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.
Ethnographic Insights: Narratives Dealing with Previous Life Memories Among the Druze (Gebhard Fartacek)
Preliminary epistemological and methodological remarks
The interview excerpts reproduced below have been taken from interviews conducted in the course of empirical data collection for the FWF stand-alone project P28736, “Local Conceptions of Reincarnation among the Druzes in the Middle East”.
The research design for this project adopts a constructivist research approach.1 This means that the collection and analysis of the data are not focused on the question of whether people have in fact been “genuinely” reincarnated (from an objective point of view). Instead, the research explores the role played by conceptions of the transmigration of souls and rebirth in the daily lives of the Druze population and the extent to which such conceptions appear viable2 within Druze communities.
For methodological reasons, this research project draws on narrative interview techniques. Interviewers generally sought to strike up an open-ended hypothesis-generating dialogue on the complex of issues surrounding taqammuṣ and nuṭq with the interview partners. The scope of the interviews encompassed both general reflections on the nature of reincarnation (taqammuṣ) and the reconstruction of specific cases involving individuals with previous life memories who spoke about their past lives and went on to find their previous-life families (ʿamalīyat ←15 | 16→an-nuṭq). Interviewers were guided by the episodic interview method outlined by Uwe Flick.3 Two different kinds of knowledge were differentiated in the collection and recording of data: semantic knowledge and narrative-episodic knowledge.4 General reflections on the point or pointlessness of believing in reincarnation (taqammuṣ) elicited semantic knowledge from interview partners, but interviewees drew on and revealed their narrative-episodic knowledge when describing specific nuṭq cases that had arisen in their own social environments. The relationship between both of these different forms of knowledge is complementary, and the research process was designed to gather and analyse both forms.5
In the interview excerpts reproduced below, the narrative-episodic knowledge of the interview partners is foregrounded. The nuṭq cases referenced had affected the interview partners emotionally and were described with considerable ←16 | 17→empathy during the interviews. To ensure the interview passages included in this book constitute a representative selection, the interviewees include both people with personal memories of a previous life who have been recognised as a nāṭiq or nāṭiqa and relatives (sons, fathers, brothers etc.) of such “speakers”. In addition, some cases are described from “further away” by interviewees with less direct connections to the people involved and more of an outsider perspective. Our interview partners are Druze men and women from North Israel, Lebanon and Syria – including some who have come to Austria in recent years as refugees and found a new home here. The selection of interview excerpts also seeks to provide a representative overview of how cases of nuṭq are narrated and to make aspects that are seen as important and addressed in virtually all narratives visible (elements of plot construction, cf. Straub 1998). The selection also sheds light on the wide variety of approaches towards “speaking” children that exist and may be pursued in different contexts: children can be silenced by their present families or rejected by their previous families, but they can also be euphorically received by their previous families and reintegrated into family life. Specific kinship ties can be constituted by nuṭq cases, and they are highly significant for the cohesion of the Druze community, at least at the level of the collective discursive construction of reality. These excerpts are followed by some thoughts and working hypotheses.
The passages reproduced below have been taken from a more substantial collection of some 40 recorded interviews that have been archived, together with summary translations into German and content summaries, in the OeAW Phonogrammarchiv. Details of the contexts in which individual interviews took place (the location, the people present, the languages spoken) are given in footnotes. As some of the autobiographical narratives shared with us contain very personal details, the names of interview partners and of all persons mentioned in interviews have been changed. The audio recordings are stored on long-term storage media at the OeAW Phonogrammarchiv. To protect the privacy of the interview partners, they have been placed under embargo until 2099; after that date, they will be at the disposal of future generations of researchers.6
Cases of “speaking” children: Descriptions given by those affected
CASE A: │“And I suddenly recognised the tomb keeper as my cousin from my previous life” – A nāṭiq describes his life between two generations
The first case presented here was narrated to us by Nabil*, a Druze man in his forties from the area around Yarkā in northern Israel. The interview partner described finding his previous family during a pilgrimage to Ḥurfaysh, a Druze town some 50 km east of Yarkā with around 7,000 inhabitants in what is now a frontier region close to the Lebanese border. He described similarities and seemingly coincidental connections between his present life and his previous life, which had ended tragically, he told us, when he was fatally shot.7
I was four or five years old. I saw episodes from my previous life again and again in my dreams – and I told my mother that I’m not from this place here […].
The neighbours had a lorry. I was fascinated by this lorry as a child. I wanted to climb into it whenever I could because I had possessed just such a lorry myself in my previous life.
The interview partner described how he gradually saw his previous life unfolding in front of him when he was a small child: I knew that I was called Wa’il F.* and that I had been murdered!
The interview partner told us that his mother began to ask him questions about where he was from, for instance. And he told her that he was sure that he had lived in Ḥurfaysh before.
And so the family (the interview partner, his parents and an aunt) began their search. First, they made their way to a famous Druze pilgrimage site, the hilltop tomb of Nabi Sabalān high above the village of Ḥurfaysh. When they arrived there, the interview partner’s mother asked a female tomb keeper whether she could tell her anything about a young man called Wa’il F.* who had been murdered six years previously. The tomb keeper, an older woman, ←21 | 22→answered in the affirmative: Yes, she did know a man who had been murdered six years ago and was called Wa’il F*!
The interview partner gave us an intensely emotional description of how he had recognised the tomb keeper as his cousin from his previous life at this very moment. She finally hugged him and began to cry!
They then set off on foot together. His previous house was about 3 km from the Nabi Sabalān shrine – and he found the way to the house unaided, intuitively guided by his memories.
We knocked on the door of my [previous] house, but there was no answer. Then we went to the house of my [previous] brother Nazim* directly opposite, just slightly below the main street. Nazim* is married to a Lebanese woman; she opened the door, looked me up and down and asked me who I was. I stepped into the house, alone, and told her that I was Wa’il*. Then my nuṭq was “examined”. They showed me photographs and I had to recognise myself in them. They told me to tell them more about my previous life. I told them that I had a son called Nabil* and was married to a very beautiful woman.
What surprised my examiners most – besides a striking scar on my face that I had already had in my previous life – were the correspondences between the given names of certain family members. My beloved son from my previous life was called Nabil* – exactly the same name given to me by my parents in this life! After my death, my wife married my cousin, who looked after my children and is named Hasan*. Hasan*, in turn, is also the name of my father – in this life!
My father from my previous life also examined me by asking a question. He wanted me to tell him about a special experience we had had together. I told him that we had once hunted hares together – and I was able to describe all the details to him.
Later, the interview partner turned to the topic of his death, which he linked indirectly to the historically proven Maʿalūt massacre8: It was a chaotic period, the interview partner told us. He had been working as a lorry driver at the time, and he had – legally – possessed a pistol. On the evening of his death, he had told his then wife Rima* that he just wanted to make a quick detour. He had his gun with him. On his way, he picked up two Israeli soldiers, a man and a woman. The pistol was already loaded. The young female soldier was called ←22 | 23→Joha*. As they were passing a food stall, he stopped. They wanted to buy something quickly and then get moving again. When he came back, he saw that Joha* was playing with his pistol. He warned her and right at that moment, a shot was discharged and the bullet hit him in the leg. The two soldiers fled and he bled to death, dying at 04:30 in the morning. Help came too late for him.
The interview partner explained that the soldier, Joha*, had not intended to kill him and that the shot had been discharged spontaneously; as far as he was aware, she had been convicted only of failure to provide assistance and had only had to serve two years in prison.
The interview partner subsequently described his close relationship with his previous family in detail. As a child, he had visited his previous family regularly, and his previous mother had also come to visit his present family many times. At the beginning, especially, these visits had been very challenging emotionally. Both his mother and his son (from his previous life) had cried a lot, as they were extremely attached to him and his death had left a void in the family. But the situation had gradually become more normal; his return (as a reborn child) restored calm to his previous family.
As a child, he lived in two worlds, in two realities: one in Yarkā and a different one in Ḥurfaysh. Reality in Ḥurfaysh had initially been more like a dream, but it gradually proved to be true and finally became real. Only as he came closer to adulthood, the interview partner reported, did he start to arrive more in his current life. His life today was, he told us, almost entirely friction-free.
The interview partner underscored several times that he gets on well with Hasan*, the present husband of his wife from his previous life and adoptive father of his son from his previous life. Hasan* had brought his son up very well and “been like a real father” to him, but he had also been pleased, as an adoptive father, that the opportunity had arisen for his son to keep in touch with his “biological father”.
The interview partner radiated pleasure and pride as he told us that he had occupied the role of the father of the groom at the wedding of his (previous) son. When his (previous) son’s wife in turn gave birth to a son, they had initially been unsure whether they should call the boy Hasan* after the Hasan* who had adopted the father of the baby or Wa’il*, the interview partner’s name in his previous life. Hasan* signalled his agreement with his adoptive grandson being called Wa’il*. For the interview partner, this was a clear sign that Hasan* was not in any way jealous of his position.
Further on in the conversation, the interview partner repeatedly stressed positive aspects of nuṭq and commented that finding his previous family again had greatly enriched his life. As a child, he had always felt a compulsion to ←23 | 24→pursue his nuṭq story; negative consequences would surely have resulted, he felt, if he had tried to suppress this need.
The interview partner also described the case of his (other) brother from his previous life and told us that he – likewise – had been murdered and come back as a reborn person; the two reborn brothers had attended the funeral of their (previous) mother together only recently.
The interview partner concluded that the principle of rebirth, taqammuṣ, reinforces solidarity among the Druze: Taqammuṣ binds the community together, as encounters with family members from past lives can occur at any time. This results in people treating others within the faith with affection. It can always be the case that the person opposite you was your mother, your father, your brother… in your past life!
CASE B: │ “My father liked his ex-parents and his ex-family more than our family here” – The son of a nāṭiq describes a kinship relationship established across generations
A well-off and well-educated Druze man aged around 50 shared his father’s life story with us – a story he had absorbed from close quarters and one that has had lasting consequences for his own life. This case was set in Bayt Jann, a town of some 12,000 inhabitants in the mountainous countryside of Upper Galilee, which is sometimes described as the social epicentre of the Druze in northern Israel precisely because of its rather remote topography (cf. Fig. 6).9
My father was born in 1934, here in Bayt Jann. His parents were Druze, too. In the first years of his life, when he was about three or four years old, he started to tell my grandmother that she was not his mother. He mentioned the name of his mother from his previous life. His parents tried to find out where he had lived before. He told them that he was not from Bayt Jann, but from Maghār near Tiberias in northern Israel. It’s about 20 km from here.
The interview partner told us that his father, now deceased, was called Hatim* and had been called Wahib* in his previous life. He explained that nuṭq cases must always be backed up with evidence, the reincarnation also depends ←24 | 25→on how you can prove it, and that a previous-life family always examines cases comprehensively: “Speaking” children are quizzed on details about family members, particularities and secrets as if they were facing a judge demanding evidence in court.
The interview partner continued with his father’s story, saying that his father had asked his mother to bring him to the village of Maghār. He had wanted to be brought to the first house in the village so he could find the way to his house from his previous life from that point. He was three or four years old then. They brought him to Maghār, the interview partner told us, and when he got there, he announced that he knew the way to his house. He started walking and brought his parents to his house from his previous life after walking 4 km. It was an old house in the old part of Maghār. He knocked on the door: mīn hūn – who is here? His brother (from his previous life) and his brother’s wife were at home and opened the door. His brother had soon invited people to come round and told them that a boy claiming to have been Wahib* in his previous life was there. They asked him how he had died in his previous life. That is the best form of proof one can give to show that one has been reincarnated, the interview partner told us. His father had answered that they had been in the fields and that his father had sent him home with his eldest brother. As he was riding home on a horse, they reached a spring and a big snake there struck at the horse’s leg, causing it to spook and spin around in circles. He fell off the horse and the snake bit him. That was what the interview partner’s father had remembered. He had also been able to recall seeing his elder brother crying and seeing himself lifted back onto the horse and brought home, where he had felt his soul leaving his body soon after they reached the house. That was the story of his death.
The interview partner narrated how the examination had continued. His father had been asked to point to various family members who were present (Where is your mother?), and he had identified his mother and his sisters successfully.
He had gone on to share a secret with them (Before I died, when I was a child, I used to play with toys and hide them in a secret place) and to guide those who were present to the hiding place – where the toys were still lying in a trench. At that point, the family members had begun to cry. The interview partner’s father had definitively proven his story, as the interview partner related: This is his story. Really, he proved it!←25 | 26→
* * *
The two families had, we were told, gone on to become a single family and still enjoyed an excellent relationship at the present time. They visit each other on feast days and for weddings, but also without waiting for special occasions. The interview partner repeatedly underscored the close nature of his father’s relationship to his family from his previous life: The thing that I want to let you know is that my father likes the ex-parents and the ex-family more than the family here. The relationship between the ex-family and him was a deeply warm relationship, which is really a proof that the thing is right. He was feeling that I belong to this family. I need this family. I like this family. I want to be with them. I have to share with them all the ceremonies […]. This is the story of my father!
The interview partner then gave an immensely powerful and emotional description of how his father’s close relationship with his previous family had also been handed down to himself and to other family members – so that it still existed now even though his father, the connecting link between the families, had since died:
I feel that my cousins there [in Maghār] are really the relatives of mine! […] They are kissing me from here and they are hugging me. Kisses which are forbidden you know. I say this is from God. This makes you first of all believe.
The interview partner went on to explain in various ways that the kinship ties to his father’s previous family had now been passed down to the offspring of both families. It was a warm, good and open relationship, he said, remarking that the families invite each other for visits on feast days and important social occasions as is usual among relatives. He felt a strong emotional connection to these relatives, he commented, but also a certain obligation to visit them from time to time and to treat them like family members. He did not doubt or critically interrogate the kinship relationship; he simply felt that he belonged to this extended family.
