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Druze minority in Israel woos tourists

Linda Gradstein, The MediaLine  Aug 07, 2016

Ibtisam Fares hunches next to a small outdoor oven, making fresh pita bread topped with spreads of za’atar, or wild oregano, fresh red pepper, and meat. She brings them to an outdoor table already covered with local delicacies including hummus, stuffed grape leaves, and an array of fresh salads, chopped just moments before. A jug of lemonade with fresh mint stands waiting for thirsty visitors.

Fares, a white scarf worn loosely around her hair in the traditional Druze fashion, hires two neighbors, both women, to help her cook and serve groups of mostly Israeli Jews who come to visit the town on the weekends.

“Since I was a little girl, I loved to cook,” she told The Media Line. “My mother wouldn’t let me help, but I watched carefully and learned everything from her.”

Druze cuisine is similar to that of neighboring Syria and Lebanon, and uses spices native to the area. Everything must be made fresh, and leftovers are never eaten, she said.

Fares, who also works as a secretary in the local municipality, is part of a revolution of Druze women who are starting businesses that will not compromise their traditional lifestyle. The Druze, who live primarily in Israel, Lebanon and Syria, maintain a traditional lifestyle. That means that it is considered inappropriate for religious Druze women to leave their homes to seek employment. But there is no reason the work can’t come to them.

Fares is one of dozens of Druze women who are opening home-based businesses in ways that do not compromise their culture. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism is helping them, offering courses in entrepreneurship and helping with advertising. In some cases, the women are the sole breadwinners in the family.

A few blocks from Fares’s home in this town of 5000 that is overwhelmingly Druze, a handful of women sit in a circle crocheting lace. Called Lace Makers, the women meet once a week to work on their projects. The walls are lined with delicate embroidered table cloths and baby clothes the women are selling.

“Our village was in a tourism coma for ten years,” Hisin Bader, a volunteer tells The Media Line. “The only tourism we had was people driving through on the main highway (looking for a quick meal). But here, deep in the village, we had nothing.”
They started in 2009 with five women, she said, and today have 40. They are in the process of opening a second branch.

The Israeli Ministry of Tourism supports these initiatives, spokeswoman Anat Shihor-Aronson told The Media Line, as a “win-win situation.” Israelis love to travel, and a post-army trek to Nepal or Brazil has become de rigeur for most newly-released soldiers. Eventually these soldiers get married and have children, and are more likely to travel within Israel for weekend getaways.

“The Druze have so much to offer – anthropologically, culturally and culinarily,” she said. “They are so authentic and we want to encourage them.”

The views from this town of 5000 in the mountains of northern Israel are stunning. The air is cool, even in the summer. Several families have opened zimmers, a German word for bed and breakfasts, and in the summer they are full of Israeli Jews from Tel Aviv escaping the heat of the city.

The Druze are an Arabic-speaking minority who live throughout the Middle East. In Israel, there are about 130,000 Druze, mostly in the northern Galilee and the Golan Heights. Throughout the world, there are about one million Druze. They trace their ancestry to Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, who they say is the first Druze prophet.

Their religion is secret, focusing on belief in one God, heaven and hell, and judgement. Anyone who marries out of the faith is excommunicated, says Sheikh Bader Qasem, a spiritual leader and a descendant of the village’s first spiritual leader, Sheikh Mustafa Qasem. They are cut off from their family and cannot even be buried in a Druze cemetery.

Sitting on a red velvet chair in the middle of the prayer hall carved from stone, Qasem describes the danger of intermarriage for the Druze.

“Intermarriage today could lead us to extinction,” he told The Media Line. “People always say that for love there is no border – in our community, there is a border.”

Another unique trait of the Druze is that they are loyal to the country where they live. In Israel, all of the Druze men are conscripted, like all Jewish Israelis, although Druze women do not serve for reasons of modesty, unlike their Israeli female counterparts. Sheikh Bader’s son is about to start his service in one of Israel’s most elite units.

Many Druze men have army or police careers. Faraj Fares was the commander of part of northern Israel during the second Lebanon War ten years ago. He was responsible for the safety of tens of thousands of Israeli residents as Hizbullah fired hundreds of Katyush rockets at northern Israel. Fares was asked to light a torch at Israel’s Independence Day celebrations the following year, one of the countries to honors.

These days he runs a mountain-top restaurant surrounded by plants and trees on a mountain top outside the town of Rame. Called “Delicacies in the Orchard” Fares says he wants guests who know how to slowly savor a meal, not bolt down a quick bite on their way to somewhere else. The food is beautifully spiced and prepared – for example, the kebab, made of chopped lamb, is grilled wrapped around a cinnamon stick.

His wife does all the cooking, and “she enjoys it” he insists.

“In our religion you have to work so it makes her happy,” he said. “Besides, I take care of all of the trees and the plants so I work harder than she does.”

Druze minority in Israel woos tourists

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