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Syrian travel

 

 

The first trip to the foothills of Jabal al-Sheikh.

Beginning of November 1998. The village of Arna

 

After nearly two months in Syria, spent mainly in Damascus, my friends and I decided to visit the mountainous regions of Jabal al-Sheikh. It is situated on the border of Syria and Lebanon, close to the location of the United Nations forces in the Golan Heights. For these reasons the place is especially well guarded by the Syrian Security Office. After registering with an appropriate authority, we received our one-day passes to stay in the village of Arna and to climb towards the summit of Jabal al-Sheikh, but, as it turned out, only in the company of the patrol of Syrian troops stationed there.

 

Between 8 am and 4 pm, we walked on the slopes of the mountain enjoying the impressive views of apple orchards in their autumn colours, which were scattered all over the area. At this time of year, the last minibus towards Damascus departed at about 6 pm, so we went back to Arna two hours earlier to eat something and to wait for our transport. Near the minibus stop, there is shop which belongs to a man whose name is Mikhail, a very friendly Christian. In addition to the basic food products and regional wines, the place offers falafels with lots of fresh vegetables. The shop is also a good place to watch the village life and chat with the locals passing by.

 

The young people, dressed typically like young people in Damascus, turned out to be very open and friendly. Often, it was them who started the conversation, drawn by curiosity about the presence of foreigners. The older residents of the village attracted my attention with their original dress and particularly dignified behaviour. All men had a moustache and sometimes a beard. They all wore black clothes and white headwear. The women also wore black clothes and a white headscarf covering their head and neck. I tried to take photographs, but this was met with strong objections. I didn’t insist, knowing that it would only cause reluctance in the inhabitants of Arna and I wanted to come back here soon to learn more about the mysterious people in black, living in the mountainous regions, cultivating these beautiful fruit orchards.

 

Seeing my interest in the natives, Mikhail bid me farewell, saying, "Come back here whenever you want to, I am a Christian and they are the Druze. Islam is far away." His words truly intrigued me and aroused my curiosity about the Druze even more. On the way back to Damascus, I wondered whether I had understood the words of Mikhail correctly. After all, they were spoken in a Syrian dialect which, at that time, was not yet well known to me.

 

Suwayda

 

In May 1999, I was invited by a young Druze, called Amin, who was then 29 and who studied and worked in Damascus, to stay in the town of Suwayda, where his family lived.

 

We arrived at Amin’s parents’ on Thursday at lunchtime. His father, aged 58, was a retired soldier and his mother, 50, had never worked outside the home. They lived alone in a block on the outskirts of the city in a flat of about 90 m². Their standard of living reminded me of that of a regular Polish family at that time. After a hearty meal consisting of mutton chops, vegetables and fruit, Amin's father offered me some traditional strong and bitter Arabic coffee. When asked about my background, family and occupation, I tried to give very full answers in order to encourage him himself to elaborate later, during my interview. When I told him about my family, he was very surprised that my father, who held a respectable position and was of rural origin, did not possess land, which here was the evidence of high social status. My explanations about the unprofitability of agricultural production in Poland remained completely incomprehensible to Amin's father.

 

The interview with Amin’s father:


Have you been initiated in the Druze religion?

No and I don’t want to deal with matters of religion.

 

Why?

Because it is not indispensable for living in this world.

 

But you are a Druze, aren’t you?

Of course! And my daughters will give birth to my Druze grandchildren.

 

What do you mean?

They married Druze men. One of them is after initiation.

 

What is the difference between the names Muwahhidun and the Druze?

There is none.

 

Who was Darazi?

He was a bad man.

 

Why?

You must ask the people of faith.

 

Do the Druze have special features, signs or symbols?

People who enter this religion wear black clothes and white headwear. The elders wear a white and red lafiya.

 

At what age do you enter the Druze faith?

30, 40, there are some who go through initiation at the age of 60. Age is not the most important aspect.

 

And what is?

The willingness to get to know the secrets of the faith and the maturity to be able to keep them a secret.

 

And what about women?

Women have equal rights, also in terms of religion.

 

Has anyone tried to talk you into initiation?

No, it is a personal matter.

 

In some books written by Western researchers I read that for the Druze, al-Hakim – the Egyptian caliph is a God.

God resided in al-Hakim.

 

But was he God?

Like I said, I don’t participate in the religious life.

 

Are the Druze Muslim?

The Druze are Islam and the The Quran is the sacred book.

