Picking Olives in Palestine

Tina Whitehead




Picking Olives in Palestine
This past week a Palestinian friend invited a group of us to join her in a day of olive picking near a village between Ramallah and Nablus. I half teased her as I asked if we would be near any settlements as settler violence is heightened during olive season and especially this fall there had been numerous reports of the destruction of olive trees as well as violence against those who were attempting to begin the harvest. She assured me that this particular grove, although belonging to a family who lived close to a settlement, was far enough removed from the area that there would be no threat of violence. I asked how she had met this particular family and was told the following account.
My friend works for a legal aid organization and had done an interview with the wife of the family, Im Majdi, after an incident during which her son had been arrested. A fire had been started near a settlement and since her family’s home is the last home in the village and closest to the settlement, her son and some others had been arrested as suspects. Her son, 17 years old, had been taken in for questioning and was put in solitary detention for 6 days, with no human contact. His cell had been just large enough for one person and the light in the cell was on 24 hours a day. He was sleep deprived and totally confused as to night and day. Food was pushed in on a tray under the door. After 6 days of this treatment, he was transferred to a prison where he spent another 2 weeks. At the end of that time it was determined that he had played no part in starting the fire and so he was returned to his home.
But the damage had been done. He had almost had a breakdown while in solitary confinement and suffered severe psychological damage from the experience. His family, his mother, father and 5 brothers and sisters, had also suffered during his imprisonment, not knowing what would happen and not being able to visit.
This was the family we would be helping. Our group gathered in Ramallah, an assortment of local Palestinians and internationals from Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia and the US. We hired a van that took us to the village where we met the family and then transferred to a truck. Age has its privileges, so I was asked to sit in the cab, but most of the rest of the 20 or so loaded up onto the truck bed. We bumped slowly along a road that wasn’t much more than a donkey path, down the hill and through the olive groves. Along the way we could see families setting up their tarps under the trees, drinking tea and getting ready to begin the day of harvest. The drive took about 15 minutes until we finally arrived at the family’s trees.
First item on the agenda: breakfast. We spread a tarp on the ground and out came the fresh pita bread, hummus and warm fool (a fava bean mix). It was wonderful. 
Then the work began. We were told that we had a goal of 11 trees to be picked. There were about 25 of us so we began our task. Tarps were spread under the trees, 2 trees at a time. Some of us picked the lower branches while others climbed the trees or the ladders and picked the olives beyond our reach. Even though it was mid-October, the temperature was still approaching 90 and together with the fact that there had been no rain for over 6 months, it made for hot and dirty work as the branches were covered with 6 months of dust and dirt.  
Around noon our host built a fire and called us for a welcome tea break. Tea with sage—a wonderfully refreshing drink. We then resumed our work and by about 2 pm we reached our goal: 11 trees, 12 bags of olives which would produce about 120 liters of precious olive oil.
We loaded everything back in the truck and this time all of us crammed ourselves onto the truck bed and bounced back up the hill to the home. Im Majdi had a traditional Palestinian dinner waiting for us, musakhan, large plates of flat bread covered with olive oil, onion, sumac and pieces of fresh chicken (possibly the ones we’d heard that morning in the yard below!) The meal was accompanied by yogurt and salad, with more than enough food for 3 times our group. We sat on the floor while the food was set on a cloth in front of us and we enjoyed our feast.
As we were eating, we heard someone yell “soldiers.” We went outside to see 4 armed Israeli soldiers patrolling on the hill close to the house. Just behind them, on the top of the hill was an illegal outpost where, last May, armed settlers were caught on film as they encroached on village land and, after an exchange of stone throwing, fired at and shot a young Palestinian. (see video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3bFIFSNKiM&feature=related). Our hostess, Im Majdi, had filmed the whole confrontation and the video had made the local and international news.
After the soldiers left, we resumed our meal, moving to the patio for cake and tea.
This is such a schizophrenic place to be. The generous hospitality on the one hand and the violence on the other. The beauty of the surrounding hills and valleys against the ugliness of the settlements and the army camps on the hilltops.
We said our goodbyes and got back into our van. We made one stop on the way to visit the village olive press where we saw the olives being processed into oil. Then it was back to Ramallah. Then a taxi to the checkpoint, a walk through the checkpoint and a passport check, a bus to Jerusalem and another taxi home, arriving exhausted but much richer for the day’s experience.


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