I recently took a day trip to a different world – the Druse villages of Daliat
al-Carmel and Usfiya, nestling in the verdant Carmel Mountains.
practice a religion so secret that even secular members of their own community
are not allowed to read all its literature.
Other secrets are less well
kept – or are at least being shared with the help of projects operating under
the auspices of the Galilee Development Authority, the Tourism Ministry and the
Development of the Negev and Galilee Ministry, aiming to promote the tourism
potential of the Druse (and Circassian) villages of northern Israel.
Druse themselves note that as an Arabic-speaking community they are used to
Hebrew-speaking Israelis and foreign tourists asking: “But is it safe to visit?”
And visitors should be prepared for something to get broken –
There are not many villages in the Middle East where the
Israeli flag flies proudly in the streets. In Dalia (as it is commonly called)
and Usfiya, it can be seen prominently, often next to the five-colored Druse
flag (representing the five prophets and the five essential tenets the Druse
believe in and abide by).
The two villages are, in effect, small towns.
Dalia has some 12,000 residents (97 percent of them Druse), while Usfiya is home
to some 10,500 – 80% Druse, 15% Christian and 5% Muslim.
rivalry exists between the two locales, although they are separated by walking
distance (on a cool day).
The Druse of the Carmel are relative newcomers,
the first families having arrived from Lebanon some 360 years ago. Other Druse
communities in the Galilee have existed for about a millennium. That they
established their homes on top of mountains was not incidental; it was a
strategic choice to opt for more easily defensible spots.
The fate of the
Carmel communities also shows something of the little-known history and
persecution of the Druse. Dalia and Usfiya are all that remain of 16 Druse
villages in the area, the rest destroyed by Muslim marauders intent on routing
Although the Druse consider the biblical Jethro (Moses’s
father-in-law) to be their first prophet, unlike Islam, from which they split in
the 10th century, they also have prophets after Muhammad – a tenet considered
heretical according to Islamic religious thinking.
In the core, oldest
sections of the villages, we saw houses built purposely close together – so that
notes could be passed from window to window in the age before telephones, and,
more importantly, to offer escape routes in times of peril.
One of the
main streets in Usfiya is named for former Haifa mayor Abba Khoushy, who was
sheltered in a local home and disguised as a religious Druse woman when fleeing
the British during the Mandate period. Khoushy’s story is just one of several we
heard in which the Druse demonstrated how wholehearted their support for Israel
was – part of their credo of owing allegiance to whichever state they live
ALL THE Druse we met on our trip were proud of the high percentage of
men who are drafted into the IDF and go on to careers in the security forces and
(My first encounters with Druse culture came several
decades ago when I served on the Golan Heights with several Druse soldiers and
officers, many of them from the villages close to Karmiel, where I lived at the
time.) In all, there are some 121,000 Druse in Israel, nearly all of them in
villages in the Galilee and on the Golan Heights, and there are about two
million members of the religion worldwide (most concentrated in Syria, Lebanon
Our guide, Nozhat Awad, is a trailblazer in her own right –
the first woman from the community to become a Tourism Ministry-authorized
Awad, a dynamic mother of two who also works in educational and
youth projects, is married to an officer whose career path and advancement
within the Israeli Navy have made local history, even among villages where IDF
service is the norm.
The first stereotypes to go, by the way, concern the
status of women. Awad points out that the Druse religion is the only one that
offers full and complete equality for women as a basic tenet. Although there are
cultural codes that have been influenced by years of living among mainly Muslim
populations, in religious terms the women are equal. Another religious
requirement, among those that can be divulged, is monogamy.
the Druse have been a completely closed religious community – one cannot marry
into it, and marrying out results in excommunication. The Druse say much of the
original persecution they suffered was for proselytizing in the religion’s early
days. Since reincarnation is an essential belief, the Druse maintain that all
members of the community alive today are the original believers.
They do not have set prayer days and only celebrate one religious holiday (Eid il Adha), and although they try to visit various shrines of prophets, pilgrimages are not required.
asked our guides how young men and women meet and marry.
befitting the 21st century, was that often their first contact is via online
dating. Others mentioned having met during university studies.
friends and relatives help with matchmaking, the young women to whom we spoke
said they were all free to marry for love. The catch seems to be that despite
the religious equality, cultural mores dictate that the brides move to their
husbands’ villages, and hence the highly educated, independent young women of
the Galilee were reluctant to marry men living in Syria, Lebanon or even the
In almost all cases, the religious marry the religious
(although we met a relatively rare case of the Druse equivalent of a ba’alat
teshuva, a woman who recently adopted the religious way of life, while her
husband remains secular).
