Friday, January 05, 2007

Eid in a Druze Village

After an interview in the south of Syria, a friend of mine invited me and my husband to spend the night in his family’s majority Druze village. As we drove back from the interview, I translated for my husband who was talking computer languages to a Computer Engineering student at Damascus University who had accompanied us to the interview. It was a funny thing driving out of the Golan Heights and listening to the universal language of computers being shared between a man who speaks no Arabic and has no background in Middle Eastern studies and a young, vibrant, opinionated Sunni woman from a southern Syrian farming village.

We picked up a minibus driver and paid him for private service to the village together, and we watched the sun set over the landscape and turn into a starry sky as we rode along. About an hour later, we pulled off a dark country road up to his house in the village. His father was outside waiting to greet us and invited us into his entertaining room. Every family has a large room situated at the entrance of their house for easy access to welcome guests. This greeting room is a very important tradition for the Druze. Every house has one (because you are not a real man if you don’t) and any passerby may enter and stay the night without prior invitation for three days, in the true Arab bedouin tradition, no questions asked.

My friend’s father was an imposing man. Tall, muscular, with huge, meaty hands. He was wearing traditional dress, a black tunic and black pants that are long and gathered on the inseam to allow more freedom of movement and comfort as we sit on the floor. He wore a thick mustache on his sun-beaten skin, and a white linen kuffiyeh over a crocheted skullcap. He noted to me the Druze sheikhs pictured in his posters on the wall, and the Druze leader who helped lead the Syrian revolution, pictured with his white steed in the background. We were soon joined by more members of the family including my friend’s mother, bearing fresh fruit and a traditional Druze treat, something like an unsweetened doughnut.

These are a proud people, full of stories about their success in battle. Once I saw the villagers I wasn’t surprised, with their height and stature a clear advantage in fighting. I noted that most of the people in the village were taller and bigger than the average Damascene. They proudly said it was because they work for a living, out in the fields caring for the soil of their land and their olive trees. The mother’s hands were nearly as large as her husband’s and certainly much bigger than my own husband’s! Her strong, serious appearance was betrayed, though, by an incredible sense of hospitality and sweetness, and a fiery sense of humor (which she let fly when her husband was out of the room).

My friend and his family told us some of the war stories that they share in their village. There was a famous Druze woman whose brother fought against the Ottoman occupation and became famous for killing many of their soldiers as a lone rebel. He became a wanted man. The Ottomans came to her house to force his whereabouts from her, but she ridiculed them saying “You want to come here and fight a girl?! You are not real men! If you want to fight someone go find my brother. He is out there somewhere.” So they went to bribe the other villagers to give him away.

Eventually one villager was promoted as the Ottoman officer’s assistant, and he informed on the rebel. The officer went and cut off his head. They brought the head on a platter to his sister’s door and asked what she thought of them now. “Ha! You think that is my brother? You idiots, that is not my brother! Why don’t you go find him and then come gloat to me about it!” So the Ottoman turned to his assistant and slapped him silly for making a fool of him and telling him to kill the wrong man. When she saw who had informed on her brother, she cut of his head. Her deeds and her cunning are remembered in the village to this day. The Druzes’ fighting prowess is also demonstrated by their storied history of success as special battalions in the modern armies of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.

In the morning we celebrated Eid with the Druze. I mentioned that I thought Eid al-Adha was a Muslim holiday celebrating the end of the Hajj, but the villagers denied any connection and, anyhow, didn’t seem too concerned and made it as much their holiday as any other. The kids woke up early to “make war” in the neighborhood with fireworks and rockets in the streets. Young men walked the village in gangs of ten or so and rode motorcycles up and down the streets. And we experienced how exhausting the Arab custom of visiting can be.

A gang of young men walking the streets.

It is mandatory to visit every member of your family on Eid. “Otherwise they will talk bad about me if someone hears that I visited one cousin or uncle and not the others. So I have to visit them all. In the past it was even more traditional. You would take the entire day to visit every house in the village. I have done this only twice in my life.”

“How is that possible?” I asked, “We’ve spent half the day just visiting your close family and friends.”

“Before we wouldn’t sit and talk. We’d go into each house, ask how they were, honor the owner, take a sweet, and leave.”

It was like speed dating. At one point my husband and I committed a major faux pas. We had almost finished the family visits, making a round of the entire village. At each house, we had diligently eaten a piece of candy or a cookie, at first enjoying the treats. But as we neared the end of the village, we had had our fill of sugar and declined. “Shame! How can you deny our hospitality? You must take a sweet so that we can accrue blessing!”

I also got to show my husband the traditional string of Arab greetings, since my friend’s family gave us a prime example of native speech execution. “Keefak? Shlownak? Shu akhbarak? Keef al-aa’ila? Keef ash-shabaab?” (Loosely, something like, How are you? How are you feeling? What’s the news? How’s the family? How are the boys? Etc…). I had tried to explain this linguistic formula to my husband before, but it’s nothing like hearing a five or ten minute conversation in person where no information is actually being conveyed (since the responses are also formulaic: “I’m good. Thank God. There’s nothing new. They are good. Thank God. They are also good. Thank God.”).

We both thought it was a little extreme to spend so long just asking how you are, when once seems to us to be enough. But when I told him that this string of questions is mandatory every time you see a person, even if you’ve already seen them that day, my husband laughed and thought it was a little ridiculous.

But then I explained how, even if it is a little much for we Americans, it is also a nice custom because it allows people to visit or call each other when they don’t actually have anything to say. It is a way to stay connected even if nothing is new. We Americans can only call each other if there are plans to be made, news or gossip to be shared. Otherwise we end up asking “What do you want?”

Unfortunately Eid celebrations this year were marred by the news of Saddam’s execution. Although none of these villagers supported Saddam or his regime, the execution served as a sad reminder of the violence in Iraq and the volatile situation in the region at a time when people had wanted to forget about violence for a day. When we woke up in the morning, it was the only story on all of the Arab news stations and was on everybody’s lips. Throughout the day the stations continued to play recaps of the history of Saddam’s rise to power, his reign, and the war in Iraq that brought him down. Many of the villagers were unhappy with the timing of the execution. “I don’t like Saddam. But I also don’t like that they killed him on a day when we are supposed to be happy. Why did they have to kill him on the first day of Eid? Now we are all preoccupied with Saddam instead of the holiday.” But my friend’s mother just said “Ahh, feed him to the dogs!”

It didn’t take long for the conspiracy theories to start either. In a region where people have not been able to trust in the transparency of their governments and their media for so long, conspiracy theories abound. People immediately started saying “I heard that it wasn’t really him, it was a lookalike. And Saddam escaped to ____ [fill in the blank].” Others also blamed the American occupiers for the timing of the execution, or the Iraqi governors for being pawns of American demands to kill Saddam as soon as possible. It didn’t matter much that we later found out that American diplomats had actually sought to delay the execution until after Eid. The feelings had already been burned.


Blogger Diaa said...

Hi Lindsay, I'd like to get in touch with you for an article I'm researching on the Druze in the Golan Heights. Could you please contact me at I'd be very grateful to you. Thanks, Diaa

7:07 AM  

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