At first acquaintance with the Druze community, they seemed and remained in my opinion as a most tranquil and receptive people, a people distinct and rare in juxtaposition to the other groups surrounding and intercepting them, a people assured in their faith despite their marginality in the global scope of recognition and so disconnected from much of the world’s awareness.
This group of people consists of ethnic (or phenotypic) Arabs displaced, strewn all about the Fertile Crescent. In order to be Druze, one must be apart of the blood lineage that spans back thousands of years. Druze is not a race, it is strictly a religion: a monotheistic Abrahamic religion. (The distinctions between race, religion and nationality often go obscured which has proven to function as a catalyst for the civil discordance between Palestinians and Zionist settlers. Popular opinion tends to deem the phenomenon of Arab Judaism paradoxical and so with this notion pervading, the Jewish/Arab opposition can remain emboldened and static. And as many Arabs undoubtedly reside in lands considered today, the State of Israel, this population tends to be classified as Arab first and then Israeli whereas ‘Israeli Jew’ comes to the ear as a redundant nomenclature for the European Jewish populations residing in the lands considered today the State of Israel, even though, indeed, an Israeli Jew could very well be Arab. And the situation remains cumbersome in theory and in practice). Anyways…
The Druze have five major prophets represented by five colors: Green, Red, Yellow, Blue and White. The displays of these colors around villages, towns, cities in the forms of starred pendents swinging in their suspension from the necks of rear view mirrors or flags, whipping gallantly in the desert wind above roofs or blowing into horizontally ajar windows, merely pushed by the easy breath of the surrounding uninhabited interaction between widely sanded tundras and fields of green–within which oases of Druze life can be found.
They believe in reincarnation because this earth is heavenly enough. Their Hell involves reincarnating as a non-Druze, returning to the earth as an outsider.
Quintessential Druze culture requires a dedication to hospitality. I had the benefit of witnessing this first hand. One of the first Israelis that I’ve met at the University of Haifa, Tamer Atalla (Tah-mare At-allah), became a friend and he invited me and some other people to Yirka, a Druze village in the northwest of Israel that one could see from the Mount Carmel where the University sits in the clouds. From the school, Yirka is an expanse of dark green earth and bush seasoned with off-white amoebas of civilization before the stalwart mountains that hide Lebanon.
Tamer can trace his last name back thousands of years. His family, his people, his clan, his tribe migrated from Lebanon generations ago. His last name means “a gift from God” in Arabic: Atalla. He has thousands of relatives. Everyone seemed to be his uncle or his cousin. Traveling to Yirka, I had preconceived notions of the Druze. I had encountered and interacted with Druze people before. I and some peers decided to bring his family a small tapoozini (or kumquat) tree, in order to return the immense kindness that we anticipated to meet. And a wild assortment of flowers led the way.
Walking up to the door, I saw his mother answer with a smile on her face, one that I had perceived upon exiting the car that stopped over ten meters away. I scrambled for the Arabic greetings I had just learned. I said “Marhaba, kif halik”, which means “Hello, how are you.” She replied “Mniha. Alhan wa sahlan” which means “Good. Welcome”. I, then, said “Fiki” which is a reply to her previous address that has various meanings, definitionally ambiguous to the native English speaker.
Tea, peppers, aloe vera and so many other plants grew in her garden. Vegetation ranged from dandelions to complex, undefined trees that helped to veil the horse that waited for use in the small obscure corral. A muscular dog, chained, but capable of a truly viscous maiming howled and jumped about in the distance.
