CHERRY HILL, NJ — “It’s a question people ask. I’ve been asked it myself. Are you only marrying this person because he happens to be Druze?” Fatin Harfouch tells me from her armchair in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
Harfouch is 23 years old with green-blue eyes, lightly freckled skin, and long, dark hair. On her left hand she wears a big diamond engagement ring. On her right wrist she wears a multi-colored beaded bracelet: green, red, yellow, blue, and white—the colors of the Druze star. We’re at one of the regional conventions that supplement the annual National Druze Convention, organized by the American Druze Society. Druze is a tiny Arab religion that originated in the Middle East 1,000 years ago. There are just over 1 million adherents in the world, with large concentrations in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel and roughly 30,000 in the United States.
The Philadelphia convention, attended by about 400 Druze, took place over four days in April. In the hotel’s hospitality suite, catered Middle Eastern meals were served. Children did arts and crafts, older women drank Lebanese-style tea, and birthdays were celebrated. There were religious sessions for teens and adults. There was a young professionals mixer. Nearly everyone attended a gala-style party on the last evening.
Several Druze mothers told me they hoped their children would meet their future husbands and wives at the convention. It’s how Harfouch’s parents met. It’s how Rima Muakkassa, current vice president and soon-to-be president of the American Druze Society, met her husband. The search for a spouse at these gatherings is supposed to be discreet, Muakkassa explained. But ultimately, the idea is to find fellowship with other Druze and hope it blossoms into something more—that’s why there are always singles mixers at these conventions.
This desire to marry someone within the faith is not just a preference—the religion prohibits exogamy. If a Druze marries a non-Druze, it will not be a Druze wedding, nor can the couple’s children be Druze—the religion can only be passed on through birth to two Druze parents. There are no conversions into the Druze faith.
Occasionally, high-profile cases of Druze marrying outside the faith pop up—for example, the recent engagement of Amal Alamuddin, who is Druze, and the actor George Clooney. Since Clooney cannot convert, and because he’s not Druze, the couple cannot have Druze children, which many, including Alamuddin’s grandmother, are not entirely happy about.
Muakkassa, of the American Druze Society, said that marrying someone non-Druze would never have been an option for her. “It would have come down to marrying Druze, or not marrying at all,” she said.
She met her husband at the 1994 convention in Long Beach. She lived in California, but he lived in Ohio. In order for the couple to continue getting to know each other, he had to travel across the country—along with his older sister, who came all the way from New York to chaperone their dates.
Muakkassa laughed as she explained all of this. Things have since become slightly less conservative in the past three decades, she said.
“I think most parents nowadays, although they are opposed to the term ‘dating,’ have gotten an understanding of the fact that if they want their kids to marry somebody Druze, they have to give them that opportunity,” says Harfouch.
She has been coming to these conventions since she was a child. Her father was the president of a regional ADS chapter in Michigan, and her mother organized the Society’s first several mini-conventions. She would attend religious seminars for teenagers taught by Sheikhs, or the select number of “initiated” Druze who have fully immersed themselves in religious life and are allowed to pray and read the faith’s holy text, the Kitab al-Hikma. All other Druze are considered secular, or uninitiated, and aside from a cursory understanding of the religion’s main tenets, which they are taught as children, most do not know much about the religion.
That’s why these types of educational sessions are held at conventions, especially for young people who might not have access to Sheikhs in their own cities. Kids might learn about Druze history, including its complicated connection with Islam and years of persecution by Muslims. They might also learn about cultural requirements, like modest dress and rules against tattoos and piercings. Most importantly, they learn about the central belief of the Druze faith: Humans are reincarnated lifetime after lifetime, which is one of the biggest reasons why exogamy is prohibited—marrying a Druze means continuing the cycle.
Harfouch sees being part of her religion as a rare and special opportunity. “I think the secrecy has a lot to do with the fact that the religion is closed,” she said. Over a thousand years ago, when the religion was officially founded (although the Druze believe the religion has existed since the beginning of time), there were two periods of openness when people were given the opportunity to become part of the faith. “Most people believe that your soul at that point in time chose to follow this religion and that was where you started your progression,” she said.
Marrying a non-Druze means turning your back on your family’s efforts to maintain the faith over many generations. “I always come across people who say ‘I would never want to rob my kids of the opportunity to be involved in something like this,’” she said. “I want to preserve that. It’s a kind of honor, to me at least … and I can raise my kids to understand it at least, and to want to be a part of it.”
Many other young people grow up less knowledgeable about the faith and choose to marry non-Druze, though, which has led to a declining Druze population, especially in the United States.
“I think it’s hard for young people today who are raised here in the U.S., who are not around Druze people all the time, who, in a school of 5,000 people might be the only Druze person,” said Harfouch. “The Druze part is just a small portion of who they are. So I think coming to a convention is bringing it to the forefront of their mind … and they can meet people who are just like them.”
For those who care about preserving the faith, dating is pretty difficult. “It’s not like we can go grab coffee and see somebody sitting there reading a book and say ‘Hi, can I get your number? I’d like to date you,’” she said.
Harfouch was at the gala dinner at the National Convention in Florida during the summer of 2011 when she met Samer Abou-Zaki, a media engineer at Microsoft. She was 19. He was 21. She lived in Michigan. He lived in Washington state.
Sparks didn’t exactly fly when they first met, but they kept in touch via the occasional Facebook message and the large number of friends they had in common.
“We had a couple of group Google chats with people who were at the convention. Sometimes it would be 12 of us from all over the United States who would get on and talk and catch up,” she says. “He happened to be one of them.”
They exchanged numbers after about a month. Then, in December of 2011, Harfouch and her mom flew across the country to see him and other friends in the Seattle Druze community. They stayed in a hotel for about a week and met his family and friends.
That’s when the young pair knew they wanted to date. And so the long-distance relationship began—Abou-Zaki would fly to Michigan to see Harfouch every month or so. Out-of-state and, sometimes, out-of-country relationships are fairly typical for American Druze. “I know a couple that met at the same convention as us who were from Australia and the U.S.,” Harfouch told me. “They are married and have a child now.”
The following year, Harfouch and Abou-Zaki did the traditional tetmeem, which is sort of like a formal dating period before engagement. He and his entire family traveled to Michigan to meet with her family, including parents, uncles, aunts and brothers. “It’s kind of like a trial period,” she explained. “We don’t want to get engaged yet, but we think it’s the next step.”
Four months later, after asking Harfouch’s father and ensuring that her family could travel to Seattle with her for the engagement, Abou-Zaki asked for Harfouch’s hand in marriage. The wedding will take place in Michigan on August 30 of this year.
Like Harfouch, many American Druze who choose to marry within their religion are willing to overcome challenges along their quirky path to love, like the limited pool of eligible spouses and the strong chance of having to date long-distance. What seems to make it worth it is the chance to share and preserve a rich spiritual history with a spouse.
“When you meet somebody, and you like them, and you hit it off on so many different levels, and they’re Druze? Is it worth it? Probably, because you don’t find that everyday,” she said. “And that’s the truth.”