As the interview went on, the interview partner described two more nuṭq cases from his own social sphere. In both cases, he reported that the children involved speak a different language (English and Hindi), as they had lived in countries where those languages were spoken before being ripped from their lives there suddenly and, as it were, bringing their respective native languages into their present lives along with them.
In general, the interview partner concluded that kinship ties created through nuṭq are a gift of God and that it was good for “speaking” children to find their previous families (again).←26 | 27→
* * *
A year later, in July 2018, a further interview took place.10 In his conversation with me, the interview partner underlined his positive perspective one more time: If everybody believed in the principle of reincarnation, all of humanity could coexist peacefully without wars, borders, nationalism or radicalism. Reincarnation, the interview partner commented, leads to equality.
I was interested in discovering whether the interview partner thought that children with memories of a previous life should always be supported in their “speaking” and their efforts to find their previous families – or whether cases could also arise in which he believed it would be better to try to get children to forget their stories. The interview partner initially responded that it was not good for parents to try to prevent their children from remembering past lives. Quite the opposite was the case: I think we must do that, we must encourage them to speak about it in order to release his frustrations from inside, [… and we have to] take him to the other family in order to create another social net, which is very strong and very good. Besides, I think it’s really very amazing and good to have two families.
He went on to elaborate: This is the marvellous, the good, the exciting thing from the reincarnation. People that you are, did not know, during this things, this situations, you become one family, brothers and sisters. It is very exciting.
But when I asked again, the interview partner added a qualifier to his statement that the topic should always be dealt with as openly as possible. Yes, there were certain cases, he commented, where it was “safer” for the child in question not to speak of what had transpired. And he mentioned a case in which the murderers of a deceased and now reincarnated person were still freely walking around the local area:
It happened here in Bayt Jann. One man called Abu Saleh*. He was killed. They shot him here. He said they shot him three times here. After that they took him and buried him in one place, in the fields of Bayt Jann, far away from the village. This Abu Saleh*, his soul was transmitted to another child, from another family, which is called […]. I didn´t know the name of the child. I know the child. I know his father. His father has died. His mother is a relative of mine. When this child became three or three and a half, he starts speaking that X and Y and Z they shot me, they put me in, like this, in this ṣandūq [box] and they took me in the fields of Bayt Jann and they buried me. You know […] his mother was afraid that ←27 | 28→if those people, who killed him, know this generation they can kill him. So that she asked him not to speak about that because of this bad situation.
In such situations, the interview partner commented, it was better for the nāṭiq to remain silent about what had taken place. Why? Simply because the child is in danger!
In the specific case in question, the mother had taught her child not to tell anybody what had happened. And when the little boy sees these people (his murderers), he has instructions to greet them, but to say nothing further and not to talk to them. They are bigger and stronger than he is. The gist of what the interview partner told us was that the boy was still a small child and could be eliminated by the murderers at any time.
CASE C: │ “You are my friend, not my father” – A nāṭiq speaks about his advantageous life in an extended family
The case described below demonstrates very tangibly that kinship ties constituted through nuṭq cases are sometimes not only conceived of but also – in the truest sense of the word – lived and that they can (as an ethnosociologist would put it) also manifest in the post-nuptial residence form of a nāṭiq and his families. A family father from the wider region around Yarkā was reborn in a neighbouring locality that was locked in a feud with his former home locality. He already made his way to his previous family as a four-year-old child; a strong sense of having two families stayed with him throughout his childhood and adolescence – and when he was 20 years old and got married, his previous-life family made him a present of building land right next to their house. He thus built his house right next to the house of his previous family and now lives next door to his previous-life family and their offspring with his wife and child.11
The interview partner began outlining his biography with a description of his previous life: His name had been Na’im Mahmud ash-Shufi* and he came from Jūlis. He had died at the age of 28 during his military service in the Israeli army. He mentioned a close friend called Basil* who had been in the army at the same time as him and had become his father in his present life. As the interview partner explained, he had not been killed but died in an accident. He had been given a few days leave from the front to celebrate the upcoming holiday of ←28 | 29→Eid al-Adha with his family, and on the day of his death, he was with his wife, Mayan ash-Shufi* and they were running some errands together to get ready for the holidays.
The interview partner began to recount, scene by scene, how the accident had unfolded. He had been sitting in his car with his wife and children and a friend of his called Yazan*. His army weapon was in the car boot. Cars back then – this was in 1984 – had a hook on the inside of the boot that could be used to lock it. The gun had become caught on some webbing and stuck in this lock – it was loaded – he wanted to free it, but somehow got his finger caught on the trigger – a shot was discharged, and the bullet went directly through his skull, injuring him severely. He was close to an army base and the emergency services were alerted quickly. A helicopter was summoned to bring him to the nearest hospital. Immediately before his death, he asked his wife to look after the children. His wife was six months pregnant at the time. He was still in the helicopter when he died, he told us.
His friend Yazan* was now a suspect, as he had been present when the fatal shot was fired. His wife had also been at the scene, but she had been busy with the children at the instant the accident occurred and had not witnessed it directly.
At the moment of his death, the interview partner had been reborn at the side of his friend (and present father) in Yarkā, … ū khalaqət bi Yarkā jamb Basil*.
When I asked whether the moment of death and the moment of birth were a complete match, the interview partner answered in the affirmative and added the following explanation: al-jism māt bass ar-rūḥ mā-mātat-sh. ṭalaʿat min ādam li-l-ādam – the body died but the spirit did not die. It went from person to person.
The interview partner reported that he had started to speak and to express himself at the age of three. One day, he said antā ṣaḥbī mish būyī! – You are my friend and not my father! to his father. As a small boy, he was already able to remember his previous life very precisely.
When he was asked where he was from, he answered: anā min balad ash-shaykh, literally: I come from the village of the shaykh – the locality of Jūlis, in other words, where the spiritual leader of the Israeli Druze resides, currently Shaykh Muwaffaq Ṭarīf, but at that point in time still his grandfather.
The interview partner described some memories from his previous life: A picture of the Shaykh from the Ṭarīf family in his house, a repair to a car belonging to Basil* (then his friend and now his father) and the given names of an aunt and his cousin in his previous life. He told us about a game of football in 1983 ←29 | 30→that had triggered severe violence between Jūlis and Yarkā and seen a man from his previous family fatally stabbed. Taking part in a subsequent retaliatory attack had led to him being caught throwing grenades (nobody was hurt in the incident, but considerable damage resulted) and imprisoned for six months. Basil* had visited him in prison and brought him milk in a tarboosh (tarbūsh). The interview partner described the conflicts between both localities and his own involvement in them: He had hidden contraband arms and used an Israeli army vehicle to transport them. He hid some of the weapons in a trench under a gas tank – nobody would suspect that there was an arms dump there. He deposited the remaining weapons in a hiding place under the stairs of his house and hid the key to this space behind a loose tile in the attic.
The interview partner described the day he found his previous family as his present-life father Basil* had experienced it. When Basil’s* three-year-old son told him that he was not his father, but a friend, Basil* decided to drive wherever his son wanted to go. Both the interview partner’s parents drove to Jūlis together with their young child. In front of the former home of the nāṭiq, they encountered Zahi*, a friend the child immediately recognised from his previous life and called by name. The boy pointed out his former house. They entered the house and met his wife from his previous life. The boy said hayy Mayan*! – this is Mayan*! As the interview partner described the scene to us, he had then gone on to brusquely command his father to go home and leave him alone in his house with his (previous) wife. His wife hugged him! Then all of his relatives (from his previous life) gathered, and he was able to recognise and name them all, including their spouses and children. Questions were asked to examine him further, and he was able to answer them all correctly. Among other topics, he mentioned a tree he had planted for his wife and child. Before the family took their leave and drove home, he supplied further decisive evidence by guiding those who were present to the hiding place of the key in the attic, showing them the weapons hidden under the stairs, and guiding them to the trench below the gas tank. They were all amazed – they had known nothing about arms stored in and around the house.
The weapons were subsequently returned to the Israeli army. He is still close to his friends from his previous life – he invited them all to his wedding in 2012. Right up to the present day, he feels that he belongs in both lives: anā issa ʿāysh fi-jīlayn […] anā bi-hayy l-marḥala mā-mutət-sh bass al-jasad māt – I live in two generations at the moment […] I didn’t die in that phase, only my body died.
The interview partner recounted that his “speaking” had also exonerated his friend Yazan*. As Yazan* had been next to him when the fatal shot was discharged, he had been confronted with accusations of murder in the ←30 | 31→aftermath. In her panic, his previous wife Mayan* had also initially accused Yazan* of having fired the shot. Yazan* had been arrested and briefly detained on remand. While he was acquitted, lingering doubts as to his innocence had remained. As the interview partner narrated compellingly, this was one of the first questions he was asked when he began to “speak”: Did you die a natural death or were you killed? Was it Yazan* who shot you? The interview partner was able to remember how the accident had played out very precisely and knew that he had died through his own fault. He was able to clear up the matter: anā mutət bi-l-ghalaṭ – I died by mistake (and was not murdered)! His friend Yazan* has been free from all suspicion since then and remains a close friend.
The interview partner gives the impression of being blissfully contented when he refers to living “in two generations”. He was beaming broadly as he described his life in his current house, right next to his old house and surrounded by cousins from his previous life. He feels part of an extended family: Not much has changed! His previous wife Mayan* and his current wife Safa* are, he reported, exceptionally close friends. When his present wife gave birth to his children, his previous wife Mayan* had been as pleased as if one of her biological daughters had borne children. And his children from his previous life had asked him to “lead the bride” at their weddings. The role of leading the bride is normally performed by the father of the bride, the interview partner commented. His children from his previous life had also been very actively involved at his own wedding in this present life!
Joe N., the acquaintance of the interview partner who was himself from the area and was also present at the interview, commented with a grin that people from Jūlis had organised a wedding for the nāṭiq as they would organise one for a true son of the village because he belonged to them and had been reborn again; they would not have taken such trouble for a “stranger” [and one from Yarkā, of all places]!
* * *
This nuṭq case with its emphasis on mutual harmony must presumably be seen within the wider context of the previous feuds (surrounding the football game) between Yarkā and Jūlis and the animosities between both areas that persist.
Interestingly, the (improved?) relationships between the two localities seem to have been continued in at least one more nuṭq case. As the interview partner disclosed in the course of the conversation, his five-year-old son (in his present life) also has memories of a previous life: He had been a school principal in Yarkā (!) who had died five years beforehand.←31 | 32→
“… And my son ‘speaks’ too!”
│ CASE D:
In the interview12 with the “speaking” child, who was brought into the room immediately, it was noticeable that the child’s father frequently interrupted with corrections. The young boy gave his full name from his previous life, the names of relatives and the school subjects he had taught (Arabic and English). His father reported that he had spoken some English right from when he began to talk and could “remember” English right up to the present. Prompted by his father, the boy began to recite the English alphabet.
During the interview, the son shyly told us about the family’s search for and their discovery of the boy’s previous family (with many corrections and explanations from his father). The boy had told the family to build him a school where he could teach. In the context of a funeral, the family then encountered the school principal’s descendants: The five-year-old boy recognised a house as his previous house as they were passing it, and when they spoke to the people who lived there, it turned out that a person – an older man – had indeed died there at exactly the time when the boy was born. Evidence was supplied, and the contact with the child’s previous family was felt to be exceptionally positive, but it had only just begun.
The boy’s father (the nāṭiq at the centre of Case C) appeared visibly relieved by the discovery that his son (the nāṭiq in Case D) had been a “good person” (ibn ḥalāl) in his previous life.
CASE E: │ “Mahmud Abu Amjad*, who I was in my last life, died poor. He lived poor and he died poor” – A nāṭiq as a connection between two feuding clans
The case described below has its setting a few kilometres north-east of Yarkā in the Druze town of Abū Snān. In this case, too, the interview partner emphasised the positive aspects of “speaking”: It was ultimately nuṭq that had led to reconciliation in a feud that had seethed between two clans for generations. But political rivalries and social inequalities were emphasised more in this interview than in others.
The interview partner, a man of about 50, had something unusual in common with the five-year-old nāṭiq mentioned above (Case D) who remembered his ←32 | 33→previous life as a school principal: He, too, had died a natural death as a wise man of mature years.13
The interview partner reported that he had been about three years old when he remembered his previous name, Mahmud*,14 and began to speak about his previous life. Everything had happened automatically: Whenever his mother called him by the name of Ahmad, he had replied that he was called Mahmud*: ummī bitqūlī: taʿāl yā Ahmad*; anā biqūlhā: anā mish Ahmad*, anā Mahmud*!
The interview partner described how his parents asked him questions: Who is Mahmud*? Where does Mahmud* live? And so on. He took them by the hand and showed them the house. The house of his previous-life family (al-ʿāʾila as-sābiqa) is only 100 m from the house of his present family, the interview partner told us. Both families had lived in the same neighbourhood, but he had hated his present family in his previous life on account of local conflicts.
