Feature: Ethnic Tourism
In the shadow of a snowcapped mountain, girls in ankle-length gowns and boys in black riding boots are milling about. When the sound of an accordion rings out, the girls slide almost imperceptibly across the floor, as if on wheels, while the boys—knives clenched in their mouths—leap, spin and kneel before their partners.
After the music stops, the village youngsters chat in a foreign language, their breath visible in the bitterly cold night air inside the hall.
This scene may bring to mind Uzbekistan, Turkey or Spain.
But this is Israel, a part of the country that is unfamiliar even to many Israelis. Nestled in a valley in the northern Galilee, not far from Mount Hermon, is the Circassian village of Rihaniya.
Muslims driven from their homes in the Caucasus Mountains by the Russian czars, the Circassians found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, including Palestine, in the 1860’s and 1870’s. Some 4,000 live in Israel today—1,000 in Rihaniya and 3,000 in Kfar Kama in the lower Galilee.
At first glance, Rihaniya may seem like an obscure village. But it is, in fact, one of the more intriguing spots to visit in the Galilee, Israel’s ethnic hinterland.
Known for its natural beauty, the lush green northern part of the country is also one of the most culturally diverse. It is home not only to Jews of various origins and Circassians but also Druze, Alawites (whose faith is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam) and Christian and Muslim Arabs, including Bedouin. In recent years, many of these communities have opened their kitchens, homes—and, sometimes, hearts—to tourists, providing beds, full-course meals and guided tours of their towns.
Prices are reasonable, ranging from as little as $60 a night per couple for a hostel-like room with breakfast to $200 for a charming suite, breakfast and one dinner included. Many places offer a lecture, tour, dance performance or other cultural experience—available in Hebrew and occasionally in English. (Some foreign groups improvise and ask a Hebrewspeaker among them to translate.)
Facilities vary. You can find a spacious apart ment with a fireplace, garden, three bathrooms and doting hosts (Sela Ha-Notrim in Rama); or, you may end up, as I once did, in a sparse hostel-like guesthouse, in the dead of winter, with no heating (at Kafriada in the Druze town of Beit Jann). But, as one shivering fellow Israeli tourist staying in the same place said, “If you want fivestar hotels, go to Eilat. If you want an unusual experience, come to Beit Jann.”
Until recently, many of these communities had insulated themselves from outsiders. Today, they offer visitors, the vast majority of whom are Israeli Jews, something rare: an opportunity to get to know their neighbors.
“I started this enterprise because I realized that my Army buddies didn’t have a clue what a Circassian was,” recounts Shauki Khoon, who single-handedly established the Circassian Heritage Center in Rihaniya 10 years ago. Whenever a group arrives, Khoon, a major (Reserves) in the Israel Defense Forces, drops his work as a selfemployed bookkeeper, slips into full Circassian regalia and unlocks the door of this modest museum.
There, this middle-aged man, wearing a karakul hat of black sheep fur, high riding boots and a long waistcoat trimmed with silver gunpowder canisters, tells the story of this mountainous warrior people. Among the more brow-raising traditions: Circassian men kidnap their brides.
Aghast? Don’t be. The women must consent in advance, making this ritual more of a staged elopement— the only truly surprised parties are the parents of the couple. “Circassian men and women choose their own mates,” explains Khoon. “There are no shiddukhim in our community.
“The kidnapping is really a test of the man’s maturity and resourcefulness,” he continues. The man has to sneak the woman across the village without being caught by the other villagers. If he succeeds, there is a wedding a few days later. If he fails, the wedding is postponed several months “to give him time to mature,” Khoon adds.
Traditionally, a Circassian man would snatch his bride on horseback and fire a few gunshots in the air to signal that the kidnapping is in progress. Nowadays, the ritual has assumed a more urban flavor. A couple makes their getaway in a car, horn honking incessantly.
“I kidnapped my wife, and I fully expect my daughter to be kidnapped,” Khoon declares unabashedly.
Awalking tour of the village with Khoon as your guide includes a stop at the original series of stone homes built with secret passageways to enable Circassians to flee from one house to the next if need be. Nearby stands the town mosque; it is used only on major holidays since Circassians are, as Khoon puts it, “Muslimlite.” Most converted to Islam only in the 19th century. Prior to that they were Christian and, before that, pagan. Indeed, the mosque, which has no minaret, looks more like a European church or synagogue.
