The Druse Catskills

Carmel mountain village offers kosher experience to give visitors a glimpse of the community’s way of life.

April 3, 2011 03:18
Druse food

usfiya food 311. (photo credit: Ben Hartman)

In the Druse village of Usfiya high in the Carmel are seven houses with a feature quite uncommon in Arab houses: a kashrut certificate on the kitchen wall.

The houses are part of a project for tourists launched 10 years ago by the organization Nations and Flavors. The houses host groups of visitors who come to experience authentic Druse hospitality, an experience that for most is limited to Druse restaurants in the North or stalls selling Druse pita with labaneh.

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According to Ihab Zidane, a 30-year-old native of Usfiya who often hosts these groups, the experience allows for visitors to gain a more intimate look at the Druse community. Members of a secretive religion that is an offshoot of Islam, Druse number around 100,000 and live in a half a dozen villages in the Galilee and Golan. In spite of their loyalty to the state, most Jewish Israelis have only the most basic understanding of the Druse.

“People hardly know anything about the Druse,” he said. “People know that the Druse kitchen has very good food and that the Druse serve in the army and are loyal to the country. These are the two things people know. Israeli people even ones who grow up in the North know Druse in a very small aspect, a small angle view. Here it’s very wide open for you to view life in the homes.”

Zidane said the idea behind the kosher Druse hospitality “is to share food and hospitality and knowledge about our religion and our beliefs and the conflicts we have.

We allow the hospitality to be more like a dialogue and not just a lecture about the Druse people. In these homes we have many young students from the village who share with the guests their own point of view about the Druse religion, their beliefs, conflicts Druse have, the status of women in the Druse community, all types of things.”

Just then, the Druse culinary reputation was put to the test as a middle-aged woman walked in carrying a giant metal serving tray with well over a dozen plates of homemade food, including heaping portions of rice with thick chunks of lamb, tabouleh, fresh humous, eggplant and tehina, dolmas and kebabs, all of it scooped up with enormous Druse pitas.

“For our guests we always say: ‘We measure your food by eating, so you must eat a lot. But it makes us happy,’ Zidane said and poured some juice.

He joked about the hospitality of the Druse, telling the story of a Chinese who became separated from her tour group while taking pictures in the village and was found eating dinner with a completely different family than that with whom the group’s visit had been arranged.

Outside the guest house, the view is stunning.

You can see across the entire Carmel and take in the lights of Haifa. The smell of fireplaces is inescapable in the cooler months of the year, providing a reminder that there are actually places here where people chop firewood and warm up next to their chimney at night.

Usfiya gained some notoriety in December when a local teen was blamed for starting the Carmel wildfire that destroyed more than 48,000 dunams and left 44 people dead. The area where the fire broke out is on the outskirts of the village, but during a visit it is virtually impossible to notice any sort of damage. Like other Carmel communities damaged in the fire, Usfiya is hoping that visitors will realize that the fire may have left its mark, but it didn’t bring life to a halt.

Usfiya is home to around 24,000 people.

The village dates to the 16th century when the Druse arrived in the area, and the modern village was founded in the 18th century.

In 1930, the remains of a fifth century Jewish town – Husifa – were found there.

The finds included an ancient synagogue with a mosaic floor with the words “shalom al Yisrael.” The town gets its name from this ancient town as well as the word for storm in Arabic, owing to the strong winds that blow through town in the winter.

The kosher Druse kitchen tour can also be combined with a tour of the cobblestone streets of the old town, where the town seal with the words “shalom al Yisrael” is painted on tiles plastered on the stone walls of buildings hundreds of years old.

Accommodation is limited, though the El Manzool boutique hotel features six guest rooms decked in Druse-style furnishings.

The hotel also practices its own rich brand of Druse hospitality, and if you overeat you don’t have far to walk.

Beyond the obvious culinary delights and the niceties of strolling around the village, the cultural learning experience is the greatest aspect of the visit, according to Zidane.

“Sometimes when people come here and talk to the Druse, they learn about the conflicts that Druse have as young Israelis and young Druse. They learn about how they fit in with the society. One of the conflicts we have is how we are seen by Druse in Syria and Lebanon, who are loyal to the countries they live in. We are often in a position of being between a rock and a hard place. We are seen as enemies of their countries but we are also related to them by faith, religion, and also our family relations.”

Zidane spoke of other conflicts, like the state’s plan to build gas lines passing through the village’s agricultural lands, or the way that he is always taken aside for extra questioning at Ben-Gurion Airport because he has an Arab name, and how that makes him feel as an officer in an IDF reserve unit.

More than anything else, Zidane spoke about Druse and the army. This is mainly because it’s what Israelis most know about the Druse, and what they often want to talk about. Like other aspects of being Druse, Zidane said it is not all very simple.

“I think that when people think of Druse, the first thing they think of is the army. Yes we like the army, we serve in it, but I think all the citizens should do it, even an Arab Muslim or Christian should. We are loyal and we have proven it, and now I don’t want to only be treated by this subject. I don’t think we should stop serving in the army, but it’s not the only thing we can do.

“Also, we don’t need to prove that we’re loyal to the state anymore; we’ve already proven it. If we are viewed as the good soldiers and as the good Arabs and that’s it, then everyone will see us as that. I don’t want to be seen only in this way. This is why education is important for the community.”

Education is important, according to Zidane, because at the moment, there are basically three jobs that people work in Usfiya: security (police, Prisons Service), defense (career army) and agriculture.

Like any worthwhile learning experience, a visit to Usfiya should leave one with more questions than before and a greater understanding of how complicated issues of identity, nation and culture are here.

The appeal of other things, like homemade mansaff and the comfort of kicking back in a spacious Druse house overlooking the gorgeous Carmel range, don’t really need to be explained.

In addition to the meal, the visit includes a short tour of the old town and a lecture/ discussion on the Druse at one of the seven guest houses. The tour and the meal are for groups of 10 people or more and cost NIS 86-NIS 95 per person depending on the size of the group.

For reservations, call Avi at (052) 453- 5100/(04) 839-0125.

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