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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
Higgins in Jenin, Occupied Palestine.
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