 

Are the Druze Arabs?

The Druze came from Lebanon.

 

But are they Arabs?

Yes (he stood up and went to get two books about the history of Jabal al-Arab). The Druze have always been brave, shedding blood for the Arab homeland.

 

You were a soldier, what do you think about the Druze officers in the Israeli army?

 

The Druze are everywhere, living in every country around the globe. Everywhere they are, they make sure they are good citizens. The problem with Druze officers in the Israeli army is minimal. It is, however, true that the young Druze must do compulsory military service there.

 

A phone rang during the conversation. It was Amin’s older sister saying that the following week she was flying from Argentina. She’d been living there with her family for 10 years. Amin suggested a walk around the town and a visit to his other sister. 

 

Suwayda is a quiet and pleasant city, but it gives the impression of an endless construction site. On the one hand, there are the ruins of monuments, on the other, unfinished homes which seem to account for 85% of the buildings in the city and can be seen everywhere. The family home of Amin’s sisters had three floors and, strangely enough, was fully completed. We were invited into a room for visitors which was tidy, about 45 m² in size and equipped only with seats and a table. The walls were adorned with photos of ancestors. The sister was a friendly and open person. She spoke a little French and she had finished high school. She had two children, a boy and a girl. The grandmother came in to bring us some tea and coffee. Amin chatted to her telling her the latest news about himself and the family. The grandmother unfortunately did not answer any of my questions - perhaps it wasn’t suitable to talk to a strange man. Still, she willingly agreed to have her photo taken. After a half-hour visit, Amin thanked them for their hospitality and we left. There were no men at home at that time. Maybe this was the reason why the visit was so short. When we said goodbye, the grandmother insisted I was to visit them next time I was in Suwayda.

 

We headed towards the city centre. Then we walked around a residential area in the eastern part of Suwayda. At about 7 pm, men and women dressed in black with snow-white headwear appeared in the streets. As there were more and more of them, I asked Amin what was going on. The answer was: "Thursday is the day of the Majlis – a meeting at a designated place of those who are initiated in the religion." It was strange that the Druze were heading in different directions and were usually walking in pairs. I took this opportunity to ask Amin if I could take a photo of one of the couples passing by. He asked and the Druze stopped without a word to have their picture taken and then left without a word. Amin couldn’t or wouldn’t say where the houses of prayer were located.

 

On Friday morning, Amin’s family hired a taxi to go towards the mountains. His colleague’s father had approximately 1 hectare of land 15 km from Suwayda where they grew cherries and apples. The spacious house standing there could easily be used as a year-round place to live. Upon arrival, Amin's parents went to do their work and we set off on a walk through the orchard and the neighbouring fields. Amin complained about the backwardness of his parents. The rules governing the behaviour of the community in Suwayda irritated the young IT engineer who was now residing in Damascus. He admitted that he would happily live in Suwayda with his parents and commute to work in Damascus, as it would be cheaper, but it was impossible. His parents would not give him any autonomy. The will of a young Druze is entirely subject to the elders and it is an unbreakable principle. Amin pointed out the advantages of land ownership, but wondered why everyone had to be bound to it. He was also afraid that if he fell in love with a girl who was not a Druze, his relations with his parents would disappear completely. His father would never accept such a relationship.

 

In the evening, before returning to Damascus, we visited Amin’s uncle from his father's side. The house of about 300 m² was in the centre of the city and three families lived in it. The grandfather, who must have been about 75 years old, greeted me and then sat down in a corner of the guest room. He sat there not saying anything until the end of the visit, although he did offer us coffee twice and then poured it into small cups.

I learnt that a year ago the uncle had returned from Moscow where he had done business. Except for a few breaks, he had spent 12 years there altogether. He hadn’t made a fortune in Russia. The good money of the first prosperous period in Moscow had been used to cover the loss of the unsuccessful recent years. The uncle laughed saying that living abroad was worth a try, but there was no point wasting time living a worse life than he could have in Syria. He had now opened a shop in the city centre and had high hopes associated with it. The uncle didn’t wear white hats or black clothes as he wasn’t initiated into the faith.

The presence of the grandmother and the uncle's wife and children prevented a relaxed and detailed interview so we said goodbye and went with the uncle to the city centre to visit the shops of his friends.


