FRIDAY is the noisiest day at the Shouting Fence, outside the Druze village of Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights. Some come in ones or twos, but usually whole families gather here together on the Muslim Friday holiday, each armed with a loudhailer , to shout their latest news across the gully to relations on the other side.
"Hello, hello. How are you? How is your health? How was the operation? You take it easy, now. Make sure you stay at home," shouts an elderly woman, holding a loudhailer to her lips in one hand, and clutching a baby in the other. "Here is your new grandchild," she says, holding up the baby to the sky.
One of the specks in the distance appears to respond; a man - her husband? Her brother? - can just be made out holding a loudhailer up to his mouth, as the words come back: "I am well, I am well. How are you? And how is my grandchild? What is her name?"
The weekly gathering at the Shouting Fence (or the Shouting Hill, as it is also known) is one of the most extraordinary rituals of the Middle East conflict. Anyone who cares to eavesdrop can keep up to date on the latest episodes in the stories of about 50 families. They are all families that have been divided, first by war and then by an arbitrary ceasefire line. Majdal Shams, a village of about 8,000 people, nestles in the foothills of Mount Hermon, on the Golan Heights. It used to be Syrian, until the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, during which Israel captured the entire Golan Heights from Syria. More than 100 Arab villages on the Heights were destroyed during or after the fighting, but a handful of Druze communities, including Majdal Shams, were left standing, and were then annexed to Israel.
Residents of Majdal Shams who were out of the village at the time of the war - either fighting in the Syrian army or working in Damascus - were then trapped within Syria's new frontiers. Many were prevented from returning after the conflict was over, andsome simply did not wish to come back to live in what had suddenly become Israel. At first, the ceasefire line was several kilometres east of Majdal Shams, and families from the town who were divided by it were cut off from all contact with one another (there are hardly any telephone links between Israel and Syria). But after war broke out again on the Golan Heights in 1973, a new ceasefire line, marked by a fence, was drawn, which ran across a deep gulley on the very edge of the village. As a result, relations trapped on the Syrian side were able to come to within shouting distance, literally, of their old homes.
The Shouting Fence highlights the identity crisis of Majdal Shams, which has deepened as the conflict has dragged on. Most people here don't like being in Israel, where they are treated as second-class citizens, and they would like to be returned to Syria. As time has passed, however, the town has been increasingly "Israel-ised", and there are some residents, particularly among the young, who have doubts about being returned to Syria. These people find work - usually labouring jobs - in Israel, a nd they enjoy the nightlife of Israeli towns. For them, the prospect of going back to live under the oppressive rule of President Hafez al-Assad is not appealing.
As the prospect of peace has increased, however, so has the prospect of the village being reunited, and in the past two years Majdal Shams has had to ask itself serious questions about its future. If peace is made between Israel and Syria, there is no doubt that Israel will have to return the Golan Heights, including Majdal Shams, to Syria. Whether or not this will improve the quality of village life is hard to predict. But at least there will be no more need for the Shouting Fence. !
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