The rest of the day was full of conversation, tea and coffee, real tea and coffee, pure tea and coffee, fresh sliced fruits and laughter. Dinner consisted of lamb and chicken kebab with pita Bread, Druze bread, chips (freedom fries for my fellow Amuricans), salted shredded lemon cabbage and other tasty things that kept us in the consumptive mood, open to new food, new ideas or notions on the world, modes of social conduct, virtues, values, convictions…
The next day, we met his extended family. We went to a part of Yirka where most of the Atalla’s seemed to live. Leaving the car, Tamer pointed to the various houses. This one, here, was his maternal uncle’s, that one, there, his paternal aunt’s, this one his maternal grandmother’s, that one his paternal grandfather’s. We reached his paternal grandfather’s house where maybe fifteen members of his family from a variety of generations sat and ate two types of Druze bread dishes: one with zhatar which has a similar taste to oregano and one with “fil-fil” which tasted spicy, sending a vibrance through the skin. We ate awhile, exchanged words with his family beneath the sun’s gaze. After some time, we climbed up onto the roof of his Grandfather’s house via a ladder who’s weakness could only sustain one person at a time. Looking south from this roof, Haifa University presented itself as a distant toothpick on a far away mound. Looking north, I saw green Lebanon, meek and silent rolling hills into the sky.
We climbed down. I reached the ground first. Tamer’s grandfather in Orthodox Druze dress invited me inside. He had a large white mustache that covered the corners of his mouth, a relaxed white head cloth and a navy blue robe. He led me to the living room: a wide, low-ceilinged chamber of repose whose windows brought in the panoramic view of all points south and the Mediterranean to the west. The sun’s light beamed through the room’s windows spilling in a light glow that impressed a certain foreign serenity.
Along every wall, there were couches wholly dedicated to the comfort of the visitor. Here, the “hello” tended to have more importance than the “goodbye”. Walking into this room, with all this seating, the crucial part of human relations to the Druze has to be the “Hello” and the “Please, Sit Down. You are welcome in my home. Relax, now, My Friend”. We sat down. I looked around and saw Druze history all about the off-white walls. Pictures of prolific old men with white cloth either wrapped up or relaxed, paintings, adages, even the human family tree from Adam to Solomon to Jesus to Muhammad including the myriad of Druze prophets who actually have presence in the Old Testament, the Koran and ancient Greek text. Socrates and Aristotle are believed to have been Druze or at least intellectually related.
Tamer’s little cousin suspended into my reach a clear bag full of almonds, virgin specimens straight from the tree. They were coated in thick green fuzzed skin. The custom was to dip them into salt and then eat them. There was no need to strip the nut from its natural environment. And we drank strong coffee.
I said what I could to Tamer’s grandfather, who’s English was too scant for communication. My limited Arabic and Hebrew was enough to establish respect between us. Nevertheless, he urged me to take more and more almonds and I did.
Next we drove to a bushy place with air slightly opaque from the dust. We left the car and continued the trek on foot through muddy lanes and rocky streams while men on bare horse backs trotted past. After fifteen minutes, we reached the source that provided these paths of stone with trickling waters. Around this source, dubbed “The Eye” families of Druze, people young and old gathered in recreation on an aesthetically pleasing day in Yirka.
There were horses everywhere, marching about or tied to trees. (Horse handling has a prominent place in Druze culture.)
Children ran ten or so meters in playful determination before jumping into “The Eye”, which was 9 meters deep of pristine, primitive water.
Boys towards the end of their teenage years sat on a massive boulder smoking nargila or hookah. Its silver pipe-works glistened to a climax in the day. Older men and women, dressed staunch and conservatively, conversed and laughed over picnic. Some had music, very lively music, high spirited clapping music. The scene felt strangely familiar, distantly familiar.
We all sat, exchanged observations, concerns, drank tea and coffee under the sunshine. After some time, I chose to wander about the hills, around and behind the olive trees.
When I returned and met everyone, we were approached by two boys around the age of 18 or 19 riding ATVs. “Want to ride?” asked Tamer. I said yes. We zoomed through streams, mud and jagged beds of rock. Looking to one side or the other, chances were that I would see small enclaves of Druze life. These were people bound by blood and history nourishing each other with food, drink and love. These pleasant scenes of Druze families in nature and levity fast forwarded before me.