Golan. The village of Hudur

 

I visited the Golan Heights in October 1999, during the fig harvest, hoping to find the Druze. I chose the village of Hudur for its remoteness from the main roads. Not having obtained the earlier-mentioned authorization from the Security Office to enter this area, I decided to get there illegally. The only possible way to deceive the vigilance of the guards at checkpoints was to look like a UN soldier. Thus, I cut my hair short, put on green trousers, a grey T-shirt and heavy boots, and tucked a blue cap with the emblem of the United Nations in my bag. I had been given the hat six months earlier by Polish soldiers stationed in the Golan Heights. My trick worked. Without any hassle, I got to Hudur by saluting through the window to some young Syrian soldiers at two checkpoints.

As we arrived in Hudur, I asked the minibus driver to drop me off on the edge of the village. I asked the first people I encountered to direct me to someone who could tell me about the Druze living there. The villagers took a while to consider my question and then referred me to the village administrator, Mr. Nur ad-Din. His house was located in the central part of Hudur. He lived in a bungalow overgrown with vines which, in the vicinity of the entrance stairs, created a beautiful canopy with bunches of ripe fruit hanging overhead.

 

The administrator was clearly unhappy about my visit. He invited me to his terrace in a rather dry manner. His wife brought coffee. I justified his behaviour by the fact that it was the Golan Heights and everyone here had enough problems anyway, and my visit would definitely have to be recorded by the administrator in his reports to the Syrian Security Service. I tried to relax the atmosphere by talking about my course at the Arabic Language Institute at the University of Damascus, about the work which I was writing on the Druze and explained that I had visited them across Syria for this reason. Mr. ad-Din then agreed to a short interview noting at the beginning that he was not the religious leader of the village, but only the administrator appointed by the Syrian authorities.

Here is what I learned.

 

He had three sons, two of whom were married. The eldest had a shop, the middle one was an office worker and the youngest a driver. At this time, the village men married at the age of 30-35. In the past they did so at 25. He himself grew apples, cherries, olives, figs and some corn on a 20-acre piece of land. The village had 7,000 inhabitants, as very few young people settled in Damascus. After finishing school they usually came back to live with their family and work in agriculture. The village of Hudur maintains strong links with the Druze living in the part of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel; the reason being family ties.

 

As for living near the Maronites, due to major problems in the past, current contact was limited to the necessary formalities such as co-governing the state, being neighbours, etc. The administrator had been initiated in the Druze faith. He explained, however, that people of his age had little knowledge about religion and so he couldn’t help me in this matter. Instead, he offered to take me to the Sheikh of the village, Mr. Mahammad.

 

We went through the village, passing by poor households. The administrator went first, slowly. Pressing his right hand to his chest, he greeted the people he passed. The streets made of concrete, the grey buildings with metal doors leading to each house and the sight of ever present poverty overwhelmed me.

The Sheikh’s house was no different from any other house in the village. We had to wait quite a while at the door before Mr. Mahammad let us inside. It must have been the most modestly furnished abode I had visited since I came to Syria. The austere stairwell walls gave a pleasant coolness, but in no way encouraged me to linger near them. Led by the Sheikh, I walked towards the room for visitors, passing the kitchen, which was simply a room with a gas stove, three cupboards and bags full of vegetables lying on the ground below the window. A stout, elderly woman dressed in black was peeling onions.

In the room for visitors, of about 30 m², stood a highly polished glass case stuffed to the brim with various kinds of china and glass dishes. A rug was lying in the middle and mattresses and pillows were placed by the walls, which were covered with green oil paint. In the corner, by the window, placed on a metal table, was a TV.

The Sheikh indicated our places and we all sat down. He was a very friendly, elderly man who smiled constantly, squinting his watery and cloudy eyes. As he was a bit deaf, he almost shouted when he spoke. I often needed the administrator’s help in decrypting what the Sheikh had said. Mahammad spoke only a dialect of Arabic. He spoke quickly and unclearly. 

 

This is what I managed to write down:

 

The Sheikh was 101 and a half years old.

He had raised six sons and five daughters. They all lived in the village and they were all people of faith.

He boasted that he had fought against the Turks and the French for the freedom and faith of Islam.

The Sheikh didn’t know where the Druze came from, but they had come to Syria from Lebanon.

The Druze name came from the name Ad-Darazi who was a messenger bringing the thoughts of Hakim to the Syrian lands, but as he had preached falsely during the journey, the Druze did not like the name.

The name Muwahhidun referred to those who glorified God and gave themselves entirely to him, both in body and mind. They called themselves Muwahhidun because they were united with God.

The term Beni Maaruf came from the mystery and purity of moral life in the community. The Sheikh said a few more sentences about it, but I didn’t understand them at all. When I asked the administrator for help in translating, he only said that the Sheikh’s words had been very vague and he hadn’t understood them either.

The Turks and the French had tried to rule the Druze, who were not numerous at that time, so they had settled in the mountains which gave them shelter.

 

Majlis. As a Jahil (uninitiated, an unbeliever) I could enter the house of prayer and listen to the introduction, whereas the following sections were comprehensible only to those initiated in the Druze faith. I asked, “Was Hakim a God or a Prophet?” The reply was, “Hakim was oneness. Go to Suwayda, the Sheikh Djarbu will tell you the truth about the faith. Ask him about our flag and the law of the Druze.

The old man got tired and the village administrator was giving me signs with his hand to stop. We finished our cold Pepsi, which had been brought to us by a little boy during the conversation. We weren’t offered any coffee.

 

The outskirts of Damascus

 

One of my Palestinian friends living in Muhayyam Yarmuk asked me to meet his friend, a book publisher and a PhD in history, living and working in the area of ​​Ja Rumana. The man looked wealthy. He had a relaxed manner and he was dressed entirely in accordance with European style. Dr. Majid received us in his office. Sitting proudly behind a massive desk, he  spoke willingly about himself and the Druze. His two daughters listened to our conversation. Sometimes they expressed their opinions speaking in literary Arabic. All three were students at the Faculty of History at the University of Damascus. They were also having private lessons in English and French.

 

Here is what I found out:

 

The doctor didn’t have a friendly relationship with the Druze. He studied and worked in Moscow, where his wife came from. The mother of his daughters wasn’t a Druze so they weren’t Druze either.
He knew a lot about their religion, but his interest was purely academic and he never felt any spiritual connection. The Druze, in his opinion, come from the same ethnic roots as Arabs, but there are others who argue that the Druze are from Persia. Hakim is God in the Druze faith. Through him, God revealed himself to people and through him, God will return to Earth for the day of judgment. The Druze doctrine is a religion, but remains within the framework of Islam. To my question about how it was possible, he said that you had to be smarter than both of us together to comprehend it. The Ismaili are a faction of Islam important for the Druze. The Druze Takammus doctrine is different from Ismailism above all in the belief that, regardless of God's judgment, the soul always comes back to a human body, whereas the Ismaili claim that the condemned soul is to return to Earth in the body of an animal.

 

The religious initiation in Lebanon is done at the age of 15-20. In Syria, the Druze become familiar with the secrets of their religion at the age of 55-60, when people begin to think about God.

Today, the young Druze in Syria are not interested in religion at all. This is due to the universal and very strong tendency towards atheism.

During one of his incarnations on Earth, the Prophet Muhammad was the incarnation of Satan. At that time, he had a very bad influence on the Druze community.

For the Druze, the fundamental issue in this world is land and agriculture. Someone who works in a different area than agriculture has no respect in the traditional Druze community.

The sacred Druze books are nothing original. They are a collection of wisdom from different religions. They used to be secret, but now you can read them in European libraries.

There is no single general assembly for the Druze from all over the world. Lebanon is considered a religious centre. Suwayda is also an important centre of the Druze community.

 

Suwayda the second time

 

This time I was invited to Suwayda by Mr. Zijar al-Yasin, the head of the Trade Union of Teachers in Syria. His family came from Suwayda, though he himself had lived in Damascus since he went to university. He said he belonged to the Communist Party of Syria. As a Jahil, he wasn’t at all interested in talking about religion. He described the Druze as a religious minority and not an ethnic one. He stressed that they had the same rights as all the citizens of Syria and then elaborated on the Druze participation in the creation of the Ba’ath Party.
In connection with the upcoming seventieth anniversary of the Communist Party, Mr. Zijar invited me to participate in the Communist Congress in Suwayda, which was to be held in the Cultural Centre, in a rented cinema hall.

The director of the Cultural Centre in Suwayda was Dr. Fandi Abu Fakhr, a Druze and an educated historian. I opened the door and walked into his spacious and sunny office. Apart from his desk, there was also a large conference table and a few comfortable armchairs loosely arranged by the wall. A long burgundy carpet stretched across the entire length of the room. The director had been notified about my visit so he scheduled the whole day for the meeting with me. During our conversation, the director behaved in a distant manner, which, I presume, was due to his high position, which he had held since 1986. His membership in the Ba’ath Party and his degree of Doctor of Humanities had helped him reach such a high position in Suwayda.

 

Here is what I learned during the meeting:

 

Dr. Fandi Abu Fakhr came from a small village near Suwayda.

He was 48 years old.

He had written his doctoral thesis on the history of Jabal al-Arab in the years 1840-1918, which was published in Dar al-Majid in Damascus.

His wife was a Druze and she worked as a teacher in a primary school.

He had one daughter and three sons. The eldest son was graduating from high school that year, the middle one was to graduate the following year and the youngest was at primary school. The daughter was a student at the Institute of Mechanics in Damascus.

The director wasn’t initiated into the faith and wasn’t intending to do so in the future.

It was largely the pressure of the family which determined the initiation in the faith. His family did not insist on it even though his mother and father were Ukkal, those initiated into the Druze faith (1),

My host said that all the Druze Books are generally available in Lebanon. He was of the opinion that in the times of religious freedom, there was no point hiding the Books. Building mystery around the Druze faith, which they do themselves, leads to speculation about the Druze, slander and false theories.

The Druze officers serving in the Israeli army were condemned by the Druze community. There were very few of them so it wasn’t seen as a problem and wasn’t a topic of conversation in the community.

In Syria, in regions where the Druze were the majority, political power was exercised by representatives of the community. It happened that the Druze acted as governors in regions they didn’t come from.

The Druze banner shows five colours. Each has a separate symbolic meaning:

A. Green - refers to the green colour of the Ark of Noah.

B. Red - refers to the colour of fire and the religion of Moses.

C. Yellow - refers to the colour of the light flowing onto Jesus when he spoke with God.

D. Blue - also points to Jesus changing the colour of the sky from black to blue.

E. White - refers to the white colour of Imams worn by Muhammad. This colour symbolises peace.

The Director strongly emphasized that the Druze were associated with the Ismaili in terms of their dogma; however, they did not worship their Imams.

 

At midday, Mr. Fandi invited me to lunch, to which we were taken by the Director’s personal driver. Inside the restaurant, the head of the Cultural Centre in Suwayda was warmly greeted by the staff. We were shown to a table already set with two plates of fresh vegetables and a jug of water. In the corner of the room, I saw about fifteen men seated at a large table. They were talking loudly and drinking alcohol. Mr Fandi was a little embarrassed by such company. Then he explained that the men were celebrating the signing of a construction contract for the renovation of a school. I asked if they were the Druze and he confirmed. Each of them bowed seeing the director, but they remained loud. During the meal we talked mainly about my family, my university course and my plans for the future. I noticed that the director wasn’t as formal as before in the office. Sitting with him I felt that any cultural differences were irrelevant. He ate and talked, was interested in the same things which, for example, my father would be. He had never travelled abroad. Previously, he couldn’t afford it and now he had too many duties connected with work. Nonetheless, he noted that he would like his children to go abroad for work practice. The Centre had a lot of contacts with France and the United States.

On the way back to the office, Mr. Fandi offered his help in arranging a meeting with Sheikh al-Akl in Suwayda, Mr. Djarbu.

 

Sheikh Djarbu residence

 

At about 3.30 pm, I was dropped off at the door of a stately house with a gate in the middle. In the courtyard, I saw three big American cars in seventies’ style. An elderly woman in black opened the door and let me into a spacious room which, judging by the furniture, was a room for visitors. It was approximately 60 m² in size, with stone tiles on the floor and the walls painted from top to bottom with white oil paint. Simple seats cushioned with woollen rugs stood against the walls and, in the corner, there was a small brass table with a set of Arabian style coffeepots on it. We exchanged polite greetings and the woman left the room. The Sheikh appeared soon after. A small, elderly man smiling broadly invited me to his office. The Sheikh’s position was equivalent to a high-rank priest in the Catholic Church. He was warm and welcoming and spoke slowly and in a relaxed manner. He was able to listen and he also gave the impression of a person who cared greatly about his appearance.

 

The Sheikh intimidated me. I was afraid to ask questions especially about religion, feeling that my questions might force him to avoid the truth. I knew that as a high Druze dignitary, he would have to give politically correct answers.

 

Here is what I managed to jot down during a brief meeting:

 

The Sheikh came from Suwayda. He was 75. He had graduated from religious schools in Suwayda. Before going to Venezuela in 1949, he had taught at several schools of the region of Jabal al-Arab. In Venezuela, he had opened a gas station, among other things, and dealt with all kinds of trade. In 1965 he had returned to Suwayda to his dying father. Shortly after, he had become Sheikh al-Akl. All of his children are happily married. Some of them live with their families in Venezuela or in the UAE, while others remained in Suwayda.

