A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Archive for the ‘Golan’ Category

a star is born: in the Golan and around the region

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 6, 2007

It rained steadily through the night and early morning, halting only briefly and rather deceptively as I exited the gym. Once I had committed to walking home, the rain returned, letting up again only when I reached my neighborhood.

You look like you just took a bath, one of the coffee vendors said to me, laughing. The five ladies walking in a cluster in front of me (and making a valiant though ineffective attempt to share one umbrella) turned, curious. I know, I thought: 3ayb 3aleyii, brazenly appearing in public with wet hair. Ya hajjat, its from the rain.

I returned home just in time – the pause was merely preparation for something more: a hail shower. The hail was small, but loud. It reminded me of the last hail shower I had seen, almost exactly two years ago, in my favorite forbidden city.

The hail shower in turn reminded me of another cross-border subject: stars. In this part of the world, they come in three flavors: Jewish, Druze and Christian.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note here that I love stars. I love the way they bring light into darkness, and I love the sense I have that starlight, metaphoric or real, signals hope.

I also love more literal stars. For several years, my aunt (Intlxpatr) has sent Swarovski stars to my mother (Big Diamond) and my other aunt (Alex) as Christmas gifts.

They are beautiful – my grandmother, another lucky recipient, hangs them from her dining room window, where they catch the light and refract it into the room.

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Last year, my sister and I were elevated to the ranks of star recipients, an honor that delighted us both.

I like stars in more kindergarten-school-teacher ways as well: one adorns my daily calendar, keeping me on track regarding when (if not where) I am:

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(The calendar isn’t really “mine” – I “borrowed” it from my parents.)

Such is my relationship with stars. But mine is not the only one: the Druze also have a star.

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The five colors symbolize different principles/characteristics/virtues (as with any secret religion, there are multiple stories as to the significance of what little is known). I have seen the star on taxi windshields and in storefront windows, including one in a little everything shop on the outskirts of … Jerusalem.

The shop turned out to be run by a family from the Golan; the son-cum-cashier was amused by my friend B’s formal Arabic and rendered almost speechless by my foreign-with-a-shami-lilt accent. We chatted for a few minutes, at which point he introduced us to his friend. My friend doesn’t speak Arabic very well, he apologized, but he understands it. And do you know what? He served in the army! The friend nodded, shrugged, and smiled.

The position of the Druze in Israel is fascinating – both those present in 1948, many of whom have citizenship (I assume the former soldier came from this group), and those from the Golan (Jolan in Arabic – English has taken the Hebrew pronunciation), who retain Syrian or Lebanese citizenship and have cross-border privileges based on their liminal position.

As the hail fell and I thought of Jerusalem, I paged through the online Daily Star, where I found another person considering the Druze. Although part of me is still reeling at the thought that I should find quotable anything produced under WINEP’s offices, I must say that Seth Wikas, one of the Institute’s visiting fellows, has a very good piece out on the rather good life that the Golan’s Syrian Druze population enjoys under Israeli occupation. Just ignore his snide WINEP’y comments on “the emptiness of Syrian rhetoric”; in his opinion, Syria should recognize that the Golanis best interests lie in their becoming Israeli citizens. Perhaps he believes that Syria should cede the rest of its country as well. I can see the posters now: “Souria wa Isra’il: sha3ab wa7hid fi balad muwa7h7hid”.

The Golan’s Druze Wonder What is Best

W hen, earlier this month, the Israeli daily Haaretz uncovered the details of secret, unofficial Syrian-Israeli peace talks, it revived a familiar menu of questions and concerns whenever Syria and Israel negotiate: Would Israel give back to Syria all of the Golan Heights? How would its water resources be shared? Can either side trust the other as a true partner?

And what about the people who actually live on the Golan? Not the 20,000 Jewish settlers who have built 24 settlements there since 1967, or the 2,000 Alawites who live in the divided village of Ghajar along the Lebanese border. Rather, what will happen to the 20,000 Arabs living in four villages – Majdal Shams,Ain Qinya, Masaade and Buqaata – in the northeastern section of the plateau? The fate of the Golan’s Arabs, who are Druze, illustrates the human side of future land-for-peace deals. It also highlights the emptiness of Syrian rhetoric about its “occupied Golan brethren,” inasmuch as Druze villagers have been given little economic incentive to return to a Syria where they can expect to be poorer.

