Olive Oil Season: A West Bank Kitchen Story
Sandy Tolan, award-winning journalist, producer and author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, has been reporting from the region for years. For the Kitchen Sisters, Tolan reports on this hidden kitchen story — the olive harvest season.
I'd glanced at them through the rental car windshield hundreds of times before, while crisscrossing the West Bank on assignment. They were everywhere — along the ancient hillsides, from Nablus to Tulkarm, Ramallah to Jerusalem, Beit Jala to Bethlehem to Hebron: The ancient olive trees of Palestine.
I'd looked, but hadn't really seen, hadn't touched, hadn't even thought much about these gnarly creatures and their rootedness in the landscape. Hadn't considered what they say about the Palestinian culture and its hidden kitchen: the annual olive harvest.
"If anyone wants to get his son married, he says, 'Well, after the olive oil season,'" Dr. Osama Odeh, a PhD in electrochemistry and olive expert, told me one day as we toured his family-supported olive cooperative in his home village of Bidya. "If he wants to buy clothes for his kids he makes it after the olive oil season. If he wants to build an additional room on his house, he makes it after the season. It's a matter of life for them." And for Odeh himself.
When you think about it, it shouldn't be surprising that Odeh is an olive-obsessed man. In Arabic, the root word for his town means "the stone for crushing olives." At the town center stands an old press, with twin one-ton stones of granite that crush olives into oil. And Odeh is just one in an endless and ancient line of farmers — many of whom now have professional day jobs — whose life is transformed every fall, when ripe olives return to the trees.
'Like Jewels in the Mountains'
That's when Palestinians leave their school and work, drag their tarps and ladders, donkeys and pickup trucks to the groves and begin to pick.
"They are like jewels in the mountains," said the Palestinian artist Rana Bishara. "They glow in the landscape of Palestine," inviting villagers to renew the ritual.
"The life comes again!" shouted the young farmer, Abdul Razzak Abu Rahma, on the second day of the harvest at Bili'in. As if that weren't enough, he looked at me with a beatific smile and began gesturing with his hands.
"The life comes again for us!" he said. "You can't imagine this feeling! You can't have words for this feeling! We are going to harvest our olive trees!"
That same afternoon, a grove or two away, Raslan Yasin, a hydrologist most days, was on the upper rungs of a metal ladder, holding his toddler son with one arm as both of them reached into the branches with their hands. Some families prefer to use plastic combs; others beat the branches with sticks. (Others, certain this is bad for the tree and its output, don't approve: "Those people who use sticks should go to prison!" declared Hanna Elias, director of the film The Olive Harvest. He was joking. Barely. I think.)
As Yasin and his son pulled their hands down the branches, the olives fell in a soft rain to the canvas. This is a "low" year for the Palestinian harvest — the big seasons come every other year — but to me, it sure seemed like a lot of olives pattering onto the tarp.
There below, Yasin's mother, Umm Adnan, sat cross-legged in her traditional Palestinian dress, pulling the olives together in a pile and shaking them in a round metal pan to separate the fruit from the leaves. (Others prefer to blow on them or pick the leaves out by hand. Still others, I was told, use electric blowers, provoking more outrage at the assault on tradition.) Now and then Umm Adnan would stop so her grandson could sit on her lap and play with his toy motorcycle.
"People here record their history in relation to the olive trees," Yasin told me. "My mother is telling me that when my grandmother died, my father came to plant that tree" — Yasin then gestured toward it — "to be a mark for the day that his mother died. I feel that every tree has a memory for us. These are benchmarks for our stories."
Separating Farmers from Their Crops
This was one of those rare Middle East assignments fundamentally about connection, not conflict. But like almost any story in the West Bank, conflict lies just below the surface, or in the case of Bili'in, just at the edge of town. There, Israel's separation barrier slices through, cutting off villagers from many of their olive groves. The village has been the site of weekly protests.
