Rakhla: The City of Wine and Poetry in the Memory of its daughters

Rakhleh, a small mountainous village east of the Syrian-Lebanese border, where the place imposes its identity on the residents, despite their small number. In that village, only four families live: Abu Al-Khair, Al-Zoghbi, Seif Al-Din and Hatoum. The oldest and most numerous of them is the Abu Al-Khair family, who’s surname traces back to their great-grandfather, who moved to live there at the end of the nineteenth century.

Mona Abu Al-Khair says, “The city of Rakhleh is built on the remains of ancient Roman stone buildings, most of which were places of worship, including a church and a cemetery that belonged to the families who inhabited the village since the time it was known as Zenopolis”. Zenopolis was called the city of wine and poetry

Rakhla: The City of Wine and Poetry in the Memory of its daughters

Photo: caves in Rakhleh, by Issam Hajjar

Mona remembers: “One day, while we were digging in the Al-Arid Mountain that overlooks our village, we were surprised to find a huge number of vineyards buried deep in the ground, despite what my grandfather and my old aunt have previously told us about them being cherry, lentil, wheat and barley farms.” Mona explains that in some of the remains of the old buildings that were reconstructed by the people of Rakhleh, stone presses were found. These were initially believed to be olive presses before vineyards were discovered in the mountain. Now, it is strongly believed that they are actually wine presses.

As for the vaults (found under the houses), the people of Rakhleh chose to rehabilitate them and use them as rooms to preserve their food. That’s because these vaults are like underground caves, which are cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Video #1 – The Caves and The Food Supply

Mona describing the tombs found in the caves in Rakhleh

[0:00] The tombs found in the village are very similar to this one, but larger. Carvings on their sides included vines or the head of a bull.

[0:16] the tombs were deep enough to fit a body.

[0:23] the tombs we found were open and empty.

Women’s role:

Women used to do the harvesting in all seasons. One of the harvest customs practiced by women was carrying out an act of courtesy, where a woman would go out to help a neighbour in her farm accompanied by an adult family man —a favour that would be reciprocated later on. Harvesting would start at 4 a.m. to avoid the harsh sun. The women’s role complemented that of the men, whose responsibility was to grow the crop and, sometimes, to hunt wild boar.

All the good things I know about Rakhleh can be attributed to its women, their presence and their knowledge of all the details associated with this small ancient village.

Is there a connection between Zenopolis, as a city known for poetry, and Rakhleh?

Of course! This connection is very old. It is extremely deep-rooted, and Rakhleh being a rural village that depends on agriculture is only one side of it. During the harvest season, we would entertain and distract ourselves with folk stories and songs, all of which the grandmothers knew by heart. Soon, mechanical harvesters arrived in the village, and those stories and songs became confined to the home and turned into lullabies for the children. I, for example, do not remember any of the harvest songs, but I do remember what I used to sing to my children very well:

You slept soundly
And grew a few inches
Had you slept more
How many more inches would you have grown?

The uniqueness of these songs lies in their simplicity. When a child grows up, we begin to teach them how to pronounce and articulate the letters of the Arabic language from the book of “Al-Safina” (pronounced with a stressed S), which is a book of wisdom widely known in the Jabal al-Sheikh region, in addition to religious poetry associated with the Druze households. All of this contributed to the emergence of what we call spoken poetry—a form of poetry improvised without any preparation. Hence, the geographical location plays an important role in bringing together the cultures of the countryside and the people of Jabal al-Sheikh, which means that poetry will always have a way to reincarnate.

Local habits with regional flare:

Has the geographical area affected your customs and traditions?

Definitely. For example, we fast for several days like our Christian brothers and sisters, and this influence comes from living near the Christian villages of Lebanon and Syria. As for our weddings, we celebrate them on Sundays because it is the official holiday in Lebanon. This allows our relatives from the Druze community to make it to the party.

One of the most prominent inherited traditions is the funeral tradition, where the body is brought and a funeral is held among women, as they do in the Jewish community. At the burial service, the deceased is buried in a coffin, following the customs of Christians, and the funeral prayer is then offered for them in the Islamic way.

Tell me more about your funerals and the main role of women in them?

The corpse is placed in a room full of women, and here the mourning (or “wailing” in the colloquial language) begins. Women stand over the head of the deceased and start to wail in grief over their loss. Then, they recite poems in a sad voice, dedicating them to the women of the deceased’s family—usually his wife, sister or daughter.

A man saying goodbye to his mother. A mourning song from the south of Syria.
Consoling the bereaved woman. A mourning song from Syria
To be burried in the finest clothes. A song for mourning.

Audio recordings are in the voice of Abla Abu Al-Khair

In fact, the eagerness of women and their devotion to fulfilling their duties during the period of grieving helped preserve this type of oral tradition. It is also worth noting that the women of Rakhleh do not care as much about weddings as they do about funerals, because the main role of organising weddings belongs to men, starting from the Tahlil to the ceremony. On the contrary, women arrange funerals from A to Z. They rush to support the family of the deceased and to console them with poetry and wailing, because they believe that their eagerness will be remembered just as the custom of wailing survived in the memory of all the women of Rakhleh.

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