ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Your Druze and Mine

The Druze faith, an ancient, closed religious system, is still going strong in Lebanon.

Readers familiar with the work of the Lebanese mystical poet and novelist, Gibran Khalil Gibran (1883-1931), may catch the plagiarism in my title. Gibran’s poem, “Your Lebanon and Mine,” quoted in part here, speaks of two Lebanons:

You have your Lebanon and I have mine.
Yours is political Lebanon and her problem;
Mine is natural Lebanon and all her beauty.
You have your Lebanon with problems and conflicts;
I have mine with her dreams and hopes.

In 1966, my first year in Lebanon, I lived in the Maronite Catholic village of Shemlan where, together with seven other Americans, I studied Arabic. Life was idyllic. I would wake up to dawn duets featuring roosters and donkeys. Figs and grapes were on the breakfast table. On the seemingly endless sunny days, with which we were often blessed, I would take my Arabic texts and hike along the trails that skirted olive groves and vineyards, find a spot to sit and commit to memory some intricate rule of Arabic grammar.

The neighboring villages were inhabited by members of the Druze community and I would often play truant with my texts and head in their direction, curious to see if Druze in the flesh bore any resemblance to the Druze I had studied while in college.

This Islamic sect took form in Egypt during the reign (996-1021) of the sixth caliph of the Fatimid dynasty, al-Hakim, who was declared by some of his followers as the final incarnation of the Divinity. An early supporter, Muhammad ad-Darazi, ultimately gave his name to the group of followers who believed that al-Hakim, who vanished in 1021, would return on judgment Day and commence a golden age.

The rules regulating the Druze path of life include monogamous marriage and bans on the use of alcohol and tobacco. The Druze allow no conversions to their faith and intermarriage is forbidden.

A council of judges, whose supreme head is known as the Sheikh al-Aql, governs the Druze, who total more than 500,000 globally.

Stress is placed on the importance of the Druze community; trust and mutual support have the status of commandments. This devotion to the community has contributed to the strength of their identity – indeed, their very survival may be attributed to it.

A Druze village has no obvious place of worship; no minarets, no calls to prayer. The prayer hall, or khalwah in Arabic, is a simple building where the elders, or ‘uqqal, and members of the local community meet on Thursday evenings to study, recite and pray.

The Druze faith is a closed religious system. Outsiders, as well as those Druze who are not initiates, may not participate fully in the services or have access to the Book of Wisdom, the most authoritative of Druze texts. Those Druze who wish to become initiates must study long and hard.

The Druze profess a belief in the transmigration of souls. Druze scholar Dr. Nejla Abu-Izzeddin explains in her book The Druzes the consequences of this faith tenet:

Belief that the number of the days of
one’s life is fixed, not be exceeded or
diminished by a single day, and that the
soul after leaving one body is immediately
reborn in another, enhances courage
and dispels fear of death. The body is
a mere robe for the soul.

This belief distinguishes the Druze from the mainstream Muslim community, of whom the Druze nevertheless consider themselves a part.

The numerous Druze friendships I have made over the years have allowed me views of the Druze that, to paraphrase Gibran, are mine, not theirs. Sitting with a Druze family 30 years after my first jaunt to their village, I asked openly about their faith. The discussion began with Ghassan, who smokes, enjoys his scotch and is married to a non-Druze. Ghassan is not unique. His uncle’s four daughters all married outside the faith. No one objected. In short, you do not define the Druze today by don’ts.

The family admitted their secular life style challenges their religion.

“We know much less about our religion than our parents did. And our children will know even less,” Ghassan’s sister remarked.

Not only is this family’s life secular, but it is also religiously eclectic. During Lebanon’s civil war, when religious holidays took a low profile, Ghassan’s mother told me how much she missed “the holidays.” I assumed she was referring to the major Muslim feast of Eid AI-Adha, the commemoration of Abraham’s sacrifice. I was wrong; she meant Christmas. The Druze’s strong belief in family and in family fun resulted in my playing St. Nick for Ghassan’s three daughters in the years we were neighbors.

A minority among Lebanon’s tapestry of faith communities, the Druze are an estimated seven percent of Lebanon’s population of three million. Pockets of Druze may also be found on the Israeli, Jordanian and Syrian-Lebanese frontiers. Several thousand have also emigrated to North America.

Most Druze live in mountainous areas, which historically sheltered them from persecution. An element of independence and security is provided today by their political astuteness and strong community ties.

