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.
Final Comment: Reincarnation and Viability in a Fractured World (Gebhard Fartacek)
Against the background of the preceding contributions, I would now like to close the circle by returning briefly to the question of the significance of “speaking” children for the viability of Druze society in its present form. Against the background of recent and current conflicts and challenges, what role do these Middle Eastern conceptions of the transmigration of souls play?
All human societies are, of course, characterised by certain contrasts – for example between tradition and modernisation, between religious and secular realities and between different and often competing interests and needs. As Tobias Lang strikingly demonstrates in his differentiated contribution, the Druze community in the Middle East is also characterised by further arresting contrasts: As an ethnic-religious group, the Druze play vastly divergent roles in a diverse mix of political structures, and few settlement areas are as socially and politically fragmented as those of the Druze population. Fortified nation-state borders and military fronts at a geopolitical flashpoint create an empirical environment characterised by insurmountable barriers that inevitably separate individual Druze areas from one another and keep their populations apart. Current and recent armed conflicts have also accentuated divides within individual nation states. The small Druze localities in North-Western Syria, for instance, have been completely cut off from the Druze areas in Suwaydāʾ for many years, and even within Lebanon, travel between individual Druze areas has increasingly been becoming impossible. And this is before we even begin to speak of the electric fences and minefields that have already isolated Syrian Druze towns and villages on the Golan Heights from each other for decades (cf. Fig. 7).
This geopolitical setting gives rise to the “functionalist question” of nuṭq and taqammuṣ in a world of friction. The issue appears all the more acute in light of the fact that the Druze are markedly conscious that this important element of the Druze faith sets them fundamentally apart from the followers of the three great book religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and, indeed, opens them up to accusations of heresy.←211 | 212→
The principle of the transmigration of souls as a cosmological bridge between Druze localities and regions and the rest of the world
We are all related! – kullnā qarāʾib! The principle of rebirth is highlighted very positively as part of a shared Druze group coherence in multiple discourses: We Druze do not fear death, we are the most courageous warriors and support one another – as one common self-attribution runs. It is said that the Druze stick together and treat each other respectfully because they are, as it were, born in each other’s houses, and it is thought that every Druze is reborn as rich and as poor, as healthy and as crippled, as a scholar and then a simple farmer, and so on, in accordance with a principle of rotation, so that each individual alternately lives in different social strata. The rotation principle also encompasses kinship and territorial segmentation: Druze expect to be reincarnated in different families and kinship networks in different villages, regions and countries.
As Eléonore Armanet and Lorenz Nigst have shown in their contributions, this rotation is embedded in the discourse on divine justice: Every human being regularly receives new opportunities to make the best of the circumstances they are confronted with in each new life-circuit. As people live under vastly different conditions, it is often considered that it would be unfair if people only had one life and were judged exclusively based on this one life at the Last Judgement.
Being reincarnated in a range of different settings makes sense in this light. Associations are not necessarily made between Druze identity and a shared, contiguous and ethnically homogeneous Druze settlement area, although Druze identity is linked to individual Druze arenas that are clearly ethnically marked: The domes and five-colour flags of the tombs of Druze saints (cf. Fig. 3, 4, 5, and book cover image) – typically sited on mountain peaks or prominent crags – tower over the areas where the Druze live. As Nour Farra Haddad explains compellingly in her contribution, these saints are present in metaphysical form in their sanctuaries and create a direct link to the Druze doctrine of taqammuṣ with their own successive reincarnations. From a spatial point of view, these markers of identity in the form of meticulously tended places of pilgrimage represent an ethnic territorialisation: Here we are, the Druze souls are present here!
