Among the Druses
"Cousins Of The English" On The Borders Of Old Arabia

By Howard Crosby Butler
[Professor of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University]

[Scribner's Magazine, May 1918]

Some day I shall hear their music, and, looking out across the plain, I shall see their red coats coming nearer; then the signal will be given and we shall rush out to welcome our deliverers, our cousins the English, and we shall be a free people." Thus, in dreamy cadences, spoke Shahim, the bravest and most beautiful, I had been told, of the younger generation of the Druses, as we sat together resting in the middle of a hard day's journey in the mountains of the Hauran on the borders of old Arabia. I showed no astonishment at this soliloquy; indeed, I was not astonished, having heard about their "cousins the English" ever since I had first come among the Druses some years before. But gently taking his rifle from his knees and examining it carefully, as if carrying on his musings, I said: "Yes, and here is her name engraved on the stock of your rifle." This did arouse astonishment in him. "Whose name?" he asked with animation. "The name of the English Queen," I replied; and there, under the crown, I showed him the letters V. R. He fondled the gun even more lovingly, for the rifle is the Druses' sweetheart, and murmured: " She is a good lady. Strange that so great a country should be ruled by a woman, yet, our learned men tell us that even Tudmur in the days of its greatness was ruled by a queen"; then confidentially: "Our cousins the English send us these, they cost us much money; but those who bring them take all that, and we are thankful, for otherwise we should have to fight the Arabs with slings and spears." He leaned forward with his rifle across his lap and, with chin in hand, gazed intently, but with the dreamy gaze of an Oriental, out over the vast plain at our feet, listening in his daydream for the strange martial music he longed to hear, and wistfully picturing to himself the red coats of his "cousins the English" as they should advance to the deliverance of his people.

I was not dreaming. I had food for thought in several of the things he had said. It was always interesting, this talk about their "cousins the English," yet I had never been able to trace its origin. It must be older certainly than khaki. I confess I was not disturbed by the V. R. or by this seeming lack of neutrality on the part of the Druses' cousins; for I had already seen hundreds of such rifles, along with other hundreds of French and German make, in the hands of these warlike people. I was particularly interested in the familiar way in which he had spoken of Zenobia. It seemed to me less significant that the seven-year-old news of the great Victoria's death had not reached the Hauran, where every one knows her name, than that this youth should be informed on the greatness of Palmyra. What should their "learned men" know of events sixteen hundred years old! The Druses are practically an independent nation, in rebellion against the Turks, and cut off by them from all communication with the outside world. They have no books, excepting the few sacred ones of their religion; they have no historians, and certainly no one of the handful of foreigners who have reached them during the last century gave them lectures on history. It was simply one more of the many examples of the persistency of tradition, and its remarkable accuracy withal, that are constantly impressing the minds of travellers among the Arabs and the Druses.

Shahim arose. "You are hungry, Howadja," he said, "I go to bring you apricots from my cousin's (Druse cousin's) garden." I did not offer to go with him, partly because I did not fancy seeing myself scaling the wall of his Druse cousin's garden; but, also, not knowing the exact degree of cousinship involved, I thought it not impossible that Shahim might be expecting to find some very distant cousin's daughter in or near the garden, in which case I might have to wait some time for my apricots.

