Previous Life Memories, Discourses, and the Construction of Identities
Edited By Gebhard Fartacek
This book follows the journey of Druze individuals who can remember their former lives and go on search for their previous families. For the Druze, an ethno-religious minority in the Middle East split between different nation-states, such cases and related discourses embody ambivalent bridges between personal, familial, and ethnic identities.
The contributions in this book, presented by Eléonore Armanet, Nour Farra Haddad, Gebhard Fartacek, Tobias Lang, Lorenz Nigst, and Salma Samaha, draw on ethnographic inquiries and illuminate the broad field of Druze conceptions of rebirth and group coherence against the backdrop of everyday challenges and recent conflicts in the Middle East and beyond.
Imagine a child of two or three who is gradually learning to talk and keeps referring to a previous life. A child who says they are married, have children, and live in a nice house, perhaps even mentioning its location, the names of family members and close intimates, certain events, tragic accidents and the specific circumstances of how they died. Imagine such a child expressing yearning and a desire to return to their previous family. Seeking to understand the information supplied by the child, their family might begin to investigate, or the child might make their own way to the location of their past life unaided and find a family where somebody who died two or three years ago matches the descriptions given by the child exactly. Under cross-examination, the child might prove their previous identity with their knowledge of secrets and other details that could only have been known to the deceased. Such situations arise in Druze communities and are dealt with in a broad spectrum of ways. In some cases, “speaking” children are brusquely rejected by their previous families, but in others, “speakers” are welcomed by their previous families and reintegrated into family life in a manner comparable to an adoption: such children grow up in two families, their past-life family and the family into which they have been reborn.
The Druze use the term nuṭq (or: ʿamalīyat an-nuṭq; literally, an operation of remembering and retelling) to describe such cases of individuals who have memories of a previous life and speak of them. While such cases are always isolated occurrences – since possessing the ability to remember a previous life is believed to be rare and extraordinary – “speakers” (sing. masc.: nāṭiq, sing. fem: nāṭiqa; pl. nāṭiqūn or, in dialect, nāṭiqīn) within the Druze community are not seen as eccentric or as esotericists; such cases are, rather, eminently compatible with the Druze worldview and the Druze doctrine of the transmigration of souls (taqammuṣ). They are, indeed, central to the Druze religion with its cultural history influences from Neoplatonic emanationist cosmology (metempsychosis).
For this religious community of an estimated four million people living chiefly in the nation states of Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan and separated from one another in recent history by minefields and electric fences, discourses on rebirth are highly meaningful for the collective construction of identity and group coherence as well as for individuals. The Druze conception of reincarnation follows specific rules and holds that neither ethnic-religious nor gender boundaries can be crossed by transmigrating souls: Druze are always reborn as Druze, just as men are reincarnated as men and women as women. This supplies an additional epistemological justification for the obligatory endogamy practised rigorously by the Druze in the Middle East. A theory often advanced in ←9 | 10→this context holds that the Druze community has “always” existed (albeit not always under the same name)1 and that the number of souls (arwāḥ; sing. rūḥ) has remained constant in every epoch.
* * *
The present publication aims to make a modest contribution towards illuminating ideas and discourses on individuals who can remember a previous life (jīl māḍī, literally a “past generation” and theologically a “past life circuit of the soul”) that are prevalent in the Druze community from the perspectives of multiple disciplines. It begins with an ethnographic section containing ten excerpted interviews with “speakers” or relatives narrating their own experiences. The interview excerpts have been taken from biographic-narrative or episodic interviews with Lebanese, Israeli and Syrian Druze individuals carried out in parts with refugees from Syria in Germany and Austria and during ethnological fieldwork in Lebanon and Israel/Palestine in the course of a major research project which is described in more detail below. They provide insights into the nature and the narrative structuring of such cases and shed light on how “speakers” are assimilated into existing kinship and social networks. The interviews are followed by an ethnographic analysis that proceeds from the assumption that social recognition as a reincarnated person can potentially facilitate the formation of new extended family alliances and enable specific forms of kinship construction. This analysis identifies several factors that play a role in these cases and presents an initial set of working hypotheses.