The interview partner described supplying an entire series of pieces of information so that he would be believed. Even when he was only three and had just begun to speak, it was already obvious that he knew his way around the house of his previous family very well. He showed them the box where he used to hide his valuables in his previous life. He told them about his pistol, which he had hidden in a cranny on his (former) land – they set off to look for it and found it in exactly the location he had described beforehand. He was shown photographs of people, and he could identify and name all of them. As a nāṭiq, he knew how important the farm had been to him in his previous life, from the land to the dwelling house – he had highly specific memories of every detail, right down to the design of the kitchen: They had not had an “ordinary” kitchen, but a “foreign” one (maṭbakh ajnabī). Last but not least, he could also remember how he had died: He had been sitting peacefully on the steps with his grandson next to him. He had already been more than 80 years old at that point, he had had six children, and he had finally died a natural death. In the minute he died, he was born (again), bi-nafs ad-daqīqa tuwuffēt khalafət, as he was able to verify later himself from records kept in the hospital.←33 | 34→
The interview partner narrated that he had carried some typical qualities he had in his previous life over into his current life: Something that has stuck with me from my past life is that I like celebrations. Anywhere there is a joyous wedding going on, I’ll be in the thick of it! His passion for farming was also a quality he had retained.
But other qualities from his previous life had been reversed. He told us that he had loved weapons and munition in his previous life but now detested weaponry of every kind. He shudders every time he hears shots ringing out now and dislikes being present when shots are fired even to celebrate weddings or other special occasions.
The interview partner repeatedly came back to the topic of the material poverty that had been characteristic for his previous life: My previous family – they are good people, I have a good relationship with them right up to the present day. [But] they are poor and Abu Amjad*, who I was in my last life, died poor, he lived poor and he died poor ([…] hinne fuqarāʾ ū abū Amjad* illī kint f-il-jīl illī fāt māt faqīr, ʿāyish faqīr ū māt faqīr). The interview partner explained how strongly poverty had affected him in his previous life and commented that he still feared it today: anā bakhāf min al-fuqr l-il-yawm! It meant a great deal to him, he told us, that he had enough money at his disposal in his present life. He was always careful with money and economical because he knew what it was like not to have money from his previous life.
The interview partner emphasised what was exceptional about his case several times – that he was a nāṭiq with extremely precise, accurate and detailed memories of his previous life, including all the people who had played a role in this life and their stories: Abu Amjad* byaʿrif kull shī – Abu Amjad* knows everything – people in his village say, referring to the fact that he knows all the “old stories” due to his detailed memories of his previous life. The interview partner remarked that his knowledge of previous events was not stored in “normal” episodic memories, but that it came to him in flashbacks: when a person (somebody he already knew in his previous life) spoke to him, specific (former) relationships, circumstances and sometimes also secrets would suddenly rush into his mind.
Interestingly, the interview partner is called “Abu Amjad*”, his previous name, by the people he already interacted with in his previous life. Local people accept that he lives in the village “in two generations” [fī jīlayn] and deal with this “normally” [ʿādī] – just as it has become normal for him: I know what I was in my last life and what I am in the present, I have two pictures!
The interview partner described the generation-long conflicts between the two clans he belongs to in considerable detail. “Family A” (or “kinship group A”, to which he previously belonged) had been very influential during the Ottoman ←34 | 35→period and the period of the British Mandate. All the families in the village had taken the side (or at least sought to keep on the right side) of this family apart from “Family B” – the family the interview partner belongs to now in his present life. His grandfather in his present life in Family B had opposed the dominance of Family A – and that was why he had hated Family B in his previous life and sought to foil their plans. The interview partner explained that Family A collaborated with Ottoman rule and collected taxes for the Ottomans. The family maintained order and exploited other families. Those who disobeyed Family A were conscripted into the Ottoman army. This was what had happened to the interview partner’s grandfather (from Family B), who had been compelled to serve in the Ottoman army for eleven years of his life. But he rose through the ranks and gained the status of an officer, and his last war had led him to Sanaa in Yemen. His superior officer told him he could go home if he “liberated” Sanaa. He finally liberated Sanaa and was permitted to return to Palestine. As the interview continued, the interview partner described the background to his grandfather’s conscription: Family A had made Family B an offer. If the great-grandfather (in Family B) had been willing to give Family A a parcel of land, his son would have been spared from joining the Ottoman army. As the great-grandfather was about to put his fingerprint on the document, his son intervened and said he would rather join the army than cede the land to the “corrupt” family (Family A).
The interview partner described how Family B had been harried in previous times and how the family land had been confiscated parcel by parcel. However – by an irony of fate, as it were – the situation had been reversed with the founding of the state of Israel: Now it was Family A that was dispossessed of their land. Due to their past wrongdoing, the interview partner told us, they lost all their land, which had “made up half of Galilee”, to the Jews. As time went on, Family A became increasingly impoverished – while Family B managed to accumulate the means to live in relative comfort.
The rivalry between both families remained intact throughout most of this. The interview partner described that he still had memories from his previous life of many deaths and severe injuries resulting from this feud. But he maintained silence on the issue today to avoid reopening old wounds. His nuṭq case had had an enormously positive effect on the relationship between both families.
Finally, the interview partner also talked about his wife from his previous life. Political upheaval and the drawing of nation-state boundaries were also addressed latently in this episode. In his previous life, the interview partner told us, he had taken his wife from Zarqa, a city and province about 200 km east of Abū Snān in what is now Jordan. Contacts between the Druze in Upper Galilee and those in the province of Zarqa are not particularly strong, and he no longer ←35 | 36→knows how they got to know each other. They had a very good marriage, at any rate, as he narrated to us: His wife had been a “good woman”, although she lived (as he did) under exceptionally difficult conditions: hiyya kānat mnīḥa; hiyya kān ʿāshat fī fuqr ū ẓilm ū sijn” – she was good. She lived in poverty, oppressed and in captivity. As the interview partner remarked, his wife in his previous life had “survived” him. When he then began to “speak” as a three-year-old, she was one of the people he always kept in close touch with. He used to visit her once or twice a week, and his mother in his present life also visited his previous-life mother right up until her death. He had never forgotten his wife from his previous life, and when she died, he carried her coffin at her burial. It was usual, the interview partner mentioned, for coffins to be carried by the closest family members of the deceased. He felt an inner need to carry the coffin.
When I asked whether he continued to keep in touch with his previous wife’s family and her descendants after her death, the interview partner answered: Yes! When the state of war between Israel and Jordan ended in the nineties and a peace treaty was concluded, my previous wife’s relatives came to visit. My father (in this life) was very open and invited them to a big meal. He laid on a big breakfast for the entire village!
CASE F: │ “It turned out to be a lovely photograph, but it feels strange” – A nāṭiq affected by the transience of time and clashing expectations
The following interview was recorded in a traditional-looking Druze village perched on the mountainous ridge between Abū Snān and Maʿalūt. It took place in the private dwelling house of a local historian who had himself written a book about nuṭq cases among the Druze in northern Israel. It had been important to him to write the book in Hebrew, he told us, so that “everybody”, including the Jews, was well informed in relation to this phenomenon.
A young English teacher, Salim*, was among those invited to join us. He recounted his – not entirely frictionless – life between two generations in detail. His return as a nāṭiq exemplifies “structural” problems that arise in connection with nuṭq cases and are linked to transformations wrought by time: A nāṭiq can only continue from where the deceased person left off in a very limited sense.15←36 | 37→
It started when I was five years old. We were at the wedding in ʿIsufiyā. My parents were occupied with other families and I was playing with the kids. I kind of remember that I had a fight with some of the kids. I was the chubby kid of the crew. I was always being picked on. I remember I got a hit on the head at a certain point. Someone hit me on the head with something, and then I just walked, like uncontrolledly. I went out of the wedding. I crossed the street, I walked for five to ten minutes and I just came to a door. I knocked on a door at a house, and this old woman opened the door, and I said: “Hello, I am your son. You are my mother”. And I went in, there were five people in the room, and I said: “You are my brother, you are my sister, your name is, your name is” and then I blacked out.
The interview partner described this moment as a flashback during which he was in an extraordinary mental state: It wasn’t me that was talking. I was being controlled. Like I was on strings and someone was controlling my every movement.
The interview partner can no longer recall what happened immediately afterwards. He was in a car when he woke up. He can remember that his parents picked him up. After this incident, he became ill. He had a headache and a high temperature and was generally unwell. His family from his previous life heard that he was sick and came to visit him. On their first visit, his mother, sister and wife from his previous life came. They brought photographs.
His illness became so severe that he could not even stand, but its cause remained unclear. His family from his present life and his family from his previous life joined forces to take him to hospital.
He recovered his strength slowly and visited his past-life family, and they also paid visits to him and his present family. But as time went on, things became progressively more complicated. His family from his previous life started to visit him ever more frequently.
These visits became too much for his parents in his present life: I started getting too much attention [from my past-life family], and at a certain point even my mother asked me not to say anything when they come, like, “Don’t say anything, be quiet”. But the interview partner felt a strong desire to talk to his previous family. The person that I talked to the most was my sister. Her name was Muna*. We were really close, and every time she came, I used to hug her and even sit on her lap. I felt really safe when I was with her. She didn’t ask for information.
As the interview partner articulated, his sister, mother and wife from his past life were neither sceptical nor intent on securing any advantage for themselves. His previous brother Fadi* was, however, extremely sceptical and unaccepting of him: Fadi* started to probe what I said insistently; he didn’t believe me!←37 | 38→
The interview partner described establishing an exceptionally close relationship with his family from his previous life and being present at special family occasions, like weddings. Following such events, he began to remember more and more. He could remember the first birthday of his eldest daughter (from his previous life), for example: He could see the exact colours of cakes, T-shirts and gifts before his mind’s eye. His family from his previous life then showed him photographs. They matched his description perfectly.
After supplying this proof, his relationship with his mother (from his previous life) became even deeper and he began to stay overnight at her house regularly. His personal problems, however, became increasingly severe, as he told us. He was trying to find his balance between two lives. This was exceedingly difficult for him and his parents. It was emotionally stressful, too. He remembers calling his “other mother” Mom, for instance, and his present-life mother being unhappy about that.
He recalled an occasion where he was asked to prove something to his family from his previous life by sharing a memory. There were five people in the room, including his nephew, his sister and two of his brothers. His brother Fadi* demanded a form of proof from him. The interview partner began telling a story about driving to Tel Aviv with his sister and stopping at a pancake house. They ate there, but then they had no money to pay the bill. They were stuck and he had to search his car for change. When he told this story, his sister began to cry and said: Nobody knew that! The interview partner was at a loss to explain what had prompted him to reveal this secret.
The interview partner said that he had been asked fewer questions after describing this particular incident from his previous life. But his past-life brother Fadi* remained suspicious. Fadi’s* rejection of him came to a head in an incident in the year 2005 when his brother murmured: It’s not him, he is a liar! On hearing this, the interview partner’s present-life father told his past-life family that they were under no obligation to visit their son and pointed out that it was they who had actively sought him out. After this incident, his family from his present life no longer wanted him to meet up with his previous-life family. For ten years, he did not see his siblings and his mother from his previous life.
Recalling the cause of his death had been quite a gradual process for the interview partner. To summarise somewhat: He had been driving through the Gaza strip on a patrol during his military service with the Israeli army, he told us, when he fell victim to a Palestinian assault together with two other Israeli Druze soldiers. In his present life, he had developed a close friendship with the son of one of the other fallen soldiers (initially without being aware of the connection).
The interview partner finally described his relationship to his two daughters from his previous life. One of them is a year older than he is in his present ←38 | 39→life, and one is a year younger. He met his elder daughter (in his present life) as a fellow student when they both took the same course at the University of Haifa. He had only recently become close to his younger daughter. He had been invited to her wedding a short while before, along with his present-life fiancée, and asked to stand in a line with the other relatives, the families of the bride and groom, to accept good wishes at the wedding. The situation was strange for his fiancée: She had come to the wedding together with him and suddenly found herself alone while he chatted to other guests and they snapped pictures together. Things became even stranger when the photographer took a photograph of him with his two daughters and his wife from his previous life. Pictures were also taken of all the relatives of the bridal couple with their respective partners: I stood there next to my wife from my previous life as if we were a couple. It was a beautiful photo, but it was awkward. […] My wife from my previous life is 25 years older than me.
As the interview partner told us – smiling, yet with a furrowed brow – his present-life fiancée is not happy with the situation. The question of whether his wife from his previous life should be invited to his own wedding (set to take place two weeks after the interview) had not yet been resolved.
* * *
In relation to the scepticism of the interview partner’s (previous) brother, it is interesting to note that I later discovered from other sources that this brother was embroiled in a legal dispute with the previous wife of the nāṭiq. According to my source, the brother had taken a court case against the widow of the nāṭiq because he felt that he had looked after his sister-in-law after his brother’s death and was now entitled to the widow’s pension (or at least a share of it) that she received from the state of Israel on account of her husband having fallen as a serving soldier in the Gaza strip. This was the context – an outsider’s view suggested – in which the appearance of the deceased on the scene in the form of a nāṭiq had proved to be most unwelcome to his brother.
CASE G: │ “At the beginning, the boy always said that his mother in this life was not his mother, but that subsided over time” – A Syrian doctor speaks about his nephew
Taqammuṣ is […], when a human [insān] dies, then his soul [rūḥ] does not disappear; it wanders to another person [shakhṣ]. A child is born and the soul lives another life – and life continues in this way. The soul migrates from one person to the next for many generations. That is the religious understanding in the Druze faith.←39 | 40→
A doctor from Suwaydāʾ (aged about 50) who had fled from the war in Syria to Austria spoke in a differentiated way about the principle of reincarnation and cases of “speaking” children linked to it. Yes, the Druze believed in it, but he personally struggled a bit with the concept. He asked himself where the extra people in the world come from if everybody is reincarnated, for instance. But he had experienced a nuṭq case in his own family.16
My nephew (my sister’s son) was born. When he was small, he was very afraid of water. That meant that whenever he was in the bathroom, to be showered, he would panic and run out of the house. After a while – when he was able to talk, at around the age of two – he began to name some names and details. He told us: “I come from such and such a place; and I had to die, because –”
By coincidence, we knew the place and the person who died there. It was a child who drowned in water. And that was the reason why the child was afraid of water.
