Our trip in Ussefiya started at Elmanzool, an authentic Druze guest house that is located right at the center of Ussefiya. We sat next to one of the heavy wooden tables, enjoying the magnificent views of the Zebulun (Zvulun) Valley and the Acre Bay through the large windows and the special atmosphere of this place, and gorged ourselves with great delight on the breakfast that was offered to us which included a wonderful idja (vegetable omelet), Druze pita bread, salads and cheeses. When we asked Ria Kablan, the manager of the place who kept us company, about one of the delicious cheeses, Ria lifted her eyes with an air of importance, thought about it a little, sighed lightly and then answered: "yes, this one did take me a long time to prepare. I had to go all the way to the store, take it from the refrigerator, come back home and serve it with some spices. Indeed a lot of work went into this cheese”, she said and smiled cynically, and our first preconception was broken. Even Druze women with their modest head cover are no dupes. And when speaking with Jihad Kablan, Ria’s fluently spoken husband, and hearing his stories, one understands that with his shaven head and Druze cap he is the salt of the earth in its purest form.
Jihad Kablan has several titles to be proud of. He himself served as a brigadier general at the border guard, his father, Ismail Kablan, was a Syrian Officer who eventually became the first Druze officer in the Israel Defense Forces, and his son is the first Druze aircraft fighter navigator in the Israel Defense Forces. Jihad Kablan, today a business man in the field of tourism, toured with us in various sites around Ussefiya and the Carmel area, and so that it will be even more interesting, Jihad has also brought his friend, Avi Shlomo, the energetic Chief Executive Officer of the "Nations & Flavors" company which gives tours of the area. And if Jihad Kablan already sounds like a well rooted Jew, Avi Shlomo has become a real Druze a long time ago. But more of that later on.
Each dome has a saint
Jihad Kablan begins our tour with a few Druze sacred sites. Our first stop is in Hurshat HaArba'im (the Grove of the Forty), a charming area in the Carmel National Park, half a kilometer to the south-east of the University of Haifa, from where the views of the Haifa Bay and its surrounding areas are revealed in their full glory. In the Grove of the Forty, grow 80 ancient oak trees with thick trunks. While other trees in the area were cut down during the Ottoman rule for coal, these oak trees were preserved due to their sacredness to the Druze people. And this concentration of ancient trees is indeed unusual in Israel. According to the Druze tradition, at the Grove of the Forty stayed forty of the heralds of the young Druze religion in the 11th century and where they sat grew oak trees. This tale and many others are told by Jihad Kablan to his grandchildren during their numerous and frequent visits in this place which they love dearly.
We continue to Maqam Abu Ibrahim ("maqam” meaning "a sacred place”) which is located in the Druze village of Daliat El-Carmel, a beautiful stone structure, and learn about the five colors of the flag of the Druze Faith, where each color is attributed to a different prophet. The red dome of Maqam Abu Ibrahim is dedicated to Abu Ibrahim, who is considered to be the incarnation of the Prophet Elijah. The yellow in the dome of Ussefiya’s Maqam Abu Abdullah is dedicated to the memory of Muhammad bin Wahab al-Qoraishi.