That Druze souls are, at least potentially, also reborn in the diaspora and – in the theoretical conception of the Druze – even in imagined Druze communities in China or other worlds makes possible demands for a shared Druze state (a “Druzistan” in analogy to Kurdistan, Arabistan and similar proposed constructs) recede into the background: Druze identity is simply not primarily ←212 | 213→conceived of in nation-state terms. It seems likely that this can neither be explained purely with reference to the principle of taqīya nor be seen solely as a product of the limited opportunities open to the Druze to shape Realpolitik in the Middle East. Paraphrasing Victor Turner somewhat, the construction of ethnicity in the case of the Druze seems to be more a form of “ideological communitas” – and the axiom that Druze are continually reborn in different settings as Druze appears to be a cornerstone of this conception.
“Speaking” children as living bridges between localities, regions and the rest of the world
When the contributions in this reader are brought together to form a more complete picture, it becomes clear that specific cases of “speaking” children create connections within and between individual Druze areas in very concrete ways. In functionalist terms, individual Druze localities seem to be bound together by nuṭq cases as well as by marriage alliances. Connections created in this way are also expressed in inner Druze discourses: One only needs to listen to Druze people swapping details on various nuṭq cases for a short while to discern which places are Druze localities. The same place names fall repeatedly in these conversations, the same regions are mentioned time after time, and at least in every tenth case or so, to speak of nuṭq also involves thinking beyond a nation-state border. Some rare cases even stretch into the diaspora in America, Australia, and Europe.
Cases of nuṭq thus link individual Druze localities in the empirically experienced world while also connecting this empirical world with the Druze worldview: “Speaking” children encountered in everyday life embody the principle of the transmigration of souls anchored in Druze cosmology, and the reverse also applies: Abstract cosmological principles take on concrete form in empirically experienced encounters with “speaking” children in everyday life. By way of conclusion, a spotlight will be cast on this epistemological connection below.
The interdependence between taqammuṣ as part of a worldview and empirically existent nuṭq cases
From a systems theory perspective, taqammuṣ and nuṭq are strongly interdependent concepts: There could be no nuṭq cases without the belief system in which taqammuṣ is a given, as it would not be possible for the “speaking” of children to be recognised as such and interpreted, for the “right” conclusions to be drawn and – even more importantly – for specific cases to be plausible and ←213 | 214→become recognised as such by society (or at least seen as cases that could potentially merit recognition). Specific nuṭq cases in turn reinforce the worldview by supplying empirical evidence that the principle of taqammuṣ is “true” (Fig. 29).
←214 | 215→It appears that the Druze conception of reincarnation is a product of system-immanent interactions between nuṭq and taqammuṣ in which each provides confirmation for the other. When the Druze speak of reincarnation, this is not simply an abstract answer to the abstract question of what happens to people after they die. The Druze conception also encompasses the cases of “speaking” children who appear precisely when the loss of a fellow human being has created a particularly large void – in cases involving existential threats and (post) traumatic life events.
taqammuṣ │ nuṭq as a form of coping with life
The Druze conceptions of the transmigration of souls help individuals confronted with profound ruptures in their lives to cope better with them emotionally. Rather than offering only the abstract comfort that the deceased has now gone to a “better” place, they point to the continued existence of the Druze community as such – and to biographic ruptures and the deaths of close relatives as an essential part of this process. Social fractures and individual fates are not airily explained away by the Druze conceptions of the transmigration of souls, but instead form an integral part of a wider Druze identity.
It is not insignificant that discourses around nuṭq cases often have a subversive character, cast a spotlight on painful issues, and thus have the potential to challenge circumstances that prevail in the here and now and norms and values associated with them. Nuṭq cases raise radical questions about the existing order of relationships between people. Personal, family and kinship relationships are newly defined, albeit in a way that gives those affected a certain amount of flexibility to manoeuvre.
The idea of the inevitability of fate that is emphasised in some reincarnation doctrines comes with many qualifiers in the Druze version, which instead accentuates the responsibility of individuals for their actions. At the same time, the Druze conceptions of the transmigration of souls remind people that they do not simply remain Druze for a lifetime but will reappear time and again as Druze in different places. The fact that stories of reincarnation are ceaselessly and vividly told and retold among the Druze may well have something to do with the ability of these narratives to create connections that are conducive to survival in a fractured world.