He said, “My name is Nawris*! I am from the neighbourhood of –”
[…] He was reborn in another village. But whenever he visits his previous village, he goes straight to his family from his previous life!
As the interview went on, the interview partner clarified more and more details of this case. He reported that his nephew knew the names of certain people as a small child, including the names of his previous mother and of certain siblings. As the present family of his nephew are distant relatives of his previous family and both families were personally acquainted, they did not have to search for the previous family for long: Even though both villages are some 90 km apart, it was immediately obvious who the boy was referring to.
They drove to the village and the boy recognised the members of his previous family immediately. He was also able to prove his story by remembering an entire series of specific details about his past life. He had possessed a bird-catching trap, for example, that he had hidden in a special place. When he then returned to his former village as a reborn child, he showed this hiding place to the family.←40 | 41→
The interview partner explained that the boy who had drowned in the fatal accident had been 12 or 13 years old. Two children had gone to a pool to swim there. One of them fell into the water and got his foot caught under a stone. The pool was not a public swimming pool, but a pond near the village. The other child called for help and ran into the village to tell people what has happened. People came to the site of the accident and searched for the boy for about an hour. But they only found his body at the bottom of the pool.
The interview partner reported that his nephew, now a 45-year-old man, had not been severely affected by his previous life. His fear of water had receded over time, and he had learned to swim later. Today, he is very strong and vigorous. He still loves his family from his previous generation, as he always did, and has always kept in close touch with this family. There had, the interview partner told us, never been any trouble between the two families. Ultimately, the case had strengthened the bond between them.
The interview partner remarked that not all nuṭq cases were so friction-free. He told us that lots of families do not allow their children to speak about their past lives out of concern that the children could develop psychological or social problems. It can occur, he commented, that a family is well aware of the circumstances of a child’s life in the previous generation, but that no dialogue or only very limited exchanges take place with the child’s previous family. This is especially likely when a death was in some way problematic and the nāṭiq or nāṭiqa could possibly reveal its exact circumstances. He cited the following case as an example and noted that it had occurred 20 years ago:
A student from Majdal ash-Shams [a Syrian Druze town on the Golan Heights annexed by Israel in contravention of international law] was studying in Syria. When he went on an excursion to Suwaydāʾ once, he suddenly recognised the place where he had formerly lived. He remembered that he had lived there and been murdered. The site was examined and the upshot was that the crime – that nobody had ever been brought to justice for – was cleared up.
CASE H: │ “These feelings are very difficult... one wants to live between two generations, the previous generation and the current generation!” – A nāṭiqa from Syria shares her biography as a voice message
My name is Samira*. I am 22 years of age. I am going to talk about my previous life. My name in my previous life was Lina A.* I was married to Imad R.* […]. He was […] a singer. I died in my previous life as I was giving birth to my son.←41 | 42→
When I was a small child, I began to remember my past life. I cried a lot in front of my family. [… My previous husband] dedicated a song to me after I died. The song is called […]. Whenever I heard it, I began to cry and cry. I only stopped crying when the cassette recorder was turned off.
Later, when I was already able to talk, my mother brought me over to the wardrobe. She wanted to change my clothes. I began to cry, and I didn’t want to wear the clothes she had ready for me. I wanted to get dressed in my new clothes (from my past life). After I got married, I got pregnant immediately and I gave birth to my child. You must understand: My clothes (in my past life) were new. That was why I did not want to wear these other clothes.
When I started to talk, my family gave me a teddy bear. I was about four years old. They said to me, “This is a teddy bear”, and I said to them, “This is my son!” They asked, “What is his name?” and I answered, “Samir*!” I called him after my son (in my past life).
[…] In my life before this one, I had a brother. When he heard the story that I was a nāṭiqa, he came to my family at home and wanted to see me. My family said, “Come and look at your brother!” I immediately identified him as my brother and embraced him. And we asked each other how we were. He said, “I would like to take you to our house, to see our mother!” And I said, “Yes, I’ll come with you!”
And I went with him, and when we got to the neighbourhood where our house is, he asked me if I knew where our house is. And I did know the way straight away – I led him to our house! And when I stepped into the house, I greeted everybody. I knew everybody who was there and they showed me a photograph album – and I recognised the entire family.
In my previous life, I possessed a lot of gold, and my mother took the gold off me when my son was born and I was in hospital, wrapped it in a tissue and hid it.
And when I saw my mother again, I asked her about the gold, “Where is the gold that you hid? You must have hidden it in the false floor (sḥīfa)!” Because I knew that was her usual hiding place for cash and jewellery. When I mentioned the gold, my mother refused to talk about, it and she said, “Take her away and don’t bring her here again and forget about the topic!” to my brother, and “We want to forget the story in every respect, as otherwise there will be problems”. My mother had said nothing to my husband, and she thought that a lot of problems would crop up if I raised the issue.
[…] I asked my mother a few times where the gold was. She reacted in a very annoyed way. She told my brother that they, as a family, should forget the stories and that I shouldn’t mention the issue again. She didn’t want to see me at ←42 | 43→home with the family again. I left and I was sure that she had taken the gold. But I wasn’t interested in the gold. I wanted to see my son and find out how he lives and see what I lost.
When I was older, in the ninth class or so at school, there was a neighbour who knew Samir’s* family. She spoke to the family and told them that I was Samir’s* mother and would like to see my son (from my previous life). And she let them know that I was thinking about him the whole time and that I was sad and simply wanted to see him and nothing else. I don’t want anything from him and I don’t want to exploit him.
She told me that I should go around to their house to talk to Samir*. We will see each other often and talk to each other, God willing.
We went to their home and asked if Samir* was coming to visit us. He came with his uncle. We spoke about my story, and he told me the story and everything he knew. He knew that I am his mother. I hugged and kissed him.
I also visited him at home in his own house and got to know his siblings – the siblings from the second mother, of course. After I died (in my previous life), my husband was alone for four years, and then he married a second time and had two daughters and a son.
The most important part is that we stayed in contact after I got to know my son. He is engaged now and works in Saudi-Arabia. He is doing fine. We talk to each other every now and again. But it is a great strain for me. Yes, we talk as a mother and a son. But his fiancée is jealous and feels attacked. And my husband is jealous, too.
It’s difficult for me, because he is my son: I need only see a photograph or hear his voice and my heart becomes heavy! It feels as if my heart is breaking. If I don’t hear anything from him for a while, I get worried. And I’m afraid that something could happen to him.
These emotions are very hard to bear; this soul that remembers its previous life-circuit and speaks. And especially when one has a child. One remembers the past generation and one remembers the past life and wants to live between two generations, the previous generation and the current generation.
And in my past life, he and I married for love.
And that is very sensitive. I have a strong bond […]. Of course, jealousy and other forms of sensitivity result.
That is my story. I hope it is of some use to you!←43 | 44→
* * *
This voice message was sent in the summer of 2019 from the Syrian governorate of Suwaydāʾ via WhatsApp.17 In a text messenger chat that followed this message, Samira* explained the ambivalence and the negative influence of her previous life on her present life: You know, I really suffered from all the thoughts [about my previous life] and mainly because – I wanted to go to my son and initially I couldn’t! Later on, a very close relationship with her son from her past life had developed, but at the same time, tensions and jealousy had also arisen: her fiancé (in her present life) viewed this close relationship with suspicion, and her son’s fiancée became progressively more jealous, too. Their meetings had thus become rarer, and they had begun to speak on the phone much more often.
The interview partner also reported that fears of dying from the same cause as in her previous life had plagued her: During her pregnancy, she had felt intense fear of labour and been concerned that she or her child might die during childbirth.
She ended her reflection by highlighting the economic inequality of both her families as an issue she struggled with: nuṭq is a problem for me because of that. I had a life with lots of money (in my previous life) and I could do what I wanted. But in this life, my circumstances are very difficult. And I began to compare both lives ... and that is hard to put up with!
CASE I: │ “Nice and not nice” – A nāṭiqa from the Shūf mountains in Lebanon reports on a difficult childhood
“Ḥilw wa-mū ḥilw ...” – nice and not nice was what it had been like to be born as a nāṭiqa, a “speaking” girl – this was how a 40-year-old woman from the Lebanese Shūf mountains narrated her own life story to us, quite serenely.18
The interview partner explained that she had still been very closely attached to her previous life when she was a small child. She had longed for her “old” ←44 | 45→family and rejected the family of her parents in her current generation. When she was four years old, chance (bi-ṣ-ṣudfa) had brought her past her previous house and she had recognised her “past” mother (ummī yilli kānat). Looking through the front door, she caught sight of a photograph of herself, a photograph showing her as a child in her previous life. She began to cry and scream, “Hay Māmā!” – that is my mother! and “Anā biddī Māmā!” – I want my mother!
The interview partner knew that she had previously been called Amal* and had been tragically ripped from life by cancer at the age of 20. She could remember the names of all her (past-life) siblings, and she knew highly specific family stories that made it clear that she was indeed the Amal* who had died (and not a liar). She knew, for example, that her sister Lama* had broken her leg on her account when she went outside in winter to fetch snow (which little Amal*, who was sick at the time, loved to eat). Lama* had to wear a metal brace for a long time after that.
The definitive proof (dalīl), however, as the interview partner narrated the story, was that she remembered an especially thorny and “secret” family matter that nobody knew about except her: Her father had worked in Saudia Arabia and had an extra-marital affair with a woman there. She found the handwritten letters exchanged between her father and his lover. She did not want her mother to discover what was going on and hid them under her mattress. When she died, her bed was left untouched. And when she then returned as a small girl in her present life, she said to her (previous) family, there are things from my father. I hid them! And then she went to her previous bed and lifted the mattress, and her father’s love letters came to light!
After that, all the problems started, the interview partner told us. Her father had gone berserk, accused her of lying and beat her – despite the facts of the matter being obvious and unambiguous. Her previous-life parents’ marriage subsequently broke down, and the interview partner was held to have destroyed the house ([anā] ẖarabt al-bayt) by revealing this family secret.
She reported that she had brought many of the characteristics she had had in her old life into her new life along with her – she had not been a meat-eater and still did not eat meat, for instance, and she had had a birthmark on her face then and had one now. She showed us a photograph from her previous life of Amal* as a little girl with a prominent birthmark on her face, and she has a clearly visible birthmark now, too – albeit on the other side of her face.
The interview partner pointed out several times that “speaking” children must be able to prove their stories unambiguously. She commented that this was tiring for the children (byitʿab al-walad kithīr): they were often rejected (even after supplying proof), they felt torn between both families and they faced ←45 | 46→considerable pressure. These children could become nervous, restless or troublesome “problem children” (mushkiljī).
In her own case, however, the interview partner narrated that she had come to terms with her story. Looking across to her husband and her son, she remarked that she was happily married now and had found closure on the turmoil of her childhood. Her mother (in her previous life) had become an old woman by now, and visiting her was somehow tiring: Every time I visit her, she gets very emotional and starts to cry when I get there. That brings everything back up again for me, and I get a headache that lasts for three days afterwards!
* * *
During our conversation, the interview partner raised two more issues that sometimes also cropped up in other interviews. One of them was the question of whether a death and a birth had been perfectly simultaneous, and the other was the phenomenon of having memories of more than one previous life. In relation to the former issue, the interview partner reported that her birth (in her present life) had taken place three months after Amal’s* death – in apparent contrast to the belief that a soul leaves a person with their last breath and slips into the body of a newborn baby taking their first breath.
This “time in between” was referred to as intiqāl (literally: migration) by the interview partner, a term used in this context in Lebanon, Syria and North Israel alike. The logical explanation for the gap is that there was a short life in between, and it is common enough for infants to die after only a few days, weeks or – as in this case – three months (and plausible that they would not accumulate specific memories in such a short time on Earth). While this “time in between” does not constitute an insurmountable obstacle, the interview partner commented that the discrepancy between the time of death and time of birth had played into the hands of people who did not believe her and accused her of lying when she was a child.
In relation to the second question, the interview partner first described the nuṭq case of a sister of hers with memories of living in two past generations. She herself, the interview partner narrated, could remember having lived as Salam* in Suwaydāʾ (in Syria) before her life as Amal* and her present life. This was when the Druze had been engaged in a struggle against the Ottomans and subsequently against the French. She remembered being close to 50 years old and being at home alone with her three sons when the Turks were hammering at the door of the house and demanding Abu Ibrahim*. She had pressed her back against the thick wooden door, she said, while the Turks maltreated the door from without with their swords. They had finally penetrated it and bored ←46 | 47→through her body, she recalled, and the last thing she had seen was her son clutching a curtain and hiding behind it. In her previous life as Amal* (in the Shūf mountains in Lebanon), she was able to remember this earlier life (in Suwaydāʾ, Syria) better than she remembers it today, in her present life. She found the way back to her family in Suwaydāʾ as Amal* and heard much of what she knows about her life in Suwaydāʾ, the life preceding her more recent previous life, from her mother (from the past generation). She told us that she had undertaken a journey to Syria in her present life with her previous-life mother and that her mother had shown her the house in Suwaydāʾ. She had thus had an opportunity to get to know relatives from an earlier life preceding her previous and present lives.