Walking along the quiet, impeccably maintained streets of Rihaniya today, you hear only Circassian spoken. In the community center, villagers aged 5 through 55 learn traditional dances accompanied by musicians playing classic Circassian tunes on an accordion-like pshina, drum and castanet-like pkhachich. Children are raised to marry other Circassians. With their reputation as proud warriors, their Muslim faith, Cyrillic language and colorful kidnapping customs, the Circassians seem about as different from their Jewish neighbors as any two peoples can be, which makes it all the more surprising to discover the close connections.
After arriving in Ottoman Palestine in the 19th century, the Circassians formed a warm alliance with the Jews of the First Aliyah: They had a shared language, Russian, and a shared enemy from the Old World, the Cossacks, who hounded the Circassians mercilessly.
“When I grew up, if my parents were angry at me, they would threaten to hand me over to Cossacks,” recalls Khoon. In Palestine, the two peoples bonded together to protect themselves from local Arabs. Many Jews in Palestine even adopted the traditional Circassian garb. With the establishment of the Jewish state, the Circassians formally allied themselves with the Jews, taking upon themselves mandatory IDF service for all men.
In another familiar echo, their resilience comes in the wake of a national trauma. In the 19th century, a Russian campaign of slaughter, starvation and forced exile left fewer than 10 percent of an estimated three million Circassians in their homeland.
When Khoon first opened his museum, it attracted about 300 visitors a year. Nowadays, nearly 1,500 a month stop by this small stone building with three rooms and a courtyard. Inside, one can watch a film about Circassian culture and history, read about the community and see traditional clothing, jewelry, furniture and other relics—such as a ram’s horn used for ceremonial drinking of wine in the days before the community converted to Islam (which prohibits alcohol).
Visitors also sample local cuisine prepared by Khoon’s wife, Asmahan, and served in the couple’s garden, which has been converted into a makeshift restaurant that sometimes hosts bar mitzva parties.
The dishes include various types of halouj, a boureka-like pastry filled with goat cheese; miniature eggplants stuffed with nuts, almonds and olive oil; and a baklava-like dessert called pida.
Currently, only one family offers overnight accommodation. Olsan and Fadwa Churshid have two tastefully decorated, comfortable chalets next to their home and are building a third.
There is nothing uniquely Circassian about the Jacuzzi in the center of the room or the sturdy wood furniture and chalets, all built by Olsan Churshid and his brother. But breakfast includes traditional dishes, and Churshid, who, like many Circassians, serves with the Israeli police, is happy to recount his family’s story.
“My great-grandfather came from the Caucasus to Rihaniya in 1868,” he says “We’re proud of our heritage and have given all of our daughters traditional Circassian names, Ina, Aza and Dana,” which mean, respectively, industrious, wise and gentle.
For a very different cultural encounter, head to the slopes of Mount Meron. While most visitors to Israel have been to Safed, few have spent a night in the nearby town of Beit Jann—one of several Druze communities that now cater to tourists. Israel is home to some 113,000 Druze, most of whom live in villages on the upper slopes of the Galilee, Mount Carmel and the Golan Heights.
At an altitude of over 3,000 feet, Beit Jann offers refreshingly cool summer air, occasional snow in winter and a breathtaking view, which on a clear day encompasses both the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean.
It is a maze of a town with no street names and treacherous roads, many too narrow to be negotiated by a bus. But it has at least six bedand- breakfast establishments. One, Kafriada, has kosher Druze food. Typical Druze dishes include homemade labane, large thin pitas baked on a taboun (a type of oven), lamb dishes and a rice and lentil dish called majadera.
But a visit to a Druze community is more than a culinary treat.
The Druze religion, which developed around the 10th century, is so unique that many tourist establishments in Beit Jann offer a dinnertime lecture on the topic.
The complete tenets are known only to the community’s spiritual leaders, but some elements—such as belief in reincarnation—are shared by all Druze, even the most secular. And many in Beit Jann talk about having two sets of parents—one from this lifetime and one from the last—and keep in touch with both.
In fluent English, guide Monir Morad delivers a talk about Druze history and religion to an intrigued birthright israel group at Kafriada, at the entrance to town.
He recounts the tale of Salah, a Druze soldier from Beit Jann who was killed in 1992 by a bomb in Lebanon. Days before he died, he had spoken to his mother and, on hearing that it had snowed in his town, asked her to save some snow for him in the freezer. Four years later a boy—born on the same day the soldier died—was playing on the street and “recognized” the soldier’s family as his own. Upon entering their home, the boy even asked the mother whether she had saved the snow for him.
Druze are prohibited from mourning or visiting the grave of a loved one. “One person’s death is another’s birth; it’s a celebration for another mother and father, so how can you mourn?” Morad explains.
