Dark clouds move over the peaks of Mount Hermon before I hear the compressed thud of a shell explosion reverberate in my chest. The pop, pop, pop of muffled gunfire in short bursts comes soon after.
I don’t feel comfortable with how exposed I am and take cover behind a rock outcropping.
Just ahead, picturesquely framed between the rocks and orchards is Quneitra Province, Syria. Up on a hill, shimmering in a lone ray of sunlight, an Assad regime flag sways atop a gun battery and watch tower.
For more than five years, Assad’s army, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other warring factions have engaged in fierce fighting just yards away from where I stand on the other side of the unassuming 1967 ceasefire fence that runs along the tan, rugged slopes of the Golan Heights.
The US State Department recently issued a travel warning, forbidding its employees to visit the region on personal travel. And in recent weeks, skirmishes between Israel and Assad’s regime have reported to have taken place nearby.
Just then voices begin to scream in a language I don’t understand. I turn and a group of men approach me menacingly from a pickup truck. They’re moving fast.
One man points his fingers at me and makes a machine gun noise. I dread that I somehow crossed over into Syria without knowing it.
Then I make out some words, it’s Hebrew. These men, in plain clothes, work in some capacity for the Israeli Army — and they’re now warning me in Hebrew and broken English that this is a very dangerous place to be. A restricted area.
I don’t remember exactly what I said, but evidently the man found it funny and studied me with a cockeyed look of disbelief.
“Are you a crazy American?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say with a grin.
Then he reaches into a backpack and offers me a choice of freshly picked apples. I take a big red one and clean it on my jeans.
For a few moments we chat amiably with no understanding except that we are not harmful to one another.
Behind us, Syrian Druze men in traditional outfits with thick mustaches and white knit hats drive farm vehicles towing tons of apples — their cash crop.
Moments later a group of young Israeli soldiers on patrol come up from an obscured access road that parallels the fence. The rightfully regard me with suspicion but my apple-bearing friend speaks to them and they soften.
I ask about the shots I heard. “How close?”
“Fighting comes right up to the border,” one soldier tells me. Despite looking like a middle school student, I’m struck by the gravity in his voice. “We see it at night.”
His young cohorts look on uneasily, tasked with defending Israel’s northern border from the mayhem in their neighbor’s yard.
I ask which groups are operating beyond the fence.
“It’s everyone fighting everyone,” he says shaking his head, indicating the utter chaos that is Syria.
It’s late afternoon and the soldier makes it clear that I should leave before nightfall.
More bursts of gunfire ring sporadically out as I walk away.
In need of a drink to calm my nerves, I set out to find a bar in the nearby Druze town.
Up ahead is Majdal Shams. A Druze village on the Israeli side of the disputed border with Syria.
* * *
Cruising slowly in my rented car, I spot a young woman carrying groceries and approach her for directions.
Between her broken English and my caveman Hebrew, her eyes light up as she recognizes the name of the bar and gestures for me to…follow her. She would lead me in her car.
Now this I wasn’t expecting.
And although unsure, I go anyway. Tailing her all the way across town, zig zagging through windy roads and roundabouts until at last she slows down and points out the window—it was the place I was looking for.
I pull alongside her. She has a big smile and wishes me well in Arabic.
It becomes clear to me, as she headed back to the other side of town, that she went far out of her way to guide me — a total stranger — to a bar.
“That was exceptionally kind,” I think to myself as I walk up the steps.
I enter the bar and immediately see why my friend recommended it. Pictures of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, it remind me of my days in Austin, Texas.
I take a long pull of beer and hunch over a plate of nuts. I glance to my right and the guy sitting next to me is looking at me curiously. Early twenties, dressed sharply in black, he looks like he could be an actor or musician.
We exchange nods and I can tell that we’ll be friends. Sometimes you just know.
“You from here?” I ask.
“Of course,” he says in perfect English, as if there were no other place he could possibly be from.
But he’s more curious about the American guy and asks why I’m here.
“I’m a writer,” I tell him. “I respect the Druze people and I’ve wanted to visit Majdal Shams for a very long time…I wanted to see for myself, to learn about what’s happening here.”
