On Druzes and the Malleable Past
A minor traffic accident this week left me stranded for several hours waiting for a tow truck on the roadside in the Druze town of Usifiyeh on Mount Carmel. Sitting in a cold concrete bus shelter I had plenty of time to contemplate my misfortune (or good luck considering that the car took the brunt of the blow and subsequently went the way of all metal and plastic) and to think about how much I could really do with a hot cup of coffee. To pass my time, taking into account my location and recalling the delightful opening to Borges’ essay "I, a Jew" I googled it on my telephone.
"Like the Druzes, like the moon, like death, like next week, the distant past is one of those things that can enrich ignorance."*
In 1934 Borges had been accused of being Jewish in Crisol, a journal of the anti-Semitic Argentine intelligentsia, an affront I can sympathise with, having myself often faced similar charges. His response was this delightful little piece in which he muses over what he refers to as the "infinitely malleable" past. I suppose he included the Druzes, an eleventh century offshoot of Ismā'īlī Shī'isms, in his list of those enigmatic things about which our appreciation is “infinitely malleable” because he was acquainted with the ludicrous claims of some seventeenth century French travellers that the Druzes were descendants of Franks. This belief lay in a certain phonetic similarity between their name and that of a French crusader - Comte de Dreaux who supposedly, after the fall of Acre at the end of the thirteenth century led his regiment to settle in isolated mountains in Lebanon. The story was an obvious invention and in any case the name Druze appears more than a century earlier in the writings of the Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela:
"Ten miles therefrom [from Sidon] a people dwell who are at war with the men of Sidon; they are called Druses, and are pagans of a lawless character. They inhabit the mountains and the clefts of the rocks; they have no king or ruler, but dwell independent in these high places, and their border extends to Mount Hermon, which is a three days' journey."**
Rather than a Frenchman, the source of their name appears to originate with an eleventh century Druze missionary, Nashtakīn ad-Darazī. Possibly from Bukhara, Darazī was an early preacher of the movement but later was condemned by adherents to the faith, though his name continued and still continues to be used.
Benjamin of Tudela noted that the Druzes were independent from Frankish rule, but he had rather distorted ideas regarding their character, referring to them as lawless and steeped in vice. Their belief in reincarnation he regarded as "foolish". In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Druzes supported the Ayyūbid and Mamlūk dynasties in fighting against the Franks, playing a prominent role during the Second Crusade (1148). However, during the thirteenth century their relations with the Franks improved. Throughout their history in this highly volatile region the Druzes have survived persecutions and war, and if one can say anything about this remarkable people it is that they are highly pragmatic.
* Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, edited by Eliot Weinberger, Penguin, 2000, p. 110.
**Benjamin of Tudela, The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, transl. Marcus Nathan Adler, New York, 1907.