MT. GERIZIM, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — Farouk Altif is looking for a good Samaritan, or even an average one, so long as she's of marriageable age and willing.
Altif is himself a Samaritan, part of a tiny and ancient nation that is gamely hanging onto survival in the Holy Land. His particular problem is that among Samaritans, women are scarce; males outnumber females by a ratio of about 5 to 3.
Indeed, Samaritans in general are scarce--only 529 are known to exist. There are probably more Good Samaritan hospitals in the world than there are Samaritans.
So Altif, 37, like many of his fellows, is finding it hard to locate a wife. A 19-year-old he is eyeing is playing hard to get.
Life 'Not So Easy'
"I am in negotiations. She ic selective," Altif sighed. "It's not so easy being a Samaritan."
Being a Samaritan hasn't been easy for a long time, and despite some population growth this century, things are only barely looking up. A wife shortage is but one of the plagues currently afflicting the Samaritans.
There are age-old problems: Viewed by scholars as descendants of ancient Israelite tribes, the Samaritans are despised by traditional Jews as heretics and by Muslims as infidels. To Christians, they are known mainly through the famous parable of the Samaritan who helped an injured stranger--but it is indicative of the Samaritans' ill repute that a single good deed by one is still being talked about 2,000 years later.
'Don't Have Good Reputation'
"It's true, we don't have a good reputation. But one has to remember, these stories were written by others," advised Israel Sedaka, a Samaritan who works for an Israeli government mint in Jerusalem.
If such notoriety were not burden enough, modern-day Samaritans are caught in a vise between Israelis and Palestinians as the two peoples fight to dominate the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
The Samaritans' ancestral home is in Samaria, as this part of the West Bank is known, which is a center of anti-Israeli violence. Nablus, where the Samaritans have lived for centuries, is considered the capital of resistance to Israeli rule.
Because many Samaritans work for the Israeli government, they are suspect in the eyes of the Palestinians. In addition, about half of the community has moved to Holon, a city near Tel Aviv where jobs are more plentiful, thus furthering the Arab view of them as an Israeli Fifth Column.
Since the beginning of the 17-month-old Arab uprising against Israel, two Samaritan shops have been torched in Nablus. The announced motive for the arson was a campaign by Muslim fundamentalists to end liquor sales.
Early this year, a Samaritan woman was severely burned when Palestinians threw a firebomb into an Israeli bank in Nablus where she worked.
Moved From Nablus
The attacks frightened the Samaritans into moving from their quarters in Nablus up to the top of Mt. Gerizim, outside the city. In the past, they had maintained only seasonal homes on the mountain in order to prepare for rituals and feasts. This Thursday, they will celebrate Passover with a ritual sheep sacrifice and barbecue, as they have for 3,700 years.
The evacuation from Nablus marked the first time in hundreds of years that the Samaritans had been forced from the city.
"We have a thousand and one problems. It is better that we stay up here," said Maryam Altif, a schoolteacher who is Farouk's sister.
Added Yusef abu Hassan, the blue-robed high priest of the Samaritans: "The Israelis think we are Arabs, and the Palestinians think we are Jews. What can we do?"
The dilemma of the Samaritans is a cautionary tale about the millennial struggle for survival among the people of the Middle East. The fate of the Samaritans as a dwindling and despised minority is what the Jews, the Muslims, the Christians, the Druze, the Alawites, the Maronites and others on the endless list of Middle East sects and nationalities have fought--and killed--to avoid.
3,000 Years of Trouble
Trouble began early for the Samaritans. More than 3,000 years ago, they were rivals to the Jewish tribes that based themselves in Jerusalem. Almost all the other practices of the two people were similar or identical, but the argument over the location of the holy of holies, Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim, separates the two peoples to this day. Their temple on Mt. Gerizim was once destroyed by an army of their Jewish cousins.
"Sometimes Jews get up and leave when I sit next to them on a bus," Hassan said. "They consider us worse than the devil."
Throughout the unending stream of wars that has washed over Samaria, including attacks by the Greeks, Assyrians, Romans, Crusaders, French, Muslims, Turks, British and Israelis, the Samaritans have clung to Mt. Gerizim. Emigrating Samaritan communities ventured only so far as Cairo and Damascus and eventually disappeared.
This stay-at-home approach made the Samaritans the prey of the powerful conquerors who often compelled them to convert to new religions--or sometimes just slaughtered them.