I watched the young Druse, swinging under his load of arms and ammunition, descend and disappear into a grove of stunted olive-trees. "One of the finest specimens of his wonderful race," I remarked to myself. A little above medium height, straight of back and limb, sturdy without great weight, graceful and light of foot like one born to the saddle, yet trained to climb on foot swiftly and noiselessly over rugged mountain paths, Shahim was a typical Druse of his age. He was dark-skinned rather from exposure than by natural color. His eyes were wide-set, and of a deep velvety brown, in which fierce lights would play on occasion, a characteristic feature inherited perhaps from some Arab ancestor. He had a small, straight nose with sensitive nostrils, wholly un-Semitic, and a firm though sensitive mouth concealing two perfect rows of glistening teeth. Two heavy braids of dark-brown hair hung down on either side of his face, half concealed by the folds of his kafiyeh, or head-cloth, of faded purple and silver, which was held in place by the two heavy woollen rings of his aghal. He wore loose white trousers tucked into boots of red leather, a broad red belt bristling with knives and cartridges like a small arsenal, a closely fitting embroidered waistcoat over a loose white shirt of light material, and over all the abaiyeh, or loose-flowing mantle, of brown and white in broad bands. His dress, in fact, was that of the ordinary young Druse, the abaiyeh, kafiyeh, and aghal being of fashions borrowed from the Arabs. Had he been older, and one of the initiated of his religion, as practically every Druse of forty is, he would have had closely cropped hair under a turban with a high, stiff band of white, and his mantle would have been of black and silver. Two and twenty were his years, and he had been two years a widower. He had a beautiful little son of four whom I was to see later in fulfilment of a hundred promises. "One of the finest specimens of his wonderful race," I had said, but what race? Ah, that is the question. No one really knows. Several learned ethnologists and anthropologists have made attempts, mostly at variance with each other, to answer this question, and I, being neither, shall not attempt it. They speak Arabic, of course, and if they have ever spoken another tongue they have forgotten it. Yet they do not resemble Arabs, except in occasional single features, as persons of our own race may. They are neither very dark nor very fair, though some of the children are tow-headed. Their hair is usually brown and wavy, but I have seen red and sandy types. Brown eyes and gray are usual, blue eyes not uncommon among them. In a word, they resemble the finer types of our own race. They are, moreover, monogamous; their women go about wearing a long white veil which falls down the back from a tall head-dress bound with circlets of pendant coins. The veil is drawn over the mouth only in the presence of Moslems or of those suspected of being such. A widow with a minor son may speak and vote in the village council—a degree of woman's rights unheard of among other peoples in the Nearer East, and on a par with customs only recently introduced in the West.

From where do they come? for they have been in the Hauran only a little more than half a century. From the northeast, they will tell you, and you may prove their statement true, in part at least, for there are remnants of older settlements of Druses in the hills southwest of Aleppo, where the people admit to being immigrants, and still older ones in Mesopotamia not far from the Euphrates. There are also some Druses in Lebanon where, having accepted the Turkish yoke and outwardly professing Islam, they seem like another people. For it is their religion, perhaps more than anything else, that separates the real Druses from their neighbors, and this they keep a secret. I had just begun to recall the few bits of information we had ever been able to draw from our Druse friends on this interesting subject of their religion when Shahim's smiling face appeared. In one hand he balanced his rifle, in the other he held a sack made in the folds of his mantle; this I surmised held apricots. It was beautiful to see his joy in giving another pleasure. "Are they good, Howadja? Do you have such apricots in your country? Do they quench your thirst?" He fed me as if I had been a young child. Presently I attempted to chaff him about my suspicions as to his having sought a distant cousin's daughter in the garden. It would never have occurred to me to broach such a subject with a Moslem; but young Druses had often told me of their plans for matrimony and had naively recounted their little love stories. But Shahim was no ordinary lover; he looked very wistful as he said: "The mother of Ali, whom my mother chose for me, is still alive in my heart. Later, perhaps, I shall choose for myself, but now I do not seek a wife." It did not occur to his young Oriental mind that I had been joking with him, in Occidental manner, on the possibility of a flirtation, and I felt corrected, as one of purely Western manners so often does among the peoples of the Orient.

