A Relic of the Future?
I can no longer feel the blanketed heat of Nablus. High above, there is a perpetual wind that wards off the humidity. There is also the ancient community of Samaritans—a group of people who claim that they practice the true religion of ancient Israelites. They have a continued existence on this mountaintop since at least the Roman era. Whether they are the true descendents of the ancient Israelites is beyond my scope of research. But one thing is certain: their religion would certainly be much more recognizable to the followers of Moses, than what is now called Judaism. The Samaritans still retain the ancient Hebrew script (The current Hebrew alphabet is a stylized version of the Aramaic alphabet that Jews adopted during the Babylonian exile. As a side note, this makes all kabalistic babble about the sanctity of the letters null and void.) They also still have a high priesthood, animal sacrifices, the eating of lambs at Passover, and the biblical date of the celebration of the New Year in the spring.
I exit the taxi in front of an isolated home and a fence blocking a clear path forward.
“Where are the Ancient Ruins?” a travel companion asks.
The taxi driver points to the top of the mountain ridge.
“No car drive there,” he says in English.
“How do we get there?” I respond in Arabic. But he just shrugs my question off, gets back into his cab, and drives away, leaving me and my two friends to discover our own way.
In order to get a better view, I walk into the backyard of this isolated house. After about thirty seconds of us arguing, the back door of the house opens, and an old woman, dressed in white gown, pokes her head out.
“Can I help you?” she asks in Hebrew.
Up to this point we’ve been terrified to speak in Hebrew. Nablus was deemed a no-Hebrew-zone. We respond in Arabic.
“We are looking for the Samaritan ruins?”
She points to the top of the mountaintop as the taxi driver did before her. After she notices our grins of confusion, she continues, “Walk around my house, up the hill, turn right, go up again……” She continues to talk in Hebrew, and I’m not sure if I should reveal that I understand her. She sees my unease.
“You speak Hebrew?”
I look back at my partners, as if to say, ‘let’s just do it.’
“Yes, I understand you,” I respond in Hebrew. This brought a large smile on her face.
“Why didn’t you say that before? Would you like to come in for some lemonade?”
This time I don’t look back at my friends. I know we’ve hit a traveler’s jackpot. I’m also now fairly confident this woman is a Samaritan.
Walking into her house, I walk by an old radio that is tuned into a Hebrew news station. Her living room is ornately decorated, with golden furniture, curtains and family photos. But what stands out most is a giant golden plaque with a passage of Samaritan Hebrew inscribed on it. I can’t recognize a single letter.
She enters the room and places in front of us a silver platter with frigid lemonades.
I open up the conversation with the question I’ve been dying to ask. “Do you face any maltreatment from the inhabitants of Nablus?” I’m sure they would. In fact, it is said that many of the inhabitants of modern Nablus were originally Samaritans who were forced to convert.
“None at all actually. We didn’t come here after 67’. In fact, it is the Palestinians who moved into our land. They are like our occupiers. There are only 400 of us left here, and they leave us alone.”
“To whose authority to you belong?”
“We have Palestinian and Israeli Passports. And I even have a Jordanian.”
This statement is really remarkable. That a person could have Palestinian and Israeli citizenship is like some surreal dream. She is anachronistic—not only because her customs are as ancient as religion itself; but also because she belongs to some far off future where someone may have dual citizenship between these warring countries. Strangely, it’s the most hopeful I’ve felt about peace in quite a long time.
My mind quickly wanders to the state of her identity. How can you belong to two extremes at once? She offers a quick answer to my internal question.
“We can make a bridge,” she says. “We can try to make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. We are in the middle and can bring them together.”
It’s a nice thought, I think, but what can these four hundred people, hidden high up in the mountains, actually do. I think she has given me this answer in some kind of right of passage speech to all those who learn of her dual (tri) citizenship. And, perhaps I’m right, for her optimism quickly fades.
“But we don’t like to get involved in Politics too often. It’s best if we stay out until we can achieve something.”
This creates a new silence—one that comes from the familiar despair of broken politics and fading hope. But this giddy old woman doesn’t let us mope for long.
“I’m also working on getting my American passport,” she states with a smile on her face.
“Why would you want a fourth passport,” I ask. “Three isn’t enough?”
“It’s simple: America is the boss of the world.”
I turn toward my non-American colleagues and smile.
“Were you ever in American?” I ask.
“I lived in New York and Chicago.”
“And what did you think of America?”
“There was no safety there.” She means that there is too much crime in those American cities.
“So, do you feel safer here on Mount Gerizim, or in this land?”
“Here there is safety.”
I give her a look of disbelief.
“Okay, there is more safety here. You don’t have all the terrible things that happen in the States. And this place was even safer before the Russians came.” There always has to be someone to hate.
She continues: “Before the Russians came in the 80’s, you never heard of people killing their wives or their mothers over money. They came, and brought their dirty culture with them.”
She’s not the first Israeli I’ve heard express this opinion. Some Israelis create a pristine view of Israel before the Russian immigration as Palestinians do before the Jewish immigration. I think back to her little radio in the other room playing the news and realize this is how she has constructed her view of the Russians. Like an old women sitting at home in Florida, slowly building up a nasty view of Blacks.
I switch the topic, uncomfortable and saddened by her view of Russians.
“What does that plaque on the wall say?”
“It’s the Samaritan version of the blessing for the home.”
I ask her to read some. She does, but I don’t really understand her. Then she says that their version of the Torah is almost identical to the Jewish version. (It truly is, except for some minor differences, and one major one—I.E. that instead of “the place that God will choose for you [for the temple],” their version states that Mount Gerizim, the site of their ancient temple, and the place I’m now standing, as “the place God has chosen for you.” I say the first verse of the bible, which is the one I recognize best, and ask her to say her version of the same verse.
This time I understand her. The first word though sounds like “Baruusheet,” and the other words sound Arabicized. Linguistically too, the Samaratins are a strange bridge between Palestinian Arabic and Israeli Hebrew.
Imagine for a moment that the Samaritans are the real Israelites. You’ve done it! You’ve envisioned a world in which there is peace between the followers of Moses and Muhammad.
Okay, now you can return to reality. But don’t forget where your mind has been. In the days following this encounter, I’ve experienced some things that have made me sick; that have showed me how deep into the abyss hope is buried. And soon you will hear again from the mouth of children, and know the future is indeed dark. But the fictional peace you imagined not too long ago is a seed. First we imagine, and then we build a physical reality from these imaginary clouds. That is how civilization progresses.
This Samaritan woman I met is a relic of the past. Is she also a relic of the future?—or a glimmer?