Their attachment to the land may conjure up a picture of peasants but that image needs updating. The Department of Agriculture at the American University of Beirut is staffed with a number of Druze agronomists, many trained in the United States. One teaching couple runs an animal shelter that includes a bear abandoned by a circus, gunshot-wounded storks and several species of threatened Lebanese wildlife.

At the village level, the Druze focus on providing their youth with a fine elementary education – “Don’t leave home to get it” could be their motto. While the Druze hold education in high esteem, vocational training is cited as a healthy alternative to scholastic pursuits.

The village of Khoraybeh has put these principles into practice. This little burg of 150 families wanted to have its own school. A proposal was presented to the Welfare Association of Khoraybeh, headed by Mr. Shawki Qaqoun, a mason. He has enlisted every able-bodied person with a skill in the village. Only when a skill has not been represented has outside help been hired.

To finance this and other projects each villager over the age of 18 has been assessed five dollars a month. Generous contributions from wealthy Druze have bolstered the fund, as has assistance from the Beirut office of CNEWA-PMP. The school building, nearing completion and already in use, will house more than just classrooms. A floor for social gatherings, an infirmary, dispensary and library will round out its role as a community center.

Mr. Qaqoun spoke about the school on the patio in front of his house as he served the Pontifical Mission’s Projects Coordinator, Kamal Abdel-Nour, and me coffee followed by plates of fruit. As this hulk of a man carefully passed the tray of little cups of coffee and fruit, his diminutive mother sat nearby, reminding him that he had forgotten the forks for the fruit.

My kingdom for a video of that scene! I would have used it to defend the maligned Arab male, so frequently profiled as the served rather than the server. Joining us for coffee was Nazek Aboul-Hosn Qaqoun, a young woman who had spent 19 years in Seattle. She is on the welfare committee and also joked with the mason about the missing forks.

Well-refreshed, we began our visit to the school. A litany of information reflected their enthusiasm:

“Before the school was built we held classes in homes. We sold 800 calendars to raise funds. No one believed we could get the school ready for classes so only 40 children were registered. Other children went to schools in nearby villages.”

Much to the surprise of those doubters, on 1 November 1995, the school was ready enough to begin receiving children for instruction.

Mr. Qagoun apologized for the mess in the school. A forced-air heating system was being installed and, as he said, “You know workers.” A model of the finished school with landscaped grounds sat on one school desk while a hand-printed sign hanging nearby read: “God [helps those] who help themselves.” The Lebanese Ministry of Education does pitch in to support private schools but, strapped for money, its contribution to Khoraybeh’s school has so far amounted to 15 chairs.

Polluted water almost caused the collapse of the village’s main industry, agriculture. Plants got sick and people got sick. Villagers had to buy vegetables rather than grow their own. The villagers tackled and solved this problem by installing a well and pumping apparatus, which were provided for in part by Pontifical Mission.

Mr. Qagoun was disappointed that we were not staying for lunch. Khoraybeh is not unique, however, and we had on our agenda another example of Druze energy and initiative. He made Kamal promise he would come back. Kamal tweaked his mustache, a Lebanese gesture meaning, “I give you my word and, if I break it, I will shave my mustache!”

Our next port of call was the village of Simqaniyyeh. We were scheduled to meet yet another ball of energy, Dr. Hikmat Moursel, a graduate in dentistry from UCLA. Dr. Moursel directs the IRFAN association, which has worked in the educational, social and health relief fields since the early 70s.

Speaking English with the speed of an auctioneer, he outlined his efforts to improve IRFAN’s schools, better the treatment at the institution’s hospital and offer the medical staff the latest in scientific equipment.

Dr. Moursel sees social organizations as heart, calling government a machine, but he does understand the importance of a good machine. He has a second degree in information systems management from Glendale College in California. Showing us around the school he pointed out the Pontifical Mission-funded rehabilitation work. In the adjacent 37-bed hospital we admired the new operating room, which was also contributed by the Pontifical Mission.

Dr. Moursel and Mr. Qaqoun are just two of the many socially conscious Druze whose concern for their communities are only equaled by their determination and their own hard work. They would agree with this verse from a Gibran poem:

The chants of a vegetable picker on the slopes of Lebanon are worth more than the prattles of notables.

Marilyn Raschka has just returned from an extensive trip to Lebanon and Syria.

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