Celebrating absurdity in Nablus

While Palestinians in Gaza remain under a brutal siege, appointed PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad eats a piece of the world’s biggest knafeh in Nablus, 18 July 2009. (Mustafa Abu Dayeh/MaanImages)

It was a portentous day in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus. Over 100,000 Palestinians from Haifa, Jerusalem, Jenin and more gathered in the city on Saturday to celebrate the making of a Guinness World Record: the largest plate of kanafeh, a popular red-haired pastry made with lots of sugar and goat cheese.

Weighing in at 1,350 kg (2,976 lbs), the kanafeh was cooked in a custom-made dish and comprised of 600 kg (1,322 lbs) of cheese, 300 kg (661 lbs) of sugar, and six tins of cooking fat. To do this, Nablus entrepreneur Muhannad al-Rabi, who oversaw the project, raised $15,000 through private donors and businesses. The spectacle was said to be organized to promote Nablus’ economy and, essentially, to celebrate the closing of the Huwarra checkpoint — notorious for its volatile atmosphere and violent Israeli soldiers — which now gives Palestinians relative freedom of movement into and out of Nablus.

As the horde of spectators pushed and elbowed their way to get to the front action of the rite in al-Shuhada (Martyrs) square, Salam Fayyad, the appointed Palestinian Authority (PA) prime minister, arrived in a caravan of armored cars with bodyguards for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Like bride and groom in a wedding ceremony, al-Rabi cut from the monstrous plate of kanafeh and handed Fayyad the first piece.

A local resident shook his head in disbelief. “It’s unbelievable. Even Abu Ammar [Yasser Arafat] never traveled with such an entourage as Fayyad’s. It’s a lavish greeting I’ve never seen before,” said Tareq Touqan.

Responding to the closure of the checkpoint as an “improved economic and security situation” in Nablus, the US-backed Fayyad, who previously worked for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, said, “Today Nablus became not only famous as a producer of kanafeh, but also as producer of hope for all of Palestine.”

Fayyad’s visit to Nablus came just days after The New York Times reporter, Ethan Bronner, wrote a front-page article calling the opening of a cinema in Nablus a “sign of hope emerging in the West Bank,” yet failing to mention how the PA is becoming more tyrannical on the streets, imposing new laws by the day. A young woman from Nablus, who wished to remain anonymous, said Fayyad’s visit was nothing more than a “shameful public display of opportunism” and called the kanafeh celebration an expensive, unnecessary public relations stunt.

Days prior to the Nablus event, rumors spread that 10 keys were going to be hidden inside the kanafeh and whoever found the keys would walk away with a new car. To add madness to an already absurd situation people dug through the kanafeh like hungry cannibals, throwing the kanafeh on the ground in search for the supposed prize. Thirty minutes later, the plate was stripped of the pastry and not a single key was found.

Palestinians traditionally serve kanafeh at celebrations. The festive frenzy in Nablus provided a marked contrast with the situation in Gaza. There, 80 percent of the 1.5 million population have been reduced to dependency on UN food handouts as a result of an internationally-backed Israeli blockade imposed ever since Hamas won legislative elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in January 2006. In recent months, the World Health Organization and UNICEF have warned of an alarming rise in indicators of malnutrition in Gaza, including stunting, wasting and underweight children and high rates of anemia among children and pregnant women.

After the kanafeh’s disappearance, a few young men from the crowd climbed on the metal plate, which was 75 meters long and two meters wide, and began to dance to the dabke music that came from nearby speakers. The young men maneuvered up and down the plate, which looked like a mini-catwalk, as if it were a runway show. Later at night, at the scene of the rite in Martyr’s Square, there were no people around, but the city looked like it had been ravaged by a tornado: streets littered with chunks of kanafeh, plastic cups, and soda cans. Hope, it seems, was left behind on the streets of Nablus.

Sousan Hammad is a journalist based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. She can be reached at sousan D O T hammad A T gmail D O T com.