I had hoped to practice my rusty spoken Arabic,
but instead, much of the time I was bemused by what University of Haifa English
literature graduate Duua Zedan calls “Ara-brew,” a mix of Arabic and Hebrew
(which coexist with grammatical ease). Even as the local guides chatted among
themselves, they peppered their speech with Hebrew words and terms – apparently
it’s a side effect of having so many men who work in the security forces and
police and bring the jargon home.
ON OUR way to Usfiya from Dalia we
stopped for a quick tour of Shorshem, the workshop and gallery of Druse
craftsman Shahar Amash. A sculptor who works with wood – mainly the olive trees
that tend to symbolize the region – he turns gnarled trunks (collected with all
the required forestry permits) into one-of-akind tables, chairs and
We breakfasted late but in tremendous style, at the home of
Munira and Mantzour Suliman, in a huge traditionally furnished marpad
(“hospitality room”). The Sulimans are part of a project called Amim Veteamim
(Nations and Flavors), which aims to open a window on Druse and Circassian
culture and cuisine for everyone. Hence they have a separate kosher kitchen
(with a kashrut supervisor on site).
Here you can dine on traditional
Druse dishes (“There’s a lot more than labaneh and pita,” as Amim Veteamim’s Avi
Shlomo puts it) and hear about some local customs.
reincarnation always go down well in the culture department, and when it comes
to the food, I can recommend the mansala, eggplant with humous and tomato
The food was generous, the hosts genial, the view stunning (and
the bathrooms squeaky clean), but we needed to get some exercise before
refilling at lunchtime.
As we walked through the narrow streets of the
town we seemed to gather more and more locals interested in telling their
stories. Drivers beware: The villages are small and scenic, but streets are
narrow and traffic was heavier than I had thought it would be.
member of our group ran out of water, a guide accompanying us popped into the
nearest house to ask for more.
Our visit to Usfiya took place on a hot
day, although there was a strong breeze – a reminder that one root of the town’s
name is the Arabic word for a storm.
Another root is the second-century
Jewish town Hosifa, remnants of which were discovered there in the
The excavations revealed, among other things, an ancient synagogue
with a mosaic floor bearing the words Shalom al Yisrael (“Peace unto Israel”),
which became Usfiya’s slogan. These words appear on the stone walls of some of
the older buildings, but little of the original mosaic can be seen on site – it
is currently at the Rockefeller Archeological Museum in Jerusalem.
stopped in the shade by a small pool and visited an old olive press in a cool
cave. The millstone was a gift from the wife of British writer, traveler and
diplomat Sir Laurence Oliphant, who lived in Daliat al-Carmel in the 1880s when
he was in the region dreaming of creating a Jewish homeland.
the slopes to Dalia (by tour bus). Here another feast for all senses awaited
Carmel Wahabe, a former IDF Education Corps officer, heads a cultural
program called Havaya Druzit (the Druse Experience) in the heart of the old
city, in the home of the last mukhtar.
Wahabe, like others we met,
stressed a desire to make the unique nature of the Druse community better
The musical accompaniment included oud and darbouka – and hits
made popular by the legendary Arabic singer Umm Kulthum, but not much that I
could discern in the way of authentic Druse music.
There are frequent
free guided day tours (particularly on weekends and during holiday
Tours with kosher meals and talks (not on Shabbat) are
available for groups of 10 or more (prices range from around NIS 70 to NIS
For those looking to stay longer in the area, both Daliat al-Carmel
and Usfiya offer a wide range of bed-and-breakfast and mini-hotel
In Usfiya we viewed a wooden cabin (Merom Hacarmel) and
Zimmer Beshehakim (“A Room in the Sky”), self-catered units with a traditional
Druse touch, while in Dalia we saw the modern Monte self-catered units – again
with warm hosts on-site – and the newly opened Adi Hacarmel
Gradually the area is becoming better known to the “outside”
world. Dalia’s shuk is already considered an attraction, and some 60,000 people
visited the village during the three-day Ahalan Ve’sahalan festival last
This would not be my destination of choice for a day trip with
young children in tow unless there was a festival or special activity, but the
food, view, friendly atmosphere and cultural interest make a trip to Daliat
al-Carmel and Usfiya very attractive for those looking for a different taste of
the Middle East. ■ For details: www.jabel.org.il.