Mount Gerizim, occupied Palestinian territories – Tanya’s flat is surprisingly modern, her life surprisingly happy. Smiling out from behind her beloved cat, Tina, she joked about her sudden marriage to a foreigner.
“I told him the only thing I have to have is a cat,” she beamed, standing in front an enormous wedding photo which hangs above the fireplace of her new home.
Around a year ago, Tanya left her native Ukraine as a bride bound for a tiny village in the northern West Bank. She had worked for only a few months at an agency in southern Ukraine matching women with foreign husbands when Kamel arrived, in search of a wife. After some attempts to arrange dates with her portfolio of potential partners, she finally consented to his persistent requests for her – and only her.
Kamel is a member of the Samaritan community, a religious group based in a small village near Mount Gerizim just outside Nablus city. They are known to the rest of the world from references in the Bible such as the story of The Good Samaritan – but not everyone is aware that they still exist.
They barely do. Today the Samaritans number just 766, according to their Priest Husney Cohen, though that’s a lot more than in 1917, at the end of the Ottoman Empire when, he said there were just 146 Samaritans in the world.
A solution for birth defects
The tiny population, however, is something of a double-edged sword. While the community is naturally close-knit, the next generation runs the risk of birth defects from such a small gene pool. There is a particular shortage of women, they told Al Jazeera.
“They think maybe foreigners are more educated and like gentlemen. That’s what women are always dreaming about.“
– Tanya, Ukrainian bride
That’s where Tanya comes in. The community’s religious elders got together a few years ago and decided they had no choice but to let some of the men marry foreign women, provided they convert. The marriage agency Tanya was working for would help make those crucial matches.
“When they came, we would show them the pictures of the women, tell them some information about them and if they want, they could have a date,” Tanya explained. Eleven Ukrainian women, including Tanya, have moved into the community in recent years.
She was keen to avoid painting such women as desperate to escape poverty in Ukraine.
“One of the reasons why the women are trying to go to another country is not just material things,” she said. “Not just money, not just because you can find work more quickly, and better paid, but also because they think maybe foreigners are more educated and like gentlemen. That’s what women are always dreaming about.”
Her husband Kamal seems delighted with his new wife, and leafs through wedding photos while reminiscing about their first meetings. In the wider context of the community, however, his marriage is crucial for their survival.
The past three millennia have not been kind to his people. During the Roman Empire, the Samaritans numbered more than a million, but forced conversion to Christianity and Islam over the centuries, as well as harsh persecution, saw their numbers plummet. “The Ottoman period was very bad,” said Husney. “But then the British were helpful to us, and King Hussein [of Jordan].”
He flits through the biblical ages as though they were last month – walking me through the small Samaritan museum he runs, and waving various hand-written charts he says prove their lineage to Adam and Eve. The museum has a small, but impressive, array of artefacts dating to the Roman period and beyond, but it’s what is painted on the walls that Husney wants to show me most.
The murals aim to educate visitors on the differences between Samaritans’ beliefs and those of other religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Hand-made paintings show images of Samaritans of the past on Mount Gerizim. They believe the mountain is where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, and that this mountain is the true spiritual home of all Israelites, not the city of Jerusalem.
Husney points frantically to another mural – by now conversing in a mix of Arabic, Ancient Hebrew and English with an infectious enthusiasm. It is a map of the Sinai Desert. If there is one thing we must understand about his people, he stresses, it’s that they never left the Holy Land. While the Israelites left and were lost in the desert, the Samaritans were living here, he said. When the Israelites returned – those we now know as Jews – both communities had divergent beliefs. And this, says Cohen, is why the Samaritans are the original “Israelites”.
“These women would have to learn our traditions and religion, and we have to preserve our religion which goes back thousands of years.“
– Ishaq Samri, Samaritan
Elderly, yet incredibly animated and with soft, flawless manners, he discusses the 3,000 years of his community’s history alongside the need to use Twitter and Facebook to educate the wider world about them.
Although he agreed to allow the marriages to foreign women, it was a painful step, he said. He is deeply worried for the community and is aware of the dangers posed by compromising their blood-lines to keep the religion alive.
“I am afraid for the future,” said the priest. “We need to be afraid for the future. Why? When we invite [women] from outside – Muslims, Christians, Jews – they are not like our girls. But I am sorry, we haven’t enough girls.”
The cost of not allowing outsiders in is extremely high. Down the street, Ishaq Samri lives with his wife and two children. During their first pregnancy, he didn’t know if the child would be healthy. He and his wife share a cousin who is deaf and mute, and doctors disagreed about their compatibility for children.
So, like many Samaritan couples, they took medical tests. “They said: ‘In your family there are no genes for this illness,’ and thank God the child was healthy,” he remembered.
He believes the problems with birth defects are slowly being overcome thanks to technology. “Now with the advancement of medicine and the awareness of genetic problems and problems with marriage within families, the young generation of the Samaritan community has started to go to the medical centres to do the necessary tests to see if they can marry one another,” he said. “Not everyone does, but most do.”
Both the medical testing and the relaxing of marriage traditions have been modernisations the community has accepted to a certain point. Ishaq is nervous about the introduction of foreign women to the village, and stresses the need for them to mould themselves to its traditions.
“The step really took a lot of consideration, because these women would have to learn our traditions and religion, and we have to preserve our religion which goes back thousands of years,” he said.
Tanya says she is very aware of the cultural respect she must maintain – and embraces it. These days, however, she’s looking to the future more than the past.
“I’m pregnant,” she smiles.
Follow Jane Ferguson on Twitter: @JaneFerguson5