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Drinking with the Druze in Majdal Shams

Traveling through the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, you might encounter a community of the Druze—a religious offshoot of Islam—that's still loyal to Syria. And they sure know how to pour a mean drink.

by Ilan Ben Zion
May 19 2015, 4:09pm

Photo via Flickr user piven

The heavily inked bartender poured the Flaming Lamborghini, set it alight, and said this was the safest place to get a drink in Syria—ignoring the fact that we were a mile over the DMZ in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Too many drinks into our exploration of the buzzing nightlife in Majdal Shams, we could only nod, grimace, and sip it up with a straw.

Majdal Shams is a small village huddled against the slopes of Mount Hermon, situated astride the ceasefire line between Israel's Golan Heights and Syria, well within earshot of the battles raging on the opposite side of the DMZ. Israel's sole ski slopes are situated above, lending the village a uniquely alpine atmosphere.

WATCH: The War Next Door

Almost all of Majdal's 9,000-odd residents adhere to the relatively obscure and secretive offshoot of Islam known as Druze; persecuted over the centuries, they sought refuge in the mountains. Unlike Islam, Druze theology frowns upon, but doesn't outright forbid, its adherents from imbibing alcohol.

In a country where a decent cocktail is rarer than a bottle of Shackleton's whisky, a Druze village with bars serving quality drinks sounded like El Dorado.

When we first heard there were a smattering of fantastic bars in this remote village over 3.5 hours from Tel Aviv, we weren't sure what to believe. An article on the NRG news website describing Majdal Shams as "the hipster capital of the Middle East" sounded at best ill-informed.

In a country where a decent cocktail is rarer than a bottle of Shackleton's whisky, a Druze village with bars serving quality drinks sounded like El Dorado.

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The hills of Majdal Shams. Photo by the author.

But a bartender at a newly opened speakeasy in Jerusalem confirmed to us that not only did the bars in Majdal exist, they were indeed worthy of the seven-hour round-trip.

We were determined to ferret out the truth about this supposed paradise of Druze hipster bars.

One of our traveling companions was in the market for a oil-burning stove, so when we pulled into town we stopped at a purveyor of such goods. It turned out that his son, Jad, had lived for a decade in Cleveland and speaks impeccable English.

Jad, in his late 30s with black hair that is just starting to grey, explained that there were no bars in Majdal Shams when he was younger. They'd only sprung up in the past four years. After he'd returned from the United States, he worked as a barman at Why?, Majdal's first liquor-serving establishment.

Initially there was pushback from the village elders, for whom the idea of Druze youths drinking booze was disagreeable.

"Within a year, it had become nearly common, and became very popular," Jad said, taking a drag of his cigarette. "By the time we arrived in early December, the village's sixth watering hole, Aprés Ski, had just opened a few nights before.

Majdal Shams' bar scene caters mostly to locals. The sight of four white Americans striding down the street turned more than a few curious heads. Far off the beaten path of Christian and Jewish holy sites, the village only gets a trickle of outside visitors, mostly during the brief but frenetic ski season. Why?, The Green Apple, and the rest of Majdal's bars are marketed to the younger generation of locals, many of whom have traveled abroad and developed a taste for Western style nightlife.

Despite the village's remoteness, many of Majdal's bartenders speak fluent English, in addition to Arabic and Hebrew. At Aprés Ski, a bar that opened just a few days before our arrival, the dreadlocked barman explained that he had learned the trade while living as a student in Berlin, then completed a training course in Tel Aviv. The Flaming Lamborghini that ended our night was poured by Marcel, a Druze who grew up in and studied mixology in Prague. Even the old man trying to sell us a wood-burning stove wanted to tell us about the time he saw the Pope in Rome.

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At Why?, rock memorabilia plasters the walls. Photo by the author.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is the reason Majdal's residents travel as much as they do. Most Golan Druze refuse to recognize Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights, and maintain their Syrian citizenship. Syria rewarded them with free scholarships, leaving the village with an educated and prosperous population of doctors, dentists, and other professionals. The Soviet Union also used to provide many scholarships to boys from the village, as part of its outreach program to the Arab world.

Despite their pro-Syrian politics, many Majdalis prefer to travel abroad using Israeli documentation, which make it easy to get visas to the US and most European countries. But technically, as non-citizens, they do not have passports at all: instead, they have something called a "travel document," which lists their nationality as "Undefined." This, incidentally, was the name of the first bar ever opened in Majdal in 2010. It was later changed to "Why?"

Majdal Shams' younger generation has embraced the full range of travel options open to them. The young and ambitious travel to Europe for school; those from wealthier families go just for fun. The contrast between the big cities abroad and the narrow streets of the village is stark. A local bar can help returning students get over the reverse culture shock once they find themselves back in Majdal.

All the foreign travel is great news for the bartenders, too, Jad told us: "People here have been to bars abroad. They know how to order, they know how to tip."

"Ninety percent of the people here are very liberal [in their worldview]," Jad explained, "We get along with everybody."

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The Green Apple. Photo courtesy of The Green Apple.

Majdal Shams' first liquor store, Wine in the Village, opened just two weeks before our visit. and is stocked with a surprising variety of araks that aren't readily obtainable elsewhere in the country. It also sells Golan Heights wine, produced on the various Israeli kibbutzim set up on the Heights since Israel captured the territory in the Six-Day War.

