I am sitting in the reception area of the hostel writing when Salim comes over (he has come to assume that I am the leader of our group for some reason) and introduces me to a complete stranger. The stranger doesn’t speak any English and my Arabic is limited to ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you’. Despite this we manage to have a conversation of sorts. It turns out that he is our bus driver for the day. We are going to the West Bank, primarily to Shechem (now known as Nablus) on Mount Gerazim in Samaria, and Azar is acting as our guide. Azar has not arrived yet and our bus driver wants to know why not. I just shrug and tell him it is the Arab way?! He laughs! I am learning.
When we go out to the Saint Margaret’s car park I wonder where our luxury 15 seater coach is. It has been replaced by a beat up, unmarked coach … obviously the one they use for going to the West Bank. Our driver asks me how many of us will there be? I tell him that there will be 10 of us in all. He looks relieved because his coach looks somewhat compact compared to our usual one. We are waiting outside when Azar pulls us in his car… he is late because he has been to pick up Phil, and Phil’s friend Paul, and Paul’s son Matt, and a nice Australian girl who has been helping out at NETS for the last couple of month, Allie. Our driver looks worried, but somehow we all manage to squeeze into the bus, even if it means Matt sitting over a wheel arch, and those on the back seat having to survive the dodgy air conditioning.
It is quite a long drive to Nablus and uneventful until we reach the Israeli check point before Nablus where we are stopped by Israeli soldiers, some with machine guns, at the crossing into the Palestinian West Bank. Julia is busy taking photographs of the sign that says ‘no photographs’ as the Israeli soldiers peer into our coach. They seem satisfied that we don’t present a problem and we are allowed to drive through. Almost immediately we notice how much poorer things are in the West Bank. We pass an illegal Jewish settlement on the way into Nablus, enclosed behind high walls and barbed wire fences.
Our first ‘port of call’ is the Samaritan Museum where we are shown round by an old guy (who turns out to be exactly my age) who tells us that he is ‘Priest Japheth’ (named after Noah’s third son). He hopes to one day become the High Priest of the Samaritans (as were his father and grandfather before him). It is a fascinating museum, and Priest Japheth gives us a guided tour showing us various exhibits and explaining to us all about the Samaritan religion, and why it is more genuine than the Judaism from which it springs, and why Mount Gerazim remains the right place to worship. I ask him if has read the story of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well (John 4), and if he has what does he think about it? He tells me he has, and that it is all about Jesus showing friendship for the Samaritans. Nothing about the Samaritan woman in the story, and her whole village for that matter, coming to faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah then?
From the Samaritan Museum we drive down to the supposed site of Jacob’s Well, the scene of Jesus’ encounter with the Woman of Samaria referred to earlier. The Greek Orthodox Church have built a rather grand church over the top of it. Azar leads us through the church and down some steps to the well itself. It is rather nice and one can actually imagine Jesus sitting there while the woman draws water from the well for him to drink, and he shares with her good news about the source of ‘living water’. Azar draws some water for us from the well. The well is very deep, and the water is cool and refreshing. We have been told that we are not supposed to take photographs down here, but we all do, and nobody seems to mind much. After we have spent some time here … some of us reading and reflecting on the bible story … we go into the lovely church gardens and have a picnic lunch.
Leaving the site of Jacob’s Well we take the short drive to the site where Joseph’s bones are said to be buried. After their exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, the Israelites took the bones of Joseph with them and buried them at Shechem (Nablus) (Joshua 24:32). The site is locked and guarded by the Palestinian police but Azar ‘persuades’ them to let us in. We all go into the tomb and take lots of photos … just as the Palestinian policeman tells us that we are not allowed to take photographs … but by then it is too late because we have already taken them.
We still have plenty of time before we have to be back at the check point to get back into Israel. The check point closes at 6.00 p.m. and if we are not through it by then we will have to stay the night in the West Bank. Phil suggests that we go back via Sabystia, the ancient capital of Samaria. There are some fascinating ruins here and we all really enjoy wandering round them. Well, not all of us actually?! Phil, who suggested that we come here in the first place, has been denied his usual intake of mega loads of coffee, so he parks himself in the cafe. The site houses the basilica where Salome is said to have danced her famous dance of the seven veils before Herod before demanding the head of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29). It also houses a ruined church said to be the site of John’s execution. It is very hot and, after our tour of the ruins, we enjoy a long, cold drink in the shade before boarding our bus and heading back to Nazareth.
When we reach the check point at the border we are stopped and asked to get out of our bus. Our passports are collected … thank God we have all brought them with us … and our bags and rucksacks are searched. It is clearly much easier to get into the West Bank than it is to get out of it. It appears that the Israeli soldiers don’t care too much about who goes into the West Bank, but are very careful about who leaves the West Bank to come into Israel. We are questioned by a female soldier who looks about 12, and a male soldier who looks about 14 but he is carrying a machine gun so we are very respectful. I tower above them both. The girl looks me up and down and says something about me in Hebrew. I haven’t got a clue what she is saying but suggest to the group that it is something about me being very tall, handsome, and intelligent. Azar tells us that I am right about the being very tall bit?! The 14 year old Israeli soldier speaks some English and tells me he wishes he was as tall as me. He asks me if I play basketball. I tell him that I used to when I was younger. He says he wants to grow as tall as me so he can play basketball too. All our passports are handed back to us … apart from those belonging to Graham, Matt and Ally … the youngest amongst us. We don’t know why this is … but eventually they get theirs back too and we are allowed to go on our way. There are lots of cars and vans at the check point and everyone without an Israeli passport is being searched thoroughly. We appear to be getting off lightly compared to some. It is, for us, a penetrating insight into the tensions that exist here.
We return home to Saint Margaret’s after a long, tiring, day but one which has been very educational for us all in all sorts of ways … and there is always our chicken dinner to look forward to? What form will it take tonight we wonder? I am reminded of the old TV programme, ‘Stars in Your Eyes’. I hear the chicken dinner speaking to me, ‘Tonight, Matthew, I am going to be chicken in the form of …?’