Nablus Old City
Excerpts from my journal during a three month journey of photographic discovery in the Land of Troubles
July 21, 2009, Tuesday, Ramallah Friends School apartment:
Thanks to Jan Hayden for suggesting this tour leader and Max and Jane Carter for welcoming me to the tour.
Another night of plentiful dreams, among them:
I was with a large group of young men and women, on some sort of walk or mission. We’d stopped for some reason, maybe to rest. The men were sitting along a wall, dangling their legs. Some of the wall’s edging was wood and someone had begun chopping at it with a small axe, maybe for firewood. He stopped. I picked up the axe and continued, until I had hacked all there was to hack. In moving down the line, I joked with various men about moving or I’d chop off their feet. I felt at last I had a strong roll with this group, that I was being recognized. I wielded the axe expertly.
Women sat in a different place. They were preparing food. One had severe back problems; someone was trying to treat her. I considered telling her about my experience with back pain and what I’d found helped. But never had the chance before the dream ended.
So, a mix of old and new themes, old and new people, but without anyone I truly know and love appearing in a clearly recognizable form.
Now about yesterday, a full day with the Guilford College group. The ride to Nablus, which I’ve made many times under different conditions, this time in 2 hours, about the swiftest I’ve experienced tho not as swift as it might be. Adel Yahya, our tour leader from Palestinian Association for Cultural Exchange (PACE), explained when coming to a roadblock, that the block marks the northern end of the Ramallah-Nablus road, otherwise known as The Ancient Route. The Israelis put this up (I believe he said) in 2000, the start of the Al Aqsa Intifada, to protect settlements in East Jerusalem. Prior to the blockage, Palestinians had begun building homes. These are now deserted. The roadblock forces a diversion requiring 30 minutes. But the other checkpoints are for now unstaffed. And this includes the notorious Harawwa which we passed easily thru. Several of us made photos from the bus and a soldier noticed, then tried to wave us down. We sped thru, the driver not even aware of the problem. I fretted that when returning they might stop us and confiscate equipment, or try to.
Harawwa checkpoint, south of Nablus
We were 15 people, a group that seemed warm to each other, not so much to me. Except for a few—J the rabbi who asks good questions, B the young perhaps photographer to be, P the woman who resembled Dotty in some ways.
The ride was about the safest I’ve experienced because Adel had some control over the driver, and the driver wasn’t trying to make time and thereby money. But the bus was not well sprung, so we bounced high at every speed bump.
Let’s get to the heart of the journey, what we saw, learned, did. Highlights: the Samaritan priest and director of the Samaritan’s museum, Husney W Kohen, on Gerizim Mount, the heartland of the Samaritans. Their site overlooks Nablus. These people are most famed for their role in the Christian Gospels, the Good Samaritan, helping an injured traveler when all others refused. Husney was warm, gracious, loving, and a loveable fellow. Several in our group later referred to him as sweet. He told us the Samaritans were divided between those in Tel Aviv and the mountain overlooking Nablus (The City of Fire, so named because it’s been traditionally an incubator for resistance to the occupation), tho all believed and practiced according to the Torah, the original 5 books from Moses. The two groups meet periodically, and some of us were curious about how they manage this division. Between the Torah and modernity there is no conflict, Mr. Kohen claimed, when I’d asked him. Samaritans are well educated, the women in Tel Aviv wore mini skirts, they use technology fully, there simply exists no conflict.
He informed us further that the checkpoint we suffered at—the only one of this day’s journey, at the entrance to the compound, delaying us for more than 1/2 hr—was not for their security, but for the army base nearby. That explained all the military vehicles on the main road. Samaritans are Palestinians, they are also Israelis, and they are Jews. In addition they hold Jordanian passports. Adel told us that they are much favored by many parties, including the Palestinian Authority which has granted them a seat on the legislative council despite their small numbers, some 600. This is because of all the massacres perpetrated against them, in turn a result, Husney was quick to point out, because of their own aggressiveness. As someone exclaimed later, oh, if only other belligerent parties would apologize and sue for peace.
