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.