The Sheikh didn’t encourage his children to initiate in the Druze religion, wanting it to be their own, mature choice. Two sons had already initiated in the Druze faith. The daughter residing in Venezuela and her husband were also after the initiation.

According to the Sheikh, religion shouldn’t be the most important aspect in a person’s life and when it is, this often leads to civil wars such as those which could be seen at that time in Algeria and Africa.

In Syria, in the five provinces, there are 340 small centres of the Druze faith.

When asked about the Druze officers in the Israeli army, he said that the government of a state didn’t matter. What mattered was the country where one lived and one must do everything to be able to live in it comfortably. As for marriage, if a Druze married a girl from outside the Druze community, he was excluded from the religion, and could not return to it, even if he divorced. There were no other consequences.

 

He also said that the only major difference between Muslims and the Druze was the number of wives. The Druze Books were issued in Lebanon as cheap books to discredit the Druze community by revealing their alleged secrets. The holy book mostly read by the Druze was The Quran. He had known president Assad personally for 35 years. The five colours on the Druze banner had no particular meaning. He ironically mentioned the Chinese five-pointed star and asked whether it had any meaning. The Druze had come from Yemen to Aleppo and from there to Lebanon and Syria.

When I asked whether the Druze were Arabs, the Sheikh pondered for a moment and then said, "The Druze belong to the culture of the Arab countries, although some Syrian writers and many French ones diminish the role of the Druze in the history of Syria."

 

The Sheikh emphasised the need for ongoing development of both the internal and external human existence. The earthly life was worthy of interest. A human being is free and should constantly think about the future. After a 45-minute-long meeting, the Sheikh rose from his desk announcing that he had a business meeting in the evening which he had yet to prepare for. Saying goodbye, he embraced me. I felt very happy that I had been able to get to know one of the leaders of the Druze, and that he had proved to be an outstanding and warm person, as well as open to the world. 

 

The Aleppo area

 

This time I went to the area of Aleppo in search of the Druze. In the mountainous regions near the border with Turkey, there are 12 villages inhabited by the Druze minority. The most popular village in the area is Kalb Luza. Here visitors can find early sacred Christian monuments and the ruins of a Roman settlement.

I arrived in Kalb Luza at 10 am on a beautiful, sunny October morning. The sun at this time of year is not as intense as in the summer so the village was full of running children and adults walking by. Poverty and dirt was everywhere. I was surprised with the level and the way of life of the people who lived there. For the first time, I was met with such insistence by the children who tried to sell hand-embroidered pieces of cloth, or just begged for a few lire. The adults I approached in trying to make contact didn’t show any interest. They turned and walked away without a word. I felt very uncomfortable there. I decided to move on towards the village of Banabil. The beautiful weather convinced me to beat the 6 km distance on foot. As I was walking, I admired the mountainous landscapes and inhaled the air with the scent of corn and olive groves.

After about two kilometres, I met an elderly man on the road slowly leading a white donkey. He warmly responded to my greeting. He was surprised why I was carrying such a big backpack and hadn’t taken a bus. He took my backpack and loaded it on the donkey, telling me that he was walking towards Banabil too. His fields were there.

Sulayman, for that was his name, admitted that he couldn’t write or read Arabic, so he wouldn’t help with writing down his name. He was 60 years old, had four sons and two daughters. One of the sons had married and settled in Lebanon. He himself had 50 acres of land on which he grew olives and corn. He boasted about large grain exports from these regions to Saudi Arabia. He mentioned president Assad as a good leader, the protector of the Druze and the promoter of agriculture. "Now they have nothing to be afraid of," said Sulayman. When I asked why the Druze always lived in the remote mountain areas, he replied that after all, mountains are the most beautiful and besides, the Druze came to Syria in troubled times, so they preferred to hide. Sulayman said that the Druze had come to Lebanon from Iraq and Persia and then to Syria, but now most of them lived in India. According to him, the Druze were everywhere on earth and mostly in areas where many people lived. Each village had its Sheikh. The most important one resided in Suwayda. Sulayman admitted that he hadn’t initiated into the faith.