CASE J: │ “I remember my previous life to learn from it but not to step into it (again)” – A nāṭiq who is aware of his previous family but reluctant to initiate contact
The following interview was conducted with a nāṭiq who had shared his story publicly in contexts including a Lebanese TV show.19 The interview partner described having been a criminal who smuggled arms and was involved in dubious deals in his previous life. While he did not expressly bring up the topic of the Lebanese civil war, the circumstances described clearly point towards various facets of the armed conflicts of those years. The interview partner’s memories seemed to weigh very heavily on him as we talked: He would like to gain closure on his previous life, but letting go is not easy and the process is ambivalent.20
The interview partner started his story by recounting that he had been active as a pawnbroker and a smuggler in his previous life. He had worked in the neighbourhood of Buqʿātā and Samqāniyya, around ʿĀlayh and here on the mountain around Dayr al-Qamar. He had possessed a very expensive car, a ←47 | 48→BMW 745 – and the car was responsible, he said, for him having found the trail leading to his previous life. The car had, as it were, led him to the house (of his previous life) in the village of […]. In this way, the interview partner told us, he had found his things (weapons etc.) from his previous life, but he would come back to that later.
The interview partner began by narrating an incident he had been involved in detail. He was smuggling “hot loot” for a Christian family from the village of […] to another locality, and he was going to make 1,500 USD on the deal. He arrived at Checkpoint Mukhtār, and the police signalled for him to stop at a roadside check. He did not stop. They pursued him to […] and opened fire there. When they shot at him, he originally believed that he was coming under fire from the Lebanese army. But his TV appearance a few years beforehand had led to this picture changing: After I was in Tony Khalife’s show on television, the interview partner reported, a man from Mazraʿat ash-Shūf contacted me and told me that my story was like a story that he knew. According to this version, it was not the Lebanese army that had shot me but the Lijān Shaʿbīya [presumably a unit of the “People’s Liberation Army”] and the man who had shot me wanted to get to know me and to talk to me. And I went to this man and got to know him!
The interview partner went on to relate that the shot fired at him had been fatal, that he had been married to a woman called Rema* and that he had left two children behind, Hawla* and Dunya*. Interestingly, he was unable to remember his own name in his previous life.
The interview partner then told us about his brother, Amir*, who had been in the same line of business and worked together with him regularly. On this occasion, too, his brother had been with him: I can remember my last picture of him, and when I talk about it now, I have this picture right before my eyes: After I was hit, I drove over to the edge of the road and my brother began to shoot back like a madman. I can see it very clearly in my head: I was looking at everything from above [from a bird’s-eye perspective]. I remember these pictures from the perspective from above and the perspective from within the car.21←48 | 49→
As the interview partner told us, the bullet that hit him had left a scar. And when he was born again (in this life), he had an (inexplicable) scar on his abdomen right from birth. The doctor assisting at the birth noted it down in his records. It was on account of his scar, the interview partner recollected, that Tony Khalife had decided to invite him onto his show as an interview guest.
One day – in his present life – the interview partner was working as the organiser of a wedding procession (zaffa). He was accompanying the procession on foot when the crowd passed through a particular junction. It was the junction where he used to turn off for his house in his former life. And he was suddenly able to recall many things. All sorts of events from his previous life suddenly started racing through his mind. Together with another person, he left the wedding procession. They went to his former house. He saw his brother’s car and said, that’s not the car I died in. They went into the house. He found the car that was his in his past life. And he found his box (he could still remember the hiding place). When he opened it, his arms and his money were still inside.22 Nobody had touched the box in the time that had passed. The interview partner went on to tell us that he had left his previous house again immediately. He left everything just as it had been and told nobody about what he had discovered. He does not want to see his family from his past life again and refuses to initiate contact with them.
The interview partner went on to describe several ways his present life differed from the previous life he wanted nothing more to do with: he had been a bit heavier in his previous life, worn a beard and always been armed – a typical miltiaman. Art, culture and society had not interested him. In his present life, however, he finds all kinds of weapons deeply repugnant. He is an artist, a theatre person and incredibly open to different cultural traditions. He is now trying to do exactly the opposite of what he did in his previous life.
When I asked whether he never felt the desire to talk to his children (from his previous life) he replied: Of course, I want to see my “natural children” (aṭfāl ṭabīʿī). I miss them, but I don’t want to meet them. I remember my past life to learn from it, but not to step into it (again). It’s over! I died in my old life and became somebody new. And I want to continue this new life now. I want to leave my old life behind!
Remarkably, one of the examples the interview partner drew on to explain his attitude was a nuṭq case in his circle of friends that had unfolded as follows: One ←49 | 50→of my friends, his father died. They were fighting together on the front line. The father was killed in an assault. And the son escaped. The father was born again – as the son of his son. And they still talk about the incident today. The son says, “I don’t trust you because you fled back then and left me alone (on the front) by myself!” to his father in his present life. […] And when the small child began to speak about his previous life, he only needed to look his father in the eye to remember and say, “You are the one who killed me!” That was not right, of course, because the father only (cowardly) ran away (abandoning his son). But the fact of looking into the eyes of someone from one’s past life triggers a lot!23
As the interview partner expressed with reference to this case, “a lot would be sure to happen” if he were to see his old family again. Seeing them again would be stressful: It isn’t pleasant when somebody thinks about their old life (and talks about it a lot) as they then have two personalities. In his previous life, he was a father and had children and a lot of responsibility; and now he also has (different) responsibilities. I don’t want to see my picture from the past. I see two families. The old family has its natural idiosyncrasies and the new family has its own idiosyncrasies. Carrying (these different) responsibilities is unbearable: a young child feels the weight of responsibility (from their previous life) but also feels that they cannot fulfil the demands flowing from this responsibility.
The interview partner told us that he had once driven to his “old” house in his car at a time when his former family were not at home. And I stopped the car. I went across the street, and a neighbour saw me as I was crossing and asked me if she could help me. And because I knew that they might all recognise me from [the television show with] Tony Khalife, I turned around quickly, went back to the car and “fled”.
As the interview partner told us, Tony Khalife had spoken to every member of the family before the programme. We spoke on the phone and he asked me where the “old” house was. I answered: “I don’t want to say that!” but they went to the mayor and searched the residents register for the name – and then they knew where the house is. I didn’t tell them!
The nāṭiq replied, Of course, they know about me. They saw my face and they know who I am. In the programme, I said that I had driven into the village with the car and then made off again […]. But they also know that I don’t want to see them – that’s how I put it in the programme. If THEY want to meet me, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. But from my point of view, a meeting isn’t necessary!
A tentative ethnographic analysis of the narrated nuṭq cases
Certain patterns are discernible in the nuṭq cases introduced in the interview excerpts presented here, both in relation to the sequence of described events and to the different outcomes of cases in terms of whether a close relationship is established between “speakers” and their previous families. Together with an entire series of further interviews conducted with “speakers”, their relatives and “external” observers and archived at the OeAW Phonogrammarchiv, the interviews presented here supplied the starting point for the ethnographic analysis below.
Before getting further into specific details, it must be stressed that an ʿamalīyat an-nuṭq is not a normal process even from an emic perspective: While the Druze religious doctrine holds that all humans are reincarnated as humans, our interview partners regarded the ability of “speakers” to remember previous lives as a rare and exceptional phenomenon. As the interviews demonstrate, nuṭq cases within the Druze community involve both men and women and can arise in all social and educational strata and in both rural and urban contexts. They appear to occur somewhat more frequently in particular families and regions, however, and the degree to which they have the effect of constituting a kind of kinship relationship appears to vary from place to place.
The analysis below initially focuses on typical building blocks of narrated nuṭq cases that were addressed in virtually every interview and thus represent core components that appear to be significant to our interview partners. In a subsequent step, the question of how Druze society approaches the phenomenon of “speaking” children is also explored and the significance ascribed to this phenomenon is probed. The interview excerpts gathered here suggest that this question defies simple explanations: The statements in the interviews reflect a wide range of positions including idealised depictions of kin relationships constituted by specific nuṭq cases, descriptions of rejections and the hurt that ensued in their aftermath and the oft-voiced view that “speaking” children should be persuaded to forget their previous lives and “fall silent”.←51 | 52→
Comparing nuṭq narratives: Similarities in their structure and content
When the cases of “speaking” children who found their previous families gathered in our research project are examined more closely as narratives, certain components of their content appear to be typical and are invariably mentioned even in highly condensed and abbreviated descriptions of cases. These typical elements are:
- • the cause of the “speaker’s” death in their previous life;
- • the nature and content of their previous-life memories;
- • the moment they discovered or found their previous families;
- • the proof that the “speaker” is indeed the deceased person; and
- • the reactions in the “speaker’s” social environment and the societal embedding of the case in the here and now.
The interview partners generally supplied a moral evaluation of specific cases and the parties involved that went beyond simple description and sought to elucidate the meaning of cases for society as a whole and to clarify the status of cases relative to other cases.
These building blocks are mentioned in virtually every nuṭq case regarded as complete, although they are not always narrated in the same chronological sequence. While the cause of death, the memories of “speakers”, the discovery of a previous family, the furnishing of proof and the reactions of those affected are always described as narrative-episodic knowledge (as hard facts, in other words), the moral evaluation of cases and their significance for the Druze community tends to be embedded in the subjective theories of narrators. Descriptions of cases are often wrapped up with general conclusions about human and divine justice and reflections (revealing a narrator’s semantic knowledge) on the importance of taqammuṣ for the coherence of the Druze community.
Looking beyond the level of narrative structure, the cases of “speaking” children documented in the episodic interviews also show many parallels in their content. The causes of death mentioned are often similar, the kinds of memories and proof addressed in the narratives resemble each other and the moments of discovering previous families are often recounted in remarkably similar ways. These content schemata24 will be explored in greater depth below.←52 | 53→
Ugly causes of death
The cause of the death that brought the previous life of the nāṭiq to an abrupt end is a central element in every narrated nuṭq case. The connection between dying in an ugly manner25 and the possibility of being reborn as a nātiq/a appeared self-evident to our Druze interview partners. Although there were exceptions (as in Case E), almost all “speakers” reported having previously died suddenly and often violently, for instance of gunshot wounds (Cases A, C, and J) or a snakebite (Case B), during military operations (Case F) or in traffic collisions, plane crashes, electrical accidents or (as in Case G) a drowning.26
Leaving the question of the factual manner of death aside and turning to the explanatory models of the interview partners, we find that the “ugliness” of these deaths seems to be attributable less to their direct cause (gunshot wounds, traffic collisions and so on) than to people having been ripped from their lives at the “wrong” time in a way that threw human relationships severely out of kilter. The deaths of mothers or fathers of small children leave a gaping void, for instance, because these parents bear great responsibility for their children at the time of their deaths. Important unfulfilled plans were similarly seen as a reason for being unable to let go, as were still having scores to settle, being bearers of secrets or – as the interview partner in Case F put it – still having something (important) left to say.
These interpretations are also reflected in the semantic knowledge displayed by the interview partners on the issue of why some people have the ability to ←53 | 54→remember their previous lives even though most people’s memories cease with the demise of their physical bodies: People who knew that their deaths would cause major ruptures in the lives of the people in their social spheres would cling hard to their previous lives, they believed, and be unable to let go at the decisive point.
The interview partner from the Shūf mountains in Case I who told us about abruptly being tragically torn from her previous life against her will by cancer used a metaphor to explain this: She showed us her hand – relaxed, with outstretched fingers, and then again as a tightly clenched fist, and she explained that people who die a natural death can let go, but that those who are reborn as a nāṭiq/a had held on tightly to their old lives: they cannot simply let go – and that is why they remember!
This idea of “holding on” to their old lives brings us directly to content “speaking” children remember in the earliest phase of their (new) lives: Their deaths in their previous lives, loved ones and special places, objects or other details.
The nature and content of previous-life memories
Looking at the cases narrated by our interview partners, the following thematic areas that speakers generally remember and can provide information about become apparent: (1) The manner of death and the steps in which the fatal incident unfolded (seen from a bird’s-eye perspective), including the people who were present; (2) people and objects the “speaker” was especially attached to (such as certain family members, friends, a beautiful house, a garden, a beloved sports car or a truck); (3) particular skills and characteristics the deceased person was known for in their previous life (being a technically skilled pilot, a powerful fighter or a vegetarian, for instance), with these qualities sometimes being carried over into the “speaker’s” present life.
The moment of discovering or recognising people one was close to in a previous life
While the process of (unsuccessfully) searching for previous families is scarcely mentioned in nuṭq narratives, the moment of the (successful) discovery of the former family represents a cornerstone of almost every case study. This momentous event is often described as a flashback by “speakers” (see Cases A, E, F). It is invariably described as “immediate and unmistakable”: While those around them may be sceptical, the “speakers” themselves do not doubt, not even momentarily, that they have come face to face with a person or place from their previous lives.
This moment of discovery is always described in the context of furnishing proof in nuṭq narratives, and it is normally an integral part of the examination ←54 | 55→process: A nāṭiq/a is held to be able to recognise a particular place (or a person or an object) precisely because they are the deceased person and nobody else! Witnesses who are present are accorded an important role in this context.27
Forms of proof: Characteristics, physical features, knowledge of facts or familiarity with secrets
The kinds of proof furnished interact with the memories recounted by “speakers” and/or with their distinctive characteristics:
- --> The nātiq/a is able to describe their death throes accurately and in detail: People who were present are identified, and knowledge of seemingly minor details (that only the dying person could have known) can act as supplementary proof that a “speaker” is indeed a particular deceased person. The deaths depicted often also occurred in the context of historically provable crimes, military operations or terror attacks that make the descriptions given by “speakers” appear authentic and allow details to be corroborated (Cases A, B, C, F, J).
- --> The nātiq/a can navigate in a specific environment “as if they were at home there”: they know or recognise the names of people that were dear to them, they know where to find what and they are aware of the special significance of certain items (often clothing) (Cases A, B, C, E, F, H, I).
