Last weekend, we had the opportunity to participate in that most Palestinian of traditions — olive picking! Our friends from the kid’s school invited us to their family village about 30 minutes outside of town for the adventure. His family has about 800 olive trees in the hills surrounding the village, so they’ve been picking for a few weeks now.
I can’t tell you what a special moment that was for me to be in the orchards with our families. The banter between the brothers as they swapped stories in the trees, the kids playing under falling olives, and the sisters sorting olives and bringing cool drinks throughout the day combined to make it an experience I won’t ever forget.
The trees we were harvesting were very old — no one knew exactly, but they had been in Mohammad’s family for as far back as any could remember. The hills have been carved into ancient terraces with low rock walls dividing the rows of trees. After this experience, I think I have a better understanding of the Palestinian connection to the land, as each year everyone returns to the village to help with the harvest. In the trees with me were a restaurant owner, several members of the Ministry, a civil engineer, a police Major, teachers, and a retired school headmaster…all brought together by the bonds of family and the zaitun. As I looked across the hills to the nearby Israeli settlement, I couldn’t but think about those who have been displaced and no longer have access to their ancestral fields. A challenging situation to be sure.
Harvesting olives is actually a lot of fun. The guys taught me an expression: the day begins as it ends, meaning that the work flies by when you’re busy. The process begins by spreading out large tarps underneath the trees (actually the process is similar to harvesting piñions in the Southwest). You pick the olives and drop them on the tarps by holding your fingers together and running them down the branches. They usually just pop right off. For branches that are higher off the ground, you can climb a step ladder or lean a regular ladder against the upper reaches of the tree (ours was homemade out of 2x4s). Another option is to use a hand rake and run that through the trees, which saves your hands but didn’t feel as fast. Feeling like the lazy man on the assembly line, I did rig up a contraption with a rake and a long stick to get the olives I couldn’t reach. After all the olives have been removed from the tree, you take the tarps by the corners, lifting them up to move the olives into a pile. While placing the olives into buckets, you remove any branches that have found their way into the tarps. Finally you transfer them into large sacks which hold about 60 pounds of olives. They’re then ready for sorting and pressing.
I also had the chance to chat with the patriarch of the family as we were picking. He taught me some arabic phrases like zaitun (olive), suba (branch) and Allahu akbar (God is the greatest, recited as part of the call to prayer from the mosque tower). He told me that he would be my arabic friend, so I asked him about habibi, which is was our Bethlehem cab driver used, but as he pointed out is more generally used in terms of a lover. All his sons in the trees thought that was hilarious and ribbed me quite a bit about our new relationship.
Here’s a video of the olives hitting the tarp; enjoy the sounds of Palestine!