Yet economic incentives aren’t everything.The Druze of the Golan went through turbulent days in the early 1980s, when they held strikes to protest against the Israeli government’s attempts to force citizenship upon them. Hundreds were arrested, and some continue to languish in Israel jails. Less than 10 percent of the Druze took Israeli citizenship, resulting in their social ostracism.The Druze continue to talk about the 40-year-old Israeli occupation, travel restrictions, political prisoners and the continued presence of unmarked land mines on their lands.

Refusing citizenship, however, has not changed the life of the Druze in their villages or placed them at a significant disadvantage outside. Irrespective of their legal status, all residents have access to Israeli schools (which teach Torah and Hebrew), pay taxes and enjoy municipal services such as water and electricity.

Once a year, the Druze clergy visit their counterparts in Syria, and high school graduates are allowed to study any subject of their choosing at Damascus University, for free, irrespective of their high school grades and test performances. In 1986, when the Israeli government gave up its efforts to “Israelify” the population, it neglected the area and allowed the villages a large degree of autonomy.

All mayors must be Israeli citizens and are selected by the Israeli Interior Ministry. However, three of the villages don’t have a mayor. Still, there is little crime and the villages function well enough.

Most worrisome to Golan residents when it comes to a future return to Syria are economic issues.While not as rich as the bon vivants of Tel Aviv, the inhabitants have a standard of living vastly surpassing that of their counterparts on the Syrian side of the border. “Life is all about the shekels,” one resident of the largest village, Majdal Shams, told me on a recent visit.The locals work hard – whether in agriculture, construction, or services – and have little regard for Syrians who, in many Golanis’ minds, “drink tea and sleep all day.” In Syria, working hard rarely ever translates into making more money – unless you have government connections.

Nearly every day, the Syrian media talk about their oppressed brothers in the occupied Golan.Yet few Syrians have the slightest idea of daily life there. Just ask any student from the annual crop of 300400 Golanis who travel to Damascus to attend university.Their university peers there are largely ignorant of Golan affairs.

The students from the Golan – a younger generation that may not have been born during the political turbulence of the 1980s – understand that they are linked to Syria by blood and to Israel by economics; however, they have found that their identity, as time has passed, is tied mainly to their small parcel of land located between Israel and Syria.They feel stuck: a part of both states, yet a part of neither.

While most identify themselves as Syrian and take Syria with both its grandeur and its faults, once in Damascus these students can see how the Golan has become a rhetorical tool that has not trickled down into Syrian public consciousness.This and the fact that they can earn more in Israel are why many young Druze, as well as their parents, fear a return to Syria.

Peace between Syria and Israel will allow the people of the Golan Heights to be reunited with their families, a paramount concern on both sides of the border. However, without domestic reforms in Syria that allow people to profit from their hard work, the return of the Golan to Syria will hardly alleviate the concern the Druze have for what might come afterward.

I have seen the Golani students in Damascus – several years ago, I was startled to hear the sounds of a Hebrew “Happy Birthday” cd playing on the sound system of a local nightclub. Oh, said my friend M, that’s normal. They are from the Jolan, so they speak Hebrew.

Right, I thought. Hebrew in Damascus: totally normal.

I visited Bethlehem a week after the hail storm. The economic stagnation was heart-breaking: almost none of the shops were open. After all, said my friend B’s camera-man (and our host) C, no one comes here these days.

We wandered through one of the few shops open, where I was struck by the presence of multiple faiths’ symbols: Star of David pendants, Qur’an pendants, crosses, and … the Druze star.

We are very ecumenical here, said the shopkeeper.

I can see that, I said, impressed. Do you have a lot of Druze coming here?

What? he asked. What Druze?

Well, I said, I see the Druze star for sale here with all the other religious emblems.

Miss, he said, incredulously, what is the Druze star? This is the Star of Bethlehem.

I had never seen a five-pointed Star of Bethlehem before. In the United States, the Star is represented quite differently, as in this nativity set from Christmas Inc.:

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Amazing, the things one learns from traveling.

The rain is ended; the sun is out, and it is a beautiful noon-time in Beirut.

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