Shouldn’t be remarkable but somehow it is. The number of female road workers. Never seen anything like it. And young woman ferry boat captains and bus drivers. And all really smiley and cheerful and helpful. Except when you try and skip around the roadworks in a bid to take a short cut across the road.
There are givens and truisms about many cities on the planet. A consistent one is that Vancouver is a very beautiful city; or to be more specific, is situated within a spectacularly beautiful setting. But sometimes beauty is not how you expect it to be.
Approaching the Vancouver downtown skyline a couple of days ago (33 years since my last visit) Himself and I turned to each other with incredulity. We had been simultaneously struck by the bizarre design of every tower block on the horizon. A jarring aesthetic of pronounced verticals and horizontals and honey-combed cellular forms reminiscent of a Sticklebrix town. I cast around for likely influences and failed to find any. For the first 24 hours I kept trying to capture the effect but no camera could convey the angularity and texture.
And then yesterday, as we sat gazing at the shoreline from a ferry on False Creek, I realised that I was no longer seeing anything odd about this singular urban architecture. All I could see was the beauty of the skyline.
I’m clearly acclimatized to Vancouver.
After successfully locating the Nablus Samaritans in a challenging mountainous West Bank geographic location, I fondly imagined finding their Israeli cousins in a suburb of Holon just south of Tel Aviv would be a breeze. I’d thoroughly researched in advance as much as I could. The immensely helpful Holon city website confirmed the presence of the Shomronim and linked me to exhibits at the Holon History museum. My (Palestine) guidebook directed me to the suburb of Neve Pinkhas, and Google maps sort of confirmed the location of the area in a general vaguely helpful sort of way in the sense that as I zoomed in on my goal, the district label disappeared completely leaving me to gaze the satellite view for clues and indications of a religious settlement.
My Israel guidebook didn’t mention them. I should have recognised this as ominous.
I borrowed a bike from my hotel to cycle the 9 miles. The guy on reception looked at me as though I had two heads. He said it was a long way, and there were hills. Having flown in to Ben Gurion many times along the coastal plain around Tel Aviv, I was puzzled at where such hills might be hiding, but assured him that since I was from Yorkshire where cycling on the flat was an unknown experience, I would be fine.
I was a bit disappointed he didn’t ask me about Le Grand Depart 2014 (which all Yorkshire folk are talking about non-stop this month), but clearly the Tour de France is not high on the radar for Israelis.
So I pedalled south via Bat Yam, a coastal resort far from the edgy vibe of the Tel Aviv beach front, and turned east at some point to navigate to Holon via much bigger roads and even a few inclines that wimps might describe as hills. My pulsating blue Google map mark led me inexorably towards Neve Pinkhas, and I would have arrived much earlier, but had to constantly stop and check my phone to establish location.
Finally, expiring in the heat and with the alarming feel of encroaching sunburn on my neck, I saw a brown tourist sign marked “Samaritan Colony”. It was not pointing in the direction of Google maps’ target spot. I decided it was time to start asking people. And for the next hour, that’s what I did. Little old ladies who looked as though they had lived there for decades; Russian immigrants; old men playing backgammon. And no one knew what I was talking about. I tried using hebrew. I talked of the “b’nei israel”. I showed Neve Pinchas on my phone. I told them about the Holon History Museum.
It was no good. The remnants of the Lost Tribes of Israel were well and truly lost in Holon, and more alarmingly, so by now was I after an hour of cycling side streets. I needed wifi urgently to try and relocate myself and maybe do some more googling about the Samaritans. I needed a cafe with free wifi, but the extreme suburbs i found myself in offered nothing useful. I needed the city centre.
And so for the next hour, I cycled around asking people where the city centre was. Again, I was met by incomprehension. I tried asking for big shops. And for cafes. I had fallen into the trap of assuming everyone would understand me but Israel is a land with a lot of recent immigrants and although I berated myself for my inadequate Hebrew, I realised that I knew as much as the passers-by who said yes, they could speak English and then couldn’t understand my plaintive requests for directions. Eventually seeking inspiration from the Israeli detective novel in my bag, I found myself in Sokolov Street which was full of people and shops and was about as city centre-ish as it was going to get, particularly in view of the suddenly abundant free wifi.
Even better, I realised I was having a perfect suburban edgelands experience which completely compensated for the missing tribe. Forced to abandon my search after further googling resulted in no better information, I happily cycled back to Tel Aviv via further extensive detours in the middle of nowhere.
In a pleasant instance of synchronicity, Prodigal Daughter and I both had reasons to want to visit the city of Nablus the other day.
