From Syria with love

After 10 frustrating years, Syrian Druze bride Mayada Abboud marries her Golan Druze groom.

Druze Wedding 311 (photo credit: KSENIA SVETLOVA)
Druze Wedding 311
(photo credit: KSENIA SVETLOVA)
The unexpected stormy weather is less than welcoming.
the heavy fog and rain covers the stark demilitarized zone in a dark gray. the red, black and white Syrian flag, seeded with green stars, flapping in the angry wind, provides the only bright color in the dismal landscape.
The simple iron gate that enables UN personnel to cross between Syria and Israel is already open.
“She’s coming! She’s coming!” the crowd of a dozen or so reporters, huddled in the cold, murmurs excitedly, as they first glimpse the white of the wedding gown.
A young woman, dressed in a Westernstyle, puffy wedding gown, her hair elaborately done up, makes her way carefully, encircled by a few relatives of the groom and officials from the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), her shivering shoulders covered with a white fur cloak.
Mayada Abboud, 27, has crossed from Syria to the Golan heights, the area captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War and formally annexed in December 1981, to join her fiancé, Munjed Awwad, 30.
Abboud is a member of the Druze community, who maintain a secluded communal life. According to the Druze religion, which is an off-shoot of Ismailismthat developed during the 11th century into a unique monotheist religion of its own, Druze men should marry only Druze women and vice versa. Furthermore, Syrian law forbids marriage between partners who belong to different religions.
With a relatively small community in Israel and on the Golan Heights (some 120,000), Druze men and women are increasingly finding that they have to cross political, bureaucratic and cultural borders to find mates. The few women who leave Syria to marry in Israel, and the even fewer Israeli women who move to Syria, are commonly referred to as “Syrian brides.”
It has taken the young couple more than 10 years of frustrating waiting for their wedding plans to come true and for Abboud to make the move from Jabal as-Sommak, a village near Aleppo, Syria, to Majd-al-Shams, in the Golan Heights, where she will now make her home.
Following the Six Day War Israel took over the Golan Heights, then part of Syria. Some 70,000 to 80,000 people, most of them Druze, together with some Circassians, a group who made their home on the Golan Heights and in northern Israel in the second half of the 19th century, fled from their homes and settled on the Syrian side of the cease-fire line. Over the years, some of the Golan Druze families who were displaced during the war returned to their homes, but most were unable to do so. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Syrians attempted to regain the Golan Heights but failed, leaving Druze families divided by the armistice lines, popularly referred to as “the purple line” because that is its color on UN maps.
In 1981, Israel formally annexed the Golan Heights and offered citizenship to the residents, but some 90 percent of Druze residents have consistently refused.
They have kept their Syrian passports and are permanent residents in Israel. It’s not uncommon to see Syrian flags in Majd al-Shams, the largest Druse town on the Golan, and portraits of Syrian presidents inside the houses.
Since 1993, nearly 70 Syrian women have crossed into Israel as brides, and 12 women from the Golan Heights have crossed into Syria, according to Ran Goldstein, spokesperson for ICRC. No data from previous years are available, but members of the community tell The Jerusalem Report that there are up to 150 Syrian women married to Druze men on the Golan.
According to Syrian regulations, the Druze of the Golan Heights are permitted to travel to Syria only in case of humanitarian situations (deaths and tragedies), religious pilgrimage or for studies, but the brides are forbidden to ever return home. So for women like Abboud, the trans-border marriage is a one-way ticket.
Over the years, the ICRC had facilitated a program of family visits, through which family members were able to meet in Syria once a year for two weeks. The program was abruptly stopped in 1992.
Spokesman Goldstein says that the ICRC has repeatedly appealed to the countries to allow a resumption of the visits, but to no avail.
So, an event like the Abboud-Awwad wedding provides a precious opportunity for these families to meet face to face in the demilitarized zones. Just one cameraman from the ICRC is allowed to join the families during this private moment. Brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, uncles and aunts who haven’t met for years enjoy the minutes during which they can sit together, laugh and cry. Mostly, they look at each other, observing the lines and wrinkles that the years have brought.
And when all the paperwork is done, it’s time to say goodbye. Until the next wedding. And the young brides, in their beautiful white gowns, make their way to their new lives.
A few minutes before Abboud crossed into Israel, Awwad had greeted her in one of the drab, unadorned structures in the demilitarized zone that the Israelis have erected so that the Syrian brides can rest and hide from the weather and the reporters. Years will pass until Abboud will be able to see her former home again, if ever.
The officials are matter-of-fact and efficient, seeming relieved that the event is coming to an end. After all, the Quneitra crossing is a military crossing, and the numerous civilians are making the soldiers uneasy.
The family is subdued, too. “This is the Druze way, the Druze are very keen on their privacy. They will feel at ease later, during the wedding, which will take place inside the family home at Majd al-Shams,” says Mendi Safadi, the chief of staff to Deputy Regional Development Minister Ayoob Kara (Likud), who is a member of the Druze community and was key to facilitating the arrangement.
Exhausted after hours of preparations and waiting, Abboud and Awwad are in a hurry to get home before the elaborate wedding ceremony and celebration that will continue into the early hours of the morning. Sitting in the car beside her groom, who is dressed in an elegant black suit, Abboud begins to smile. She is clearly tired and perhaps overwhelmed by the long journey that has taken her to make her life in an enemy country, leaving behind her home, family and friends and her life as a single woman.
She lowers the car window. “Munjed told me a lot about his life here, about all the people I’m about to meet, about Majd al-Shams. With God’s help everythingwill be fine, but of course I’m a bit anxious, just like every other bride,” she tells the reporters.