Next morning I bade a temporary farewell to Shahim, and, with my party, broke camp and set out for Tarba, on the eastern slope of the Hauran mountains. Tarba was the home of my powerful friend, the shekh Hassan Abu-Salaam, a great patriarch, living in Job's country and not unlike Job in the days of his prosperity, surrounded by many children and possessed of large herds of camels, cattle, sheep, and goats, many yoke of oxen, and horses the best in the land. On the occasion of a former visit this great shekh had taken a marked liking to us, and, with his three older sons, had accompanied us on many excursions, showing us many ruins. Hassan himself, the mightiest of all the shekhs of the Eastern Druses was a small man of robust figure suggesting great strength. His features were clean-cut, with rather piercing, but very intelligent, eyes, small aquiline nose, and a short, pointed beard. He wore the white band of the achil, or initiated, his clothes were white and black, the black mantle being embroidered in silver. He was about forty years old when I first met him, yet when I was about to present him with an abaiyeh—the only gift that a stranger may offer to a great shekh—and gave him his choice between a maroon one embroidered in gold, and a black one with silver embroidery, he chose the black mantle, saying that he was a grandfather and too old to wear bright colors. He had talked much about the English, "the cousins of the Druses," and the red coats that were coming, and I could not help contrasting this connotation of the red coats with that upon which young Americans were nurtured for generations. He was much interested in discovering our place in the family of nations. We knew England and spoke the English tongue as our own, we had told him, yet we were not English. He was puzzled. I explained as simply as I could our relations with the English, and our independence, saying that we were cousins of the English, and therefore second cousins of the Druses, and this pleased him immensely.

He came to have an unbounded admiration for our knowledge of languages and history, as well as for our more practical information about medicine, irrigation, artesian wells, and other useful things, and presently became convinced that he must send two of his sons with me to my country to be educated, so that they might be like us, as he said, and come back to be useful to their people. The boys looked upon the plan as a great lark, but I never gave their father any encouragement. I could not picture myself in loco parentis to two youths born and bred in the desert, while receiving instruction in our modern Western so-called civilization at some "prep" school, and I had seen the effects of European tutelage upon young Turkish, Arab, and Persian youths of quite similar early upbringing, and shuddered at the thought of these splendid boys leaving all the virtues of the Orient behind them and acquiring only the vices of the Occident. Now Hassan's older sons were three: Salaam, aged nineteen, tall and slight, quick and graceful of movement, married and a father, and not a candidate for a foreign education; Faiyeez, aged fifteen, a beautiful dreamy-looking youth who could ride wild horses and shoot to a hair's breadth; and Hahne, aged twelve, a mischievous boy with twinkling eyes, a second edition of his father, who could ride almost as well as his brothers and who talked incessantly of the wars he should make against the Bedawin when he was old enough.

One night, the last of our stay in Tarba, Hassan invited me to his house to supper. The three boys supped with us, and their mother and Salaam's wife, and even the little sisters, moved in and out, serving the meal. They made a very pretty group in their long white veils falling to their waists at the back. They saluted me smilingly but did not enter into our conversation. When the meal was finished the shekh sent the boys away and took up the education subject in earnest. He had observed my lack of enthusiasm and thought he had hit upon the cause of it. He therefore explained that he did not wish his boys to be an expense to me; he desired only that they should be under my care, and would tell them to obey me as they would him, assuring me that they would do so. Then he leaned back and drew from a low cupboard a small sack which bulged with coins, saying: "Here are six hundred pounds; I know this sum will not be sufficient for more than a year or so, but I shall arrange with Christian bankers in Damascus to send you more from time to time as you direct." I was completely nonplussed. I could not bear to dash his hopes; but I had my answer ready. "I am sorry it cannot be," I said. "I am fond of you and of your boys; I would like to take them with me to my country and have them educated in our way; but you must remember that you are the greatest rebel against the government. I cannot control the tongues of my servants. I must pass through Turkish cities, where your boys might be seized and held for ransom, and I would have no redress, for the authorities would hold that they were born in Turkey." Tears came to his eyes. "May God burn the religion of the Turks," he said; "to think that my fighting for the freedom of my people should prevent my children from having an education." He called the two boys in and told them what I had said. The little one did not seem greatly disappointed, but Faiyeez departed abruptly without a word. The evening was at an end. Hassan did not wish to talk any more, and I left presently, Salaam accompanying me with a lantern to the gate of the threshing-floor upon which our tents were pitched. At the door of my tent sat Faiyeez; he had been crying.