 

The village of Banabil did not differ much from Kalb Luza. Simple one-storey buildings made from brick and stone, a concrete road with sheep and goat droppings scattered around. All this discouraged me from trying to make contact with the inhabitants of the place. I sat on a stone wall along the road, pulled out a bottle of water from my backpack and began to wonder whether coming here was worth the effort. People started appearing, mostly children. They approached me with curiosity and broke into laughter after hearing my imperfect Arabic. I asked them boldly whether they were the Druze. The children didn’t respond, but a tall man came up and said that it was a Muslim village and there were no Druze here. I got up intending to head off. At this point, an elderly man dressed in traditional Druze clothes came out from a nearby building. I gave the tall man a wry smile and asked who the elderly man was. He replied that it was Islam and the clothes were a traditional village outfit. I asked to meet the village administrator.

 

Abu Hatim was 55 years old, had two sons and five daughters. He had undergone the religious initiation. He had been the village administrator for 10 years. He held the function on behalf of the state and it had nothing to do with the social structure of the Druze. For the first half hour of the meeting, I had to answer questions about the reason of my visit. I could tell that he was afraid of the conversation with me. In the meantime, another man came, who was later introduced as a nephew. The meeting took place within the administrator’s grounds of about 500 m², which were surrounded by a low wall of stones and included a house, a barn and a small building of about 6 metres by 8. It was the first time I had come across the idea of ​​placing the room for visitors in a separate building. Apart from rugs, there were no other facilities there. With the arrival of the administrator’s nephew, the atmosphere relaxed. He spoke pure literary Arabic, which helped me in contact with the two other men. The nephew was called Nasif and he had graduated from a technical college in Aleppo and was now running a grocery store in the village and helping his father in the cultivation of the land. He had two children. Nasif explained why the natives were afraid of any contact with strangers saying that the Druze had lived in this region for centuries and kept themselves to themselves wanting to defend their land. The present authority exercised a policy of intimidation. It was easy to go to jail even only on the basis of accusations. A foreigner in particular, not having understood something properly, could later say something to someone and bring trouble to the village.

 

On hearing this, I told the host about my Syrian journey in search of the Druze, about the difficulties I had encountered, and that I had been staying in Syria for almost a year and I understood the realities of life in this country. I assured everyone that I would never insist on answers which the Druze did not want or were afraid to give. I was interested in the basic issues of Druze life and was glad most of all when the Druze talked about themselves alone, without my questions, for it was then when I found out the most important things.

The tall man informed me that religion had very little impact now on the lives of the inhabitants of this region. Young people move to the city as they want to live modern lives. With a wave of his hand in contempt, he said, "Religion is for the old folk."

The village administrator and his nephew laughed the man’s words off saying he had no wife, and therefore, there was no God in his heart. He wasn’t mature enough. Till the end of my visit, the tall man hardly spoke at all.

The administrator’s daughters brought a meal, mainly vegetables, laban, bread, hummus and rice with mutton wrapped in currant leaves. The light but nutritious meal relaxed the still-too-formal conversation.

 

Here's what I managed to note down during the rest of the interview:

 

The Druze had lived in this region for nearly 1000 years.

They had come to Syria and Lebanon from the south, from countries where land was well cultivated.

The Druze faith derived from Islam and its origin dated back to Egypt.

Hakim is the most important figure for the Druze, but I managed to get information about him only from the Sheikh al-Akl.

The chief Sheikh of the region lived in a village called Kiftin and his name was Talal Ghamr ad-Din.

The major strength of the Druze religion were the strong ties between its members. The Druze were one big family, whose number of members was fixed from the beginning of the world and would not change until the Last Judgment.

The Quran is the Holy Book of the Druze.

Suwayda was the Druze centre in Syria because Sheikh al-Akl Djarbu lived there, as did a lot of wealthy Druze.

In the village, everyone over 60 years of age was initiated into the faith.

Families in Banabil raised between 3 to 10 children.

Women in the Druze community had more rights than women living under Islamic law.

The law prohibiting the Druze to marry within their families made their blood healthier than in Muslim families.

The Druze got together on a daily basis and once a week teachings at different levels of expertise were held in a designated place.

Every village had a meeting place.

Everything that scientists wrote about the Druze was only partly true. The Druze religion would remain a mystery until the Last Judgment.

The village had 500 inhabitants. They grew corn and olives. They kept sheep, goats and cows.

Many children attended a college in Aleppo but it was very expensive, so they often returned home before they graduated.

