Daily Dispatch 3: The Voices of a Silent Religion

TIBERIAS — Our third day traveling in Israel in search of religious diversity began and ended with the Druze. We went to the tomb of the Druze prophet Jethro early this morning, and the day ended with a magical Druze dinner at a mountain top in the north of Israel. In between, we went to two churches that claim to be on the spot were Angel Gabriel told Mary she was going to bear the son of God, and visited the oldest mosque in Nazareth.

A quite familiar image catches the eye of some Covering Religion students. In the site keeper’s hand, a keychain in the shape of a star, each peak is a different color: green, red, blue, white and yellow. It became obvious then: we had arrived at Nabi Shu’aib, the Druze holy site where Jethro is buried.

The caretaker of the tomb of the Druze prophet Jethro, in the village of Hittin, Israel.   Photo Credit Saman Malik

The caretaker of the tomb of the Druze prophet Jethro, in the village of Hittin, Israel. Photo Credit Saman Malik

Nabi Shu’aib is located in the village of Hittin, a short drive from our hotel in the city of Tiberias. We all know about Jesus and Moses and Mohammed, but for the Druze, their main prophet is Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses. In Arabic Jethro is Shu’aib. The tomb itself is covered by a woven green fabric that exudes a sense of royalty. To the left, a clay imprint of the prophet’s foot.

The caretaker tells us the tale of the prophet attempting to kill a snake with his bare foot and getting bitten by it. In the end, both the prophet and the snake perish.

The Druze have a cordial relationship to Israel and, unlike Christian and Muslim Arab citizens of Israel, the Druze serve in the country’s military. Their closeness is evidenced by the Israeli and Druze flags that wave side-by-side in the main courtyard of the shrine.

Our driver Sami ushers us back into the bus and we begin our long drive to Nazareth, passing through the village of Cana, where the Bible says Jesus turned water into wine. Our first stop in Nazareth is the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. Rumanian and Russian pilgrims fervently kiss the icons and sacred images that cover the walls of the cozy church. Three priests begin singing Gregorian chants. Their low tones harmonize perfectly with the ambiance, making it clear that we were at a holy site. At the back of the church there are seven steps. At the bottom, pilgrims filled water bottles with water from a well that has been flowing since the time of Jesus. That is the spot where the Greek Orthodox claim Angel Gabriel told Mary that she was expecting the son of God.

The Land team

Six blocks away, on a much larger scale, we saw the Catholic version of this account. Different artistic renditions of Virgin Mary, donated by various countries, line the courtyard of The Basilica of the Annunciation. Each virgin physically resembles the people of each country, just like a mother and her children. Pilgrims from around the world scurry to find the virgin from their home country and stop to take a photograph with their holy mother. I went around looking for Mexico’s image of the Virgin and was disappointed when I couldn’t find one. Inside the basilica, at the base level, a vast round altar has as its backdrop a little stone house that represents Mary’s home, the place where they believe the annunciation took place. On the upper level, a large hall to accommodate parishioners for mass. And there I saw her. The iconic image of La Patrona de Mexico, The Virgin of Guadalupe. Her olive skin and her elaborate green dress were a dead giveaway. By her side, an image of Juan Diego, the indigenous man who claimed to have seen her apparition and followed her request to build a church in her honor.

Even though we visited multiple churches, Nazareth is a majority Muslim city. So the inevitable next stop in our travels was the oldest mosque in Nazareth: The White Mosque. This family mosque was built in the 1700s by the Fahum Family, which to this day is still led by one of its members. The women cover their heads with scarves and we go in. On the right side, a gray board with red digital numbers displays the times of prayer, resembling a timetable you could find at a train station. One man in an orange sweater comes in alone after prayer time, potentially making up for a missed prayer. We listen to a tape that tells the history of the place and we learn that the first praying room for women was  built in 1804. After visiting our fourth site of worship in one day, we break for lunch.

We gather at the town center of Nazareth and we board the bus for our fifth and last visit of the day: the home of Sheikh Jamal Khatib, a Druze leader. Khatib lives in Bet Jann, a segregated Druze community of 12,000. Our host first takes us to the Chil-we, the Druze house of worship, and explained to us the basic beliefs and riutals of the Druze. Although the faith is often portrayed as secretive, Khatib was very open and willing to share and talk about his religion and his rituals. After the shrine we went to his house where he entertained us with baklava, coffee, water and tea.

In a broad ranging discussion, Khatib answered our questions. We asked how one can become Druze. Is there conversion into the faith? Khaib provided what was probably one of the shortest answers of the evening, saying that the Druze are “content” with the size of their community, and that they prefer “quality over quantity.”  Conversion, he told us, is impossible. Even after an hour, he kept taking one more question and another until we were reminded that dinner was waiting. We said goodbye and headed to a Druze bed and breakfast which also operates as a restaurant. Four square tables were waiting for us with plates that had a myriad of dishes: from hummus to pickles and olives, to cabbage and eggplant. And that was only the beginning. Slowly but surely, the main dishes started to come out. The first one was a hearty chicken soup with vegetables and after that they brought matlouba, a chicken and rice dish of Palestinian origin.

After dinner we got on the bus and made our way back after another adventurous day. Five places of worship, three different religions and four different towns. The group is quickly becoming more acclimated to The Land and navigation is now smoother and more efficient. We are witnessing the place where the world’s major religions originated, we are reporting on the stories that we pitched and conceived from almost 7,000 miles away. We are Covering Religion.

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