Life Story of the Olives

“Oh, Mom, are you going to tell the life story of the olives?” asked Fatima as her mother put a plate on the table, wondering if I wanted to know where they came from. Her mother was serious and sincere in offering the story, and I had come to take a special interest in olives. I had asked if these were from the recent olive harvest, as they had a lovely uniform color and unspotted texture. When she replied that they were three years old and had a story, her daughter laughingly broke in.

Preserving these olives was one of the last deeds of the sister of ‘Imad Hardan. He was in prison and, as is the custom of many prisoners, would communicate regularly with his family by mobile phone. His jailer’s custom is to forego the inconvenience of a trial, and instead to assassinate people it feels are threats to its domination. His jailer is always able to find an accomplice from the dominated populace, some willing to sell a fellow dispossessed citizen for as little as a pack of cigarettes, a small relief from constant degradation. But ‘Imad Hardan was not suspicious when a fellow prisoner handed him the mobile phone. He took the call. An operative detonated the charge, and he was blown to bits. Israeli justice uses the telephone to strike harder than the gavel.

At home, his sister had recently preserved olives after the harvest. When she heard the news of his brutal killing, she fell ill, went to hospital for treatment they could not pinpoint, and died within the week. No bomb or mobile phone was needed to break her heart. The mother telling the life story of these olives tells her daughter that this woman is a martyr, too, like her brother. I have a special reverence for these olives.

“Write this date in your notebook, the first time you picked olives!” said a neighbor of the olive orchard. The orchard is really a large garden belonging to the house of a school teacher, and has grapefruit and its giant cousin, bomali, as well as prickly pear cactus. The ninth of November; this date is special indeed. I had been reading about the olive harvest for years and wanting to help in this activity so important to the Palestinian economy, but was never free at the right time. Many internationals have done a great service by helping pick olives, but more importantly by protecting olive pickers from attacks by Israeli colonizers, police, and the Army. Harvesting is the easy part. Keeping from harm is more difficult. An American friend got press attention when he was attacked, but Palestinians rarely do.

My olive harvesting experience is more sublime. It is my contribution to the household where I am staying. Every year they make the short trip from the Refugee Camp to this home down the road to supplement the family income. This year they are short-handed, especially with one son imprisoned on his return from the pilgrimage to Mecca. His father says that he would not be disturbed if his son had been taken in any other circumstance, but this attack on his religious observance is humiliating. The eldest brother is busy at university, and won’t allow his sister the indignities of the work. We spread a big sheet under the tree and begin to pick. I had learned various verbs for different methods of getting the olives down, including beating the tree with a stick. But mostly we just pick. It takes a long time to pick these little olives off those big trees. We work for four days. When I ask how much olive oil will be our take, I am astounded that we may get three tanks, as I envision the huge black water tanks that everyone has on their roof. The olive oil will flow! Later I learn that the olive oil tank is considerably smaller, measurable in gallons, but it will provide for the family most of the year.

I enjoy this so much that I resolve to devote a week of each year to bringing in the harvest of some staple that I consume: rice, tea, coffee. These are the only ones I can think of. Rice sounds particularly intriguing, and I am sure that participation in the harvest will change my partaking of the comestible. But this olive harvest is wonderful. The curfew was lifted the day we began, after they got their wanted man, Iyad Sawalha. First they arrested his European wife. Then it was forty to one as the Army surrounded and bombed his house, but he wounded several of them severely in spite of the odds. Maybe they died, and the news was hidden. Here, tanks roll up and down the street outside the garden’s stone wall. My fellow picker, the detained pilgrim’s mother, urges me to keep my head below the top of the wall as the tanks pass.

But mostly I feel free to climb to the upper reaches of these unusually tall trees. It is another world! Such freedom, just the blue sky, and no roadblocks or Army uniforms, or angry orders or identity checks. Blue sky and green olives. I become an expert at spotting these little fruits, whether bright green or deep purple, and coaxing branches close enough to collect their treasures. It is like a motivational workshop. Every time I think a branch is too far away, I stretch just a little more, swaying with the branch, having abandoned the ladder below, and reaching, reaching just a little farther for that tiny prize. Satisfaction.

Everybody thanks you for harvesting olives. People passing in the street, people to whom you mention your day’s activity. It is a community act, a national act. It is part of the Palestinian connection to the land, historically and presently, and whether or not you own olive trees, you are thankful for anyone who helps with this key element of the economy and society.

As we are picking, news comes of yet another increase of the attacks on Nablus. An international calls friends there, climbs back into the high branches to pick, but comes down shortly after, resolving to go to friends whose house is in immanent danger of being bulldozed. Everyone understands and bids her a safe journey. I think of the many dunums of olive trees that have been bulldozed, innocent trees wrenched and uprooted from their refuge in the soil. On my first journey to Palestine some years before, I had seen an olive tree claimed to antedate Jesus’ advent on earth. The symbol and the reality of the olive tree made an impression, and I began to name things like my car license “olive/zaytoun.”

After the harvest, it is a natural reaction to pick an olive when I see one. I have to restrain myself from providing this service when I see olive-laden branches in a neighbor’s yard. One day some children are getting into a cart full of little saplings. They invite me to come plant the olive trees: “We need your help to get past the tanks on the road.” I have another engagement but the idea of planting trees is irresistable. I make my apologies to the first plan, saying that I am giving protection for the trip. Once we get started, I am glad I am not riding on the loose fender of the tractor. It is a rough job to stay on the back ledge. The agriculturist sees that I am not comfortable, and asks if I would like to drive. “On the way back,” I tell him, thinking we should get there first. As we approach his plot of farmland, a tank in the road waves him back. He is not even close enough to explain that we are just going a little way up the road, and then turning into the field. I jump down and approach the tank, explain our destination to the soldier, and he lets us pass. My presence is justified.

We plant sixty olive trees in a few hours, enjoying the fresh air and the rich soil. Why am I surprised that tanks are prowling through the agricultural areas? These are the impromptu back roads we use when the tanks are preventing normal travel on roads. Cars pass by our fenced-in plot, and my host urges the driver to hurry, as he sees a tank approaching fast. Another tank has stopped a car in the distance. We go on with our planting. On the way back, I drive the tractor through the fields! This is such fun, the first time I have driven any vehicle in over a month. The olives have freed me again as I steer us, a little erratically, across the open plain. The gentleman farmer takes over on the road, and the tank waves us through.

Another day finds me in the midst of a creative family, eager to draw pictures. When they suggest the usual, pictures of the invasion and tanks and dead bodies, I ask if we could please find another topic. The children ask me to suggest something for each to draw and compare, so I suggest a garden and draw some flowers. Teachers tell me that when they try to lighten the atmosphere and tell children to draw a flower, they will inevitably draw a grave along with it. To my delight, one daughter has drawn olive trees, and they look just the way they do when you are picking olives. Clouds of hundreds of little round buttons. I am so relieved to get away from the invasion theme.

When her mother asks me what I would like to eat, as I have come long after dinner time, I say, “just some bread and olives.” She begins to sing a love song about dining simply on bread and olives. And then I hear the life story of the olives preserved by a martyr, the sister of a martyr. The Occupation is everywhere, but olive trees live longer.

Annie Higgins in Jenin, Occupied Palestine.


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