The cold, damp air up in Majdal Shams, the largest of the four Druse villages on Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, smelled nicely of smoke.
Men with axes were chopping logs, leaving mounds of kindling outside their houses. In Sultan Square, a heroic, black marble sculpture of Syrian Druse fighters symbolizes the town's abiding anti-Israeli spirit. Just off the square, wood-burning stoves imported from Syria to Jordan, to the West Bank and back up to Majdal Shams were on sale in the shop owned by a voluble, typically welcoming Druse named Ali Almerai.
Looking comfortable and respectable in a well-worn jacket, vest and tie, talking into his cell phone and pacing back and forth beneath framed photos of Hafez Assad and Gamal Abdel Nasser, Almerai, 65, did business in Hebrew with a couple of Jewish clients for his distinctive, Old World Arab stoves. Economically, he has done well under Israeli rule; for years, he said, he was a contractor on the expanded border fence Israel built after the Six Day War. But this business with Syria - the international pressure on Bashar Assad's government over the assassination of Lebanon's ex-president Rafik Hariri, and America's impatience with Assad over the passage of insurgents between Syria and Iraq - has him worried.
"It is more dangerous now than it was in 1948, 1967 or 1973," he said, sitting us down on his soft couch and serving us a steady flow of cookies, locally-grown apples and tea. "We are afraid," he explained, "that America and Israel are going to attack Syria, and we will be caught between the hammer and the anvil."
Between phone calls and entreaties for spending-money from his grandchildren running past, Almerai spoke wistfully about the three of his children who have left home - two sons in the US, and one who was given permission by Israeli authorities to attend Damascus University and never returned. Like all of the nearly 19,000 Druse on the Golan, the shopkeeper has family in Syria, including relatives who were among the 120,000-plus Druse who fled the Golan to the Syrian interior during the Six Day War.
On holidays and family celebrations, visits are held at the "Shouting Hill" down a steep road from Majdal Shams, at the Israeli-Syrian border. Separated by an electrified border fence as well as barbed wire barriers on the Syrian side, the divided families stand on opposite hillsides, shouting greetings and news to each other through megaphones, while behind them, atop the opposing hills, Israeli and Syrian soldiers watch from their outposts.
"Leave me alone about the situation in Syria," Almerai said, steering the conversation in other directions, but he was too much the host to clam up completely in the face of his guests' occasional political questions.
What did he think of Hafez Assad? "I'm not saying Hafez Assad was God, but he knew how to rule."
And whom did he suspect was behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri? Illustrating with his hands, he replied: "One finger points at this one, and another finger points at that one, but all 10 fingers point at Syria."
End of subject.
SYRIA IS now in the spotlight - an unfriendly one. The West's vague hope is that, under pressure, the country will become more democratic, or that there will be a popular revolt - hopefully without the Islamic extremists taking over, if such a thing is possible.
In Israel, the closest you can get to finding out in person what Syrians think of all this is to go up to the Druse villages at the northeast edge of the Golan Heights - which, with the leaves of the mountainside apple orchards turning reds and yellows in the fall, is an enjoyable task.
There is always a question about how candid the Golan Druse are being with journalists - some may fear angering the Syrians and endangering their families there, others may fear angering the Israeli authorities on whom they depend for their livelihood. Almerai, an old-generation shopkeeper, wouldn't let on everything he has to say about his native country. However, some younger-generation, university-educated Golan Druse whom we spoke to - on- and off-the-record - seemed forthright enough.
While absolutely opposed to Israeli sovereignty over the Golan and to US foreign policy, their allegiance to Syria has become mixed with varying degrees of criticism of the way the country, which they hope will one day be their own, is run. Beyond the Shouting Hill, they are connected to Syria by cable TV, Internet and e-mail, and to the unknowable extent that they reflect the thinking of young, educated Syrians, they have been strongly affected by the new currents moving through the Middle East.
"We want democracy," said "Farid," a graduate of Damascus University who teaches in a state school for Israeli Arabs and didn't want his real name used for fear that his anti-Israeli views might jeopardize his job.
Two weeks ago, over Id el-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, it rained heavily on the Golan. The Shouting Hill was deserted. Sultan Square filled up with people only for a couple of hours on Friday morning. At first we thought the austere crowd - men and women walking separately, dressed in traditional, billowing black outfits with white headdresses - had turned out for the Muslim holiday. But a man in the crowd explained that they were there for a funeral.
