I’m often saying to anyone who will listen, that Israel and Palestine contain what feels like a whole continent of different countries, and never was this more the case than on a recent trip to the Northern town of Majdal Shams.
Majdal Shams is a small town in the foothills of the Hermon mountain range, close to both the Syrian and Lebanese borders. Before 1967 it was within Syria, but Israel took it during the Six Day War when they captured the Golan Heights region from Syria. Under international law it is still classified as occupied Syrian territory and most of the Syrian-Druze population of Majdal Shams have not assimilated into Israel.
In 1981 they were offered (some might say coerced) into becoming citizens of Israel and they strongly rejected this, choosing instead to adapt a non-citizen status which 90% of the population still holds. This means that they can’t vote in Israel, but it also critically means that they aren’t called up for military service.
‘We don’t serve in the army unlike those Druze from down the hill’, said the son from the excellent Al-Yasmeen restaurant where we were having dinner. Down the hill meant the smaller Druze communities North of the Galilee and clearly it was a badge of honour that the people from Majdal Shams wore proudly.
The Syrian-Druze population of Majdal Shams have stamped their own identity on the town. Colourful Druze flags whip in the wind. Many of the people wear traditional Druze clothing which for the men includes a white hat, black harem style trousers and often a thick moustache. The women wear long white headscarves that trail down their back like a veil and often cover their mouths like a built-in face mask.
We didn’t know much about the Druze before we arrived and sadly, we weren’t much better informed by the time we had left. It is a notoriously secretive religion and history has taught them the importance of conducting most of their religious business behind closed doors.
Arabic is the primary language with Hebrew a close second. Most shop keepers and others we met welcomed us warmly with a ‘manishma’ (how are you in Hebrew) and English was sparce. In fact, when we asked Hatem, the friendly guy whose converted bus we were staying on, if we could have a tour of the town, he couldn’t find an English-speaking tour guide for us.
Even without the tour however, there was still a lot to see and do. The area is close to several key tourist sites such as the impressive 13th century Nimrod Fortress, the Banias and Tel Dan nature reserves and Mount Hermon itself, the highest mountain in Israel which has its peak in Syria. The latter isn’t a great tourist highlight as such, but it is interesting if you like seeing international (contested) borders and a lot of new and old military reinforcements.
But back to the bus, which deserves its own mention. Think of a sizeable coach that has been placed off a small track, overlooking an orchard and lake. Now imagine ripping out the seats and tastefully refurbishing it as a slick cabin which can comfortably sleep 4-5 people complete with its own bathroom, kitchen and outdoor seating area. The bus was practical enough to be comfortable and quirky enough to give a novelty factor that kept our kids’ entertained for a few days. It also came with a near fully stocked fridge and the dismissive instruction to help ourselves to anything we found which included a tin of Quality Street and some tins of Guinness.
Upon arrival, the first thing we noticed was the considerable drop in temperature compared to Jerusalem and at night the wind blew noisily around the bus. The area gets a lot of snow in winter and the mountainous climate provided perfect agricultural land for apples, cherries and all manner of other fruits which could be bought at the local farmer’s market which we were pleased to stumble upon.
The bus was situated a short drive from Majdal Shams and it was easy to eat in the town or at one of the many steak restaurants which were dotted around. If you go, then a visit to the Al Yasmeen restaurant is highly recommended. The restaurant is a small family-run business, situated in a beautifully restored Arabic house, where visitors are served with warm hospitality and copious quantities of delicious food.
There is no menu, and the principle instead is that you get everything, from stuffed vine leaves, to large kibbeh, to rice dishes, and meat dishes and fresh salads. There was soup, there was knafeh and everything in between. It was like a large tasting menu of the best local cuisine served from a family kitchen by brothers, sisters and cousins who were all too happy to draw up a chair and have a chat.
Majdal Shams showed itself to have a warm heart and a tough backbone. It wasn’t Israel, it wasn’t Palestine but somewhere in-between. We had a really great weekend yet left with the feeling that she had managed to keep her secrets from us.
To stay in the converted bus you can contact Hatem on +972 50-844-1257. You can book a table at the Al-Yasmeen restaurant by contacting them via their Facebook page.