When we finally reach the top of what I am told is Mount Gerizim, we travel along a fairly non-descript empty street and pull up outside an unimpressive building.
Once inside, we climb one flight of stairs and enter a large room. Seats have been arranged along three sides. The fourth end has a lecture stand and, behind it, thick purple curtains.
Our guide introduces a token Samaritan to us. The slight man, probably in his thirties, looks like he could be a long-distance runner. He speaks no English, so our guide translates his Arabic. The Samaritans, I soon discover, used to number several million around the time of Jesus but these days there are less than 700 of them in this hill-top community which, we are told, was once cut off from Palestine by an Israeli checkpoint.
The most notable facts I gleaned from our guide’s translation of the Samaritan’s speech is that you must be circumcised to be a Samaritan (I don’t think this applies to women), there are few women in the community and those who are women are put in a room on their own during their menstruation period. Maybe these Samaritans are on to something here. Not sure about the circumcision though.
As the Samaritan talks from the stand I can’t stop looking at his jumper. It’s wool with a design I’ve never seen before, sort of Scandinavian meets Arabia. We are then told that Samaritans do not believe in Jerusalem as a holy place and are governed by a set of rules vaguely equivalent to the Ten Commandments. The rest of what the Samaritan says wafts over my head as I become transfixed by the jumper. It really is something to behold. I wouldn’t say it’s the highlight of the trip but, after standing up and moving to the front of the room to photograph the jumper – I mean the Samaritan – I am satisfied that I’ve got one of the great shots of the trip. Who needs evocative images of olive tree stumps or stunning vistas of Nablus? On this trip, you get what you can.
This is a short extract from Palestiniana, out soon.