He raises an eyebrow. “You know about us?”
“Yes,” I nod. “And I want to learn more.”
The Druze are an often persecuted ethno-religious minority in the Middle East, the largest communities residing in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Their faith, an Abrahamic offshoot, is kept secret from outsiders. By and large, they have survived by showing loyalty to the ruling nation they live under.
Before Israel obtained the Golan Heights in 1967, Majdal Shams was a Syrian Druze village. And despite being under Israeli control, in the minds and hearts of most residents it still is.
It’s a village caught between nations. Courted by Israel to become “Israeli” and wooed by Syria to remain “Syrian,” (Assad’s regime considers the Majdal Druze to be Syrian citizens.)
And what it means to “be Syrian” is a rapidly evolving concept.
“Israel trusts us and wants us,” he tells me. “But that is not our identity, we are Syrian.”
For decades, Israel has made great efforts to entice the Golan Druze (of which Majdal Shams is the largest village) to become Israeli citizens.
“Do you have an Israeli passport?” I ask.
“No,” he says shaking his head.
“How about a Syrian passport?”
“No passport,” he says. “Travel papers only — our nationality is: ‘Undefined.’
“If you wanted to…could you have an Israeli passport?”
“Yes,” he says, but he’s quick to explain that nobody does.
He laughs, “Because nobody would ever talk to you again.”
And they have overtures from Syria too; having the option to pursue a free education in Damascus.
Others Syrian Druze, however, even if they don’t take Israeli citizenship, take advantage of many of the benefits Israel has to offer.
And while resentment towards being under Israeli control is evident by the amount of Syrian flags on display — resentment towards Jews is not something I personally experienced.
“I have lots of Jewish friends,” he tells me. “I respect the Jewish people. I have Muslim friends, Christian friends, Jewish friends.”
“People are people,” I say.
He nods slowly, “People are people.”
Unlike the vast majority of Israel’s Druze citizens who proudly serve in the military and obtain very high ranks in the army and government; Majdal Shams residents are exempt from mandatory military service.
“Does anyone from this village volunteer for the army?” I ask.
“Nooo,” he says shaking his head for emphasis. Again, this would be unthinkable.
He expresses that while life is good for them on the Israeli side, he simply could never imagine the idea of fighting for the Jewish state; a country their fathers and grandfathers fought against.
It’s not personal, it’s just not who they are in this village.
I then ask about the civil war raging less than a kilometer away. A war that many of their relatives are caught in.
Have the more than five years of war changed any of their allegiances towards Syria?
And to my surprise, he tells me that one of the local holy men is encouraging people to move towards holding an Israeli passport (it seems for practical reasons, certainly not as a sign of a new identity)— but so far it hasn’t caught on…at least not in this village.
“Aside from your relatives in Syria,” I ask. “Do you also have family in Israel?”
“And they serve in the army and fight for Israel?”
“Yes,” he acknowledges matter of factly, “and we talk about all this.”
But his village is in a different situation than those of his Israeli kinsman. And depending on where a Druze village is located, that’s who their loyalty will be to.
This is key to understanding how the Druze endure. As a minority in the Middle East, they survive by faithfully serving the regime under which they live. And just as the Druze are integrated into modern Israel, the Syrian Druze were protected and lived well under Assad.
“The Druze people just want to be safe,” he says relating to their situation and identification with Syria.
“I’m a Jew,” I tell him. “We’re in the same boat.”
It’s silent for a moment as we exchange glances of mutual understanding.
“So what’s the story here?” I ask him. “What’s happening here that nobody’s talking about?”
And yet again, the theme of change bubbles to the surface.
The Druze religion is famously secretive. Their holy texts remaining a mystery and inaccessible to outsiders for centuries.
“And now,” he tells me with an ironic grin, “the holy book was uploaded to Google. My friend’s mother is religious — she didn’t want to believe it!”
He went on to explain that the text’s meaning and symbols, however, are only decipherable to a Druze holy man; so the text itself being available on the internet doesn’t actually reveal much. But still, for the older generation — this is unchartered territory.
