All photographs by Jimmy Granger
You will find it in Nablus, Mohanis tells me. There is everything in the market. Everything.
Everything is sheets of tobacco leaf, folded neatly into piles on wooden counters. Everything is freshly-made falafel—stuffed with fried onion—arranged around a large, low frying pan, blackened, brimming with oil. Everything is bouquets of glistening pink radishes held in pale, soft hands, their green leaves dotted with brown earth. Everything is the posters with photos of martyred youth stuck onto old Ottoman walls. Everything is the calls heard as one walks through the streets, the songs of good prices, good produce and honest business.
This word—all-encompassing—could not describe the thick, chaotic sensuality of the market in Nablus. A condensed, intimate honeycomb of carved stone; an abundance of vegetables, fruits and fish; fabrics, jewels, pomegranates. The colours and scents that weave into the mythology of the Orient in all its mystic rich imagery are undeniably present within the boundaries of the Old City in Nablus. We can choose to see this as a purely exotic spectacle or—letting go of our assumptions—look deeper into the knowledge, the history and the contemporary that are actually present within this pith.
I have seen the market on a Friday. We were working in Hebron1—in the south of Occupied Palestine. We left for the weekend to Nablus, taking a service taxi through Bethlehem over long, circuitous roads—carefully chosen to avoid the Israeli highways, which are inaccessible to Palestinian public transport. The city is closed—we should have realised, it is the weekend. We walked to the market, hoping to find something to eat. It is still, silent.
I remember walking by a tide pool in Ganpathipule last year. A secret beach. We had driven ten hours down the coast A deep maroon anemone stretches tiny feather-like arms out into the water. I put my fingers in the warm pool to touch the soft, wandering tendrils. The anemone withdraws, turning into itself.
It seemed as though the market had moved inwards. Curtains had been drawn; doors had been closed and gates had been shut wherever it appeared possible to do so. It was facing the house rather than the street, what had been lain out on carts and in the shops was now on the plates and in the mouths. A few men mopped the floors of their shops—the soap mixing with tiny streams of blood and fish scales from the butcher, the crumbs of a pastry shop and the peels from a fruit-seller. The water flows into the crevasses of the heavy stone pavements.
This vastness—gothic in its scale—seems absurd; this cavernous space unreal. People punctuate the apparent endlessness a certain moments—a woman, rushing by us with her two children, brings in a brief and unexpected sense of urgency; a group of boys listen to music besides a rose garden; and the water flows beneath our feet, gathering a patina of left-overs on its surface as it makes its way from shop to shop, following the geography of the sidewalk.
When I would walk out onto Hill Road each Sunday morning on the way to work, I found the silence unnatural; in a city like Bombay, emptiness—even that brought on by the last morning of the weekend—seems to speak of a sense of foreboding.
But everything needs space, and the market in Nablus was formed out of this need—to accommodate each thing that is sold for every desire a customer might have. When I found myself there on a Monday, I was faced with a sense of intimacy and closeness brought on by the stores, the people, the wares being sold. The emptiness of the weekend had been filled in new things. Clothes, spices, food, vessels— everywhere, objects and produce lined the floors and the walls and hung across the streets. Even the territories of the air are contested on such a day—constantly redivided between the smells of sweet, roasted coffee and sharp salted sheep’s cheese; the tannic, earthy depths of fresh olive oil and the floral, spiced musk of perfumes.
I find myself looking at the plants—everywhere, there are leaves and bulbs and fruits and seeds. One could easily lose oneself in the semantics of plant morphology and how they might relate to food. The botanical intricacies of the eggplant are varied and specific; the thickness of the skins and the depth of the purple shade it might have; the length, size and the dimples on its bulbous, round form determine its many flavours and uses. The date—either raw or slightly moist; at times, seedless or stuffed with crystallised orange peel and pistachios; soft and sugary or astringent on the tongue and hard on the teeth. The onions—tinged with a soft pink wash or pearl white; as big as a fist or small enough to fit two in a palm; to be eaten with a meal or in a meal. Leaves—compound, symmetrical, lobed; deep green, bright green—form bunches and bouquets.
The apothecary is—in many ways—an arm, a fragrant herbaceous tendril, of the market. Open to the street, it is lined with white plastic bins, each holding a particular plant. In front of me, I found dried, long-tailed dandelion roots, their bitter flesh purifying and toning to the liver; fenugreek seeds, tiny ochre-yellow, sulphurous beads; Sidr2 leaves, glossy and deep green, used as a natural shampoo; hibiscus petals, deep maroon curls, delicious in a syrup or infusion. The manifestations of the market are found too in the large, wide-mouthed glass jars lining its walls, each carrying smaller quantities of spices and herbs—as common as spicy black pepper; bright yellow turmeric roots; tiny scented buds of lavender; or as special as a sparkling golden-black perfumed knot of ambergris.
