Natural ... Traditional ... Chunky!
By Rawan Shakaa
You can find it in supermarkets but seldom in cosmetic shops. Its chunky-white, unprofessionally wrapped package can be highly unattractive unless you are shopping with your own mother or grandmother who would proudly say, ‘This is THE soap. This is what I used to use when I was your age, and it’s the same now as it was then’.
It is the Nabulsi soap, the old traditional soap used by generations of Palestinians for hundreds of years. I myself use it to this day, not because my family produces it, but because I believe that in the same way that olive oil is an important natural substance to my body, this soap made from 100% olive oil is also essential to my skin.
During the British mandate, the British government made an analysis of the soap blending at the London Institute in the year 1934. The result of the analysis showed that the soap consisted only of natural materials. No harmful chemical materials were to be found. The soap-factory owners even brag about this fact and wonder how anyone could stand the heavy smell and eyesore of leftover animal fat.
The secret of this soap is all in its mixture. For this reason, the owners of the soap factories in Nablus do not allow visitors to look too closely at the manufacturing process. The barilla solution (qelw) and lime (sheed) form a soda solution. When this soda solution is cooked with olive oil, it creates the soap. This is just the simple formula for Nabulsi soap, yet the making of it is very detailed. The barilla ashes are put into a stone urn and pounded into a fine powder with a wooden pestle. The lime is spread in a shallow pit and soaked in water until it coagulates and dries. It is then rolled and crushed into a fine powder. These two powder mixtures are then combined and placed into a row of three to six fermentation pits, each three feet long, two feet wide, and eight inches deep. Hot water from the bottom of a copper vat is drawn through a spigot and directed to fermentation vats that contain the combined barilla and lime mixtures. The hot water then absorbs the chemical content mixture and seeps into identical but deeper pits under the fermentation pits. Slowly, this chemical composition of water becomes concentrated to a point when it is added back into the copper vat so that the oil absorbs the chemicals. This cycle is repeated on average 40 times, while the hot liquid soap in the copper vat is continuously stirred with a long oar-like piece of wood, known in Arabic as the dukshab.
The art of making Nabulsi soap depends on controlling the soda contents and coagulation process. If the soap is removed from the vat too early, it will not dry well. And if it is overcooked, it will then be too hard to cut. The only way to detect whether the soap has been perfectly cooked is by its smell when a round, two-foot-long wooden pole is dipped into the vat. The cooking process to produce one batch takes eight days. When the soap is cooked just right, labourers carry it in wooden barrels and then pour it into a large frame made of one-inch wooden planks laid out on the large floor. After the soap is firm enough, its surface is smoothed by shaving off the top layer with a scraper. Strings dusted with powder are then stretched across at regular intervals and plucked to form lines on top of the soap. The soap is then cut into pieces along these lines with a sharp metal blade. Each piece of soap is stamped with a metal seal that is attached to a wooden hammer. The seal used by my family, for example, is in the shape of a camel and is known as Al-Jamal (The Camel) Soap.
Next, the pieces of soap are carefully stacked in tall conical, hollow structures from floor to ceiling, leaving spaces between each piece of soap and another so that each continues to properly dry. The drying itself could take between three and twelve months. One of the interesting things about the soap’s packaging is that not all soap is wrapped in paper. It is often exported in specially made stiff sacks designed to minimize friction between the soap cubes in order to maintain their weight and shape for the long trips to regional countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf.
The Nabulsi soap industry goes back hundreds of years to approximately the tenth century. More than a hundred years ago, my great-grandfather, Ahmad Al-Shaka’a, founded Al-Jamal Soap Factory. At that time, olive oil was delivered on camels’ backs through high-arched doorways that led to the factory and was stored later in underground cisterns. Today, olive oil is delivered instead by farmers’ pick-up trucks, yet the high-arched doorways still exist as in earlier times.
Most soap factories are located in the old city of Nablus (home to more than 30 soap factories in the 19th century). Unfortunately, not many of these factories are working today due to the Israeli occupation and incursions into the old city, where Israel’s main goal is to destroy and erase any heritage related to Palestine. In the case of Nablus, destruction of the old city, soap factories included, is particularly devastating since soap factories are considered symbols of industrial and social enterprise as well as wealth and influence.
The nature of Nabulsi soap was and remains perplexing to me. Commercial soap nowadays instantly creates a layer of foam the moment water touches it, whether the skin is dirty or not. That is not the case, however, with Nabulsi soap. That layer of foam is produced if, and only if, the skin is utterly clean. Some people criticize Nabulsi soap not only for its slow-forming foam in cold water, but also for its shape, packaging, and absence of fragrance. However, the Nabulsis are adamant on these qualities in their soap. Their argument? They claim that the length of time needed to produce the foam is an advantage. The foam becomes a sign that all dirt has been removed. As for their argument pertaining to shape and packaging-well, the Nabulsis are very keen on preserving the distinctive features of their soap and prefer to keep the traditional, simple form that was perfected by their ancestors hundreds and hundreds of years ago. They also claim that any additional ingredients that would be needed to alter its shape would require chemical additives that would destroy its natural purity. The Nabulsis also believe that using scents in soap processing is only a way to hide some defects, and Nabulsi soap definitely doesn’t have any defects to hide! On the contrary, Nabulsi soap has many advantages over other soaps and can even be used as a mouthwash. Why not give it a try?
Rawan Shakaa works as Marketing Communications Coordinator at the Palestine Trade Center - PalTrade. She can be reached at
Article photos by Alaa’ Badarneh