The window in the house of Najah S. overlooks the fence that runs along the Syrian border and the earth-banked artillery battery adjacent to it. She lives in Majdal Shams, on the Golan Heights, and every so often the residents of this Druze village can hear shots and explosions echoing across the border. The “Shouting Hill” lies about 100 meters [330 feet] down the slope from her house. The border, the hill and her home are the three focal points of her life.
Najah, 68 years old, is a full-fledged entrepreneur. She runs a coffee shop at the center of the village, where customers stop by not only for a cup of coffee, but also to listen to her fascinating stories involving life on the border. And that isn’t limited to the geopolitical border either. It refers to the border that rips families apart, divides communities and separates generations. Actually, Najah's story is the story of the Druze living on the Golan Heights.
“My older brother, who lived here with us in the village, went to Damascus to buy a few tools for his apple plantation, just two days before the Six-Day War broke out [in 1967]. He planned to come home a few days later, but soon discovered that the border was sealed. Almost 35 years passed before I saw him again.”
Thirty-five years is a long time.
“Yes, a very long time. Remember that in those days, people barely had telephones. Today we have the internet and Skype and all of that, so it is much easier to stay in touch. Back then though, the closest we could come to meeting was to stand on the Shouting Hill, on either side of the border.”
Can you describe in some technical detail how those meetings took place?
“Yes, every Friday my brother would arrive from the refugee camp near Damascus where he lives. It is about 60 or 70 kilometers [37 or 43 miles] from the border. He would stand on the hill on the Syrian side of the border, and I would come out of my house and stand on the hill on the Israeli side. We would shout to each other just like that, from hill to hill.”
How far apart were you?
“About 200 meters [650 feet].”
Were you even able to see or hear each other?
“Only with binoculars and a megaphone.”
The Shouting Hill is the most clear-cut example of how the Druze living in the Golan Heights are unwilling to accept the separation that was forced upon them. Najah offers a colorful description of the cacophony of voices and shouting that was heard day and night, from hill to hill, on both sides of the fence. Entire families, equipped with megaphones, binoculars, cameras and any other means at their disposal, stood there and chatted with each other out in the open, as if there was no border separating them.
What did you talk about?
“About everything. I would shout to him, ‘How are you, brother?’ and he would tell me all about the children that were born to him over there. It was very noisy. There were a few families every Friday. He never met the three children I had here.
Where was the first place you met after you were separated?
“In Amman, after the peace treaty was signed with Jordan [in 1994]. I was 22 years old when my brother left and never came back. We’ve been meeting at the same place every year since then.”
During the recent Passover vacation at the end of March, masses of Israelis flooded the Druze villages of the Golan Heights. Local restaurants were packed with people who came to eat Druze-style yoghurt labaneh, the traditional lamb dish siniyeh and sugary pastries called kanafeh. Only the most sharp-eyed of them would have noticed the tremendous tension bubbling beneath the surface. The local population is divided in its loyalties, between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels. “It’s exactly 50-50,” Najah tells me. “One side says that Assad is slaughtering his own people, while the other side says that his father was good to the Druze and that he will follow in his father’s footsteps. They hope that what is happening now is just a phase, and that it will pass.”
Who do you support?
“The rebels,” she answers at once, but then adds, “It’s not so much that I support them, as that I want to see that horrible man toppled from power.… I don’t understand how he can kill his own citizens with such brutality.''
Najah is fully aware that the militias fighting against Assad include radical Islamists and members of terrorist organizations. In other words, there is no assurance that life after Assad will be much better. Still, she wants to see him fall. “First of all, he must go,” she says.
And who does your husband support?
“He supports Assad. He spends all his time glued to the news coming out of Damascus. Everyone here has someone there, whether siblings, cousins, or children. You won’t find a single person here who doesn’t walk around worried.”
I understand that you quarrel a lot.
“Not at all. My husband is very quiet. He doesn't like to talk. I think that deep inside of him he also hates Assad.”
Are you worried about your brother?
“Very much so, and the worst thing is that I can’t help him. The place he lives in, on the outskirts of Damascus, is considered to be a dangerous area. The last time I spoke with him on the phone, I heard three explosions within just a few minutes.”
Would he return to your village if the borders were open?
“He would have come back yesterday, if he could. He has a house with land and apple trees waiting for him here.”
There are 20,000 Druze living in the Golan. They are clustered in four villages: Majdal Shams, Massade, Buqata and Ein Qinya. Their relationship with the State of Israel is much more complicated than that of their Druze coreligionists living in the Galilee. They do not serve in the army, and when Israel annexed the Golan Heights in the 1980s, they refused to accept Israeli blue ID cards. They even launched a long strike in protest.
Is there any anger toward Israel?
“It’s not anger. We live on the border, and we constantly hear talk about returning the Golan Heights. The situation of the Druze in the Galilee is different. We are constantly working out when and how we will be returned. We live in a state of uncertainty. We aren’t citizens of Syria, but we’re not citizens of Israel either. We are neither here nor there.”
Apart from the border between Syria and Israel, which cuts through villages, families, and loyalties, there is another border that can be felt in the village — the border separating generations. For the most part, the older generation would like to see the Syrian flag fluttering over the region again. In contrast, many Druze claim, the younger generation has gotten used to living in Israel, and isn’t willing to consider that possibility. These are educated and ambitious young people, who are reluctant to wake up in a country governed by an authoritarian regime and who worry about the decline in their quality of life.
“We, the Druze of the Golan Heights, have the highest percentage of academics in the entire Middle East,” Najah tells me. “They did a survey. I have five children, and they are all academics,” she continues with maternal pride. “Thank God, one of them is a veterinarian, and another one is a stage director. These days everybody goes to university. Just let there be peace, inshallah [God willing]!”
Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.
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