The Druse, who practice their own, semi-secret variant of Islam, don't fast on Ramadan and don't make a big occasion out of Id el-Fitr, he said. "But as part of the Arab world, we show our recognition of the holiday," he added. The night before, youths in Majdal Shams recognized the end of Ramadan with fireworks and firecrackers.
On the Saturday after we left, the Golan Druse held a demonstration in Beq'ata, the second largest of their four villages, in support of Syria against Western accusations, particularly over the Hariri killing. A crowd of "thousands" came from all four villages, according to Sameeh Safadi, editor of the pro-Syrian Banias, the Golan Druse's only newspaper.
"They carried Syrian flags and chanted things like, 'With our blood we will defend Syria,' and, 'No to the Mehlis report,'" he said. He was referring to last month's report by Detlev Mehlis, the UN-appointed investigator into the assassination, who found unnamed "top-ranked Syrian security officials" and their Lebanese counterparts to be the "probable" culprits. The demonstration was altogether peaceful, with no Israeli police or soldiers even present, said the editor.
To Israelis, Banias is the Golan's gorgeous river, waterfall and forest near the Syrian border. To the Golan Druse, it is also the name of a prominent village of theirs that vanished in the Six Day War, a symbol of the roughly 140 villages that emptied out under the IDF charge, and this is the significance of the newspaper's name, Safadi explained. The paper, which is free (it gets by on ads and local donations), aims to strengthen the Golan Druse's Syrian national identity, but it also carries articles critical of the mother country - especially since the Hariri assassination and Syria's military withdrawal from Lebanon, he noted.
"Syria should have gotten out of Lebanon a long time ago. It's what the Lebanese people wanted. But that's my opinion, not the opinion of the newspaper," Safadi said, adding that he sees a critical press as a contribution to Syria's democratic development.
But while criticism of Syria is allowed in the newspaper, support for Israel's "occupation" of the Golan is not. A small minority of local Druse have thrown in with the current sovereign, even if mainly for reasons of practical self-interest, such as in the case of the Israeli-appointed mayors and council members in Majdal Shams, Beq'ata, Mas'ada and Ein Kuniya.
"We're trying to hold a dialogue in the newspaper" between pro-Syrian Druse and pro-Israeli Druse, said Safadi. This dialogue, however, is wholly one-sided. Expressions of support for Israel are not printed. "That is a red line that we will never cross," he said. What is printed are renunciations by Golan Druse of their past allegiance to Israel. "These people have been outcasts in the community, and we are in favor of forgiving them," he explained.
SAFADI IS a plain-looking, undemonstrative man of 36 whose Hebrew falls far short of his Arabic, which he spoke through his friend Farid's English translation in an office near Sultan Square. The story of his coming-of-age, his political awakening, is probably not very different from that of the many hundreds of Golan Druse who have gone to study at Damascus University since 1967 (this year the number was higher than ever, topping 100, said Haifa University Professor Kais Firro, an expert on the Druse and other Middle Eastern minorities). He went there in 1989 and stayed for eight years, coming home for summer vacations.
"Like a lot of students from here, I was shocked when I first got to Damascus," he recalled. "Here we have everything - money, cars, even luxury. We can fly the Syrian flag and shout against Israel. In Damascus the only thing they had much of in the stores was books. Everyone was poor, there was one TV channel, no computers, no real democracy. I said to myself: Maybe Israel isn't my homeland, but neither is this. My only homeland is the Golan Heights."
But on a trip back to Israel, when he went to get some official permits from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, he felt he was being branded as a Syrian threat by the Israeli officials he dealt with. "I felt like a stranger in Israel, like every Jewish person knew I'd been in Syria, and that I was the enemy." So when he returned to the university, he found himself embracing the identity the Israelis had branded him with. "I realized that I belonged to Syria, to the people, the traditions, the language, the education. I lost all interest in the material advantages of the Golan and discovered my love for Syria."
He feels he has a duty to build the Syrian future - "to change what's wrong" - and the most logical, useful contribution he feels he can make is to "hold onto our land and resist the occupation."