- --> The nātiq/a has certain abilities (such as foreign language skills, technical or mathematical expertise, relevant professional expertise) or specific characteristics (such as not eating meat, as in Case I) that appear remarkable in a child and are taken to have been carried over from a previous life.
- --> Specific birthmarks can identify a nātiq/a as a certain deceased person – although such marks sometimes swap sides (see Cases A and I).
- --> Specific phobias that are explained with reference to the cause of death of a nātiq/a (such as the hydrophobia in Case G) play an especially important role in the proving of nuṭq cases. Similarly, children may have scar-like marks that seem to point directly towards the mortal agony of a dying person and are sometimes already documented at their hospital births (as in Case J).
In addition to these factors, knowledge of special secrets that could only have been known to the deceased person often supplies the most decisive form of ←55 | 56→proof. In Case I, for instance, the nāṭiqa was familiar with a special ritual the family used to perform in secret because they were having problems with the jinn, and she uncovered the love letters belonging to her father that she remembered hiding under her mattress in her previous life.
Other cases feature hidden toys (when somebody died as a child; see Cases B, G), arms caches (like the weapons hidden under a gas tank in Case C or the concealed pistol in Case E). Practically all cases include mention of some specific items of evidence the deceased person concealed without telling anybody while they were still alive. “Speakers” prove that they are specific deceased people by knowing about and salvaging these “relics”.
In addition to the secrets thus disclosed, material wealth such as cash, gold or jewellery often plays an especially important role and is salvaged during the process of providing evidence to prove a case. There does not seem to be a uniform consensus on what should happen to such rediscovered money or objects of value, that is who should be considered their rightful owner, in other words how they should be shared. Our interview partners commented that the moral circumstances of specific individual cases had to be evaluated: Was the money “clean” (gained by honest means) or had the deceased been, say, a miser who had illegitimately put money aside for their own purposes? And in relation to the situation in the here and now: Does the “speaker” need this money (or these weapons etc.) now?
Reactions and the social embedding of cases in the here and now
Supplying evidence to prove one’s case is one thing, but having it accepted by every involved party is another matter entirely. When nuṭq cases are described, the reactions of all the other members of the affected families are normally also mentioned. How, for instance, does the present family react to a “speaking” child that has just found their way back to their previous family? How do the members of the previous family and (previous) friends appraise the reappearance of the deceased – now in the body of a small child? What role do secrets play that have now been revealed – or could now be revealed? Do some people feel offended, unmasked or even proven guilty of crimes?
In the cases described to us, the interview partners seemed to treat the outcome of cases as an especially delicate question. The appearance of a “speaker” can create new human relationships in a marvellous way and strengthen old ties, but “speakers” can also introduce chaos into environments that had seemed perfectly ordered before their arrival on the scene. The “moral of the story” is thus a cornerstone in almost all narrated nuṭq cases and often represents a departure point for further reflections in which semantic knowledge is shared.
←56 | 57→Summarising, it can be noted that the narrated nuṭq cases are subject to strong plot construction (Fig. 8). Core components repeated in narrative after narrative (manner of death, specific memories, the moment of discovering the previous family, the evidence proving the person is the deceased, the significance of the case for the here and now) are ultimately connected in a causal chain of events: A nāṭiq remembers his previous life because (1) he was torn from it in an ugly way; on the basis of these (2) memories, he (3) discovers his previous family and (4) proves that he is the person who was parted so abruptly from his life. And all of these elements are, finally, (5) inseparable from the present identity of the “speaker” and/or the general situation of the Druze.28
Establishment of new kinship ties versus rejection: On the ethnosociological realisation of nuṭq cases
Preliminary ethnosociological considerations
From the perspective of the interview partners, the evidence furnished by “speakers” is decisive for determining whether their case is seen as authentic and afforded (social) recognition. Interview partners were confident that the result can be determined with little ambiguity in almost all cases. The following section offers a cautious analysis – based on the material gathered – of consequences that flow (or can potentially flow) from the social recognition of nuṭq cases. At the level of kinship, the question of how personal and collective identities are constructed is central. At the wider level of society, the question arises as to what discursive processes nuṭq cases are embedded in.
When a “speaking” child turns up at the door of a family home and succeeds in proving their identity with a given deceased person successfully, this newly established kinship relationship and the questions it throws up for possible inheritance claims, obligations to provide for others, or social responsibilities do not seem to be subject to firm rules anchored in customary law but to be navigated on a case-by-case basis. To summarise the statements of our interview partners, it appears that the extent to which “previous” families feel responsible for “speaking” children is mainly an emotional matter (ʿāṭifa) rather than an issue for customary law (ʿurf) or state law (qānūn), with the sacred scriptures of the Druze also apparently having little by way of binding guidance to offer.
The interviews illustrate that a diverse range of relationships between “speakers” and members of their presumed previous-life families can exist. Some “speakers” are reluctant to initiate contact with their families from their previous lives (as in Case J) or are rejected after seeking out their families (as in Case H, where the nāṭiqa was rejected by her previous mother). Speakers may be accepted by some family members, while others remain sceptical (such as the brother in Case F). But these were flanked by many other cases in which remarkably close relationships between “speakers” and their previous families developed, so that the “speakers” spend certain periods of their lives (back) with their families from their past lives or even (like the nāṭiq in Case C, who built a house directly adjacent to the home of his previous family) opt to live out their lives alongside their previous families. From an ethnosociological perspective, the relationship constituted by nuṭq in such cases could be described as an extended family: Each family has its own kitchen, but the garden is shared, and both families see each other most days. The description given by the interview ←58 | 59→partner in Case B of the family relationship being sustained even by subsequent generations in both families after the death of the “speaker” is exceptionally remarkable from the perspective of kinship studies.
Although the Druze today are not, genealogically speaking, a patrilineal tribal society in the understanding of classical ethnological theory (cf. Khoury and Kostiner 1991; Dostal 2005a; Chatty 2016) and often consciously distance themselves in their discourse from niẓām al-qabalī, the “classic” tribal system, the consciousness that kinship is not necessarily limited to scientific-biological kinship or defined only in terms of consanguinity that is generally prevalent in Middle Eastern societies also seems to be significant for nuṭq cases: Kinship genealogies are not fixed and immutable in this view, but ultimately a product of negotiations and social processes or an outcome of conflict resolution processes (see the concept of “structural amnesia”; Dostal 2005b).
Cases of kinship constituted by nuṭq have some obvious parallels with the classical Arabian concept of milk kinship (riḍāʿa), at least in terms of the resultant marriage prohibitions. Being breast-fed by one and the same mother makes children milk siblings (ikhwa bi-r-riḍāʿa) who may not subsequently marry each other.29
The kinship ties described in the interviews are, finally, also plausible or explainable in light of the common practice of adoption in the Middle East. ←59 | 60→“Speakers” can be integrated (or reintegrated) relatively smoothly into their previous families, albeit more in the sense of customary law with its rights and duties (including marriage obligations and prohibitions) than as legal subjects before the state.
Integration versus distancing: Two opposed modes of constructing kinship constituted by nuṭq
Two contrary modes of approaching the construction of kinship relations in nuṭq cases can be discerned when one examines the interview excerpts and other cases that were documented during the research project:
(1)A “speaker” and their present family can seek and maintain proximity to their previous family, or this can happen in reverse, with the previous family seeking the “speaker’s” proximity and attempting to reintegrate them into the family. We can subsume these outcomes under the heading of the “integration mode”.
(2)A “speaker” and their present family can attempt to keep their distance from the “rediscovered” family, or the previous family can attempt to keep the speaker at a distance in what we can call the “distancing mode”.
The question of when which mode is triggered and what incremental distinctions are made by individual family members can ultimately only be answered empirically on a case-by-case basis. However, the tentative analysis below seeks to pinpoint some shared characteristics of cases in which more or less all the involved parties approached one another in the integration mode and a kinship relationship that feels “genuine” emerged. A few working hypotheses derived from the data are sketched out below.
Working hypothesis1 │ Geography: The integration mode arises more frequently among the Druze in Israel
The likelihood of nuṭq cases leading to “closeness and integration” is considerably higher in northern Israel than in Lebanon and Syria. This is, at least, the conclusion that presents itself when all the cases documented during the research project are classified by nation-state context. While generalisations from the perspective of social anthropology are inevitably risky, it may be worth pointing out – simplistically, perhaps – that the Druze population in Israel forms a highly closed society (that typically demarcates itself clearly from the Sunni Muslim and Christian Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as well as from the Jewish population of Israel) that is also highly dispersed and lacks a contiguous settlement area. In contrast to the Shūf mountains (in Lebanon), Suwaydāʾ (in Syria) or – with some limitations – the Druze settlement areas in the mount Hermon border region, the Druze of Upper ←60 | 61→Galilee in Israel live in isolated Druze villages or towns. Their settlements appear to be connected to one another primarily discursively, with the discourse on nuṭq playing a particular role.30
Working hypothesis2 │ Families: The integration mode is more common in families with previous positive experiences of the phenomenon of nuṭq
Both the cases documented in the research project and the normative statements made by our interview partners permit the conclusion that the phenomenon of nuṭq occurs in certain family groups and certain villages more frequently than in others.31 The interview partners explained this by suggesting that some families pay more attention to children starting to “speak”. It takes a certain level of awareness, they considered, for parents or other family members to listen attentively when children of two or three are learning to talk and start to speak – initially indistinctly – about people, circumstances and experiences in their previous lives and/or to display characteristics carried over from previous lives. People who have already had positive experiences with nuṭq in their own lives or in their families are, they believed, more alert to what their children are telling them and more likely to investigate any information supplied by children without delay. Our interview partners thought that such families encourage children – deliberately or subconsciously, overtly or subtly – to tell them more about their previous lives and that they support their children’s search for previous relatives actively. They also seek to make their children’s stories widely known, our interview partners told us, with “good intentions” of enabling the children to contact previous families – the first prerequisite for realising a successful and socially recognised ʿamalīyat an-nuṭq in the integration mode.
Working hypothesis3 │ Case content: The integration mode is deployed when “speakers” do not present a major threat to members of their previous families
The previous-life brother who had treated a “speaker’s” widow badly and felt entitled to keep her widow’s pension for himself (in Case F), the mother who did not want to hand over gold and jewellery she had appropriated after the death of a “speaker” (in Case H), the father whose extra-marital relationship was known to and ultimately revealed by a “speaker” (in Case I): What these people all have in common is that the sudden appearance of a “speaker” led to them being confronted – at least latently – with accusations and therefore to them feeling inclined to reject the prospect of integrating a “speaker” as kin. But the narrated cases also show that these people isolated themselves by rejecting the “speaker” and that other family members can adopt differentiated positions in their relationships with “speakers”. From an outside perspective, ←61 | 62→it seems that “speakers” represent a threat only to people who have got, as it were, skeletons in their cupboards.32
Working hypothesis4 │ Case content: The integration mode is triggered when the relationship of the deceased to other members of the family was positive
From the perspective of the previous family, a genuine “speaker” is not a stranger, but the deceased person and nobody else. When this person knocks at the door of the family home – in the body of a child – the integration mode can only be triggered if the family’s previous relationship to this person was positive. During our data collection, we heard about cases of children being rejected because they had become morally culpable in their previous lives. One family, for example, refused to hand over money “discovered” in the context of a “speaker” supplying evidence to prove their case and argued that the deceased person had been a miser and that other family members had been entitled to the money to begin with. Characteristics ascribed to the deceased person or possible unsettled scores with the deceased seem to influence the willingness of previous families to enter into a kinship relationship in the integration mode with “speakers”.
Working hypothesis5 │ Case content: The integration mode is triggered when a “speaker” can positively identify with the biography of the deceased person
From the perspective of a “speaker” analysing their room for manoeuvre between the options of integration and distancing, the specific biography of the deceased person seems to play an important role. When a “speaker” remembers being a criminal or an “evil” person in their previous life, the option of stepping into the shoes of the deceased and once more becoming part of the previous family is normally not pursued. The interview partner in Case J told us that he wanted to find closure on his previous life and not to step into it again, commenting that he knows exactly where the house from his previous life is located, but chooses not to initiate contact with his (previous) wife and daughters – ultimately because he is ashamed of his past life. “Speaking” children who can take up the threads of an honourable biography can, in contrast, increase their social capital significantly. The integration of a nāṭiq/a into the family of a deceased person represents the successful conclusion of an ʿamalīyat an-nuṭq.
Conceptualised versus lived kinship: “Speakers” in double roles
It is clear from the case studies (see Cases A, B, C, E, F, I) and from the conditions outlined in these working hypotheses that nuṭq cases can potentially lead to relationships understood as kinship ties developing in all their facets – including rights, duties, marriage prohibitions and an assortment of other consequences. The nature of such kinship ties and kinship practices will be examined somewhat more closely below:
From an epistemological standpoint, the kinship constituted through nuṭq is fundamentally different from the usual Middle Eastern kinship model in the sense that the “speakers” embody double roles in their personal identities. They are not merely related to their previous families, they are also members of these families – deceased and subsequently reincarnated family members.33
At the empirical level, the most obvious manifestation of this double role is that “speakers” have multiple names: People who knew “speakers” in their previous lives usually speak to them or about them using the names the deceased individuals were known by. From what our interview partners told us, it appears that the use of different names for one and the same person is approached in a laid-back fashion; “speakers” see it as “normal” that they are called different names by different people and that names from their previous lives remain in use.34
Interestingly enough, similarities or correspondences between a “speaker’s” present and previous names are often pointed out. The nāṭiq in Case A observed, not without pride, that the name his parents had given him in this life was identical with the name of his beloved son in his previous life35 – although his present parents could not yet have known anything about his kin from his previous life when they chose the name for him. The comments that such correspondences are hardly coincidental and the way they are narrated often ←63 | 64→give them the character of an additional form of proof that the nāṭiq must indeed be the deceased person.