Husney W Kohen, on Gerizim Mount, the heartland of the Samaritans
Their site adjoins the archeological site of the ancient Samaritan, another hilltop. But they are prohibited from visiting it except on Yom Kippur and another holy day. (They are also kept confined during the night.) The general population is completely prohibited from the archeological site, with promises of some day allowing access. The Israelis control it, excavate it, but do not share the artifacts with the Samaritans.
An equally impressive historic site was near Nablus, a Canaanite city, Tel Balata (AKA Shechem, meaning shoulder, the site chosen because it sat on a shoulder between two mountains, a crossroads, north-south, east-west, an unusual choice of site because generally Canaanite cities were on hilltops for security, much like Israeli colonies now. Whereas Palestinian sites are usually lower, for access to fields and water.) predating the Roman founding of Nablus, or Neapolis, the new city. Tel Balata was walled and included a temple, the remains partially visible. …from the middle bronze age, probably the best preserved Bronze Age remains in the country despite the poor state of preservation at the site, to quote Adel’s literature. We walked on it, heard stories from Adel about it, but little is known. Apparently a German team excavated during the British Mandate period, stored artifacts and records in Germany, and the Allies destroyed them during World War 2 air raids. Here there were no descendants of the ancient Canaanites except perhaps the young boys who visited us, engaging with 2 of our members. I show them gleefully bidding goodbye to Thad who befriended them, perhaps speaking limited Arabic and playing the wave with them.
Greek Orthodox church over Jacob’s Well
Tomb of Jacob (one of several)
Earlier we’d visited Jacob’s Well and the Greek Orthodox Church built in 380 CE, but destroyed in an earthquake in the early 20th century and just recently rebuilt thru the passion of the priest now living there. This church is visited primarily by tourists since the local Greek Orthodox have their own church elsewhere in Nablus (I recall attending a service there on another visit.). The well itself, beneath the church, may or may not be the original well where a local woman is alleged to have given Jesus a drink when he asked, and the waters the original waters. We were invited to sample, I declined, my usual fear-based self overtaking courage when offered what could be contaminated potions, contaminated by other human beings, my fellows.) The waters are believed to have miraculous powers, making the barren fertile, for instance, or perhaps the lovelorn lovable (should I have tasted?). Photos not allowed. I bought a postcard. And the nearby tomb of Joseph, or the alleged tomb, one of several this illustrious figure is supposedly buried in, fought over by Israeli Jews and local Muslims, and partially destroyed by Muslims when in their eyes the site was desacralized, contaminated, polluted, by Jews.
Olive oil soap making
Then there was the soap factory, rudimentary technology, initially olive oil and a plant substance that legend declares was accidentally mixed together by an early Nablus woman who discovered its cleansing powers. Caustic soda now replaces that earlier plant substance, barilla. And making kunafah, the universal Arabic sweet made from crushed wheat and honey, baked, turned upside down, served warm, alleged to have been invented in Nablus where the finest kunafah is found. And the Turkish bath, with coffee, eating our kunafah here while resting. And wandering around the old city, gawking and being gawked at.
Freshly made kunafah, a traditional Palestinian sweet, Nablus-made said to be the best
We dined at what Adel claimed was the finest restaurant in town, the same one I’d eaten at when last here nearly 2 years ago, staying with the International Solidarity Movement. No, it was earlier than that, when with the ecumenical accompaniers, maybe 5 years ago, a radically different time. Now tourists like us are beginning to return. Money has reappeared and people seem less strained, afraid, stricken. The Palestinian Authority now controls Hamas who I’m told has gone underground. Even the prison that 2 years ago remained destroyed is now under renovation. (Whether as a prison or something else, perhaps a museum or visitor center, is unclear). Nablus is returning, for now, so it seems, to its earlier position as commercial heart of the West Bank.
Entering the soap factory—in a former khan, or way station for traveling merchants—I noticed my vision once again slowly deteriorating: a small scale migraine, leaving me with a manageable but vexing headache. Luckily my vision returned within about 15 minutes, causing no noticeable impediment to my photography.