap, rests on my vanity. To me, it’s a symbol of what the city can become: a charming, clean, and holy place, where Jews and Arabs need not fear each other, where violence and vengeance is truly a thing of the past. If only soap were the post-Ramadan treat that parents gave their children.

What do you think? Is it possible for Jews and Arabs to come together to rid Shechem of guns and garbage? Your thoughts are welcome in the comments section, after the photo essay.

Photo Essay: Orit Arfa

Red sign forbidding Israeli entry into Nablus

Red sign forbidding Israeli entry into Nablus

The forbidden drive into Nablus

The forbidden drive into Nablus

Stop light. You are entering Nablus

Stop light. You are entering Nablus

Ubiquitous sign honoring a "martyr"

Ubiquitous sign honoring a “martyr”

Roadside, makeshift garbage dump

Roadside, makeshift garbage dump

The new buildings among the old

The new buildings among the old and half-finished

A view from the parking lot

A view from the parking lot

The author at the clean cafe

The author at the clean cafe

The site of Joseph's tomb from afar

The site of Joseph’s tomb from afar