My friend is thinking about grad school, like his relatives who got advanced degrees in Damascus. We talk about going fishing sometime and I tell him to look me up if he comes to the States. We warmly shake hands. At the door he recommends a cafe and points me in the general direction. “Just ask anyone on the street if you get lost,” he says matter of fact. “They will all help you.”
Conspicuous as the only outsider, I pass all walks of life as I wander through the winding, impeccably clean streets. Young people wearing the latest western styles…kids in school uniforms laugh in groups…older men in religious attire…women with traditional headdresses…They all smile warmly as I walk by.
Eventually I come to notice that almost all the drivers and farm workers have slowed to wave.
And this wasn’t the begrudging or obligatory veneer of “hospitality” that I’ve experienced in other places — it was the real thing, something you see shining in a person’s eyes. And yet, the gunfire in the distance reminds me that I’m in an active war zone. And everyone here has skin in the game.
At the cafe, I meet a female resident who speaks a bit of English. I ask about their identity as Syrians and if the village has changed since the war started. “We’ve heard the entire war,” she tells me before repeating the question in Arabic to an older man sitting nearby. He begins to speak very fast — she translates from Arabic:
“The town has changed one hundred percent,” she relates from him. Though quickly adding: “But not because of Israel or any other country…but because the people themselves want to. Nobody told us.”
She went on, “It’s different now…the young people are becoming engineers, doctors, professionals…”
“I imagine you have family in Syria?” I ask.
“Are you ever able to see them?”
“Syria is not a good place to visit,” she says, as if the very thought gives her the chills. “We see them in Jordan,” she tells me, explaining that she has relatives in both Lebanon and Syria. And since both states are hostile to Israel, Jordan has become a central hub for family reunions.
I say goodbye and a cold gust blows from Mount Hermon. I’ve been in Israel for months and it’s the first time I wish I had a sweater. The seasons are changing, but only now am I aware of it.
I suddenly remember the admonition to be out by sundown. It spurs a thought. Through all my encounters, and though nobody would dare say so — I sensed (perhaps wrongly), a collective identity evolution. The Assad regime flags — like a photograph — a reminder of a Syria that now exists in memory only. And then there was the tacit (yet unsaid), sense of relief of living on the more secure side of the border. And the unmentioned, yet ever-present fear of what might happen to the Druze in Syria should Assad fall and they have no protection from the radical groups vying for power.
And though not “Israeli” by any means, many of the young are seeking careers and lifestyles that are closer to a Tel Aviv ethos than any way of life that can be found in Syria. In fact, many of the people I spoke with regularly travel to Tel Aviv and Haifa and recommended their favorite hangouts.
I mull something my friend at the bar told me. Even though drinking is ostensibly outlawed by their faith, the bars are always packed on the weekends. “Most of the young people here aren’t religious. They want to drink and have a good time.”
I feel goosebumps from the fall wind. Perhaps this is what slow change looks like.
* * *
Yet again, I take a wrong turn and become lost looking for my car.
I ask a woman in her front yard for directions. She speaks English, and before I know it, her entire family comes out of the house to greet me. Within moments, her husband returns from work in construction clothes and shakes my hand. Her son, in his early twenties, has a ginger beard and looks like he could be my younger brother. He pulls me in for a warm handshake and explains where I need to go.
And as it turns out, he’s just returned to Majdal Shams from the Israeli university where he finished his engineering studies. He speaks highly of his time living and learning among Israelis. And while I don’t ask about his passport or “identity,” he doesn’t seem to display any conflict with receiving an Israeli education.
He is just about to begin his career. His energy contagious — alive with hope and excitement.
* * *
As I saw the village getting smaller in my rearview mirror, I felt something stirring inside. Something Majdal Shams left with me. And it wasn’t the adrenaline of proximity to the war, though that was there too. It was something the people themselves impressed upon me — grace — a quality the heart knows before the mind can grasp it. That human something that exists beyond the confines of nations and religions and labels that can so easily divide us.
They say you only get to know someone when you see how they act under pressure. And since a village is nothing but a collection of people — you might expect a people living in a war zone, and without a settled nationality, to be jaded and angry and suspicious.