The barrier — in some places, a 25-foot wall, and in others, like Bili'in, a series of electrified and barbed-wire fences with trenches — would be 480 miles long upon completion and is considered an essential security measure by Israel.
Opponents note that the barrier route does not follow the line between Israel and the West Bank, but rather cuts deep inside Palestinian territory, separating Palestinian farmers from their crops.
"Farming is a primary source of income in the Palestinian communities situated along the barrier's route, an area that constitutes one of the most fertile areas in the West Bank," declared a report from the respected Israeli human rights group, B'tselem. "The harm to the farming sector is liable to have drastic economic effects on the residents — whose economic situation is already very difficult — and drive many families into poverty."
In August, Israel's supreme court essentially agreed, at least in the case of Bili'in, ordering the government to reroute part of the separation barrier. But problems with the harvest remain, especially in the many places where Israeli settlements in the West Bank are expanded, virtually on top of ancient Palestinian villages.
"You can see where settlers planted on Palestinian lands," Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, told me as we hiked up a hill toward a harvest in the northern West Bank.
We stopped as he pointed to the countless olive trees blanketing the hillsides.
"In our Torah readings," Ascherman said, "we read of the story of Noah and the dove coming with the olive branch in its mouth, making the olive branch the symbol of peace. Yet unfortunately, in this region in recent history, the olive tree has been a symbol of strife. Because of its rootedness there've been efforts to uproot olive trees, by settlers, over a struggle over land."
Thousands of Palestinian olive trees have been uprooted in recent years, according to human rights groups.
A Shared Beauty
Up the hill, Arab and Jewish workers were working shoulder to shoulder, part of a larger group of thousands of volunteers who come from Israel, the United States and Europe to help with the harvest. A mixture of Arabic, Hebrew and broken English drifted through the air, mixing with the sounds of olives pouring into buckets, cell phones chirping and a yelping, outraged donkey tied to a tree.
"Do you have, in your village, olive tree?" asked a young Palestinian woman, Nama, to her fellow picker, a 16-year-old Israeli named Natenel.
"No," Natenel replied, softly and politely. "Not in my village."
"But, olive tree, very beautiful," said Nama, smiling beneath her baseball cap atop a white headscarf. "And the olive oil, very, very beautiful."
"It's good in the salad!" Natenel replied eagerly.
Pause for a Meal
Noontime on a warm, clear, dry West Bank day. A pause in the harvest. In the village of Qira — declared a "paradise" for olive oil growing by a French tasting jury — the Taamallah family has spread out its harvest kitchen on a blanket in the shade of an old olive tree.
Here's what will keep the pickers going into the afternoon: hummus, baba ganoush, cucumber salad, labneh (a delicious cross between yogurt and cheese), olives, and the Palestinian staple, zayt u za'tar — that is, olive oil and za'tar, a mixture of wild Palestinian thyme, sumac and sesame.
"The main thing now, I am hungry!" Fareed Taamallah said with a laugh, leaning forward to dip a piece of Arabic bread into the oil. "After that, I will be very lazy! And then we'll continue."
Soon the family's sacks of olives will be on their way to one of hundreds of West Bank presses, where people like Osama Odeh will be waiting to turn the fruit into oil.
"It's like a rush-hour downtown," Odeh told me. "You never stop working. Everybody is running, taking olives, filling the oil (containers). People come with the tractor, the donkey .... No one cares about sleeping."
And that is the secret of the Palestinian kitchen: No matter how far the kitchen from the landscape, olives are the constant.
"I've lived in the United States for 20 years," the writer Ibtisam Barakat told me. She now lives in Columbia, Mo. "I've gone home only twice, but I think of olives every day. Every year, I mark the olive harvest on my calendar. I eat olives and olive oil every day. The name of my cat is Zaytun, which means olives. I have an olive tree in my living room. In Missouri."
"Where I live," she said. "I want to have an olive tree living with me."
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