The young woman tending the shop was wearing more than a light dusting of makeup, and spoke little English but passable Hebrew. We asked how local religious leaders had reacted to the new liquor store. She gave the impression that they recognized the inevitability of the younger generation imbibing.

"They tell people it's not good to drink," she said, "but they'd rather people buy here in the village than go somewhere else and drive home drunk."

On Jad's recommendation, we started at Why?, his former haunt. Like all of the bars in Majdal, it is situated on the main road running down from the peak of Mount Hermon.

If it weren't for the Arabic spoken, Why? could have been transplanted from Brooklyn. Flannel shirts, jeans, and liberal facial hair stylings were the order of business behind the bar.

Its interior struck a balance between ski lodge and vintage rock decor: vinyl records and album covers from The Doors, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, and The Rolling Stones graced walls, and an old Vespa dangled from the rafters.

The main road of town is littered with shops selling flatbread baked with olive oil and za'atar and lavished with labaneh, a yogurt cheese—an ideal remedy for alcohol-induced hunger.

Both Jad and the bartender suggested that we order the mojito—a bucket-sized beverage that, surprisingly, was made with real limes. (Many Israeli bars substitute lemons.) The mint was fresh, the portion generous, and the rum sharp enough to start taking the edge off the long journey north.

Druze hospitality is famous throughout the region. A shopkeeper will invite you in, pour you a cup of aromatic, spiced coffee and, only after half an hour of chit-chat, get down to business. To the anguish of our livers, we learned that such generosity extends to Druze bartenders as well. Not two sips into our mojitos, our cue-ball-headed bartender offered a round of Jägermeister, appropriate for the alpine environs, on the house.

Why? epitomized the divergent worldview of the new generation of Majdalis, who are looking West but holding on to their Middle Eastern traditions. Classic rock and jazzified Arabic songs played as young Druze couples drank and laughed, but dared not touch—some traditions are harder to leave behind than others. Both locally pickled olives and pretzels were served as snack food.

After leaving Why?, we strolled down the main road of town, which is littered with shops selling flatbread baked with olive oil and za'atar and lavished with labaneh, a yogurt cheese. The slightly salty bread and sour cheese makes an ideal remedy for alcohol-induced hunger.

The two guys next to us introduced themselves as Amir and Majdi, two members of what is likely Majdal Shams's only death metal band.

Our next stop was Apres Ski, where our bartender—appropriately named Bougie—poured a round of G&Ts, which were more gin than Britvic. Feeling the need to welcome us into the newly opened establishment and liquor us up enough to sample something from the Italian-inspired menu, Bougie poured us four free shots of Bloody Brains, made with Baileys, triple sec, and grenadine.

The two guys next to us introduced themselves as Amir and Majdi, two members of what is likely Majdal Shams's only death metal band. "We have a basement a few streets from here where we really rock out," Amir said, admitting that there wasn't much demand for their style of music.

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Photo courtesy of The Green Apple.

The conversation inevitably drifted from music to politics, and—as Bougie poured us three-finger glasses of Glenfiddich—Amir made a remark that was astonishing for a Syrian Druze living in the Golan Heights. "I appreciate what the Israelis are doing, how the army is taking care of us here. Sure, I disagree with its policies, but look at what's happening over there," he said, pointing to the east.

At this point, perhaps upset by Amir's fawning, Majdi blurted out: "I don't like Jews."

By the men's room—which had chairs on the ceiling and sinks that blew cold air out of the drain—Amir apologized for Majdi: "He didn't mean it, my friend," he said, switching to Hebrew. "I hope you weren't offended. He misspoke. Let us buy your drinks."

They didn't. But his sentiment was appreciated.

The XO was our second-to-last pit stop. It was a stumble up the hill toward the entrance to the ski slopes, across the road from a shipping container-turned-drive-through booze stand, which we wisely avoided. With the bracing mountain air in our lungs, we indulged in a local brew and a hookah pipe packed with herb-spiked tobacco. The Golan Heights brewery's Bazelet amber ale, brewed just down the hill in the Jewish town of Katzrin, was a refreshing accompaniment to the smooth, minty smoke. Between puffs, we noted that none of the bars in Majdal Shams appeared to adhere to the Israeli legislation that bans smoking indoors.

The XO shares Why's blend of American and local decor. The lighting is low, and the booths are reminiscent of American diners. But the music was rich with the oud and flutes of the Middle East. Men and women mix freely. But it is hard to imagine a couple sharing a kiss, or two patrons exchanging harsh words.

The night had turned windy and bitter cold by the time we left XO for our final destination: The Green Apple, an attempt at an Irish pub whose name pays homage to the fruit grown plentifully in the orchards surrounding Majdal Shams.

Marcel, our fiendish bartender, lit the Flaming Lamborghini and smiled as we took it down. Wits slowly escaping us, we hastened to ask him what could explain the emergence of so many bars in such a short span of time.

"It changed because the people here want to change," he said.

As for the war whose distant thuds can be heard in the hills around Majdal, Marcel said his hometown was a place apart.

"On the right side, they're killing each other," he said, pointing to Syria. "On the left side, they're killing each other," he said, pointing at Israel. "In Majdal, we don't kill anybody. We don't want to be part of either one."

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