I was tucking into a slice of qanafi at my favorite vendor in the Nablus casbah yesterday when a gang of Palestinian reporters and officials intruded on my guilty pleasure. This was at Aqsa Sweets, which readers of THE SAMARITAN'S SECRET will know as the place favored by the hero of my Palestinian crime novels Omar Yussef because it has a perfect blend of the cheeses of different Syrian and Palestinian goats in its qanafi (topped by semolina and drenched in syrup.)
Mayor Adly Yaish was among the crowd. As he steamed his way through a plate of qanafi, he informed me that he, the Nablus region's governor, and the city's police chief were touring the casbah to draw attention to a law soon to come into effect that'll make it mandatory for vendors to show their prices. It's one of the economic reforms introduced by Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, a Nablus native, intended to change the chaotic and often corrupt nature of the Palestinian economy.
A few minutes of jawboning with me about how they hoped my books would promote the true image of Nablus (I think they do, but then again the Mayor probably didn't have crime fiction in mind), a forkful of qanafi raised for the cameras, and then the dignitaries were off into the narrow alleys in search of price tags.
I settled in to complete my lunch -- not a balanced diet, I know, but then my mother doesn't read this blog so I don't have to pretend to be watching what I eat. I washed it down with tea from a fellow who wandered in with an enormous pot and a cup of sugar in his apron.
Nablus is famous throughout the Arab world as the best place for qanafi. And Aqsa Sweets is the best qanafi in Nablus, thus the best in the Arab world and, obviously, in the world. You wouldn't know it. The place is floor to ceiling white ceramic tiles, as though they expected to hose it down at the end of the day. Up front there are two big burners with wide trays of orange qanafi. The surly fat kid who serves you slings it onto the table as though he thought frisbees were made of hot goat's cheese and syrup.
As for price, nothing's marked. For 4 shekels (a bit more than a dollar), you get 125 grams of qanafi. It doesn't look like much, but if you try to eat more than that, you'll either stagger out hoping never to see another piece of the stuff in your life, or you might just curl up and die in the corner of sugar-shock.
I went up Mount Gerizim, one of the two mountains whose steep sides form the valley in which Nablus lies. At the top I found my old pal Hosny Cohen, a Samaritan priest, in exultant mood. He's shifting his Samaritan Museum and Cultural Center to a bigger room.
"I've had two tour groups this morning, each of forty people," he said, leaning on his cane and pushing his fez forward neatly over his brow. "I don't have energy for you."
Then he proceeded to talk for an hour without stopping. When I was about to leave, he came after me and said: "I forgot to show you the 'mezuza' we put above the door..."
Which is why I can't help liking the Middle East.