Sometimes life is a bowl of cherries – at least for a few hours
Traveling northbound on Rt. 6 on a Saturday morning in June, weaving through a motorcade of classic cars and motorcycles, past families off to day trips at Lake Kinneret, grills and coolers tightly packed in trunks, is a minibus of women from Lod and Ramle. Teenaged daughters sit in the back, mothers and daughters alike clap and sing to the Arabic music playlist of the driver. Dorit from Neve Shalom has joined the group, as have I and Alana, our volunteer whose year in the county is coming to an end; who has given her heart and soul to providing for Na’am.
Our destination is as far north as we can go: to the point where Syria and Lebanon meet the Israeli green line. Of course, refreshment after the long drive comes first. Pitot with za’atar, cut fruit and vegetables, sweets, sweet sage tea and strong coffee are set up on picnic tables for all to share. In Odem Park, we meet our Druze guide, who leads us past claustrophobic bunkers left over from 1973, to the border point. The flimsy, rusting border fence is not quite a border, he explains, raising his hand to point out the extent of no-man’s land. Syria is below us; he points to where the village of Quneitra was leveled, to be rebuilt out of our line of sight, only its lake remaining. On the Lebanese side, there was once a summer residence for a wealthy prince.
The Golan Heights are awash in fruit that grows best in the cool climate and basalt soil here: grapes, apples, cherries. At the pick-your-own cherry farm that is our next destination, the trees are brimming with plump, sweet, blood-red fruit, and the boxes fill quickly as women call one another over to the best ones. Little Omri finds a tree with branches low to the ground, and mothers send their daughters back to fill an extra box for the family. There is pure abundance here – in the sweet fruit itself, in the yields on the trees, in the perfect breeze – that makes us all forget for a moment the lacks, wants and restrictions in lives back in the center of the county.
The village of Madjal Shams abuts the Syrian border. After a lunch of Druze specialties – familiar but with a twist, sumac sprinkled on “Nabatean” hummus, fatush salad redolent of local za’atar and long, thin kebabs – we return to the educational part of the trip. There is another border fence a block away from the restaurant, this one less symbolic, wrapped in barbed wire and lined with electronic sensors. Our guide recounts (Samah translating for the English speakers) the story of that fence – the refugees crossing in either direction, the families split, the land cut off. The Israeli surveillance, the gate that only soldiers can cross.
The women point to Syria – an empty hillside as seen from here. They point to Mt. Hermon -- Jabal al-Shaykh -- whose slopes are spit between three countries. The fence is a dream. It circles a region where each group – Druze, Circassian, Maronite Christian and ethnic Russians have their own settlements. In Lod and Ramle, mixed Arab-Jewish-a-little-of-everything cities, there is no barbed wire or military surveillance, but the virtual fences came crashing down around these women’s families in the May rioting and enforced state of emergency. And, strangely, the fence mirrors the wire fencing erected across from the Na’am offices partitioning off a municipal improvement project. A new sidewalk, the women tell me, will not pave over the anger and strife still simmering beneath the surface.
The women are curious about the Druze religious beliefs – it is only recently that Druze have been allowed to explain these to outsiders. We learn that women may attain the same level of religious enlightenment as men; that the Koran is their holy book, but their interpretations differ from standard Sunni practice.
Although Druze believe souls are immediately reincarnated in human bodies, it is ghosts that keep them in this place – in this case the memory of those killed a century ago in battles against the French colonists. This charming village was rebuilt twice in those years. Despite their location on the border, near a perpetual war zone, the residents chose, in 1967, to stick to the home their ancestors fought for, living under Israeli rule rather than becoming refugees in Syria. The girls have wandered off, the women nod. People taking control of their own fate and identity is an action they understand.
The ride home is longer and quieter, the music turned to classical trills and somber oud solos. Omri sleeps on his mother’s lap, the teens pull out phones. We pass a police roadblock driving into Lod. It is already dark when the women and girls pile out of the minibus, arms laden with kilos of sweet cherries.