This is a short story from a childhood in Palestine. We can relive the simple, pastoral and distinctly Palestinian village life through the tastes, smells and sights of olive trees and their gifts.
Olive trees have always held a special place in my heart and my memories. The olive tree itself, as well as the groves, is an integral part of the very fabric of Palestinian life. To this day my mom sends me olive oil that was pressed from olives which are hand picked from the ancient olive trees that grow on our land. These trees, some hundreds of years old, were planted by my ancestors: my great grandparents, my grandparents, my parents, and now, even by me, for I planted 30 olive saplings in the mid 80’s that today produce some magnificent olives.
I wish to share with you my memories of the olive harvests that I experienced as a young boy in Palestine.
I always anticipated the annual olive harvest with great joy; much more so than the time to harvest the many fruits grown on my family’s land. Throughout the year, we carefully inspected each tree to ensure a healthy harvest. My mother followed a practice of tying a piece of black linen to a branch of those trees that promised an exceptionally abundant crop – this helped ward off the “evil eyes” that might have a negative effect on the tree and its harvest. [This is a custom much like a mother placing a blue stone or a silver hand with an eye, on a carriage or affixed to a baby’s chest, an amulet to protect the child and ward off evil spirits.] The black cloth (or the blue stone) would distract a person from looking at the promising olive crop with envy. Superstition was evident when it came to protecting the olive trees, just as it is a reflection of how much importance and love there was for the olive trees.
When the olive harvesting season begins, the hillsides of Palestine crawl with families and bring the hills alive with people working to gather their precious crop. Family members, to this day, make an effort to travel to one another from all over the country to help in the olive harvest. Olives are picked by hand as they have been for thousands of years. As a child, I joined my family as we would set out early in the day with a picnic of cracked olives, tomatoes, cheese, sardines, onions, freshly baked bread, and of course the ever present thermos of mint tea. We took the food that had been bundled the night before, and carrying large blankets, heavy ladders, and burlap bags as we headed for the hills with the olive groves.
Once there, the blankets were spread under the tree and the ladders leaned against it. My mother and sisters picked those olives that could be reached by hand and used sticks or shook branches to knock down the olives that were too high to reach. As for me, I loved to climb, and climb I did. I would bounce from one branch to another, giving my mother a heart attack in the process. I played around a lot more than I picked olives in those days. I loved being outdoors with my family. I would get to the top of these beautiful and ancient trees and proceed to throw olives at my sisters and brothers below me, an act that usually elicited no end of threats of bodily harm from my siblings. My mother likely spent more time yelling at me, than anything else.
We were Fellaheen (farmers), and as a fellah child, I lived for the outdoors. This was the place that I was happiest. We had no electricity, and thus, no TV to distract me. The hills, trees, and orchards were my playground. My grandfather (God bless his soul) often yelled at his daughter, my mother, “stop yelling at the boy, let him have fun “. My grandfather often entertained me with stories from his own youth, stories about the trees and the harvest. Widowed at 40, he never remarried and lived to the ripe old age of 98. He was a vegetarian long before it became fashionable. He lived on Zattar (wild thyme that grew in the hills), olives, tomatoes, and fresh bread. He walked upright and smoked his pipe right up to the day he died in 1978. He used to walk 5-10 kilometers a day. He was always walking somewhere. He was the only one of my grandparents that was still alive when I was born. The last time I saw him was in 1969.
Anyhow, after all the olives were gathered, they were placed in large bags and carried back home to be spread on the roof of our house for a few days before being sent to the village presses at Bir Zeit (in Arabic, an oil well). Not all olives were sent to the presses; my mom made some into the pickled cracked olives that are so famous in Palestine. We used medium sized stones like hammers to crack the olives one by one. Other olives were left to ripen in the sun, and then stored with salt and oil. Olives thus prepared are still seen in the many markets of Palestine. They are usually black and look almost like mini prunes.
The olive trees and the land they grow on still have a special place in my heart. They offer me a sense of connection to my history and that of my people. A sense reinforced each time I remember or climb a tree that was planted several hundred years before by me forefathers. To think that I was picking and eating from the same trees that my family had picked and eaten olives from for generations before me, still inspires awe in me. It is something that I will most assuredly pass on to my children and hope that they will get the chance to do likewise.
Mike Odetalla is a Palestinian living in the United States. Mike has a facebook page dedicated to his birthplace, Beit Hanina (situated just north of Jerusalem and occupied since 1967).