The reporters have come to this northern, barren place more to glean information about the situation in Syria than to join the festivities, but when they begin to ask those questions, Abboud closes the window.
Many of the couples meet abroad. Both men and women from the community travel to other countries to study, and, since 1992, both Israel and Syria have agreed to allow Druze students, if they have not accepted Israeli citizenship, to travel to Syria for studies.
But what can a young couple in love do when hostile borders and nationalist conflicts come between them? “Wait, wait and wait,” Awwad, tells The Report. The couple met in Damascus University 10 years ago.
Their romance flourished, but soon Awwad had to return to his home in Majd al-Shams, where he became a dental technician.
As his mother chants traditional verses, Awwad tells The Report that he always knew he would go back home to Majd al-Shams, where he was born and grew up. He could have stayed in Syria and married his fiancée there, but the deep attachment to his hometown and his family made him come back.
“This is my home. I can’t imagine my life somewhere else. But I also wanted Mayada by my side here,” he smiles, holding his bride tightly as if to signify that “now I won’t let you get away.”
“I waited for Mayada for 10 years,” Awwad says, still a bit tense, unable to restrain his emotions. “I almost became desperate, because nothing worked, but thank God, Mayada is here and we are about to start our life together,” he said.
They were formally engaged in 2006, in a ceremony in the demilitarized zone. Since then the ICRC, the UN and Deputy Minister Kara have been actively involved in uniting Awwad and Abboud.
Earlier this year, it seemed that all had been finalized and that Abboud would be able to cross, but at the last moment, Syrian officials informed her that because some of her papers were missing, she would have to wait until November.
Unwilling to give specifics, Kara reveals only that he has apparently established a complex web of connections with several Syrian personalities, including the governor of Quneitra district and various Syrian opposition figures, such as Sheikh Abdullah Tamimi, a Sufi sheikh who fled Syria years ago and leads the opposition to Bashar Assad’s regime from abroad.
Kara says that he is trying to help brides to reunite with their families, especially those, like Abboud, who come from Syria to Israel. “There has been some progress over the last two years; some of them have been able to visit their hometowns and attend family meetings and weddings.”
A guest of honor at the wedding ceremony, Kara tells The Report that he also felt emotional. “This is the origin of my own family, too – my forefathers came from Jabal as-Sommak to Daliat el-Carmel, near Haifa, 400 years ago,” he says. “I wanted to meet her in person, to learn more about this place that is so special for me. She actually presented me with a thank-you note from the local sheikh, which was incredible.”
Majd , a relative of the groom and a guest at the wedding, in her early 30s, was a Syrian bride who came to live on the Golan Heights nine years ago. She does not want to give her full name. Remembering crossing the border to her wedding, she tells The Report, “I felt weird parading like this in a wedding gown across the border. I also remember that I didn’t sleep at all the night before, because I had to get my hair and makeup ready before my father drove me to the border. I was very tired.”
She says that she is happy with her life, but that she “would give anything” to travel to her beloved Syria. “I’d love to meet all my brothers and sisters and cousins for a cup of hot, steamy herbal tea and a good long chat.”
“Mayada will be very happy with Munjed, but she will also feel homesick, and there is no cure for this,” she says, laughing a bit awkwardly, perhaps aware that many of her relatives are listening to every word that she says.
But what if the marriage doesn’t work out? The celebrants are silent. Then one woman says, “We had such a case last year. A bride came and was very picky.
She didn’t like her new life. So she is back in Syria already.”
When a Druze husband makes an oral declaration divorcing his wife, in accordance with the requirements of Druze religious law and in the presence of two witnesses, the divorce goes into effect immediately. The paperwork can be completed afterwards. Then the conversation takes another course. No one wishes to talk about the unfortunate bride; it’s a bad omen.
They would rather talk about Abboud and Awwad.
“They waited such a long time, so right now they are unbelievably happy. You can tell simply by looking at their faces,” says a woman who refuses to identify herself.
Sheikh Salim Awwad, a proud-looking tall man with groomed mustache and piercing brown eyes under bushy eyebrows, chooses his words very carefully, staying away from criticism and politics. He offers not a word about the violence in Syria nor about the Israeli government.
Until now, relations between Israel and Syria have been hostile, but at least they have been stable, and the border has largely been quiet. But as the revolution in Syria continues, the future remains unclear.
“We are happy, very happy indeed. But our happiness would be full only if we could celebrate this wonderful union of two young people with our families across the border,” the sheikh tells The Report.
The elderly sheikhs, who have experienced a few wars, a dozen Israeli prime ministers and a few Syrian presidents, believe that despite the difficulties they will be able to maintain normal relations with whatever regime will rule Syria after Assad. But they don’t want to discuss this publicly, and certainly not with the press.
“Our students just came back from there, it’s quiet and peaceful. Only Al Jazeera TV and Western media attempt to portray it as revolution. There’s no revolution in Syria,” the people in the crowd say.
Caught between the two warring countries, their families divided, the Druze on the Golan Heights have been careful to preserve their loyalty to Syria. Since 1992, when the visitation program was stopped, they have heard about impending “Israeli peace accords with Syria” so often that they have stopped getting their hopes up.
But they largely believe that the area will, eventually, be returned to Syria, whether by agreement or by force.
“Hopefully, someday, we’ll be united with our families and there will be peace in this beautiful region. This is my wish on this wedding day. I hope that God will hear it,” says Sheikh Salim.
He looks at the border, which once again has turned into an ordinary military crossing after the bride and the groom have gone.
Awwad’s mother begins to sound the traditional, high-pitched ululation along with rhymed verses to honor the couple.