Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Twisted Vagabondage Tale From Golan Heights

Majdal Shams is a dusty gray town on a rocky green hillside in the Golan Heights. This is located in northeastern Israel. Of course, that depends on who you're talking to. If you're talking to a Syrian, the town is located in southwestern Syria.

Israel basically set up martial law in the region after annexing the Golan Heights from Syria in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel launched surprise air strikes against Egypt, Syria and Jordan. According to Israeli accounts, the attacks were preemptive as the three Arab countries were in the process of initiating similar assaults. The Arab perspective is that Israel acted without provocation. Thankfully, the Golan Heights are currently being monitored by the United Nations.

The presence of the UN is particularly important in the town of Majdal Shams, since it's the largest of four Druze villages in the Golan Heights. The Druze are a distinct social and religious group, who speak Arabic and practice a secretive religion considered to be an offshoot of Islam. Many Druze still live in Syria and Druze only marry Druze, so marriages are often arranged between adherents on the Syrian and Israeli sides. Since relations between Israel and Syria remain hostile, the UN is integral in helping the couples come together.

A good dramatization of this situation can be seen in a 2004 film The Syrian Bride. The movie is about a Druze woman in Majdal Shams, who is going to marry a Syrian Druze man she has never met. It took six months to obtain permission from the Israeli administration to walk over the border zone, a very rare crossing.

Now, the wedding day has arrived and Israeli officials want to stamp her passport. The Syrian side won't admit her with an Israeli stamp. (When my husband and I passed from Israel to Jordan, we asked Israeli border control not to stamp our passports. While Jordan and Israel now have friendly relations, a stamp would preclude ever traveling to a country having hostile relations with Israel.) In both The Syrian Bride and real life, a Druze fiancée who passes from Israel into Syria can never return to see her family in Majdal Shams.

Strained relations between Syria and Israel also led to the development of what is called Shouting Hill. One kilometer East of Majdal Shams town center, on the edge of a ceasefire zone, Druze families in the village used to get together on a hillside to shout through megaphones at their relatives in Syria. Thus, the name Shouting Hill. Of course, the advent of cell phones eliminated the need to yell across the border at your friends and family. Now Druze just visit the Shouting Hill when they actually want to see their Syrian loved ones with the help of binoculars, though I suppose Skype has reduced this need.

My husband and I wanted to visit Majdal Shams, because the Druze are an interesting people in and of themselves. Adherents believe in Allah, but also believe Mohammed was succeeded by another divine messenger. The Druze also believe in reincarnation. For this reason, their headstones bear no name. I mentioned the religion is a secret one. Only a select inner-core of men and women actually understand the way the religion works. They are also the only Druze permitted to read their holy books. These are individuals who have passed severe tests and are considered to have led clean, modest and exemplary lifestyles.

Rob and I were only around Majdal Shams for a couple days. We stayed in nearby Neve Ativ, driving up into Majdal Shams during the day, then down into the surrounding cherry and apple orchards, which are harvested by the villagers and contribute a large part to their local economy. I recall cruising along the tiny dirt roads that weave in and out of the orchards, encountering a Druze man on a mud-caked tractor every so often.

Ironically, one of the best things that happened to us in the village was that we laundered our clothes for a very low price. By the time we hit Majdal Shams, we'd been traveling through Europe and Israel for about a month. We were in dire need of clean underwear. I can't say we became clean and modest enough to be initiated into the secrets of the Druze, but it was never our intention to stick around the town forever.

Lara Sterling authors Twisted Vagabondage Tales for travelers who like it rough. She is prettier than Vagabonding author Rolf Potts (though Rolf is very pretty) and could kick his ass (though only if he'd like that). She has written for Playboy and Larry Flynt Publications but now hosts an online radio show and blogs at

1 comment:

  1. I find the Druze people fascinating. I've written one of my protagonists in my novel as a Druze, and the Golan Heights factors into it. Thanks for posting!