"Are you not going to take me with you to your country?"

"No, Faiyeez," I said, "you know why I cannot take you."

"Oh! I wish you would," he sobbed, "for if you do not I shall have to be married next year."

He dashed away into the darkness and I could hear his sobs at the gate.

With these, and many other reminiscences in mind I was now returning to Tarba, where I knew a warm welcome awaited us. Hassan had been informed of our presence in the Hauran and must have had watchers out upon the hilltops; for while we were still a long way from the village Hassan and his three sons were seen riding out to meet us. As they approached they executed a series of manoeuvres, like exhibitions of riding, brandishing their arms and firing salutes. Then followed a characteristically Oriental scene. Suddenly the manoeuvres ceased, and the four came riding toward us at top speed. At about a hundred paces they stopped, dismounted, and tethered their horses to spikes driven in the ground. I also dismounted. Then we rushed toward each other and, in the middle of the open space, met and embraced in the true and ancient Oriental fashion. It was the embrace of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Joseph and his brethren, of David and Jonathan, and of all the ancient worthies of this ancient land. After we had remounted our hosts took turns in riding beside us. Hassan, the first at my side, asked all the polite, formal questions as to my health and the health of my parents, and then inquired if I had been in England and had heard of any plans of his cousins to come to their relief. Faiyeez, in his turn, came to ride with me, gayly putting the same formal questions that his father had, and answering my very similar ones. He had matured considerably; for he was nineteen now. Presently I recalled to myself our parting of four years before, and said: "I suppose, Faiyeez, that you are married now." He returned, a bit sheepishly: "Yes, I have been married twice." It appeared later that his first wife had died within a year of their marriage and that he had married again a year later. It seemed that wedded life was after all not such a bore as he had imagined it would be when he had wept over it in prospect.

While our camp was pitched at Tarba we were taken by surprise by the first snow-storm of the year, and we were fortunate in being so near friends; for we were at once taken into Hassan's spacious house. According to an old custom, our host or one of his sons slept at the door of our bedchamber. After a day or two the weather seemed to be clearing, and I set out, with one attendant and a muleteer, on a "business trip" to Damascus—a journey of ten days. Toward the end of our first day's journey the snow-storm was renewed with doubled fury, we lost our path, followed a herd of gazelles, taking their footprints for those of a flock of goats being driven to some village, and had a series of trying experiences before coming upon the village of Shakka, quite accidentally, just at nightfall. Here the village dogs gave instant and loud alarm, and the men of the place came running out well armed to repel an attack. But we were quickly recognized by the shekh of the village, and were soon toasting our half-frozen hands and feet over the embers in his mudaffeh, or guest-room, which Druse shekhs always have prepared for visitors either from the village or from afar. Two great arches spanned the room, supporting a ceiling of stone slabs, all black from the smoke of many winter fires built on a square hearth in the middle of the room. An inscription on the lintel of the doorway gave a date somewhere in the second century of our era. We were in an old Roman house; for Shakka is a small village in the midst of great ruins. The shekh was preparing our supper, and presently he appeared, a handsome fellow of about thirty, no longer cloaked, booted, and armed, but in the costume of a host, wearing a kombaz, or long-fitting robe with sleeves, of dark-blue cloth with narrow stripes of gold, and a sash of deep-orange silk. His headdress, of saffron with a figure of dark blue, was held in place by the thick coils of his aghal, and partly concealed the two heavy braids which framed his face, by which sign I knew that he was not yet one of the initiated.

