Druze Delights: New Tourist Spots on the Golan

From Birkat Ram lake to the main street of Majdal Shams and the promenade on the Sa'ar stream, Golan Druze are setting aside politics and investing in tourism.

African music is blaring from the loudspeakers - a fast drumbeat echoing between the Golan Heights Druze Arab villages of Masadeh and Majdal Shams. The Emek Habambuk ("Bamboo Valley") campsite is devoid of guests, but Muhi and Hassan, two 25-year-olds from Majdal Shams who established and run the place, say the music is mostly for their own enjoyment. If guests come, so much the better. In the meantime, they say, they're sitting and enjoying themselves.

We sip herbal tea on the attractive, vine-covered veranda that looks out over the Birkat Ram crater lake near Mount Hermon. The round blue lake glistens in the late summer sunlight, with simple guest huts built on its edge. The low sofas and convertible pillows are reminiscent of a tourist village in Thailand or Sinai, which is exactly what they wanted to create here, the owners of the campground proudly explain--a place like Thailand. Only later did it become apparent that their hiking experience was limited to Israel. They also worked in Haifa and Tel Aviv, but they have never been to Thailand. Actually they have never left Israel.

They chose the name Bamboo Valley, Hassan explains, "because Emek Habambuk sounds like Facebook and it catches people's ears." During the course of our conversation, the expression "for the fun of it" comes up several times. That's how the duo explains why they established the campground three months ago. They smile sheepishly when I ask whether new winds are blowing in the Golan Heights. They want to talk about the boats they brought over to the lake, about the music, about the raft. Forget about politics.

In the course of our conversation, they do acknowledge that they are part of a new generation among Golan Heights Druze, part of a large group of young people trying to find a new path for themselves, particularly beyond the familiar traditional ways. They say there are a lot of people who don't want to continue down the same path as their parents and the generations that preceded them, all of whom have made a living from the region's apple orchards. "We also want to do other things," I was told. "Tourism is still a tough way to make a living, but we believe it has a future. We can't support ourselves here yet, but maybe next year, it will be better. In the meantime, we're having fun."

My repeated efforts to talk to them about the civil war in Syria or Israeli politics were met with smiles and shrugs. "Sure it's sad for us to see and hear what's happening in Syria. We have family there," I was told. "But we are here and they are there. Our lives are different. We are busy with our things and don't want to talk about politics at all. Everyone is invited here, just as long as they come."

A moment later, they untie the rope to their little motor boat along the shore and we sail into the middle of the Birkat Ram lake. To my complete surprise, I see that the pair has installed a wooden raft in the middle of the lake, with a bar and seating for 40 guests. And the minute we step onto the floating deck, African music similar to what we heard on shore starts up.

Then they serve tea. "Do you have electricity here?" I ask. "Of course. We have solar panels that provide electricity without power lines. Every evening, we sit here, drinking and enjoying ourselves. Next summer, we'll run the raft like a nightclub or bar every day."

Five happy people

In prior visits to Majdal Shams, I had seen a lot of Syrian flags flying from the roofs of the homes. This time I didn't even see one. In three places, there were colorful Druze flags flying. Apparently it's not currently popular in the town to call for the return of Madjal Shams - which has been under Israeli control since the 1967 Six-Day War - to Syria. Dawlan Abu-Saleh, a 35-year-old man who was born in Majdal Shams, has headed the town council for almost five years. His family is one of the largest and most respected there.

At the beginning of our meeting, he excitedly showed me five letters that he had just received from Tel Aviv University. "It's a happy day," he said. "Five students from the village who studied dentistry for three years at Damascus University and cut short their studies because of the civil war have gotten permission to continue their fourth year of studies at Tel Aviv University. I'm going to give them the good news right away."

"Just think about it," Abu Saleh enthused. "They are going from studying in Damascus to studying in Tel Aviv. It’s a crazy world. There is nothing that could make me happier than a day like this."

To give me an understanding of how much is being invested in tourism in the Druze villages, Yisrael Eshed, a resident of Moshav Eliad in the Golan Heights who has extensive experience with tourism and serves as a tourism development adviser to the Druze communities, took me on an extensive tour. We visited the impressive observation post at Mount Kramim and then went to the beautiful lookout at Nimrod. We saw the new promenade that is being built along the length of the Sa'ar stream and also walked the entire main street of Majdal Shams. A portion of the thoroughfare is due to be transformed into what I was told would be "a tourist street like in Zichron Yaakov."

"The residents here have always known how to welcome guests. Hospitality is in our blood," Abu-Saleh, the council head, told me. "Now we are simply directing that orientation towards tourism. It makes me happy to see tourists and visitors walking on foot without concern on the streets of Majdal Shams."

"Most of our guests are Israeli," Nadine Safadi, a young woman who manages the Narkis boutique hotel in the center of Majdal Shams, told me. "Over the holidays, we are fully booked and the peak is the winter season when there is snow here, but we have a lot of work during the summer too." Her explanation for the popularity of her establishment is simple. "Our prices are lower by about a third than a similar hotel in Jewish communities and it's a lot more fun with us. There is a lot of nightlife in the village now. Bars are open late, cafes and good restaurants. If there are rumors about the security situation not being good or something like that, occupancy goes down, but most of the time, the situation is good."

When I wonder how this transformation of Majdal Shams' young people came about, Safadi attributes it to the influence that university attendance in Israel and elsewhere has had. "University students and graduates who return to the village after a few years away are bringing about the change. People want to live their lives well. That's all. I myself am a member of a group of young people that explains to visitors what is happening here, how we live, how we get married and what our political views are. It always surprises the Israeli guests, as if they have come from the moon."

Gil Eliyahu
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad