Druze Adventures

The first time I saw the Druzim was on my pilot trip. I had no idea who these differently dressed people were shopping in the Karmiel mall. It was only after living here awhile that I began to find out more about them. The more I heard, the more intrigued I became. The stories were fascinating! Thursday and Friday mornings, the women set up their tables at the Akko mall and other shopping centers in the area selling their food. I must admit, it smells and looks very delicious. So last fall, I deiced to talk with them to find out more about their cooking.

For the last year, I have been studying the fascinating history of these people, their culture, their religion, and their fierce loyalty to the state of Israel. It all started around the year 1000 in Egypt. The Druze religion started as a Reformation Movement of Ismaeli Islam, but since then has evolved into its own separate belief and culture completely set apart from the Muslim faith. It started with El Hakim (the wise one) who wanted to go back to basic tenets of Islam, taking only the pure, the good. He thought the Iubids had corrupted the faith turning it into a deadly, violent, persecuting and proselytizing religion that disregarded the dignity of the person – and the women. He attracted two men, Hamza and Darzi (hence, the name, Druzi) who borrowed and codified their ideas, relying heavily and Judaism and Christianity  and the Scriptures from both as well as the ancient Greek philosophers, Hinduism and Gnosticism. It is a monotheistic religion, believing in the One, Omnipresent, Omniscient, Omnipotent G-d. It was first open to new believers for about 50 years, then it closed. There are no converts. One must be born into the religion exclusively. If a Druze leaves the faith, he can no longer return. In Egypt, at their beginning, they faced harsh persecution from the Islamists who lived there, so they fled to the mountains of the Upper Galilee, Lebanon, and Syria where their families multiplied and flourished. They believe in theophany or transmigration of the soul – different from reincarnation in that in the few days after a Druze dies, his soul enters that of a newborn baby Druze (borrowed from Hinduism). They are centralized and organized into large family tribes. There are scores of towns in this area that are exclusively Druze. Central to their teaching is the Rasa’il al hikmol, the Letters of Wisdom, which can only be read, studied, and discussed among the members of this faith – Gnosticism. It is a book of strict moral and ethical – upright – conduct. They have several prophets including Nebbe Moshas (Moses), Nebbe Sabalon (Zebulon), Nebbe Yitro (Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law), Nebbe Yeshuah (Jesus), and Nebbe Shueb as well as their own past leaders. They have shrines and celebrate their rituals on mountaintops – Mount Carmel near Haifa; Mount Arbel near Tiberias; Mount Hermon (bordering Lebanon and Syria); Mount Zevulun (Lebanese border) and Jabla alDruze in Lebanon, where they are not allowed to visit anymore (Lebanese edict). The Druzim of the Northern Galilee are patriotic, loyal, and nationalistic Israelis will full rights in all levels of society. I must say, I am not sure about the Druze that border Syria in the Golan Heights….

Although they are a kind, gentle, peaceful people, they have a Noble Warrior culture in its absolute sense. They are loyal and defensive. In 1956, the Druze and the Israelis signed a pact in which the most of the Druze (all of the Northern Galilee members) pledged strict loyalty to this country. They are fierce fighters. All of the men serve in the IDF, with many rising to the highest ranks. Druze here serve in Knesset, as doctors, engineers, judges, architects, and pharmacists. Many of them are Druze Zionists, believing in the right of Jews to live in Israel as their homeland. The Druze serve in top security positions here, guarding public places, schools, banks, and members of politics. Despite their tie to the land, and agrarian lifestyle, many are very highly educated. Their word is their bond, and that is the bottom line. They refrain from smoking, alcohol, and pork (adhering to the dietary laws of the Torah) – and from the uttering of bad language.  There are two castes: the Uqaal, the very devout, those who have studied the teachings and are authorized to educate the next generation. The men wear all black, with the trademark pantalons with a hanging crotch (An Urban Legend has it that the male will unexpectedly deliver the Messiah at any time, so the crotch hangs to catch him. I prefer to believe that because they are expert horsemen, it enables them to quickly and easily jump on their steed and ride off to war. Believe what you will, as they say here). The Uqaal men shave their heads and wear either white knit caps, a white fez, or a white khaffiya, depending upon their ascendency in the faith. All of the Uqaal men share the distinguishing characteristic of large, bushy mustaches!!!! The women dress modestly in black with a white cotton and lace headscarf, the naqab. The most pious women wear a double veil  which also covers their face below the eyes. In this society, women are elevated as pillars of home, society, and spirituality. It is permissible, although very rare, for divorce. In this situation, formal complaints (the rare occasion of adultery or inability to get along) are heard by a board of elders. The wife always gets custody of the children, and must be supported. The husband leaves the community in disgrace. Neither can remarry. The Druze practice monogamy in marriage. Children are a blessing, and family life is central.