MAJDAL SHAMS, with some 8,500 residents, looks like most Israeli Arab towns, with ridiculously steep, winding streets and an endless number of little alleys, along with multi-story, extended-family houses, many of them standing unfinished with raw concrete walls. One difference, though, is the post-'67 IDF land mines that still lie right on the other side of the barbed wire fence running behind a row of homes at the edge of town. A red-and-yellow "DANGER - MINES!" sign announces their presence. Up the hillside from the mines is the local IDF outpost.
Two soldiers in a Humvee, its mounted machine gun covered against the rain, drive slowly up the road leading from the border into town, cruise once around Sultan Square, then head slowly back down the same road. It was the suggestion of a patrol, a brief, routine reminder of the army's presence.
The IDF keeps a very low profile here, say the locals. While there are many inviting Middle Eastern restaurants, soldiers only eat at Shalom Restaurant near the highway. In fact, that's the only local restaurant recommended to Israelis and tourists by the Tourism Ministry, said Suleiman Halaby, who used to own a restaurant here but had to close it for lack of tourists. "Druse everywhere are very nice people, we always welcome visitors, but Israelis think of Majdal Shams like it's Gaza," he said.
A faded, painted image of the Syrian flag is visible on a wall in the square. An old graffito pledges support for Golan Druse prisoners, those who were arrested in violent anti-Israeli demonstrations over the years, usually on April 17, Syrian Independence Day, or who were jailed on suspicion of spying for Syria.
"Such incidents were few and far between," said Firro, but they tended to scare Israelis away from Majdal Shams.
The village of Mas'ada, a little way down Mount Hermon, looks like it's made its peace with Israel in a way Majdal Shams hasn't. Mas'ada's public infrastructure - the decorative pavement and railings on the sidewalks, attractive street lights, Jerusalem stone facade on the shops - would seem to indicate the government's favor. But Israel has an apolitical reason to maintain Mas'ada's appearance - the highway past the village leads directly to the Mount Hermon ski lift, and Mas'ada's row of Middle Eastern restaurants attracts crowds of bundled-up Israelis in the winter.
None of this, stressed Farid, should be taken to mean the villagers are loyal to Israel. "The local mayor and council cooperate with the Tourism Ministry, but the residents are not pro-Israel," he said.
IT IS commonly believed that those Golan Druse who have accepted Israeli ID cards - Firro puts their number at no more than a few hundred - have thereby proven their loyalty to the Jewish state. But Farid's example shows that this isn't necessarily so at all.
He pulled out his Israeli ID card - it reads "Undetermined" for nationality, and "Golan Heights" for place of birth, an arrangement worked out between Israel and the locals - and explained that he accepted the card only so he could be hired as a teacher. He sees this as non-violent resistance. "We believe in using the system however we can. I'm happy that the Israeli government is paying my salary," he said.
We met Farid, a tall, casually stylish man in his 30s, outside his home, when he asked if we needed directions. Told we were journalists, he invited us into the modern home with traditional touches that his family shares with his in-laws. He took us into the visiting room with its plush couches lining the walls, which were mounted with photos of deceased family elders and a golden, curved, ceremonial saber.
Over tea and apples, he told us how he reconciles his economic dependence on Israel with his political loyalty to Syria.
"Of course it's a dilemma. It's very difficult. We sell our farm fruits to Israelis, we built their settlements, their kibbutzim up here. But we do it because we want to hold onto our land. I also did construction work on the settlements. But with every nail I hammered, I said to myself, 'It's temporary, temporary, temporary, temporary, and one day I will take it all apart,'" he said, bringing an imaginary hammer down again and again.
Farid acknowledged that while he has criticisms to make of Syria, he will not, as a matter of principle, do so publicly. "I agree that a lot of mistakes were made in Syria, maybe a lot of people are hungry, but it is not legitimate for me, as a person living under occupation, to bring up those mistakes. My task, and the task of all the Druse living on the Golan Heights, is to resist. When we are under Syrian authority, then it will be time to raise our criticisms."
He is so disciplined about this that at Damascus University, he "always tried to see the positive and not the negative." He was there in 2000 when Hafez Assad died. "I saw four students commit suicide by jumping off the roof of a building on campus. People in Syria didn't believe that that man could die. He was more than their president, he was their father."
OUTSIDERS DON'T understand how Syrians could so love a dictator who allowed them freedom of speech only to praise him, whose secret police were everywhere, and who kept the country poor and isolated. Farid's explanation is in line with that of independent Syria-watchers. "The most important thing he gave the Syrian people was dignity," he said. "They see themselves as the only Arab nation to resist Israel."
A news junkie who spends several hours a day on the Internet and watching BBC, Al-Jazeera and Israel's Channel 2, Farid said he was "really happy" that Bashar Assad is "reforming" Syria - loosening controls on the press, paying less heed than his father did to the "greedy" higher-ups in the regime. While stressing that the Harari assassination was "a very, very, very, very big crime," he repeated the official Syrian line about "bias" in the Mehlis investigation, and "unfounded" American charges about Syria's tacit cooperation with insurgents in Iraq.
"Nothing will come of all this," Farid predicted. "Bashar Assad is going to remain in power."
He has nothing but good things to say about Syria's leader, but makes a point, he notes, of listening to and arguing respectfully with locals who want the Assad regime to go. "It's important for different opinions to be heard," he said.
In 1982, after Israel annexed the Golan, he joined the local Druse crowds who, "with ropes and tractors," pulled down the Bank Hapoalim clocktower that stood in Sultan Square. It was during the months of violent clashes with police and soldiers. "The clock symbolized Israel's presence on our land," he said. A few years later, he continued, a local sculptor named Khater Hassan made a sculpture commemorating the Druse who fought in the Syrian rebellion against French rule in the 1920s, and residents mounted it where the Bank Hapoalim clock used to be.
"The Druse on the Golan," said Firro, "take every opportunity to show Israel and the Arab countries that they are Arabs and Syrians, and I don't think this is a show. In 1925, Majdal Shams was destroyed by the French, so you can understand how the people there feel themselves to be an integral part of the Syrian nation. It's a tradition you can't wipe out in a day."
FARID TAKES us to the local cultural center, managed by a protege of Khater Hassan, painter Wa'el Tarabieh, a compact man with an actor's striking features. Sponsoring art and music classes, the center is named for a Syrian painter and is funded, like the Golan Druse newspaper, by private donations, the better to maintain its independence from Israeli authority. An exhibit of paintings by a local artist, Diah Halaby, on the agonies of war, hangs on the walls. A concert by an east Jerusalem oud player is scheduled for the evening. The cultural center offers "a kind of alternative education" to the one provided in the Israeli-run schools, said Tarabieh, 38, who studied at the University of Leningrad during and after Soviet rule.
"The art being done here comes from local experience, so of course it's going to have a political side," he said. "I think our art should stand against the occupation. An artist has to be critical of power. Those Syrian artists who paint loving portraits of Bashar Assad, for instance, are not artists in my view."
As for his politics, Tarabieh is completely cynical about the US democratization project in the Middle East, saying it is meant to serve American, not Arab, interests. He is also opposed to economic sanctions against Syria, saying they will hurt the Syrian public and no one else.
But while he is no friend of the Bush administration or the State of Israel, neither is he a friend of the Syrian government. The "Beirut Spring" inspired him. "It gave me great hope. I said to myself, 'It's happening, it's starting.'"
As Farid sat quietly, we asked Tarabieh his opinion of the Assad government. With a defiant look, he replied, "I hate this regime. It is an illegal regime, from the president who rigged the constitution so he could take over, to the gang that sits at the top. That's the truth, and I'm not the only one who thinks this way. I want this regime to be changed at the hands of the Syrian people. But that's going to take time."
Tension seemed to have settled over the table. Tarabieh had told Israeli journalists things that could not have sat well at all with Farid, who introduced us to him. After an uncomfortable, silent moment, Farid spoke up. "You see?" he said to us. "Wa'el says things completely contradictory to what I say, but I still brought you to talk to him, and he is still my friend and I still support him."
Tarabieh grinned, dragging on a cigarette.
"We want different opinions to be heard," said Farid. "We want to create a change."
Outside, the rain was pounding the empty streets. Viewed from down the mountain, Majdal Shams was enveloped in a gray raincloud. The free, democratic Syria sought by this generation of young, politically-aware Golan Druse is not the one George W. Bush or Natan Sharansky have in mind. But it's a step or two, at least, in a better direction. If these would-be Syrians-in-exile are a reflection of the mood in that country, then something besides the rain and high altitude is having a bracing effect on the atmosphere in the distant northeast, beyond the Shouting Hill.
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