Who's a Druze?

Thousands of miles from their ancient homeland, members of this esoteric Islamic sect mingle amidst the chrome and glass of the Sheraton Washington, the site of this year's American Druze Society annual convention.

No doubt, the 200,000 Druzes living in mountain villages of Syria, Lebanon and Israel would be astonished by the streamlined modernity of the place. Since the sect's founding in 1017, the Druzes have remained a relatively close-knit sequestered people, ever fearful that assimilation and intermarriage would weaken them. The Druzes have their own scripture apart from the Koran, the mainstream Islamic text.

According to ADS president Ray HeLal, the 10,000 Druzes living in the United States have had to wage the same battle against disappearance in the modern West. "Most of the Druze immigration was around the turn of the century. They came, like immigrants from elsewhere, to have a better life," says HeLal, an attorney from Dallas, whose father immigrated to West Virginia from Lebanon in 1915. "The Druze believe that the children are the reincarnation of the parents, part of a line of a long, successive lifetime. Intermarriage is a big problem, therefore. But because there are so few of us in the United States, we needed a way to get together and be in communication."

Since the founding of the ADS in 1946, Druzes come from all over the country for the annual convention. "There are three main centers for us in the United States: Los Angeles, Washington and Detroit. You'd think there would be a bunch in New York, but there's only a few hundred," says HeLal.

Dressed in a Kirby Hall seersucker suit, Abdallah Najjar is a kind of Druze Horatio Alger. Born in the mountain village of Baakline in Lebanon, Najjar was raised by an extended family tha included anyone in the area who carried the same last name while his father went to live in the United States. Although Najjar grew up and attended school in Lebanon, his father's American citizenship made him eligible for the draft.

"I came to America in 1943 and fought with the 3rd [U.s.] Army in Belgium, France and Germany," says Najjar. "When I came back to the U.S., I married a girl from West Virginia, the daughter of a Baptist minister. She is not a Druze but she is very much like a Druze, very religious, devoted, and loyal."

Acquiring degrees from universities in Beirut, West Virginia, and Cairo, Najjar has served as an international health expert and microbiologist for the Agency for International Development and the U.S. Public Health Service in Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and Iran.

Fingering a string of masbaha , Islamic prayer beads, Najjar explains his attempts to remain a Druze while living in Atlanta: "I've returned to Lebanon 37 times to visit my family and to see that my children understand their roots. They must realize that although their father comes from humble roots, there are things money cannot buy -- a culture. Since we are an esoteric culture, and have been for 1,000 years, we must go back to the source in order to preserve our heritage."

The Druze heritage all began with al-Hakim, the principle ruler of the Islamic world between 996 and 1021. Toward the end of his reign, al-Hakim began to proclaim himself the incarnation of the Divine and gave rise to the sect. A later Druze teacher, Hamza Ibn Ali, denounced the Islamic prophet Mohammed, a heretical stance which made the Druzes outsiders in the Islamic world. Druzes were persecuted in Egypt and could only live in the safety of the mountainous regions of Syria and Lebanon.

The Druzes did away with many Islamic rituals such as bowing and praying to the east, but their religion still remains mysterious to outsiders. Although they hole open religious ceremonies on Thursday evenings, the secret ritual of the sect is never performed before a non-Druze.

Although most Druze villages are found in Syria and Lebanon, there are 18 Druze communities in Israel, all of them north of Haifa. Indeed, the Druzes are among the few Arab sects drafted into the Israeli army. Druzes are said to pride themselves on their ability to co-exist with other people.

Dr. Nadim Kassem, a Druze who now practices internal medicine in Roseland, N.J., was born in 1931 in Rama, a Galilee village famous for its olive groves. Kassem lived through the political upheavals in the region during the 1940s. He lived as a refugee in Lebanon from 1947 to 1951 and was jailed by the Israelis for "infiltration" in 1949. Not until 1951 was Kassem allowed to reenter Israel under a family reunification plan.

"I was not happy with out treatment," says Kassem. "I feel a part of the Arab minority in the country and we were not treated as we should have been."

Kassem also stressed the Druzes position in the Arab world: "The Israelis and even some Druzes have tried to separate the Druzes form the rest of the Arab minority. This is simply not true."

Although he returned to Hebrew University to complete his medical training and planned to remain in Israel, Kassem accompanied his sister to the United States when she required heart surgery from Dr. Michael De Bakey in Houston in 1966. He has visited Israel nearly every year since but makes New Jersey his home. At least for the time being.

"I will definitely return to Israel. I feel that's where I belong. I would like my children to experience that way of life," says Kassem. "They should meet their fellow Druzes, their people. They should feel the rich culture that is there."