The construction of personal identities in the context of the Druze conceptions of reincarnation is also a topic taken up by Lorenz Nigst. His contribution has, like Gebhard Fartacek’s, emerged from the empirical results of their joint project work (see below). However, its focus (on the epistemological problems “speaking” children present for the uniqueness of human individuals) is more theoretical.←10 | 11→
This is followed by a chapter by the French social anthropologist Eléonore Armanet, who carried out her empirical studies among the Druze in northern Israel and has already published a sterling monograph under the title Le ferment et la grâce: Une ethnographie du sacré chez les Druzes d’Israël (2011). Her contribution to this volume aims to illuminate the topic of reincarnation among the Druze from a holistic perspective. Connections between personal constructions of identity and the cosmological principles of the Druze as part of a common identity are traced with reference to theories from anthropology and psychology.
In a separate contribution, Lorenz Nigst also explores the issue of reincarnation in the media discourses of Druze spiritual leaders and the fascinating ambivalences they reveal.
This is followed by two contributions by Lebanese researchers that place nuṭq and taqammuṣ in the wider context of the Druze conceptions of death and life. The social anthropologist Nour Farra Haddad focuses on saints that play an important role in local pilgrimage cultures as mythological owners of holy sites and bearers of divine blessings (baraka). Core elements of the Druze conception of the transmigration of souls in the context of the emanation doctrine are clarified using the example of the famous pilgrimage site Nabī Bahāʾad-Dīn (aka Nabī Lūkā) in Shārūn (on Mount Lebanon). Like the saints’ sanctuaries with the five colours of the Druze that are prominently visible from afar, the cemeteries where ordinary people are buried can also be seen as markers of ethnic and territorial identities. The Lebanese landscape ecologist and cultural geographer Salma Samaha concerns herself with Druze cemeteries and their spatial implications in her contribution. She compares Druze cemeteries in the Shūf Mountains (in Lebanon) with cemeteries in the Syrian province of Suwaydāʾ, contrasts Druze and Christian cemeteries and reaches conclusions about the different modes of conceiving of life after death that are reflected in cemeteries and funerary practices.
The final contribution to this volume, by Tobias Lang, examines the situation and the role of the Druze in the different nation states of Syria, Israel and Lebanon from the vantage point of political science. Lang argues that the situation of the Druze communities in all three states is vastly different and mainly depends on demographic factors, collective memories, leadership and especially on each country’s specific political system. He draws on both a systematic evaluation of existing specialist literature and media reports and on data he has personally gathered in interviews with political protagonists.
The reader ends with some brief final comments by the editor that raise the question of the extent to which “speaking” children and the broader ←11 | 12→cosmological embeddings of the phenomenon are helpful for transcending nation-state borders, at least mentally, and for coping with day-to-day life.
Taken as a whole, this volume seeks to contextualise the Druze conception of “speaking” children and reincarnation along five different dimensions: (a) epistemological foundations of personal identity, (b) constructions of families and kinship, (c) ethnic-religious demarcations and group coherence, (d) metaphysical and cosmological constructions and (e) nation-state contexts and recent challenges. The contributions vary in their thematic scope and have been produced by researchers working in multiple academic disciplines. This has naturally led to a somewhat heterogeneous collection of texts, especially given the varied personal and regional backgrounds of individual contributors. The transliteration or transcription of Arabic follows the respective authors’ own specific disciplinary or regional standards. They have been edited in this reader with an eye to the International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES) guidelines but have not been meticulously standardised. Commonly known Arabic place names and personal names are spelled as they appear in English-speaking countries or as standard Roman-script spellings in the relevant locations. As for the rendering of Arabic idioms and technical terms, translations into English (unless otherwise indicated) were provided by the authors themselves.
