During the grim years of the second intifada, Nablus was famed for producing more suicide bombers than any other Palestinian city. The historic Old City saw bloody battles fought during repeated incursions by the Israeli military; the UN estimated that Nablus suffered some $110m worth of damage in April 2002 alone.
But Nablus is also the food capital of the West Bank, with modern cooking schools and Palestine’s first Slow Food convivium, renowned for its sweetmeats, olive oil soap and especially its tahini, the thick paste made of ground sesame seeds.
As much as Nablus remains the dark side of the moon to Jewish Israelis – official billboards on the approach to the city warn Israelis in Hebrew, Arabic and English that not only is entrance illegal but also “dangerous to your lives” – the tahini here is famed among all sides for its exceptional taste and quality.
Brands such as Karawan and Dove make their way across the 50 kilometres and massive political divide to the hipster cafes of Tel Aviv, where it’s drizzled on charred aubergines, turned into light crispy biscuits or churned into a nutty parfait. And of course, it’s the second ingredient in hummus, claimed with equal passion by both Palestinians and Israelis as an iconic national dish.
Nablus tahini is rich and textured, a world away from the anaemic paste available in European or American supermarkets. There is no mass production here. “We use a very primitive process,” says Maher Alul cheerfully, whose business at the heart of Nablus’s Old Town was founded by his great-great-grandfather.
Some of the equipment in the Alul factory, in a series of Ottoman-era, vaulted rooms with peeling ceilings, looks like it dates from that era. There’s a warm, gentle hiss of steam, and my footsteps crunch on the seeds carpeting the rough concrete floor.