At the Al-Yasmin restaurant, Su’ad al-Sha’ar sets the table and starts placing the dishes on it: homemade fried kubbeh; sambusak filled with cheese and spinach; zanqa – balls of burghul and meat cooked in leben; a splendid majadara; mansaf, chicken makloubeh; a summer dish of okra in tomato sauce; and rice cooked with fried noodles and served with crispy pecans. Ten years ago, Al-Sha’ar lost her husband and the father of her children, who died in an accident on a Tel Aviv construction site. Five years ago, this woman with the lovely smile began cooking to support her three children (the eldest also works in construction in the Tel Aviv area). Her main customers are other village residents who come to take home trays of food cooked and baked by the talented Su’ad.
Su’ad and her children live on the top floor of a beautiful 19th-century stone building, one of the few such old-style buildings still standing around here. On the lower floor, which is used as lodgings, there is a maze of rooms with pretty old wooden doors and heavy wooden beams. Stone niches in the walls hold an impressive collection of heavy antique bowls and pots crafted by the village’s famous artisans. The crowning glory of local ironsmiths is a Majdali dagger with a curved tip, renowned throughout the Middle East.
When weather permits – and Majdal Shams, due to its high altitude, has a climate all its own, unrelated to what’s happening in the plains and valleys below – you can dine on the porch, surrounded by a ravishing flower garden and overlooking the homes on the hilltop. Lamb tongue and intestines stuffed with rice and meat are two special festive dishes that must be ordered in advance.
Gin and tonic, hummus and bacon
A warm golden sun shines through the windows of Green Apple, a large, wood-paneled Irish-style bar. Even when the rest of the country is sweating through a heat wave, on the slopes of Mount Hermon there’s a cool breeze, and the moist clouds passing overhead give the streets and roofs of the town a surreal look, almost reminiscent of 19th-century London. Green Apple offers Guinness on tap – a sure draw for visitors from all parts, or anyone who’s been traversing the nearby dusty mountain roads. The menu is an appealing blend of Irish and local Arab cuisine.
The spacious Why Bar, with its lovely wooden deck, is packed with customers even at mid-week. “Why?” is a frequent question here, as drinkers ponder the origin of the establishment’s name. “Everything about the place we were born in is surrounded by questions: Who are we? Who does this place belong to? And other questions of identity,” answers the friendly bartender. We drink a gin and tonic with a slice of fresh cucumber.
Still in search of answers, we move on to Apres Ski, another local bar, for a last Pilsner. On the menu here you’ll find hummus and shakshuka alongside an English breakfast or a bacon sandwich. Despite inter-generational and religious tensions, the nightlife scene in Majdal Shams is well established now, though not so long ago this was a very conservative and closed society. But that is not the only lifestyle change in the Druze villages of the northern Golan Heights.
Can’t live on apples
Among the rows of apple trees, near the well dug at the edge of the orchard, especially in places where the canopy of trees allows the sun’s rays to shine through, tomatoes, eggplant, okra, black-eyed peas and other vegetables and legumes are planted. Fa’iz Abu Jabel from Majdal Shams, who still makes his living from farming, used to plant just a few vegetables here each year for his family’s use. But in the past few years, vegetables have become his chief source of income.
“There’s no more living to be made from apples,” says the elderly farmer. Apples grown by residents of the Druze villages in the Golan Heights were sold to Syria for years, despite the closed border between the two countries. Since Syria has been closed off by the civil war, local apple growers have been selling their produce in Israel, but have found it hard to compete with lower prices in the local market. Some have resorted to uprooting their old apple orchards in order to plant other crops. Others, like Fa’iz, aren’t ready to give up on the family apple and cherry trees, and try to make ends meet by selling vegetables from makeshift stalls along the road from Masada to Majdal Shams.