Real Israel: The Druse and the Jews

A trip to two villages on the Carmel mountains offers a look at a little-known world.

June 27, 2013 14:41
Druse prayer house in Usfiya

Druse prayer house521. (photo credit: Liat Collins)

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.

The Druse 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.

The 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 – stereotypes.

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.

A friendly 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 the infidel.

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 in.

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 Prisons Service.

(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 and Jordan).

Our guide, Nozhat Awad, is a trailblazer in her own right – the first woman from the community to become a Tourism Ministry-authorized guide.

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.

Since 1050, 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.

Curious, we asked our guides how young men and women meet and marry.

The answer, befitting the 21st century, was that often their first contact is via online dating. Others mentioned having met during university studies.

Although 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 Golan Heights.

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 ornaments.

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.

Stories of 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 sauce.

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.

When a 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 1930s.

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.

We 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.

We descended the slopes to Dalia (by tour bus). Here another feast for all senses awaited us.

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 known.

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 periods).

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 100).

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 facilities.

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 complex.

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 Succot.

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. ■

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