A Sulha ceremony took place in the Village of A’eblin, on February 21, 2009. This ceremony signaled the end of a conflict between the Salman and Farouni families, that started on July 23, 2005, when Taufique Farouni, age 66, murdered Dr. Nasser Nur Salman, a 66-years old gynecologist. Consequently, Taufique Farouni was found guilty of first degree murder (with reduced sentence for borderline legal responsibility for mental health reasons), and is currently serving a 20 years sentence in a local prison; Taufique’s son, Osama Farouni, who assisted his father in the murder, was found guilty of first degree murder, and is currently serving a life sentence. It is important to note that the original conflict between the families started when Dr Salman commented to Osama Farouni about his driving. Osama retaliated by cutting the tires of Dr. Salman’s car. The Salmans attempted local reconciliation, but the attempt obviously failed because the Farounis returned to the doctor’s home with weapons, shot the doctor and threatened his family.
There cannot be more different families the village of A’eblin. The Salmans are an affluent and educated Christian family of lawyers and doctors, with deep roots in the village. The Farounis are known as the crime family of the village. They are also Christians.
Prior to the Sulha, a respected Muslim family (Hatib) whose grandfather was a local Sulha maker, invited dignitaries from the village, as well as the Sulha Committee (Jaha) for a meal. This meal was a substitute for the traditional post-Sulha meal, since neither the killer’s family agreed to prepare a meal, nor did the victim’s family agree to partake in one. The meal was served at the family’s home in A’eblin, by the male members of the host family. Guests included Christian and Muslim religious leaders, as well as civil dignitaries, both Christian, Druze and Muslims from A’eblin and from neighboring villages. The disputant families were not present at the meal because at this point in time, the Sulha Flag (Rai), the symbolic protection from revenge that enables the two parties to meet non-belligerently prior to the signing formal Sulha agreement, was not yet tied and ready to provide its protection. This part of the ritual came only later.
Following the meal, which took place in the early afternoon, the retinue of dignitaries left in a motorcade for the home of the Salman family. Once there, the dignitaries positioned themselves in a reception line along the house’s driveway, and greeted the members of the Salman family as they left the house, led by a Christian priest. The members of the family, which included several brothers of the slain doctor, as well as cousins and uncles, shook hands with the waiting dignitaries and with members of the Jaha. After a brief welcome ceremony, a member of the Jaha produced a Sulha Flag (Rai), including a wooden pole and a large white linen sheet. He explained to the brother of the victim that he is about to tie a knot of truce in the Sulha Flag, and showed him how to tie the knot. The brother of the victim tied the first knot in the Sulha Flag, making the flag into a symbol of forgiveness and protection for the Farouni family. This ceremony is a must in a Sulha ritual, and without it the ritual could not proceed, since the killer’s family would not feel safe in the company of the victim’s family. The first knot in a Rai is always reserved for the family of the victim; so is the last knot. The reason why the victim’s family ties two knots is that the first knot is usually tied in the presence of the Jaha, but away from the eyes of the community and the dignitaries; by tying the last knot in public at the end of the ceremony, the victim’s family provides a public symbolism for their agreement to bring closure to the dispute.
With the first knot tied in the Rai, the motorcade formed again and left for the village church at the top of a hill. Having dismounted from their cars once more, the dignitaries, Sulha committee members and some village residents formed a semi circle around the Sulha Flag and waited for the representatives of the Farouni family to appear. They arrived by car several minutes later, and a procession, led by the Sulha flag, started making its way from the parking area toward the Christian church.
The members of the Salman family, who arrived separately at the Church, were already waiting in line at the entrance to the Church’s auxiliary building. There was visible tension as the two families shook hands. Nobody smiled, but everybody was cordial as each member of the murderer’s family shook the hand of each member of the victim’s family. They exchanged formal greetings and spoke very little. Throughout the process, members of the Sulha Committee were at hand to make sure the ritual proceeded smoothly and nobody lost his nerve. There were, of course, no women in sight. The women of the Salman family were all waiting in the family’s compound at the foot of the hill; I do not know where the women of the Farouni family were.
