Olive Oil Season: A West Bank Kitchen Story

Umm Adnan Yasin holds a metal pan that she uses to separate leaves from olives. i i

Umm Adnan Yasin holds a metal pan that she uses to separate the leaves from the olives, in the West Bank village of Bili'in. Sandy Tolan for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sandy Tolan for NPR
Umm Adnan Yasin holds a metal pan that she uses to separate leaves from olives.

Umm Adnan Yasin holds a metal pan that she uses to separate the leaves from the olives, in the West Bank village of Bili'in.

Sandy Tolan for NPR

Recipes of the Olive Harvest

Maqloobeh is shown here with an Arabic salad of finely diced tomatoes and diced green peppers, cucumber, olive oil, salt and lemon. Courtesy Ibtisam Barakat hide caption

Read recipes and stories about some of the traditional dishes enjoyed during the olive oil season.
itoggle caption Courtesy Ibtisam Barakat
Raslan Yasin harvests olives with his son. i i

Raslan Yasin harvests olives with his son in a grove in the village of Bili'in, near the Israeli separation barrier. Like many Palestinian professionals, Yasin, a hydrologist by training, takes a break from his job every year to work the family harvest. Sandy Tolan for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sandy Tolan for NPR
Raslan Yasin harvests olives with his son.

Raslan Yasin harvests olives with his son in a grove in the village of Bili'in, near the Israeli separation barrier. Like many Palestinian professionals, Yasin, a hydrologist by training, takes a break from his job every year to work the family harvest.

Sandy Tolan for NPR

'My Hands': A Harvest Song

Olive sack i i
Sandy Tolan for NPR
Olive sack
Sandy Tolan for NPR

Sandy Tolan's report ends with a traditional Palestinian harvest song called "Ya Daeiti (My Hands)." He describes how this music came to us:

 

"On a late October evening, I was waiting for my taxi in the hotel restaurant in East Jerusalem. I was having tea and smoking a water pipe, with my friend, the artist Rana Bishara. Rana introduced me to a singer, Sanaa Moussa, who was sitting at a nearby table. I told Sana what I was doing, and we started talking about harvest songs. She asked if I had recorded any in the field. I said, well, really, only one — just a fragment.

 

"But she was eager to listen to it, and so I played it for her in the restaurant, she put on the headphones and scribbled down the words in Arabic, and said she would like to record it. It arrived just as we were putting the finishing touches on the story. Her voice can be heard at the very end of the piece. It's an adaptation of the harvest song. The words, roughly translated, are as follows:

 

Oh hands,
The season of hard work is upon us again
Help me make it through the day

O hands, skilled and just,
Carrying the rich bread and butter sandwiches, help me make it through the day.

 

Singer: Sanaa Moussa; Oud: Mohammad Moussa; Recording: Darwish; Arrangement: Nizar Rohana. Houmayoune Web site (French). Translation courtesy Lena Khalaf Tuffaha.

Lunch under olive trees. i i

Fareed Taamallah (back left, next to Sandy Tolan), his sister-in-law, Umm Imad (foreground, with baseball cap), family and friends, pausing for lunch under the olive trees in the West Bank village of Qira. Nidal Rafa for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Nidal Rafa for NPR
Lunch under olive trees.

Fareed Taamallah (back left, next to Sandy Tolan), his sister-in-law, Umm Imad (foreground, with baseball cap), family and friends, pausing for lunch under the olive trees in the West Bank village of Qira.

Nidal Rafa for NPR
Dr. Maen Odeh and Musa Salameh i i

Dr. Maen Odeh (left), agricultural scientist and native of the Palestinian village of Bidya with Musa Salameh, president of the village olive oil cooperative. They are standing at a separator at the olive press, which marks the final stage of extraction. Sandy Tolan for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sandy Tolan for NPR
Dr. Maen Odeh and Musa Salameh

Dr. Maen Odeh (left), agricultural scientist and native of the Palestinian village of Bidya with Musa Salameh, president of the village olive oil cooperative. They are standing at a separator at the olive press, which marks the final stage of extraction.

Sandy Tolan for NPR
Early-season olive oil is squeezed from a press and bottled in a West Bank village. i i

Early-season olive oil is squeezed from a press and bottled in a West Bank village. Sandy Tolan for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sandy Tolan for NPR
Early-season olive oil is squeezed from a press and bottled in a West Bank village.

Early-season olive oil is squeezed from a press and bottled in a West Bank village.

Sandy Tolan for NPR
Olive trees are seen through barb wire, i i

Olive trees are seen through barbed wire, part of the Israeli separation barrier in the West Bank village of Bili'in. Thousands of trees were uprooted for construction of the barrier, and many Palestinian farmers are now separated from their crops. Rabbis for Human Rights and other groups have also documented attacks on the harvest by Israeli settlers. Sandy Tolan for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sandy Tolan for NPR
Olive trees are seen through barb wire,

Olive trees are seen through barbed wire, part of the Israeli separation barrier in the West Bank village of Bili'in. Thousands of trees were uprooted for construction of the barrier, and many Palestinian farmers are now separated from their crops. Rabbis for Human Rights and other groups have also documented attacks on the harvest by Israeli settlers.

