“It’s a question people ask. I’ve been asked it myself. Are you only marrying this person because he happens to be Druze?” Fatin Harfouch tells me from her armchair in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
Harfouch is 23 years old with green-blue eyes, lightly freckled skin, and long, dark hair. On her left hand she wears a big diamond engagement ring. On her right wrist she wears a multi-colored beaded bracelet: green, red, yellow, blue, and white—the colors of the Druze star. We’re at one of the regional conventions that supplement the annual National Druze Convention, organized by the American Druze Society. Druze is a tiny Arab religion that originated in the Middle East 1,000 years ago. There are just over 1 million adherents in the world, with large concentrations in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel and roughly 30,000 in the United States.
The Philadelphia convention, attended by about 400 Druze, took place over four days in April. In the hotel’s hospitality suite, catered Middle Eastern meals were served. Children did arts and crafts, older women drank Lebanese-style tea, and birthdays were celebrated. There were religious sessions for teens and adults. There was a young professionals mixer. Nearly everyone attended a gala-style party on the last evening.
Several Druze mothers told me they hoped their children would meet their future husbands and wives at the convention. It’s how Harfouch’s parents met. It’s how Rima Muakkassa, current vice president and soon-to-be president of the American Druze Society, met her husband. The search for a spouse at these gatherings is supposed to be discreet, Muakkassa explained. But ultimately, the idea is to find fellowship with other Druze and hope it blossoms into something more—that’s why there are always singles mixers at these conventions.
This desire to marry someone within the faith is not just a preference—the religion prohibits exogamy. If a Druze marries a non-Druze, it will not be a Druze wedding, nor can the couple’s children be Druze—the religion can only be passed on through birth to two Druze parents. There are no conversions into the Druze faith.
Occasionally, high-profile cases of Druze marrying outside the faith pop up—for example, the recent engagement of Amal Alamuddin, who is Druze, and the actor George Clooney. Since Clooney cannot convert, and because he’s not Druze, the couple cannot have Druze children, which many, including Alamuddin’s grandmother, are not entirely happy about.
Muakkassa, of the American Druze Society, said that marrying someone non-Druze would never have been an option for her. “It would have come down to marrying Druze, or not marrying at all,” she said.
She met her husband at the 1994 convention in Long Beach. She lived in California, but he lived in Ohio. In order for the couple to continue getting to know each other, he had to travel across the country—along with his older sister, who came all the way from New York to chaperone their dates.
Muakkassa laughed as she explained all of this. Things have since become slightly less conservative in the past three decades, she said.
“I think most parents nowadays, although they are opposed to the term ‘dating,’ have gotten an understanding of the fact that if they want their kids to marry somebody Druze, they have to give them that opportunity,” says Harfouch.
She has been coming to these conventions since she was a child. Her father was the president of a regional ADS chapter in Michigan, and her mother organized the Society’s first several mini-conventions. She would attend religious seminars for teenagers taught by Sheikhs, or the select number of “initiated” Druze who have fully immersed themselves in religious life and are allowed to pray and read the faith’s holy text, the Kitab al-Hikma. All other Druze are considered secular, or uninitiated, and aside from a cursory understanding of the religion’s main tenets, which they are taught as children, most do not know much about the religion.
That’s why these types of educational sessions are held at conventions, especially for young people who might not have access to Sheikhs in their own cities. Kids might learn about Druze history, including its complicated connection with Islam and years of persecution by Muslims. They might also learn about cultural requirements, like modest dress and rules against tattoos and piercings. Most importantly, they learn about the central belief of the Druze faith: Humans are reincarnated lifetime after lifetime, which is one of the biggest reasons why exogamy is prohibited—marrying a Druze means continuing the cycle.
Harfouch sees being part of her religion as a rare and special opportunity. “I think the secrecy has a lot to do with the fact that the religion is closed,” she said. Over a thousand years ago, when the religion was officially founded (although the Druze believe the religion has existed since the beginning of time), there were two periods of openness when people were given the opportunity to become part of the faith. “Most people believe that your soul at that point in time chose to follow this religion and that was where you started your progression,” she said.