The shekh served unassisted a delicious meal consisting of chicken broth, omelet, boiled fowl, bread, sweet cheese, and honey; but I am sure he had help in preparing it. Coffee, the ceremonial part of the repast, was served at the fireplace, the shekh squatting at the head of the hearth with his back toward the door; for no guest may ever be placed in so exposed a position. He disposed me at his right, reclining on a long mattress, and my two native attendants on the opposite side of the fire. Our host roasted and boiled the coffee, which was served in small mouthfuls in tiny cups by his two sons, beautiful little boys aged six and eight. After dinner several neighbors dropped in, and the dimly lighted room took on quite an air of gayety. One youth brought a curious-looking, two-stringed violin, out of which he forced weird music, not unpleasant to the ear, with the aid of a really bow-shaped bow strung with not more than twenty hairs. After much urging he began to sing. His melodies were of the most plaintive order, with long-sustained high treble notes which brought great tears to his eyes and deep groans of appreciation, as well as tears, from his hearers. In course of the evening a picturesque old man moved over to sit beside me.

He wore the high white head-band of an achil, and had the benignly serious bearing of a religious dignitary. He presently led the subject of our conversation around to that of religion, the religion of the English and of my own country, and I endeavored to elucidate, not without great difficulty, I admit, the conception of the freedom of religious belief in a country nominally Christian. And then, since he had opened the subject of my religion, I could see no indelicacy in my referring to his. By way of an introduction I remarked that there was a religious sect in my country who called themselves Christians but whose religious belief differed not widely from that which I understood to be the principal tenet of the Druses' religion. He became quite confidential and, I believe, under other circumstances, would have communicated something of real interest upon this dark subject, but he suddenly looked about the room and, seeing that others were listening deftly, changed the subject. I was left therefore with the one piece of information I had ever been able to gather from a Druse on this subject, upon which I was so anxious to be informed. This sole bit had come to us from the lips of an aged and pious Druse whom we had met a few years before in the mountains of northern Syria. He was very poor and we had employed him as a guide for many days together, thereby helping him to eke out his modest subsistence. He became deeply devoted to us and often became unusually communicative on subjects touching his people. Once, on being asked to tell us something about the Druse religion, he seemed almost on the point of divulging some of the secrets, and then suddenly checked himself with this story: "It is not possible for me to tell you of our religion as it is, but I may tell you of its beginning. It was in this wise. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and man. Then, after a space, man sinned and God sent a great prophet into the world to redeem it, and that prophet's name was Moses, and almost all the peoples in the world followed him; but the Druses did not. Then time elapsed, and the world was still sinful, and God sent another great prophet into the world to redeem it, and that prophet was his Son Jesus, and almost all the people who remained followed him, but the Druses did not. Then more time elapsed and the world was still sinful, and God sent another great prophet into the world to redeem it, and that prophet was Mohammed, and all the people who remained followed him except the Druses. Then God was much troubled and he sent the Angel Gabriel to the Druses with this message: 'I have sent three great prophets into the world, and all the people have followed one or another, but the Druses have not seen fit to follow any of them; must I send another?' And the Druses sent back to God by the Angel Gabriel this message: 'God is enough for us.'"

Finally the guests, one by one, bade me a formal good evening and went out into the night. A clean and comfortable bed was made for me upon the mattress beside the hearth where I had sat during the evening. My attendant was provided with equal comforts on the opposite side of the fireplace; the muleteer preferred to sleep with our animals in an adjoining stable. My host covered the embers and put out all the lights save one over the entrance, and then rolled himself up in his voluminous furweh, or fur-lined cloak, and lay down just within the threshold. As I dropped off to sleep I caught sight of a bright star through the smoke-hole in the roof and took heart with promise of a fair to-morrow.

And now, as I sit by my own fireside, I often think of my friends the Druses far away on the borders of old Arabia, and wonder what their part may have been, or may be, in the great struggle of nations that is waging. These high-souled, brave, intelligent "Puritans of the Nearer East"—I wonder if they know any more than they did about what is going on in the world, if they are turning their eyes toward the east instead of the west when they look for the coming of their "cousins the English."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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