Sandy Tolan for NPR
The hands of an Arab villager and an Israeli volunteer, in the West Bank olive harvest. i i

The hands of an Arab villager and an Israeli volunteer, in the West Bank olive harvest. Sandy Tolan for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sandy Tolan for NPR
The hands of an Arab villager and an Israeli volunteer, in the West Bank olive harvest.

The hands of an Arab villager and an Israeli volunteer, in the West Bank olive harvest.

Sandy Tolan for NPR
Yousef Sharkawi stands near one of the oldest olive trees in the Mediterranean region. i i

Like many Palestinians, Yousef Sharkawi is an olive aficionado. The goldsmith stands near one of the oldest olive trees in the Mediterranean region, in Al Walaja village. Rana Bishara for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Rana Bishara for NPR
Yousef Sharkawi stands near one of the oldest olive trees in the Mediterranean region.

Like many Palestinians, Yousef Sharkawi is an olive aficionado. The goldsmith stands near one of the oldest olive trees in the Mediterranean region, in Al Walaja village.

Rana Bishara for NPR
Coming Together over Olives and Food

The Olive Co-operative co-developed the program "Trees for Life: Planting Peace in Palestine." The program aims to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by Palestinians by offering the public the opportunity to sponsor the planting of olive trees. It helps connect Palestinian farmers and producers to the grass roots fair-trade movement in Europe and North America.

 

Peace Oil - A project started by two olive farmers, Dani Livney of Kibbutz Gezer and Mohammad Ata Daragh from a nearby West Bank village. The oil is made from Palestinian olives grown using natural methods of the region. Similarly, Olives of Peace makes olive oil produced from crops raised by Palestinian and Israeli growers.

 

The Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Started in 1992, by a small group of American Jews, Palestinians and others who met in a living room in San Mateo, Calif. The brainchild of Libby and Len Traubman, the idea was to build trust by overcoming stereotypes and assumptions, and sharing personal stories and experiences. "A natural avenue to do relationship-building has been to share food" at the gatherings, says Libby Traubman.

Sandy Tolan, award-winning journalist, producer and author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, has been reporting from the region for years. For the Kitchen Sisters, Tolan reports on this hidden kitchen story — the olive harvest season.

I'd glanced at them through the rental car windshield hundreds of times before, while crisscrossing the West Bank on assignment. They were everywhere — along the ancient hillsides, from Nablus to Tulkarm, Ramallah to Jerusalem, Beit Jala to Bethlehem to Hebron: The ancient olive trees of Palestine.

I'd looked, but hadn't really seen, hadn't touched, hadn't even thought much about these gnarly creatures and their rootedness in the landscape. Hadn't considered what they say about the Palestinian culture and its hidden kitchen: the annual olive harvest.

"If anyone wants to get his son married, he says, 'Well, after the olive oil season,'" Dr. Osama Odeh, a PhD in electrochemistry and olive expert, told me one day as we toured his family-supported olive cooperative in his home village of Bidya. "If he wants to buy clothes for his kids he makes it after the olive oil season. If he wants to build an additional room on his house, he makes it after the season. It's a matter of life for them." And for Odeh himself.

When you think about it, it shouldn't be surprising that Odeh is an olive-obsessed man. In Arabic, the root word for his town means "the stone for crushing olives." At the town center stands an old press, with twin one-ton stones of granite that crush olives into oil. And Odeh is just one in an endless and ancient line of farmers — many of whom now have professional day jobs — whose life is transformed every fall, when ripe olives return to the trees.

'Like Jewels in the Mountains'

That's when Palestinians leave their school and work, drag their tarps and ladders, donkeys and pickup trucks to the groves and begin to pick.

"They are like jewels in the mountains," said the Palestinian artist Rana Bishara. "They glow in the landscape of Palestine," inviting villagers to renew the ritual.

"The life comes again!" shouted the young farmer, Abdul Razzak Abu Rahma, on the second day of the harvest at Bili'in. As if that weren't enough, he looked at me with a beatific smile and began gesturing with his hands.

"The life comes again for us!" he said. "You can't imagine this feeling! You can't have words for this feeling! We are going to harvest our olive trees!"

That same afternoon, a grove or two away, Raslan Yasin, a hydrologist most days, was on the upper rungs of a metal ladder, holding his toddler son with one arm as both of them reached into the branches with their hands. Some families prefer to use plastic combs; others beat the branches with sticks. (Others, certain this is bad for the tree and its output, don't approve: "Those people who use sticks should go to prison!" declared Hanna Elias, director of the film The Olive Harvest. He was joking. Barely. I think.)

As Yasin and his son pulled their hands down the branches, the olives fell in a soft rain to the canvas. This is a "low" year for the Palestinian harvest — the big seasons come every other year — but to me, it sure seemed like a lot of olives pattering onto the tarp.

There below, Yasin's mother, Umm Adnan, sat cross-legged in her traditional Palestinian dress, pulling the olives together in a pile and shaking them in a round metal pan to separate the fruit from the leaves. (Others prefer to blow on them or pick the leaves out by hand. Still others, I was told, use electric blowers, provoking more outrage at the assault on tradition.) Now and then Umm Adnan would stop so her grandson could sit on her lap and play with his toy motorcycle.