 

I had to leave around 4 pm because otherwise I would have had problems with returning to Aleppo. At this time of year, it got dark quickly. As we said goodbye, the village administrator gave me his address so that I could send the photos I had taken. I was glad to have met these interesting and poor people who lived their lives their own way.

 

Jabal al-Sheikh. The last visit with the Druze

 

Nearly a year had passed since I first came to the foot of Jabal al-Sheikh. In Arna, it was harvest time for apples, plums, pears and grapes. Having already had experience in dealing with the Druze, I walked into the village without hesitation. In the centre of Arna, there was a square the size of a sports field. I stopped in the middle of it and looked around at the nearby households carelessly scattered around. The thought of visiting one of them seemed like a good idea. I chose a two-story house with a large terrace. There was a well-kept garden, and the nicely maintained exterior of the house distinguished it from others. I rang the door bell. Almost immediately the door opened. I was shocked with such a prompt reaction, but not more so than the two men standing in the doorway. I introduced myself as usual, and explained what the purpose of my visit was. They exchanged a few words after which the younger man, dressed in secular clothes, said that he had to go to Damascus soon, but that his uncle - he pointed at the older man, dressed in black, would receive me at his place. We walked in silence to the other side of the village. 

From the terrace of Mr. Ahmad’s house I had a beautiful view of Jabal al-Sheikh and the entire village. The host asked his wife for a plate of fruit and coffee. He was smiling, but he was also nervous. I showed him the letter from the Polish Embassy and my passport so that he could write down all of my details in case there were problems with the security forces, who would certainly be interested in my visit here.

The conversation didn’t last long as the host and his two sons had to prepare apples and plums which were to be collected at 5 pm by some merchants from Damascus.

 

Here is what I learned during the interview:

 

The host was 50 years old and had six daughters and three sons.

The eldest son was a student at the Institute of Computer Science in Damascus. He lived with his father and commuted. The middle son was fourteen and the youngest thirteen.

Speaking of his sons’ education, he praised president Assad and the Syrian state for educating children for free.

He had been initiated into the faith.

Arna had 5000 inhabitants.

The Druze came from Lebanon.

The Druze were fond of the mountainous regions because, especially in the initial period of their exile, they found good shelter there. The region of Syria had constantly been plagued by wars and internal unrest. Over the years, the Druze had specialized in the cultivation of the land, especially orchards. The fertile volcanic mountainous regions of Syria were perfect for this type of agricultural activity so now, in an era of peace and political stability, the Druze remained on their land among their beloved mountains.

There were no special names for different social classes in the Druze community, although wealth significantly affected position in the hierarchy of the Druze. For example, the nearby village of Rima, which was much poorer, automatically had fewer Druze initiated into the religion than was the case in Arna.

The host himself had been initiated only recently and did not want to comment on religion.

 

After parting with Ahmad, I spent an hour walking around the village and its area. The villagers passing by in their small tractors asked me to try the produce of their land. I talked to them about how beautiful and prosperous the land in Syria was. Everyone thought I was a soldier of the United Nations. As it happened, an Austrian unit was stationed in the Golan Heights so when I told the locals that I was from Poland, they replied, laughing, that they knew there were also mountains in Austria, like here. There was no point in explaining what the difference between Poland and Austria was. I looked at their smiling faces and I enjoyed the good mood.

 

While waiting for a bus, I decided to visit my Christian friend, the owner of the shop. Mikhail didn’t recognize me, but he was just as pleasant as last time. I explained the purpose of the visit but when the shopkeeper heard the word “the Druze” he scowled and began to speak with contempt about them.

 

Here is what I wrote down:

 

90% of young people got as far as the 9th grade.

10% went to college but 90% of them returned to the villages anyway.

Parents did everything to keep their children tied to the cultivation of land and have them settle here and start families only with members of the Druze sect.

Girls from this region never went on to higher education. In Suwayda they did.

All the teachers in the elementary school in Arna are Christians.

The Druze women are strictly subordinated to the will of the men. They cover their faces with scarves.

The richest Druze in the village is not richer than the richest Christian.

 

Currently, Christians and Druze lived in harmony although in the past bloody wars had taken place.

The Sheikh for Arna was Suleyman Kubul.

People didn’t like the Druze because they were a very closed community. They maintain close contact only among themselves.

 

Mikhail suggested that I once came to visit the Christians in this region. He would be my guide and he would put me up in his home..

 

Three days after my second visit to Arna, I boarded the plane to Poland. The Druze living in Syria seemed closer to me yet I still knew so little about them.