Apart from the symbolism associated with the use of particular “cross-generational” given names, titles like yā māmā are also used (and sometimes reversed,36 as is common in colloquial registers in Greater Syria) and previous-life relatives are treated in the same ways as present-life relatives.
The authenticity of the kinship relationship constituted by nuṭq was often underscored in the interviews by the roles taken on by “speakers” during ceremonies37 – like funerals and weddings – marking major life events. In Case E, for example, the nāṭiq carried the coffin at the burial of his previous wife (as was appropriate for a “true” widower). In Case F, the nāṭiq effectively took on the role of the father of the bride at the wedding of his daughter from his previous life, and the nāṭiqīn in Cases A and C made similar reports. But the English teacher in Case F also highlights the ambivalence and the difficulties engendered by him stepping into the shoes of the bride’s deceased natural father: At the wedding, he describes, he was not only the father of the bride but also the husband of his – surviving – wife from his previous life, a situation that was recorded in photographs and caused a certain amount of distress to his fiancée in his present life.
The status of nuṭq kinship as genuine kinship was often also underscored by people mentioning that nuṭq relatives of opposite genders are permitted a degree of intimacy, including physical intimacy, that would be unthinkable for people of opposite genders in the Middle East who are not related. This related to close hugging and kissing (see Cases B and F) and to being able to spend companionable hours alone with a previous-life spouse. Brothers, sisters, sons and daughters from a previous family could also interact with a nāṭiq/a in exactly the same way as is usual between members of the nuclear family (see, for instance, Case H). This potential for proximity between nuṭq kin is, in turn, regulated by boundaries in the form of the bans on incest and marriage within nuṭq relationships.←64 | 65→
“Typical” problems with relatives as a hallmark of “authentic” kinship ties
When people speak about their nuṭq relatives, joy and weary sighs are often not far apart. In Case I, for example, the interview partner mentioned that visiting her elderly previous-life mother could be exhausting because of her mother’s constant laments and demands and her over-protective nature – complaints that may be typical in many mother-daughter relationships. The convoluted thought processes, discussions and arguments (and the risks of triggering lifelong disgruntlement) mentioned in Case F in relation to the thorny problem of determining which relatives should (or must) be invited to a wedding and who can (or should) be left out will also be recognisable to many families who have encountered them outside nuṭq contexts. Similarly, people taking offence at perceived slights and withdrawing from a family (as in Case H) and inheritance disputes or clashes over money also reflect behaviour patterns that are common in interactions between relatives in the Middle East and more generally. Descriptions of such conflicts – despite or because of all their tensions and friction – indicate the degree of proximity that can flow from perceived kinship ties.
An interview partner who works as a teacher in Bayt Jann (Israel) narrated a particularly illustrative case.38 She told us that one of her pupils was a nāṭiq and lived his everyday life in both his past-life family and his present-life family. On some days, one family picked the child up from school, and on other days, the other family came to collect him. The teacher remarked critically that the two mothers competed over which mother could best look after the child and cook the best meals. While this conflict carried out to the detriment of the child caught in the middle is tragic, this example also shows just how authentically nuṭq kinship can be lived. From a Western European perspective, such cases are also reminiscent of the typical potential for conflict immanent to patchwork families.39←65 | 66→
Conflicts of interest versus value conflicts: The potential of nuṭq to bridge rifts between rival factions
Remarkably enough, the very cases in which an especially deep relationship developed are often cases that feature frequent mentions of previous enmity between families or localities now bound together by nuṭq (see Case E, for example). In some cases, it was even the nāṭiqīn themselves who had been especially prominently involved in conflicts (see Case C). As an overview of the documented cases shows, such enmity appears to have flowed from conflicts of interests between families that were resolved through an ʿamalīyat an-nuṭq. The families were thus enemies, but honourable enemies, as it were, who espoused similar norms and values.
As the observations below show, the potential for conflict resolution contained in nuṭq cases is emphasised especially in reflective discourses on the nature of the transmigration of souls among the Druze.
Ambivalent, idealised and subversive discourses
On moving from the empirical level towards an examination of these discourses and looking at general beliefs (semantic knowledge) about nuṭq and normative aspirations associated with the phenomenon, one uncovers a certain ambivalence as to whether children who begin to “speak” should be encouraged and adopted (or readopted) into their previous families.
Critical voices motivated by concern for children
While many interview partners made enormously positive statements (among them our interview partners in Cases A, B, C, E, F and – with some caveats – also Cases G, H and I), some concerns and criticisms present within the Druze community were also aired. Intellectuals, more so than other people, and especially interview partners from Syria and Lebanon, did not question the existence of the phenomenon of nuṭq but often emphasised that it would be better to spare the affected children from encountering their previous families. The children could otherwise be torn between their past and present lives and might break down under the strain; children could suffer if they were rejected by their previous families – whatever the reasons for this were – and children’s present families could be wounded if children started to distance themselves from their families and, for instance, say, you are not my mother! to their birth mothers.
The problem was, our interviewees said, that the hand of time does not stand still and that previous adults who return as children are physiologically ←66 | 67→younger than their previous-life children. The gist of what critical interview partners told us was that all these circumstances create confusion and have considerable potential to engender conflict.
To spare those affected from these difficulties, these warning voices sometimes suggested that seeking to encourage children to forget their previous life stories could be preferable to supporting them in their “speaking”.40
Euphoric statements on the significance of nuṭq for society as a whole: “Nuṭq brings people together!”
While some interview partners critically appraised nuṭq as a phenomenon with few benefits for affected individuals, almost all of them made euphoric statements about the significance of nuṭq cases for Druze society. People and families who had not previously been acquainted or who had been locked in conflict find common ground through “speaking” children, they told us, and having multiple families or enlarging one’s kinship circle was fundamentally enriching. Our interview partners also pointed out that such processes also reinforced the cohesion of the wider Druze community.41
This decidedly positive view enjoys approval in the highest Druze circles, as became clear on several occasions, including that of an interview with the spiritual leader of the Israeli Druze, Shaykh Muwaffaq Ṭarīf, who placed great emphasis on the potential of nuṭq to resolve conflicts and bind families together and was able to tell us about an entire series of cases with positive outcomes.42 Such cases illustrate the principle of the transmigration of souls, as we heard from all sides – and people believe that this is ultimately what makes the Druze community so strong.←67 | 68→
Dynamite for families and retributive justice: The truth is uncovered by nuṭq!
Interview partners repeatedly emphasised that a form of retributive justice often seemed to be at work in nuṭq cases: An ʿamalīyat an-nuṭq can lead to crimes, murders, manslaughter cases and dubious “accidents” being cleared up. In some – often prominent – cases, the guilt of murderers was proven and confessions and watertight legal convictions ensued (see Case G).43
The flip side of this is that cases of nuṭq can also lead to the innocence of people who have been under a cloud of suspicion being confirmed, as in Case C: The friend who had originally been accused of murder was finally exonerated by the account given by the nāṭiq.
Interestingly, however, the moral conduct of an individual other than the nāṭiq/a is often revealed in the course of an ʿamalīyat an-nuṭq. The extra-marital relationship of the nāṭiqa in Case I came to light in this way, for instance. The brother of the nāṭiq in Case F, who was mired in an embarrassing legal battle with the widow of the deceased, was also brought into an uncomfortable situation, as was the mother of the nāṭiqa in Case H, who had allegedly appropriated her dead daughter’s gold.
Injustices can seemingly also be avenged through nuṭq: In Lebanon, especially, we were repeatedly told about cases involving people who had abused their subordinates in particularly humiliating ways, ordering them about and “treating them like dirt”, only to be reincarnated as “small”, “dependent” children in the households of their former underlings.
Major political and societal issues like war, blood vengeance, land confiscations and religious fanaticism can also be addressed in subtle ways through nuṭq cases. Many of the cases narrated to us in Lebanon referred to the Lebanese civil war, for instance in the form of a nāṭiq who knocks at the door of a house and slaps the person who answers in the face because of their cowardly behaviour in a military operation (see Case J). Cases of a deceased man being reborn as the son of his murderer and going on to avenge the murder were occasionally narrated. One especially pointed narrative was said to have taken place in Bshatfīn, a locality in the Shūf Mountains that has been characterised by a conflict carried on between two clans for generations in accordance with the traditional principle of blood vengeance (thaʾr). A man murdered during this ←68 | 69→feud was said to have been reborn as the son of his previous murderer, to have felt persistent intense antipathy towards his father, and finally to have murdered him and several other male members of his present family during a round of negotiations.
Subtle discourses are also invoked in discussions of cases that refer to ethnic-religious segmentation and religious fanaticism. Narrations of nuṭq cases sometimes take on the character of ethnic jokes, as in the story of an especially devout Christian family in the neighbourhood of Shārūn (in the Shūf mountains) who allegedly had a child who had been a Twelver Shi’ite in their previous life. We were told by a grinning Druze tomb keeper that the child remembered their previous life and, much to the horror of their present family, continued to behave like a Shi’ite and to say Islamic prayers five times a day.
* * *
As the following contributions to this book show, nuṭq cases are always embedded in wider discourses on the transmigration of souls and divine justice. They also serve a more practical function as a resource for coping with life’s challenges, which will be taken up again in some brief final comments at the end of this book.
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- Chatty, Dawn. 2016. Bedouin Tribes in Contemporary Syria: Alternative Perceptions of Authority, Management, and Control. In: Rabi, Uzi (ed.): Tribes and States in a Changing Middle East. London: Hurst & Company, 145–170.
- Dostal, Walter. 2005a. Introduction. In: Dostal, Walter and Wolfgang Kraus (eds.): Shattering Tradition: Custom, Law and the Individual in the Muslim Mediterranean. London and New York: Tauris Publisher, 1–19.
- Dostal, Walter. 2005b. Tribal Customary Law of the Zahran Confederation in Southern Hijaz (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). In: Dostal, Walter and Wolfgang ←69 | 70→Kraus (eds.): Shattering Tradition: Custom, Law and the Individual in the Muslim Mediterranean. London and New York: Tauris Publisher, 122–147.
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- Fartacek, Gebhard. 2017. Rekonstruktionen von ethnischen Beziehungen, Widerstand und Krieg: Ergebnisse eines Interviewprojekts am Phonogrammarchiv der ÖAW. In: Binder, Susanne and Gebhard Fartacek (eds.): Facetten von Flucht aus dem Nahen und Mittleren Osten. Wien: Facultas-Verlag, S. 293–317.
- Fartacek, Gebhard. 2020. Sensible Forschungssituation und Potential. Narrative Interviews mit syrischen Kriegsflüchtlingen aus methodischer und methodologischer Perspektive. In: International Forum on Audio-Visual Research – Jahrbuch des Phonogrammarchivs 10: 88–104.
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- Kastrinou, Maria et al. 2020. The Stateless (Ad)vantage? Resistance, Land and Rootedness in the Israeli-Occupied Syrian Golan Heights. Taylor & Francis Online. DOI: 10.1080/21622671.2020.1743203.
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- Oppenheimer, Jonathan W.S. 1980. We Are Born in Each Others’ Houses: Communal and Patrilineal Ideologies in Druze Village Religion and Social Structure. In: American Ethnologist 7 (4): 621–636.←70 | 71→
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1Constructivist epistemology can be clearly distinguished from so-called realist or “rationalist” positions that consider the ability to reconstruct a reality that exists independently of the observer as the most important epistemological capability of humans. The core thesis of constructivist epistemology, in contrast, holds that subjects generate their own realities rather than merely representing reality. For constructivists, reality is a product of human thought and not merely a prerequisite for it. What is “radical” about constructivist theory is its assertion that “objective reality” is not directly accessible to us: Our perceptive abilities are limited (we can be misled by optical and auditory illusions, for example), and our subjective perspective means that we are guided by our own interests as we interpret our findings. While constructivism does not reject the existence of reality, it posits that we can only recognise our own subjective reality that “triggers something within us” (see Fartacek 2010: 28–35; for more on the wider discussion, see Schmidt 1997, 2003).
2On the concept of viability, which relates to actions and thoughts and demands “adaptation”, see Glasersfeld (1997: 193).
3See Flick (2014: 273–274): “The starting point for the episodic interview […] is the assumption that subjects’ experiences of a certain domain are stored and remembered in forms of narrative-episodic and semantic knowledge. Whereas episodic knowledge is organised closer to experiences and linked to concrete situations and circumstances, semantic knowledge is based on concepts, assumptions and relations which are abstract from these and generalised. For the former, the course of the situation within its context is the main unit around which knowledge is organised. In the latter, concepts and their relation to each other are the central units”. The interviewing method developed by Uwe Flick aims to capture both of these forms of knowledge. While narrative interviewing captures the episodic knowledge of interview partners and permits its analysis, reflections on semantic knowledge are typically sparked by researchers asking specific, targeted questions. Uwe Flick’s model combining both types of interviewing does not simply aim to save time by allowing researchers to jump pragmatically between distinct types of data, “narratives” and “answers”. It serves, rather, to uncover systematic links between forms of knowledge that come to light when both types of data are looked at in tandem (Flick 2014: 274).
4For more on the distinction between both types of knowledge, see Robinson and Clore (2002: 199): “Episodic knowledge is experiential in nature and inextricably bound with details of time and place […]. Semantic knowledge, by contrast, is conceptual in nature and decontextualised – that is, divorced from details of time and place […]”. Both forms of knowledge play vastly different roles in the context of autobiographical memories, as Robinson and Clore demonstrate conclusively in their psychological study.