One of the members of the Sulha committee (Jaha) explained to me that the Jaha was very interested in hearing the opinion of the widow about the agreement they were crafting. Yet, as it turned out, the widow did not appear in front of the Jaha to speak her mind; instead, her brother, a lawyer represented her, and from the Jaha’s perspective, that was sufficient. This was yet another demonstration of the weak position of women when it comes to traditional dispute resolution in the Middle East. Even though the widow was obviously an interested party, and even though she was quite capable of speaking for herself, neither the family, nor the Jaha thought that it would be best if the widow met the Jaha face to face without an intermediary.
Despite the fact that the disputants were Christian, the entire Sulha ceremony was conducted by a Muslim Imam (religious leader) from one the village’s mosques. In retrospect, members of the Jaha commented that it was a mistake to use a Muslim imam for a Sulha ceremony at a church, between two Christian families. The reasons for this decision have to do with the way the Sulha process evolved and with internal politics in the village.
The Church’s congregation hall was full to capacity, about 200 people, Christians and Muslims from the village and from other villages nearby and from far away. This was another expression of the communal nature of the conflict and its resolution. The audience lended credibility to the agreement by witnessing its signing, and at the same time make sure that the agreement actually takes place since (particularly in the case of both disputants’ family members) their continuing peaceful coexistence is dependent on the successful culmination of the ritual that takes place in front of them.
The Sheikh explained to the congregation what will take place and why. He praised both families for having the honor and courage to let bygones be bygones and move toward resolving such a painful conflict. The Sheikh than invited the brother of the victim to speak. The brother talked about the pain of losing his brother and about the uselessness of random violence, and about the need to bring such conflicts to an end before more innocents pay a price. The victim’s brother than received from the Sheikh a brown leather briefcase containing 300,000 NIS (about $70,000). He did not even open the briefcase. He declared that the family does not need the money, that no money in the world will bring back his dead brother, and that the family decided to give the blood money (Diya), in its entirety, back to the Farouni family. He handed the briefcase back to a Bedouin member of the Jaha. The audience applauded the gesture, signaling approval of the Salman’s demonstrated sense of honor, and their willingness to forgo a large sum of compensation in favor of symbolism that increased their status in the community.
The next stage in the ceremony included the public tying of knots in the Sulha Flag (Rai), by Christian and Muslim religious leaders, by civil leaders, both from Aebelin and from neighboring villages, and by all the members of the Sulha Committee. At the end of the process, the entire white sheet was wrapped around the Rai poll in a series of tight knots. In fact, since there were more dignitaries than available length of linen, the Sulha Committee member in charge of administering the ritual started untying the knot after it was tied, and after the dignitary left the area, so as to make the last yard of linen available for the next dignitary.
Throughout the process, the families of the killer and the victim sat with expressionless faces, avoiding eye contact with each other and watching the proceedings.
Following the tying of the Sulha knot, each dignitary was directed to a side table where he signed the Sulha Agreement. It is interesting to note that the Sulha Agreement is a rather short document, and that the signatories appendix is actually longer than the agreement itself, and in this case included about 30 signatures. This is an indication of the social character of this ritual, where the fact that so many dignitaries bear witness to a dispute resolution document is supposed to “fortify” the agreement, making it as robust as possible, something akin to telling the disputant’s families: “We came to your ceremony, we witnessed you willingly and publicly undertake to end the dispute, and we (the community at large, represented by all the dignitaries) fully expect you to honor the obligations you took in front of us, or you will hurt our honor, cause us to lose face, and that will be unforgivable.”
The ritual ended with coffee offered at the door to the participants as they were leaving the hall. It was raining hard, including hail and a strong wind, so many participants decided to forgo the last ritualistic act of reconciliation and instead raced for their cars which were parked at the foot of the hill about a hundred yards away.