Secret, closed faith of Druze merges modernity, antiquity

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ISFIYEH, Israel — An old woman wrapped in a navy blue shawl stoops in front of a wood fire oven, baking pita bread. Sweat pours down the creases of her dark-skinned face while the 90-degree heat beats down on her scarf-covered head.

Nearby, thirtysomething Haeyl Azaam — wearing Levi's and a pink polo shirt — is talking big business on his cellular phone.

Isfiyeh — a Druze village tucked inside the winding roads on northern Israel's Mount Carmel — is a world of contradictions.

Built in the 16th century, the village of narrow streets and stone buildings is home to Israeli Arabs that are neither Jewish nor Christian nor Muslim. They belong to the "secret, closed faith," called Druze, Azaam explains.

Founded in the 11th century by Hamza Ben Ally (known as al-Hakim), the Druze religion is a monotheistic Arab sect distinctive from Islam. Members believe their founder was an incarnation of God. Druze number 9,000 in Isfiyeh, 19,000 in Israel and 2 million worldwide. There is no conversion to the faith.

"The chance to enter the faith was open briefly and then the doors were locked. We can't open them," Azaam says. "They will open when the Druze prophets appear."

Druze spiritual practices are revealed only to fully initiated members, or sages. Even Azaam, a secular Druze who leads tours through the village, won't be privy to its secret ceremonies and beliefs until he becomes initiated into the faith.

Nonetheless, Azaam's secular lifestyle is typical of Druze his age. While about 70 percent of those younger than 45 are uninitiated, the same percentage of those older than 45 are observant.

Most people become religious as they get older, Azaam says. "We believe if you're a good person, your next life will be good too. Being religious" certainly helps the odds.

Meanwhile, young residents embrace Western culture — chatting on cellular phones, tapping into the Internet and driving Mercedes and Mustangs up the village's narrow, winding roads. Their older, religious counterparts shave their heads and cover them, and dress modestly in flowing navy and white. Men wear mustaches.

The two cultures coexist peacefully. For example, Azaam is not religious, but both his parents are.

"This is common," he says. "There are few restrictions in Druze faith so there is no conflict" between secular and religious.

Most Israeli Druze thrust themselves into secular Israeli life beginning with their three-year military service in the Israeli army. That process was formalized in 1957, when the Druze Religious Court in Israel established its Mandatory Service Law.

"We believe to have full rights you must serve your country — so we do, for three years," Azaam explains. "We live as Israelis of a different faith but we live peacefully. We recognize the rights of Jews to have a homeland."

So Druze soldiers don the Israeli uniform and engage in the country's military training. They smoke, drink, sleep, eat, fight alongside, and occasionally fall in love with their peers. Only the latter is problematic.

"You marry out, you convert out. You're excommunicated. There's just no place for you in the community anymore," Azaam says.

About 100 Israeli Druze have married out, he says. Yet the community is growing. Azaam attributes this to "a flexible faith. It's easy to conform."

There is little pressure to become religious — perhaps because most Druze begin observing the faith later in life. Nonetheless, it is an individual decision.

And unlike most Middle Eastern cultures, Druze value men and women equally — at least in theory. Although men and women pray with a divider between them, women can serve as spiritual and political leaders, choose their husbands and choose to divorce them.

But in Middle Eastern countries less Western than Israel, the dominant culture, rather than the Druze religion, dictates women's roles. "The status of Druze women [outside of Israel] was like Muslim women for years," Azaam says.

Religious texts advising against unrestrained procreation also set the Druze apart from traditional Middle Eastern cultures. Writings suggest that wealthy families produce four children, average families, two; and poor families, only one. Maintaining children's education and women's health is considered more important than expanding the population, Azaam says.

Yet, he adds, "this is only advice," and not anti-family dogma.

In fact, extended families of more than 200 regularly meet for pita, olives, laban cheese and baklava in large Druze salons. Strong coffee perfumes the thick, hot air. Low wooden tables and thin cushions lining the walls decorate the otherwise austere rooms.

These gatherings grow quickly, as do families, because of the Druze belief in reincarnation — yet another facet of life that sets the Druze apart from other Arabs.

For example, 14 years ago Azaam's uncle was killed in a car accident and "his soul transferred to a baby," Azaam says. When the child was 5, he began telling his parents he had a different name, a different life — that of Azaam's uncle.

The child was brought to Azaam's family to be tested for knowledge of the uncle's life.

"He recalled his wife, his life's work. And he was accepted into our family," Azaam says. "He doesn't live with us but he visits every six months."

Reincarnation "is just a fact, like basic math," Azaam says. "Physical energy doesn't end."