The serenity of Majdal Shams leaves Edna Heled at peace.
It can't get much quieter than this. The serene limestone slopes fade into a pinkish mist at the horizon, overlooking a tranquil light blue lake. It is midday, and the air is still. Perhaps I am inside an aquarelle painting. Peaceful. So peaceful it hurts.
It's April in Majdal Shams, a Druze township at the foothills of of the Golan Heights. On the other side of these mountains, just a few kilometres away, is Syria.
I arrive there with Israeli friends who want to check out carpenters. They are building a house in Galilee and are looking for the famous ornamented window frames expertise of the local craftsmen. We don't have an address, it is not common to use street names here. It is a person we are looking for, not a street. So we stop and ask, "Where is the carpentry of Yusuf?" and people point.
"Up the hill, to the right, round the corner to the left, then ask again." Two, three times we stop and ask, driving up the curved narrow streets of the steep village and we find him.
We don't see any window frames for at least an hour. Business can wait. First, we climb the spiral stairs of the beautiful stone house to sit in the balcony with Yusuf and his three sons. Aromatic Turkish coffee in miniature cups, sweet pistachio-honey pastries and juicy figs are served by his wife, a tiny woman in a traditional long dress and a scarf. Wide smiles, small talk ... Tfadal (please), relax and soak in the goodness of life. No worries. And on the other side is Syria.
After, my friends go downstairs to Yusuf's workshop, and I want to go out and explore the streets. I wonder if this is wise, most residents of Majdal Shams are Syrian Druze who have been under the Israel municipality since the 1967 Six Day War. And yes, on the other side is Syria. Where some of their relatives still live. Where life is hell. Where people of Majdal Shams used to gather at the border with bullhorns to shout messages to their loved ones on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line. Where Syrian authorities still consider inhabitants of Majdal Shams as Syrian citizens.
Yet no hostility is noticed anywhere. Druze are one of the most good natured, friendly and welcoming peoples in the world. Druze esoteric theology highlights mind, soul and truthfulness. I feel safe.
And the air is still.
I go down the alley and roam the shops. Copper pots and woollen carpets, round trays and turquoise glass balls, Nargillas and shawls. It is Pesach, the Jewish holiday of Passover, and my friends won't eat anything that is not Kosher. For seven days they only eat Mazza (a wheatfree big cracker), all breads are forbidden. But I crave a Druze Pita, round dough filled with spinach and spices and fried on a very hot rounded surface. I go into one of the small shops, where a big domed iron plate in the centre tells me "here you can get what you desire".
A middle-aged woman invites me in, brings a stool and seats me by the counter. While I am waiting for the pita to be made, I am treated to plates of olives, labane (white sour cheese in olive oil), stuffed vine leaves, home made mahamools (little cakes filled with walnuts and raisins) and sweet mint tea — on the house, of course. All those delicacies are worth three times more than the price of the pita I bought. World famous Druze hospitality in action.
When I get back, my friends have chosen their decorative window frames and are ready to go, but not before we are handed a huge bag with grapes from the garden.
Two weeks later, I am back in Majdal Shams with an 80-year-old Israeli man, with whom I am touring around the Golan area and Mount Hermon. I am determined to find the same little shop with the woman who prepared for me a Druze pita with a taste of heaven, but the shops all look the same and I don't recall any signs. So, I do what I learnt from my previous visit, I look for the person, not the place. I describe the woman to people in the street, and soon enough we are sitting in her little sanctuary with Turkish coffee in our hands and a spread of little plates on an improvised bench in front of us. Almonds and dates. Apples and sesame.
And the men are talking memories. They are talking about 1967. They are talking about countries.
They are talking about wars. Smiles on their faces and deep sadness in their eyes.
On the other side is Syria.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific, which flies daily between Auckland and Hong Kong, is planning to launch a new service into Tel Aviv in 2016.