Jihad Kablan and Avi Shlomo are enthusiastic about showing us Ussefiya’s cemeteries, the Military one and the Civilian one, in order to demonstrate to us the strong connection between the Druze and the Jewish Peoples on the one hand and the difference between our cultures on the other. We begin with Ussefiya’s Military Cemetery, the main Military Cemetery for the Druze soldiers who have fallen during their military service in the Israel Defense Force, where the annual Israel Defense Force memorial ceremonies for the fallen Druze soldiers are being held. As befitting a military cemetery, it is dignified looking and well-kept and it features strawberry trees and an abundance of vegetation. But memorial days and mourning ceremonies are not a part of the Druze culture. According to the Druze belief, there is no importance to the body but only to the soul, And Avi Shlomo enjoys seeing the surprised countenance on the faces of the Israelis who come to visit Ussefiya’s Civilian Cemetery which is adjacent to the Military one. We are also surprised upon entering Ussefiya’s Civilian Cemetery and finding out that in Ussefiya’s Civilian Cemetery there are no headstones and the deceased are buried here in simple board coffins inside niches. Even the name of the departed is not mentioned here, only the date of death is etched in simple writing. The coffins and the remains of the dead crumble within ten years into a huge repository which is located under those niches. Avi Shlomo tells us a few selected Druze reincarnation stories. We ask him whether he thinks that he himself might be a reincarnated Druze and he answers that Druze souls incarnate only in Druze people, but that he has no doubt that he had a connection with the Druze People in a previous reincarnation already.
The Old Quarter in Ussefiya
From here we continue to the narrow alleys of what can be called the Ussefiya "village core”, its Old Quarter, and walk around in the streets among houses with balconies, the magnificent view that are seen from which immediately make us try and found out how much it would cost us to rent an apartment here. Jihad Kablan tells us that during the Roman - Byzantine period the Jewish town of Husifah was located here. Avi Shlomo says that it is thought by some people that that is the source of the name Ussefiya, while other people think that the name Ussefiya comes from the northern winds by the same name which blow in the area. Here we visit quite a few old structures such as a church which was built more than 200 years ago and in which was filmed a scene from the legendary film "Exodus”, the home of the Mukhtar which overlooks the Yagur Stream, the Haifa Bay and an ancient olive press. Next to the "helwa"- the house of prayer- of the Druze Mansur family a beautiful mosaic floor of a synagogue was discovered which depicts the zodiac. The complete mosaic floor was transferred to the Israel Museum and only a small sample of it was left here, which one can barely see between the geranium bushes which surround it. The representation of this mosaic was featured on the 1970s note of the Israeli Lira and it is also found at the center of the octagonal symbol of the village of Ussefiya, in order to emphasize the eternal alliance between the Jewish and the Druze People.
Ussefiya as a wonderful success story
On our way to lunch, Jihad Kablan and Avi Shlomo have a lively conversation about Ussefiya’s internal affairs and the local politics. Avi Shlomo shows phenomenal knowledge, as if he was one of the village’s locals, and perhaps after so many years of working together with the local residents he can be considered as one. Avi Shlomo has tied his life with those of the Druze People of the village of Ussefiya and he works here on a daily basis since he has founded the "Nations & Flavors" company in 2002 with the purpose of providing the visitors here with an a authentic culinary and cultural experience, with the help of which they will be able to get to know the customs and tradition of the Druze People better. Those who come to visit here go on a tour in Ussefiya accompanied by a Druze guide and later on they are invited into one of the eight houses that participate in this project and open their doors to visitors. Sometimes a folklore performance is being held here as well. The tour has turned into a wonderful success story and tens of full buses arrive each day in Ussefiya and bring here with them more and more tourists from Israel as well as from abroad. The project has brought good livelihood to the families as well as to the guides and the women who cook, to whom Avi Shlomo has found an excellent and convenient way for earning money.
When we sit down to eat from the wonderful Druze delicacies that are being served to us in one of the houses that participate in the project, we are amazed to hear that the meal is completely kosher. We ask how it is possible that a gentile kitchen is being certified as kosher by the Rabbinate and Avi Shlomo tells us the whole story about all that he and the residents of Ussefiya who participate in the project have to go through in order to make the kitchens in their own private houses kosher and to maintain that kosher certificate. "There are two things that I am afraid of – a war in Iran and the Chief Rabbinate”, Avi Shlomo jokes, and to us this story shows how much this person is determined, how much he loves his work with the Druze and how much affection the locals have for him. There is no doubt that this cooperation between the Druze and the Jewish People, in every area, has benefited all. A more optimistic multicultural story will probably be hard to find.