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Stuck in the middle with Druze

Syria may be coming apart at the seams, but a few yards from its southwestern border you would be hard-pressed to believe it.

In Majdal Shams it is common to see girls in tight jeans and a deep décolletage walk into a bar. Fathers speak delightedly of their doctor daughters. Women careen down the town’s steep hills in dark SUVs. Braek ascribes this relative liberality, of which he is openly proud, to “the combination of Syria, Lebanon and Israel here, or maybe it is just who we are.”

His number one task, Braek said, “is fighting for more democracy.” For years, the stateless Golan Druze were ruled by governors appointed by the Israeli military.

In the last Majdal Shams election, for the first time, nine members of the municipal council democratically chose the mayor. The council itself was chosen out of 34 candidates who presented themselves to the Israeli Interior Minister. For the next election, Braek is hoping for an Israeli-style open municipal vote.

Sheikhs used to exert the greatest political power in Majdal Shams, and about them, Braek said, “Enough! Now it is time for us to lead.”

Israelis have mixed feelings of caution and familiarity when it comes to the Golan Druze, uncertain whether to see them as a foreign element living within or as a variant on the same Druze they know from the army or from college. An incident last May on what Braek calls “the quietest border in the world, where no one has even thrown a rock in 40 years,” brought this ambivalence to the fore.

Last year on Israel’s Independence Day, known in the Arab world as Nakba, or catastrophe, a few hundred Palestinian refugees crossed the fence between Syria and Israel unimpeded, flooded into Majdal Shams’ central square and made a general ruckus. Some of the soldiers caught off guard at their posts ran scared into Majdal Shams shops. The town’s alarm system was deployed to warn residents of the infiltration, schools were closed and citizens urged to get off the streets.

Israeli media first reported that residents of Majdal Shams joined the anti-Israel chanting, then backed down. Eventually, perhaps proving their lasting relevance, the elders of Majdal Shams escorted the agitators back toward Syria. Normally, the sleepy border is only opened for the export of apples, a gesture Assad made to the Golan Druze, allowing them to sell “Syrian apples” to the homeland, or for Druze students and occasional brides to move back and forth.

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About 300 Majdal Shams students are enrolled at Israeli universities, and about 200 in Syrian institutions; these are the only people allowed to cross back and forth. When they do, UN soldiers accompany them. Syria and Israel have remained in a formal state of war since 1948. The borders between the two countries are closed.

Mayor Abu Salach’s top lobbying goal for this year is getting Majdal Shams recognized as a “border settlement,” which would give the town a significant tax break. An earlier, identical proposal about six years ago was about to pass the Knesset when it was torpedoed by an Arab member of the Communist Party who, not recognizing Israel’s rule over the Golan, pointed out that if Majdal Shams received the same rights as other border settlements, that would imply recognition of “the imaginary Golan border with Syria.”

A soft-spoken man who looks like an especially well brought up teenager, the mayor sat in a tidy office adorned with Israel’s flag and the framed pictures of Israel’s president and prime minister.

“That is bullshit,” he said, with a polite smile. “We live in the state of Israel, we enjoy all the benefits of a very democratic regime. We pay taxes. And we get excellent social benefits. So, yes, bullshit.”

He is taking Majdal Shams’s demand for recognition to the Supreme Court. “It is a privilege,” he said.

He, too, does not relish talk of Syria. “Look, the political destiny is unclear, but this Syria question is a record we’ve been hearing for a long time. You want me to compare the standard of living here and in Syria? Social services? I can’t compare.”

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His next project is a second sports center, including tennis courts. After that, he is working on funding — from the national lottery and ministries — for a major cultural center. The young mayor is a fan of opera.

Remarkably, Majdal Shams is home to five bars. Abu Salach’s personal favorite is Oud el Nana — Mint Leaf — a bohemian cafe/gallery established by an artists’ foundation, furnished with predictably low, slouchy couches near picture windows overlooking snow-covered hills, hand-made tables, jazzy Arabic music, superb coffee, fresh juices and guys in checked shirts bent over their laptops.

“I don’t agree with their politics,” the mayor said with a laugh. “But the atmosphere is very good.”