It was the most peculiar conversation I had ever had in my life. The lounge at the club is tactfully arranged so that communications may be in private groups, or cozy chatting places, casual and freestanding. Not that verbal intercourse is common. This is a very English organization: a club or residential facility for people who have connections with the British and Allied military services.
Allies, including Free French, Polish rebels and Gurkas, all of whom now, soaking up the atmosphere of British reticence, sit peacefully reading the Times and drinking tea with milk. We members do not speak to anyone unless we have been introduced, except for formal phrases recognized as non-intimate such as, "Excuse me, would you mind if I opened the window?" or "warm for this time of year, don't you think?"
It was from one of the less secluded corners that I heard, or thought I heard, Arabic. Odd, I thought, did we have any Arabic-speaking allies? The man chatting so freely suddenly sneezed and automatically I blessed him in Hebrew, to which he responded with thanks in the same language. This seemed to me to allow a tentative probe with ample opportunities for withdrawing.
"Are you visiting London?" I asked - a general enough enquiry, allowing a wide range of responses which may elicit a minimum of words. His reply was informative and, indeed, surprising. "I am with my brother," he said, indicating a tall figure sitting near the window. "I have a direct flight from Beirut."
"If you live in Lebanon," I offer, "then we are neighbors. I live just over the border in Nahariya. Does your brother live there too?"
"No," he gestures towards the window. "My brother lives in Peki'in. He is an Israeli."
Nahariya is less than 30 kilometers west of Peki'in. He casually adds that his brother is here to see the Prince of Wales, and have lunch with him. Now, this is a conversation stopper if ever there was one.
"The Prince of Wales," I echo neutrally.
The tall man near the window comes over and is introduced. "You live in Peki'in?" I enquire, "I often take my visitors to Peki'in, and it is such a beautiful village."
We exchange names. "Jamal Ali," he says. We shake hands.
"I hear you are going to the Prince of Wales," I venture. He sits down, and to my relief, explains: "My father was a major in the British army and served for over 30 years. He received many medals, this one being the last - the George Medal for bravery. He defended a group of British soldiers from a gang of militants and saved their lives. But my father died before he could receive his medal so I am here to get it in his place."
Jamal Ali and I exchange addresses and confirm how familiar we are each with the other's dwelling place. He describes his encounter with the Prince and says he was friendly and not a bit snobbish. "He knew all the details of my father's career."
"How was lunch?" I ask. "Catering for a dozen different diets, I suppose, is all in a day's work for the palace staff."
"Delicious," replies Jamal, "and elegant and cheerful. He showed us around and of course there was a lot of talking and meeting old comrades of my father. I was really sorry my father was not around to be there himself."
We exchange telephone numbers and talk about visits. I am serious about having an insider's look at Peki'in as a neighbor, not a tourist as I was on previous occasions.
The chance came quite soon. Acompanied by my son, who is an Arabic speaker, we ascended the green hills of Galilee and parked in the main street. We went into an open caf to ask for Jamal on the assumption that the manager there would know how to contact him. In fact she is his sister. We learned later that Jamal Ali is head of this particular group of 150 family members. In a population of just over 5,000, individual members are easily located.
Ali took on the tour with a running commentary of history and sociology. Of the 5,000 villagers, four-fifths are Druse. The Druse, he explained, are a special nation. They accepted Islam but have certain variations which are strictly secret and known only to carefully selected elders. One of their sacred leaders was Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, so there has always been a positive feeling towards Jews.
The village combines very old customs and archaeological sites with 21st-century aspects of life. Local legend has it that the cave in the green hills above the village provided refuge for prominent rabbis who were being sought by the Romans. Remnants of the Temple in Jerusalem were brought here and preserved.
We toured the tiny, winding cobbled streets, some turning into wide smooth roads with plenty of room for parking. In ancient times Ali tells us, the village was on an opposite rise of the next mountain. Then a spring of fresh water was discovered where we are standing, so the population moved over. That was several hundred years before the Druse were established as a special faith. At that time, the inhabitants of any settlement in this area were Jews or Pagans. Islam had not yet spread its influence. The spring is still there, functioning and falling into an ornamental basin in the center.
The town's residents cherish nature's bounty. This is a particularly good year for olives, and everyone is busy with the harvest. Tons of green juicy olives are taken in sacks to the common grinding machines, working 24 hours a day at this time of the year.
The wooden troughs and hand-carved double grinders have been replaced with stainless steel. The donkey is remembered with affection, but mechanical grinders, powered by electricity, do the job effortlessly, cleanly and without waste. The first pouring - the virgin oil - steams out in a golden cascade. Later stages are efficiently and mechanically dealt with to ready it for the market. Economically it is a loss, but the village maintains its unique atmosphere.
There is no cinema in the village, no nightclub and no dance hall. Older mothers and grandmothers wear long robes. Their daughters and granddaughters drive their own cars and favor jeans. Young men - except for ceremonial occasions - look like young men anywhere.
Ali shows us the religious people's meeting house, also the tiny synagogue, Christian meeting place and a mosque. There is no strain between members of different faiths. Everyone harvests olives, bottles the oil and gives thanks for a good harvest. As well as for domestic purposes, the oil is blended with local herbs: Perfume extracted from the oil is made into soaps, perfumes and skin creams. Busloads of people, local and foreign, crowd into the tiny shop to buy the decorative packages for their own use or for gifts.
Our visit peaked as we sat down to lunch with Jamal Ali and his wife. Unlike other Middle Eastern societies where the women serve the food and then disappear, Jamal's wife sat down with us and revealed some of the secrets of the great variety of food she set before us. Their house is remarkable, built in stone in a traditional style with very modern additions. The furnishings and decorations include woven carpets, photographs, decorative ornaments and vases. We ate far too much as we did not want to miss anything, and reluctantly took our leave exchanging promises of more visits. Spring would be a good time to visit, when multicolored trees bloom in every garden, each in harmony with all others.