Their names were labelled in blue permanent marker on small boards besides the sacks in Latin and Arabic. Walking into the store, people dip their hands into the white sacks, smelling stalks or nibbling on leaves, feeling the small rounded forms of the grains as they talked to the herbalist, sharing with him what they needed to heal themselves. The herbalist listens to the people who walk in—and there are many—bringing out droppers and jars and oils to blend together medicines for their problems, filling their answers into little white-capped bottles or folding them into neat brown envelopes. He is tall, bent over in a neat hunch, and—though sincere, as one would expect a doctor to be—finds a dark comedy in the failures of his patients.
He first talks to a young woman—her discomfort apparent through the intentional subtlety of her body, she seems to hide further into her hijab with each sentence spoken as shares her problems with him in soft whispers. Her face is flushed, red and sensitive. He has previously healed her skin as it went through the tumultuous alchemy of adolescence and knows her well. The herbalist laughs to us after she has left—he has forgotten the discretion with which he spoke a few minutes earlier. She does not take care of her diet; she eats pizza and her skin responds to this, he says.
He continues looking at bottles. He is standing under a dark wooden rafter on which there are two heavy glass jars, each containing a pale yellow snake preserved in alcohol. A string from the ceiling suspends a round wrinkled tuber—sprouting thick green stalks—besides his head. He holds up a milky bottle to us. This is bitter almond, he says, it has powerful healing qualities but the cyanide it contains makes it toxic when taken often; I am testing it on myself first to see how I can extract a medicine from it.
I would like to ask him about the two snakes—he says it is a long story. His son, who also helps out in the apothecary, smiles as he prepares a small paper envelope of thyme for a lady who waits patiently by us. A man walks in—worried, furtive. He pulls aside the herbalist and they sit down besides the sacks of lupin. Again, a conversation and a solution, after which the man leaves with a sense of rushed purpose. Again, the herbalist laughs. He says the man has no sexual desire; that he feels weak and unsatisfied. I asked him to go to the dentist; to check his teeth. He has been prescribing painkillers to himself for a toothache and does not realise that he is slowly numbing his body.
The herbalist puts his hands into the lupin seeds, holding them in his palm. It appears that this is a moment to pause, to reflect on his practise. I am a Sufi, he says. My faith gives me the opportunity to find the complete truth in the problems I am presented with. Using the symbolic fullness of the circle, he says—one part of the truth is what you tell me, your story; the other half is what I see; what I understand about your body. Together, they make a full circle, a total truth. He puts back the seeds and walks behind the counter, examining the powders piled into small mounds on the small set of scales. He reaches into an envelope, pulling out a small white sticker with the details of his clinic on it and hands it to us.
He never told us the story about the two snakes. I allow myself to assume that they are symbolic—like the single serpent winding itself around the Rod of Asclepius—of the dualities present within the practise of healing and medicine. Perhaps the snake—typically venomous, yet sacred in certain faiths—reflects these binaries of life and death; medicine and toxin; healing and disease. The healer works within these frameworks—considering through a holistic perspective the consequences of our daily choices on our complete bodies, finding ways to bring them into balance through medicine but also through changes in our habits and lifestyles.
I found the small white sticker that the healer handed to us stuck onto the cover of my passport as I was about to hand it to an attendant at the airport in Tel Aviv. I took the sticker off before passing it to him. He asked me if I had crossed into the West Bank at any point.
Nablus was bombed persistently in 2002. The dense architecture of its historical centre was systematically destroyed during operations to erase the city of its militants. Nablus was under curfew for weeks then—as well as earlier—during the complex, violent occupation of Palestine. The qualities of the market as a true public space—formed over time out of our needs to eat, live and feel a sense of community—were reaffirmed during the Second Intifada and the challenging period that followed, one of anger, healing and political tension. People worked together to preserve food and cook meals for one another; share medicine and provide first-aid; rebuild houses and set up community centres for those left without families or support after the many devastating acts of war by the Israeli army. The burnt walls of its buildings; the banners bearing political slogans and the leaflets strewn on the pavement inhabiting the same space as the rich, vibrant sensorial market show me that the perhaps—like people going to the herbalist in search of healing—Nablus has found ways to reach a state of balance, curing itself from the pernicious symptoms of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.