Sitting over breakfast—a colorful buffet of labane, homemade fig jam and an amazing dish of cooked and sweetened strips of dried pumpkin— Monir Salalha, owner of the Alone Meron bed-andbreakfast, revealed more about Druze beliefs and their impact on everyday life.
During last summer’s Lebanon war, many Druze communities in the Galilee were hit by Katyusha rockets; several residents were killed. “None of the Druze left their homes,” notes Salalha, “not even the women and children.”
Fatalism partly explains that choice. “Whoever is meant to die, will,” he says with a shrug.
A fierce attachment to home and village also has a role. “It’s better to die in your home than to become a refugee,” explains Faik Salalha, Monir’s brother-in-law.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Druze homes resemble little garrisons; every family seems prepared for a siege.
“This is our water well,” notes Hamde Salalha, Monir’s wife. “And here is where I keep my basic foodstuffs,” she continues, pointing to a stockpile of 330 pounds of flour and 80 gallons of olive oil.
This came to mind later in the day while touring Beit Jann with Morad. I had asked him to show me the center of this town of 10,000.
“That’s it,” he pronounces as we whiz by a lone pizzeria and toy store: “If you have everything at home,” he explains, “what do you need to go out for?”
In the oldest part of town, a network of cobblestone alleys, Morad shows the way to a Druze house of prayer. Men and women sit separately on a rug-strewn floor in a simple hall adorned with framed pictures of the community’s past and present spiritual leaders. The building is almost hidden behind an iron gate. It would be impossible for an outsider to discover this place independently— something that reflects the larger reality: The Druze religion is closed to outsiders and no converts are accepted.
At the foothills of Beit Jann, about four miles east of Karmiel, lies Rama, a mixed Arab-Druze village of 7,000. A heady fragrance tempts visitors as they walk through the jasmine-covered archway of Sela Ha-Notrim, a bed-andbreakfast owned by Yousouf and Najath Mirab.
Beneath their spacious stone home, the Christian Arab couple have built three guest units; one is particularly lavish with ornate tiles, a fireplace and a music system. The wide-ranging CD collection includes Egypt’s legendary singer Umm Kulthum, sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar and pop star Celine Dion.
“What’s good for the Jewish heart is good for the Arab heart,” says Yousouf Mirab of the eclectic choice.
The couple, both teachers, began the business eight years ago to earn money for their daughters’ university education. But monetary considerations soon gave way to idealism.
“Until we opened our home to guests, our children had never had a chance to get to know Jews,” recalls Mirab. “This is the only way to remove mutual fear, by meeting each other. We can not leave it to the politicians.”
All three units open up to a garden with a grapevine-covered canopy. Mirab, who traces his roots to the area back 400 years, takes guests on a guided tour of the vicinity, which may include a visit to a 2,000- year-old olive grove or a huge boulder after which Sela Ha-Notrim (Rock of the Guards) is named.
Using herbs from the garden, Najath Mirab puts together traditional Arab dinners, which includes freekeh soup (roasted, unhulled green wheat in a lamb broth), stuffed grape leaves, magloube (lamb stew with rice and cauliflower) and majadera; her cooking has won high marks from MAPA (the Israeli equivalent of the Michelin Guides).
It is an intimate, family-like experience— you dine in the Mirabs’ own home. Says Yousouf Mirab: “We sit, talk, eat together and spill our pain.”
Any time of year is good for a cultural encounter, but some seasons offer special perks. During fall, you can participate in the olive harvest in the Galilee; in spring, you might be lucky enough to witness a Circassian elopement in progress—you will know by the cacophony of honking. And in summer, when much of the country feels like a hothouse, you can savor the cool breeze and view from the heights of Beit Jann while indulging in kosher Druze cuisine and contemplating previous lives.
The Circassian Experience in Rihaniya (museum, guided tour, meals): Contact Shauki Khoon 011-972-4-698-0349;www.adiga.co.il
Bed and Breakfast in Rihaniya: Olsan and Fadwa Churshid; 972- 4-698-7828
Kafriada (hostel-style accommodations, kosher Druze meals for large groups and lectures): 972-4-980-2757; randa357@ hotmail.com
Alone Meron (B&B, accommodations in large house, Druze meals and lectures): 972-4-980-2083
Monir Morad, English-speaking Druze tour guide: 972-4-980- 5088;firstname.lastname@example.org
Sela Ha-Notrim (B&B, meals, tours): 972-4-998-6483
For accommodations in other Druze towns, go towww.zimmeril.com (search under “Druze”).