"People here record their history in relation to the olive trees," Yasin told me. "My mother is telling me that when my grandmother died, my father came to plant that tree" — Yasin then gestured toward it — "to be a mark for the day that his mother died. I feel that every tree has a memory for us. These are benchmarks for our stories."

Separating Farmers from Their Crops

This was one of those rare Middle East assignments fundamentally about connection, not conflict. But like almost any story in the West Bank, conflict lies just below the surface, or in the case of Bili'in, just at the edge of town. There, Israel's separation barrier slices through, cutting off villagers from many of their olive groves. The village has been the site of weekly protests.

The barrier — in some places, a 25-foot wall, and in others, like Bili'in, a series of electrified and barbed-wire fences with trenches — would be 480 miles long upon completion and is considered an essential security measure by Israel.

Opponents note that the barrier route does not follow the line between Israel and the West Bank, but rather cuts deep inside Palestinian territory, separating Palestinian farmers from their crops.

"Farming is a primary source of income in the Palestinian communities situated along the barrier's route, an area that constitutes one of the most fertile areas in the West Bank," declared a report from the respected Israeli human rights group, B'tselem. "The harm to the farming sector is liable to have drastic economic effects on the residents — whose economic situation is already very difficult — and drive many families into poverty."

In August, Israel's supreme court essentially agreed, at least in the case of Bili'in, ordering the government to reroute part of the separation barrier. But problems with the harvest remain, especially in the many places where Israeli settlements in the West Bank are expanded, virtually on top of ancient Palestinian villages.

"You can see where settlers planted on Palestinian lands," Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, told me as we hiked up a hill toward a harvest in the northern West Bank.

We stopped as he pointed to the countless olive trees blanketing the hillsides.

"In our Torah readings," Ascherman said, "we read of the story of Noah and the dove coming with the olive branch in its mouth, making the olive branch the symbol of peace. Yet unfortunately, in this region in recent history, the olive tree has been a symbol of strife. Because of its rootedness there've been efforts to uproot olive trees, by settlers, over a struggle over land."

Thousands of Palestinian olive trees have been uprooted in recent years, according to human rights groups.

A Shared Beauty

Up the hill, Arab and Jewish workers were working shoulder to shoulder, part of a larger group of thousands of volunteers who come from Israel, the United States and Europe to help with the harvest. A mixture of Arabic, Hebrew and broken English drifted through the air, mixing with the sounds of olives pouring into buckets, cell phones chirping and a yelping, outraged donkey tied to a tree.

"Do you have, in your village, olive tree?" asked a young Palestinian woman, Nama, to her fellow picker, a 16-year-old Israeli named Natenel.

"No," Natenel replied, softly and politely. "Not in my village."

"But, olive tree, very beautiful," said Nama, smiling beneath her baseball cap atop a white headscarf. "And the olive oil, very, very beautiful."

"It's good in the salad!" Natenel replied eagerly.

Pause for a Meal

Noontime on a warm, clear, dry West Bank day. A pause in the harvest. In the village of Qira — declared a "paradise" for olive oil growing by a French tasting jury — the Taamallah family has spread out its harvest kitchen on a blanket in the shade of an old olive tree.

Here's what will keep the pickers going into the afternoon: hummus, baba ganoush, cucumber salad, labneh (a delicious cross between yogurt and cheese), olives, and the Palestinian staple, zayt u za'tar — that is, olive oil and za'tar, a mixture of wild Palestinian thyme, sumac and sesame.

"The main thing now, I am hungry!" Fareed Taamallah said with a laugh, leaning forward to dip a piece of Arabic bread into the oil. "After that, I will be very lazy! And then we'll continue."

Soon the family's sacks of olives will be on their way to one of hundreds of West Bank presses, where people like Osama Odeh will be waiting to turn the fruit into oil.

"It's like a rush-hour downtown," Odeh told me. "You never stop working. Everybody is running, taking olives, filling the oil (containers). People come with the tractor, the donkey .... No one cares about sleeping."

And that is the secret of the Palestinian kitchen: No matter how far the kitchen from the landscape, olives are the constant.

"I've lived in the United States for 20 years," the writer Ibtisam Barakat told me. She now lives in Columbia, Mo. "I've gone home only twice, but I think of olives every day. Every year, I mark the olive harvest on my calendar. I eat olives and olive oil every day. The name of my cat is Zaytun, which means olives. I have an olive tree in my living room. In Missouri."

"Where I live," she said. "I want to have an olive tree living with me."

Story Credits

Produced by Sandy Tolan. Thanks to: Arik Ascherman, Ibtisam Barakat, Rana Bishara, George Bisharat, Michael Brown, Nathan Dalton, Hanna Elias, Laura Folger, Kareem Khader, Maeve McGoran, Sanaa Moussa, Davia Nelson, Nidal Rafa, Nikki Silva, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, Robin Wise, Margaret Zaknoen, and CBC Radio.

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