5See Fartacek (2017: 29–33) for more on the value added by distinguishing between these distinct forms of knowledge and categorising material that has been gathered accordingly. It appears that the authenticity attributed to nuṭq cases by interview partners must be appraised differently for cases mentioned by interview partners purely to illustrate points they were making (drawing on their semantic knowledge) vis-à-vis cases interview partners were strongly involved in personally and narrated using episodic-narrative knowledge. This is explored further towards the end of this contribution.
6Many people contributed to ensuring that these interviews could take place. The greatest thanks are due to the interview partners, who generously shared their life stories with us, along with their views on the connections between taqammuṣ, nuṭq and constructions of identity linked to them. Special thanks are also due to local specialists and fellow researchers, who guided us to “speakers” or their relatives, especially Joe N., who willingly shared numerous highly relevant contacts in northern Israel with us. The social anthropologist Nour Farra Haddad, who has also made a contribution of her own to this volume, passed valuable contacts to interview partners in Lebanon onto us. I also wish to expressly thank the colleagues who were involved in the project as interns or student assistants employed within the scope of the OeAW internships programme for refugees. Safwan Ashoufi and Wansa Nasrallah, who both have a Druze background themselves, organised numerous interviews and in some cases also conducted interviews themselves. This is also true for Amjad Khaboura, whose contribution was financed from project funds. (For an account considering methodological implications of participatory research approaches and reflecting on personal experiences, see Fartacek 2020). Special thanks are also due to Lorenz Nigst and Hanna Vettori, whose work was also funded through the FWF project P28736.
7The interview was conducted in July 2018 in Arabic (the local dialect). It took place in Yarkā in the house of a mutual friend. Apart from the interview partner, the mutual friend was present, as were some of his family members for part of the time. Gebhard Fartacek and Joe N., who had put us in touch with the interview partner, were also present. The audio recording has been archived in the OeAW Phonogrammarchiv with assistance from Hanna Vettori (Signature: 20180706.G002). The names of the interview partner and all of the people mentioned in the interview have been changed (and marked with an asterisk) to preserve their anonymity – here and in the remaining excerpted interviews in this volume.
8This incident took place in 1974. Over a hundred Israeli school pupils were taken hostage by Palestinian militants who entered Israel from Lebanon, and more than 25 people were killed when the building was subsequently stormed by an Israeli special forces unit. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ma%27alot_massacre (accessed on 15 June 2020).
9The interview was conducted (mostly in English, but partly also in Arabic) in the interview partner’s private dwelling in August 2017. Besides the interview partner, Gebhard Fartacek and Lorenz Nigst were present. The audio recording has been archived in the OeAW Phonogrammarchiv with assistance from Hanna Vettori (Signature: 20170830.G001). A year later, Gebhard Fartacek conducted a follow-up interview (see below).
10This interview was again conducted in the private dwelling house of the interview partner in a mixture of English and Arabic. The interview partner and Gebhard Fartacek were present. The audio recording has been archived in the OeAW Phonogrammarchiv with assistance from Hanna Vettori (Signature: 20180709.G001).
11The interview was conducted in July 2018 in the private dwelling of the interview partner in Arabic (the local dialect). Gebhard Fartacek, Joe N. and the interview partner were present. The audio recording was archived in the OeAW Phonogrammarchiv with assistance from Hanna Vettori (Signature: 20180706.G003).
12Interview in July 2018 in Arabic (the local dialect). The audio recording has been archived in the OeAW Phonogrammarchiv (Signature: 20180706.G003│Part 2).
13The interview was held in the private dwelling of the interview partner in July 2018 in Arabic (mostly the local dialect) with occasional explanations in English or German. Gebhard Fartacek, Joe N. and the interview partner were present. The audio recording was archived in the OeAW Phonogrammarchiv with assistance from Hanna Vettori (Signature: 20180706.G001).
14After the birth of his first son, he was called Abu Amjad* – see the additional notes in the running text.
15The interview was conducted in July 2018, partially in English and partially in Arabic. In addition to the nāṭiq, the local historian Raja F., Joe N. and Gebhard Fartacek were present. The audio recording has been archived in the OeAW Phonogrammarchiv with assistance from Hanna Vettori (Signature: 20180703.G001).
16The interview (Arabic, Syrian dialect) was conducted in July 2019 in the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Gebhard Fartacek, Hanna Vettori and Wansa Nasrallah were present. Wansa Nasrallah, herself also a refugee from Syria, is a personal acquaintance of the interview partner. Nasrallah, a trained psychotherapist, undertook a three-month internship at the OeAW Phonogrammarchiv from 1 July to 30 September 2019 as part of the FWF project P28736 (with funding from the refugees’ internships programme at the Austrian Academy of Sciences). The interview has been archived at the Phonogrammarchiv (Signature: 20190718.G001).
17The immediate recipient of this voice message was Wansa Nasrallah (see the footnote on Case G), who knows the interview partner personally from when she was still in Syria. This voice message was translated and archived at the Phonogrammarchiv with assistance from Hanna Vettori (Signature 20190824.G001).
18The interview took place in Arabic (Lebanese dialect) in the interview partner’s dwelling house. Apart from the interview partner, the following people were present: Gebhard Fartacek, Lorenz Nigst, a friend of the interview partner’s who had led us to her, and – for some of the time and/or in the background – the interview partner’s husband and son and a housekeeper. The interview has been archived at the Phonogrammarchiv with assistance from Amjad Khaboura (Signature: 20161017.G001). For more on the specific context of the interview, see Fartacek (2017).
19TV-Show with Tony Khalife: “ʿālam al-mutaqammiṣīn”, broadcast on 10 November 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DzZbQp22R9A (min 04:10–20:02). See the contribution by Lorenz Nigst in this reader.
20The interview was conducted in Autumn 2016 in a private dwelling in Dayr al-Qamar in Lebanon in Arabic (Lebanese dialect). Apart from the interview partner, Gebhard Fartacek, Lorenz Nigst and two Lebanese acquaintances of the interview partner were present, a young Druze man and a Christian woman who were fascinated by the topic of reincarnation. The interview was archived in the Phonogrammarchiv with the help of Hanna Vettori (Signature: 20161026.G001).
21As the nāṭiq told us towards the end of the interview, the fatal incident was stored in his memory as a video (and not as a series of individual pictures), and he can still visualise the sequence of events unfolding: I see myself being shot at, slumping away from the steering wheel, my brother shooting back […]. Other interview partners describing their deaths and/or the moment of discovering their previous families also said that these were not “normal memories” but like flashbacks “in a film”.
22Later in the interview, the nāṭiq described this money as “poisonous” because it came from dirty business. On the emic classification of “clean” (honourable) and “dirty” (dishonourable) money, see Kastrinou et al. (2020).
23This case was also narrated to us in October 2016 by another interview partner in a somewhat more detailed version (Dayr al-Qamar, OeAW Phonogrammarchiv Signature 20161024.G002).
24See the discussion in Fartacek (2017: 38–42).
25A clear distinction made from an emic perspective between two fundamentally different ways of dying emerges from the interviews: A “natural death” (al-mawt aṭ-ṭabīʿī) is characterised by people having found closure in their lives and being able to pass away peacefully and with a clear conscience, but an “ugly death” (al-mawt al-bashiʿ) rips people from their lives violently. Surveying theories in cultural and social anthropology yields the insight that such a categorisation of “good” and “bad” deaths is not unique to the Druze but an important distinction made in many cultures (see Robben 2004; Joarder et al. 2014). In the Middle East, specifically, violent deaths are often conceived of as likely to trigger demon activity. Winkler (1936: 9) reports that an ʿAfrīt is thought to be created from the blood of a person killed violently. See Fartacek (2010: 127–131) for more on connections between unexplained deaths and the activity of demons (jinn) in Greater Syria.
26Significant parallels exist between the “ugly” causes of death identified in this context and research results on “previous-life memories” reported by cross-cultural research; see, for example, Stevenson and Haraldsson (2003: 286) or Somer et al. (2011: 459–475). For the various conceptions of causes of death and reincarnation among Alawites in Greater Syria, see Prager (2016), cf. Procházka (2002: 242–262).
27On social anthropology theory formation regarding the role of system-immanent evidence in the context of such “discoveries” and the “proving” of nuṭq cases linked to them, see Bonß (1995: 90–91). On “self-confirming” explanations and other “expectation certainties” in the local cultural context and the wider Middle Eastern context, see Fartacek (2010: 174), Fartacek and Nigst (2016: 58-63, 2019: 76-78).
28It is clear from this overview that nuṭq cases cannot simply be freely invented. To be credible and to find credence – to fit into the shared religious beliefs of the Druze – cases must have the features and the kinds of proof outlined here. See Siebert (1997: 34) on the constructivist theorisation linked to this. As Siebert points out, the individual knowledge of an interview partner is always relevant for their identity, significant for their biography and – in relation to their recent or present life situation – dependent on its viability. Moreover, the individual knowledge of any interview partner is never random, but always links back to shared collective knowledge. It is important for individuals that they can share “their” knowledge with others. When knowledge cannot be shared and a conflict emerges, the “misfit knowledge” is either corrected or identified as “crazy”.
29Having children nursed by women who were not their mothers was, at least in former times, a common practice in the Middle East and one that was not always dictated by medical necessity. Having children breastfed by mothers considered to belong to a different ethnic-religious group is thought to have been quite usual. The concept of milk kinship and the marriage taboo it creates is known in both Judaism (see Chapman 2012) and Islam. A hadīth has it that the prophet Muḥammad said: “ar-Riḍāʿa tuḥarrimu mā tuḥarrimu l-wilāda” – What is haram through birth is haram through breastfeeding and Sura 4, Verse 23 of the Qurʾan itself states that “your mothers who nursed you” and “your sisters through nursing” are haram (forbidden [for marriage]). For a discussion of the topic from the perspective of social anthropology, see, especially, Altorki (1980) and Parkes (2005) who both use the term milk kinship to describe these kinship ties. When I raised the issue of similarities between nuṭq and milk kinship in an extended conversation with an interview partner, he confirmed that the kinds of kinship thus founded were comparable in principle but added that the incest taboo established by nuṭq was even more grave: While today some people may not worry too much about possible milk bonds and – if their love is strong enough – might manage to disregard them, marriage to “one’s own sister” [i.e. a previous-life sister] would be unimaginable, if only for emotional reasons alone! (OeAW Phonogrammarchiv, Signature 20170707.G001).
30This is also addressed in my final remarks at the end of this reader. For more detail on the social structure of the Druze population in the different nation states and the wider political outlook, see Tobias Lang’s contribution to this volume.
31ʿAbādīya in Lebanon and Bayt Jann and Jūlis in North Israel are, for example, particularly prominently associated with nuṭq cases.
32Fellow human beings who have behaved in a morally culpable way can be shown up in quite subtle ways by the appearance of a nāṭiq/a. See the notes in the section “Dynamite for families and retributive justice: The truth is uncovered by nuṭq!” towards the end of this contribution. In such cases, the self-interest of specific actors is often advanced as an explanation for the failure of the integration mode to materialise.
33See Lorenz Nigst’s contribution (in this reader) for more on the theoretical difficulties this throws up.
34In Middle Eastern societies more generally, it is quite usual for a person’s name to change multiple times during their lifetime (after the birth of a firstborn son, for example) or for the names used to change depending on the relationship between the participants in any given interaction (and its basis in, say, kinship, social ties or religious connections). This may explain why “speakers” do not see anything especially abnormal in being called different names by different people.
35After the birth of his son, his own name would also have been derived from his son’s name (“Abū …”, father of …).
36“A child, no matter his age (from 0 to 95 years old) may be called mama by his mother, baba by his father, aʾmmo by his uncle, khalo by his maternal uncle, teta by his grandma and jiddo by his granddad”. See: The Title Reversal. https://365daysoflebanon.com/2016/01/11/the-title-reversal/ (accessed on 18 December 2020).
37From the perspective of social anthropology, such critical life events at biographical transitions play an especially important role in the formation and maintenance of personal and collective identities; see Fartacek (2010: 141–156).
38Archived in the OeAW Phonogrammarchiv (Signature: 20170829.G001).
39Just like conflicts between consanguine relatives, conflicts between nuṭq kin often centre around money or allegations that some people are only interested in financial gain. A case from the Shūf mountains in Lebanon was described to us, for instance, in which a nāṭiqa born into poverty had her third-level education financed by relatives from her previous family. Such cases were seen broadly positively, but interview partners sometimes perceived the opportunities they potentially posed for disadvantaged families to enrich themselves as problematic. The risk that somebody is “only” using “the nuṭq method” (ṭarīqat an-nuṭq) to secure some advantage or other appears, therefore, to be a latent possibility in virtually every case marked by economically unequal circumstances. This concern is reflected in the firm assertion of the nāṭiqa in Case H that she was not interested in seeking any material advantage.
40Statements by “speakers” (including the interview partners in Cases A, B, F and H) that people who remember their previous lives cannot simply forget them (and could struggle for their entire lives to achieve a kind of mental equilibrium if their routes to their previous families were blocked) must be understood against the background of this discourse.
41Cf. Oppenheimer (1980), Bennett (2006), and Kastrinou (2016).
42Interview in August 2017, Jūlis, archived in the Phonogrammarchiv (Signature: 20170826.G002). See the contribution by Nigst (in the present volume) on the theological significance of nuṭq, an issue that engenders some controversy among Druze clerics.
43Cases like this are also described in the literature and occasionally even attract attention (and sensationalist reporting) in national and international news media (Fartacek 2017: 49).