The Druze inhabit mountaintop communities, mostly along the Lebanese and Syrian borders as a first line of defense. Their villages are clean, and well-kept. You can see the pride of ownership in the lovely homes and flowers all around. They hang their flag out proudly – always next to the Israeli flag. (OK, so when we first moved here and saw the beautiful villages with the architecture and flowers and rainbow flag, we thought they were gay pride communities…) Their 5-colored, striped flag has significance in that each color is associated with a holy person, a tie to nature, and a spiritual characteristic like purity, bravery, loyalty, truth, and wisdom. Many of the homes have been passed down through the generations. Their rooftop balconies enjoying the shade of a grape-vine trellised arbor, which also provides them not only with fruit and leaves for stuffing, but much needed shelter from the stifling Israeli summer heat. At the center of each village is a statue of their leader – prophet, warrior, or both.

By pure happenstance, we were able to meet a Druze man, and we have had the tremendous opportunity to become good friends with him and his family. My husband and another man helped to mediate a dispute in which Rami’s honor was called into question. They diffused any escalation of conflict and erased any traces of racism. John showed extreme kindness to Rami, and as a result, he invited us to come visit his village, an extreme privilege for us. We visited his town of Hurfeish in the early afternoon and were treated with a huge surprise. He had arranged a tour of the area for us including be allowed to go to the tomb of Zebulon, a founder of the Zebulon tribe of Israel. Besides meeting with some of the elders, and being served their own version of strong, yet smooth, home roasted coffee (they are “famous” for this), we took in the magnificent vistas of the Galilee to the South, the Mediterranean to the West, and Lebanon to the North. Afterwards, Rami drove us through the town, pointing us to the homes of all his family members – each complete with a story. Soon we found ourselves driving on a dirt service road, through pastures of happy goats, olive and pomegranate orchards, and his brother’s chicken farm. Beautiful and peaceful. Then, the first surprise!!! We were ON THE BORDER FENCE!!! Yikes! Stripes!!!

Naturally for our own and national security reasons I could not, nor would not photograph (or post) any of the bases, outposts, outer electrical fences, security cameras, or other means of Israeli defense. Let me just say, it is well fortified and well protected as Hezbollah and other nefarious groups lie just a few yards across the dividing line…. and it was surprisingly peaceful with spring flowers blooming, cattle lowing, and cool breezes wafting in from the Mediterranean. No fear at all. Just awe and amazement that we were here. From there, Rami drove us back into town where he had set up a meeting for us with his brother-in-law, keeper of a local war memorial museum. Not many (average) people were allowed here, we were told, so this was pretty huge for us. The small center at the street level of his home is dedicated to the life of his older brother, a high level IDF soldier who was assassinated by Hamas near the Gaza border in 1996. Not only is the museum a tribute to the Israeli Army, but there were pictures of his brother with both Israeli and foreign dignitaries as well as his uniforms, weapons, and the vest he was wearing when shot 2 mm above the ceramic plates.

Late in the afternoon, we were taken to Rami’s home where we met his lovely wife and children. They were gracious hosts. We sat in the shade of their balcony and were served coffee. “Mrs. A” brought out trays of fresh fruit with lemon juice squeezed atop. There were platters of veggies, tabbouli, labane soft cheese, pickles, eggplants (roasted, pickled, smoked), soft warm Druze bread, olive oil, and the best Zataar I have ever tasted (an herby salt, sesame, sumac blend). All was freshly made by her that afternoon for us to feast on. All vegetarian. Freshly squeezed lemonade with mint, cookies stuffed with dates, nuts and cinnamon. (At this point, we realized it was more than bad form and a cultural affront to refuse hospitality!) We exchanged stories – in Hebrew – and she invited me back to learn the secrets of her cooking. Mr. & Mrs. A (I am protecting their privacy, so please forgive the lack of info) took us on a tour of their home – from the piece of Katusha rocket that embedded itself in a tree in their front yard during the 2006 Lebanese War – to the place where Rami fire-roasts his green coffee beans and the upturned wok-like skillet where they make their fresh flatbread. We had to remove our shoes before we entered there home (reminiscent of my California home). It was sooooo beautiful inside with wooden rosette carvings on the ceiling beams, and spacious living rooms, kitchen and dining room(the only time I’ve ever seen a fully carpeted room in Israel!!). She showed me her beautiful china sets and we sat in her feminine salon looking at old pictures of her family as the men talked of wood stoves and tools – Rami speaks broken English, but tools seem to be common to many men. I hated for the evening to end.

Since then, she has called me for my recipe for Golden Milk to help her arthritis. They have been guests in our home. We trade recipes. Rami has given us large tin cans of his homemade olive oil. We are becoming good friends. It is beautiful!!!! Such an opportunity. And we have been invited to her handsome son’s wedding celebration next spring – when he finishes his IDF service. We’ve met her youngest son, and his astoundingly gorgeous fiancee, who has just finished her military activity as a nurse/paramedic. It is so wonderful to be able to learn about their culture and join in their friendship. Who would have ever thought we would be afforded such an opportunity?

****If my blog posts are interesting to you, please share them with your friends. There’s much more to come!!!!

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