Soul Mates (Extract)

In a new film, Rafik Halabi, a prominent Israeli Druze, examines one of his community's most widely-held beliefs -- reincarnation

10rafik88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract from an article in Issue 10, September 1, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. On October 8, 1973, during an unsuccessful attempt by Israeli military forces to conquer Mount Hermon from the Syrians, Staff Sergeant Moain Halabi, 22, a popular amateur soccer player from Daliat El- Carmel, a Druze village high on the slopes of Mt. Carmel, overlooking Haifa Bay, disappeared in a fog. This was the beginning of the Yom Kippur War, and Moain was trying to come to the aid of an injured comrade. Declared dead by the Israeli military, Moain was laid to rest in Daliat El-Carmel (pop. 13,000) in a civil ceremony, as his family requested, without a headstone or marker - in accordance with the traditions of the Druze, an ethnic and religious group, which split off from Islam in Egypt about a millennium ago but continues to maintain the Arabic language and culture. Because Moain went missing in the fog and was found only several weeks after his death when his body was in an advanced state of decay, the military insisted on having a closed coffin. Thus, a rumor began to spread throughout the community that the remains in the coffin were not those of Moain, that he was alive and had defected to Syria, home to a large Druze community, and had even found work there as, of all things, a radio broadcaster. At least three women from Daliat El-Carmel claimed that they had heard him broadcast from Damascus. In the meantime, in honor of his heroism under fire, local authorities named a local stadium after him. The following year, on July 16, 1974, Afifa and Kamal Ganem, a Druze couple from the village of Mrar in the Galilee, gave birth to a baby boy, whom they named Roni. When he was 4 years old, Roni told his parents that he was Moain's reincarnation. Locals claimed that he was even able to provide heretofore unknown details of Moain's death - including that after his capture by Syrian forces, Moain had cried out to Anwar, a fellow Israeli Druze soldier, for assistance. In August 2002, Ganem, by then a strapping 28-year-old newlywed and sergeant first class, was himself killed when a powerful terrorist bomb ripped through a bus at the Meron junction as it traveled from Haifa to Safed in northern Israel. His distraught mother could be consoled only by the appearance of Omri, a lively 5-year-old Druze child, who announced that he was her son's reincarnation. Delighted by the news, the elderly woman even rewrote her will to make little Omri one of her beneficiaries. So unravels "Fog" ("Arafel" in Hebrew), a documentary film produced and directed by Rafik Halabi, 62, a veteran Israeli news correspondent and producer at Israel's Channel 1, and a distant cousin of Moain Halabi. Rafik Halabi is a prominent member of the Druze community, which numbers about 113,000 in Israel. Daliat El-Carmel and Ussifiya, the two largest Druze communities in Israel, are located in close proximity to one another on Mt. Carmel. There are 15 other Druze villages in the Galilee and several thousand Druze live in the Golan Heights. Another 450,000 Druze are reported to live in Lebanon; 1 million in Syria and some tens of thousands in small communities in the West. With no ideological aspirations for nationhood, Druze are generally loyal to the country in which they live, and in Israel, the males are subject to compulsory military conscription (unlike Muslim and Christian Arabs, who are exempt). Some 355 Druze IDF soldiers have lost their lives since the establishment of the state. Halabi's film premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July. The crowded audience appeared to be largely Jewish, but also included some of the film's protagonists, among them, Moain's brother and Ganem's mother, who wore the traditional Druze long, dark robe and sparkling white headscarf. "Fog" documents Halabi's attempts to solve the mysterious fate of Moain by shining his camera on the topic of reincarnation, a central tenet of Druze religious doctrine and adhered to in the strictest sense. The complete tenets of the Druze religion are known only to the community's spiritual leaders, who pass them on from generation to generation, but the belief in reincarnation of souls is widespread and popular. Even though Halabi expresses his reservations about the theology, he skirts the question of his own faith in the mystical process. "Please don't ask me," he says, waving his arms in mock pleading. "Put it this way," he says, when pressed on the point. "I don't believe every reported instance. But I have always been fascinated by the theology and by the popular Druze enthusiasm regarding it. That's why I made the film." Halabi belongs to a small but growing number of Israeli Druze who, influenced by Israeli secularism, have begun to examine their faith through the prism of Western eyes. But they must do so gently. Fahed Halabi, a Druze painter and video artist from Majdal Shams, a Druze village in the Golan Heights, has created a new art exhibit dealing with female sexuality among Druze women and nudity among Arab men. But, recently, he also published an apology in the Israeli press for "apparently offending Druze sensibilities" in an interview he gave about the exhibit. In 2005, Dr. Marwan Dwairy, a social psychologist at Israel's Jezreel Valley Academic College, published an article in the prestigious academic journal, "Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry," entitled "The Psycho-Social Function of Reincarnation Among the Druze," in which he argues that reincarnation is a "manipulative" process that can "be conceptualized as a delusory culturally-bound belief," which may exploit an innocent youngster's psychological well-being because the moment of "revelation" usually takes place between the ages of 2 and 5. Dwairy supervised a study of nine cases of reincarnation among Druze. He writes that the system provides incentives to all players, from children who relish the attention of being recognized as incarnations; to their parents, who enjoy their offspring's new exalted status; and to the grief-stricken who are consoled. Skepticism has come up even in non-academic circles. One 33-year-old Druze man, who owns and manages a thriving moving firm in Jerusalem, says he does not believe in reincarnation nor do most of his Druze friends. "No modern, educated Druze takes it seriously anymore," says the man, who asked that his name not be disclosed - perhaps an indication that such admissions would not be well received in the community. Most Druze, including the less devout, remain deeply conservative and subservient to the ruling religious authorities, with belief in reincarnation a prime example of that conservative ethos. Academics point out that the belief has not only a religious, but also a practical modern function: It cushions the blow of grief and tragedy, such as that endured by the bereaved Halabi and Ganem families. "Among the intellectuals and some professionals, there is more ambivalence [than among the less worldly]. They cling to the traditions but at the same time are influenced by rational thought," says Haifa University professor Kais Firro, an Israeli Druze scholar who has written on Druze culture. Halabi is a case in point. He relishes both Druze tradition and Israeli modernity. He still lives in Daliat El-Carmel, where he was born and raised with his five brothers and sisters. His wife dresses in traditional garments. The couple has two daughters and two sons; only the younger son is still unmarried. Extract from an article in Issue 10, September 1, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.