* * *
Substantial parts of these contributions were first presented at a two-day workshop on “Reincarnation and Personal Identity in the Middle East”, which was held at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, OeAW) in Vienna from 30 November to 1 December 2017 and was well-attended by leading international researchers. Gratitude is due to all participants at this workshop for the exceptionally fertile discussions that took place and the valuable input that was offered, and I would like to extend special thanks here to those colleagues whose contributions could not subsequently be included in this reader for one reason or another – Christopher C. French, Erlendur Haraldsson († 2020), Maria Kastrinou, Stephan Procházka, Gisela Procházka-Eisl and Gerald Sack.
The Austrian Science Fund (FWF) stand-alone project P28736 “Local Conceptions of Reincarnation among the Druzes in the Middle East” (www.taqammus.at) has provided institutional and financial support for this book publication. This project began on the initiative of Gebhard Fartacek and Lorenz Nigst in April 2016 at the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW), an institution that has now been producing and archiving ethnographic audio recordings and developing innovative field research ←12 | 13→methods for 120 years. I am deeply grateful to everybody who has worked on this research project and especially to Lorenz Nigst for his involvement prior to the initial funding application and his three years of work on the project as a postdoc employed at the Phonogrammarchiv. He participated in the initial generation of hypotheses and in the project’s first two fieldwork phases (Lebanon 2016 and Israel 2017) and was subsequently involved in important tasks such as organising the 2017 workshop and preparing this book publication. I am also very grateful to the early career researcher Hanna Vettori, who worked part-time on this project and assisted with archiving interviews and with organisational matters.
I would like to express my special thanks to social anthropologist Melanie Sindelar, whose research focuses on art-anthropological themes in the Middle East and who held a post-doctoral position for a short period of time during the final phase of the FWF project in question. She played a significant role in the run-up to publishing this book, especially regarding translation matters and other editorial challenges.
The dedication of Amjad Khaboura, Safwan Ashoufi and Wansa Nasrallah also deserves special mention. All three are Druze refugees, and their involvement added a participatory research dimension to this project. The emic explanatory models of these project colleagues and their specialist training in the areas of conflict management and psychotherapy represented a valuable resource for interpreting the interviews that were conducted in the course of the research project and have been archived at the OeAW Phonogrammarchiv. All three also conducted interviews on our research themes with Syrian Druze individuals – in some cases using modern digital communication technologies.
The production of this book was a challenging process for all involved – and at this point, I would like to offer my warmest thanks to all the contributing authors, especially Eléonore Armanet, Nour Farra Haddad, Tobias Lang, Lorenz Nigst and Salmah Samaha, for their colossal commitment, their indefatigable dedication and their enduring patience. In addition, I would like to explicitly thank Stephan Procházka for reviewing the book manuscript; as an Islamic studies scholar and philologist, he provided crucial input that shaped this book into its present form. Finally, for English-language editing and translation work in the context of this book publication, I would like to thank – in addition to Melanie Sindelar – Kate Sotejeff-Wilson and Sarah Swift for their outstanding efforts. In institutional terms, gratitude is due to the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) for its courageous funding of projects that presented geopolitical challenges and broke new ground in terms of methodology. I am profoundly grateful to the Presiding Committee of the Austrian Academy of Sciences for their initiative ←13 | 14→enabling refugees to undertake internships at the OeAW. The contributions of Safwan Ashoufi and Wansa Nassrallah to the project were funded by this initiative, which also sent out an important socio-political signal. Finally, but not least importantly, I wish to thank all my gracious and competent colleagues at the OeAW Phonogrammarchiv, and especially its head, Kerstin Klenke, who was able to advise me on the production of this publication.
Vienna, February 2021
1The word “Druze” is, strictly speaking, an exonym derived from the name of an Ismaili missionary from Buchara who came to Cairo in 1007 CE and was known as ad-Darzī. Together with his teacher Ḥamza ibn ʿAlī, he publicly proclaimed the divinity of the sixth Fatimid Caliph al-Ḥākim bi-amr Allāh (985–1021 CE). This step marked – from the external perspective of Islamic studies, at any rate – the schism of the Druze from Ismaili Shia Islam (the Sevener Shiites). The Druze describe themselves as al-muwaḥḥidūn (literally: those who believe in the unity of God; see the contributions by Armanet and Nigst in this volume).