She’d been told by a friend in Jordan who came from there that it was a very beautiful place. And something I’d been reading about minorities in Israel had mentioned the two remaining Samaritan communities in the Middle East: one in Holon in Israel where I was planning to go this week, and the other on a mountaintop outside Nablus.
Our Bethlehem hosts decided to accompany us because they’d never visited the city, and so off we set, five squeezed in a car, on a day trip north through the Palestinian Territories.
Nablus is indeed a beautiful city, with too much to see in a few hours, and we had to rush a bit because I was keen to find the Samaritan community. My guidebook was pessimistic about chances of success. It warned of a recent security barrier necessitated by the presence of (yet another) new settlement which might prove a challenge for us to pass in a Palestinian vehicle.
Our friends were not to be discouraged, and waved cheerily at the private security personnel lounging around. They were also persistent once we were in the deserted village at asking for information from anyone who appeared, even if only glimpsed through a window .
Persistence and optimism were rewarded by the opening up of the little museum for us, and Prodigal Daughter and I were then treated to a private tour.
Finding out about this ancient Abrahamic religion was fascinating. Samaritans say that their worship is the true religion of the ancient Israelites prior to the Babylonian Exile, preserved by those who remained behind. We were shown a genealogical tree tracing the lineage of the current High Priest back to Joshua and a photograph of their 3,500 year old Torah scroll, written in the ancient Hebrew script they use.
But most fascinating of all for me was the whole question of identity and sense of belonging of this ancient community and even modern Jews still in the Nablus area where they have lived for millennia.
It transpired our guide wasn’t in fact Samaritan, but he was Jewish and Palestinian. He said it again, because we probably looked a bit bemused: “Yes, I am a Palestinian and I am a Jew. My mother was Jewish and my father was Palestinian, and in fact was also Jewish because his mother was Jewish, and I’ve got Palestinian and Jordanian citizenship but I’ve not taken up Israeli citizenship” (which he could have, and in fact Samaritans have all three citizenships).
In this world of shades of grey invariably misleadingly reduced to black and white, I was intrigued by his story. I liked the fact he felt so comfortable about such an unusual (in this day and age) blend of identity.
But even if he, and the Samaritans, know who they are, not everyone can easily understand their nuanced identity. They had to leave their homes down in the city of Nablus at the time of the first intifada for safety reasons: Israelis assumed they were Palestinian sympathisers, and Palestinians assumed they would support Israel.
The community just wanted peace, and to be left in peace. They walk that middle path which challenges the simplistic view that if you aren’t “pro” something you must necessarily be “against” it.
And what of the other Samaritan community? More on that in due course.
Some experiences in life are just too extraordinary to articulate and especially without space or time to process.
In the last four days I have:
Breakfasted in a courtyard in a quiet old Armenian hospice courtyard in the heart of the Old City in Jerusalem, overlooked by a memorial to the Armenian massacre of the early 20th century;
Driven through a tranquil quiet green valley to pass from Jerusalem to Beit Jalah in the Palestinian Territories without passing through an obvious checkpoint or passing by the grim separation barrier;
Spent two days participating in a large gathering of Israelis and Palestinians meeting each other for the first time in most cases and who, by the end, seemed to have known each other for ever;
Sat in a looklalike well-known coffee bar overlooking a deserted Manger Square in Bethlehem, where the fantastic service involved running down the road to another house to make me the Arabic coffee I ordered;
Attended an evangelical Christian service in a small church in Bethlehem carpeted like a mosque with the spatial feel of a synagogue, and where a red glitter merry Christmas sign substituted for a cross behind the alter;
Travelled up through the West Bank in a car with Prodigal Daughter and three Palestinian hosts from Bethlehem to visit Nablus for the first time – for all of us;
In a Greek Orthodox Church, visited the 32 metre deep ancient Jacob’s Well already a few thousand years old with a “modern” fourth century wall to allow visitors to peer in without falling in;
Visited the ancient Samaritan community of Jews who have lived peaceably in Nablus in Palestine since before the Babylonian exile and who have Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli citizenship;
Dropped off Prodigal Daughter at the Allenby Bridge crossing into Jordan only to discover there are two approaches to the crossing – obviously with hindsight, a Palestinian approach and an Israeli approach. She’d entered through one (familiar to most) and had no option but to exit through the other (unfamiliar to most). Assured by Palestinian officials that her visa would still work the same way, we waved her off with all fingers crossed;
Breakfasted this morning back in Jerusalem in an ancient Benedictine monastery surrounded by French Catholics visiting the Holy Land.
I’m still making sense of it all.