Rumman – Arabic for pomegranate, originally the Pharonic name for the Iranian native fruit - has a special romantic ring to it in my heart. Rummaneh – pomegranate tree - is a pretty sounding girl’s name locally. One of the first tunes I whistled as a teenager was from a song that spoke of the girl whose ‘breasts are like two pomegranates crackling in my hands’. And romance is what comes to my mind when I think of Granada, a name derived directly from the fruit that became the symbol for the city and is still to be seen engraved in relief on the arch over the entryway to the walled historical fortress of Alhambra Palace. Granada is where Arab culture reached its very zenith and Alhambra is where one can still get a glimpse of the architectural and artistic sophistication and the heavenly sweetness that once was Andalusia. Rumman encapsulates all of that for me.
In Jewish tradition, the pomegranate features so highly that claims were made by ancient scholars of the religion that the number of the seeds of the fruit matches the number of its commandments, 613. Unfortunately the number of seeds varies between different fruits. A more disturbing recent development is the usage of the Hebrew word from the same ancient Egyptian root, rimon, for a weapon, ‘grenade’. Come to think of it, the Latin usage is equally corrupting of my romantic image of the fruit.
In my childhood I spent many hours in the shade of the row of pomegranate trees that my father had planted just inside the wall enclosing the courtyard of our traditional Arab-style home, a more spacious mud-plastered version of your standard Andalusian pension. In early summer we would gather the fallen dumbbell-shaped forming fruit buds, still decorated with red petals, assign them names and pretend they were human, children that we sat in imagined schoolrooms drawn with a stick in the dirt, or soldiers we stood in rows performing military drills or packed in trucks we constructed out of cactus leaves. There were also one apple tree and one lemon. Dropped fruits from these were less common and assumed higher ranks in our magic play world.
Just recently a visit to a Palestinian friend’s home in Ramallah awakened in me all of the romance and childhood memories I associate with the fruit. Our friend’s hobby is botanical painting. She spends long hours copying exact details from actual plant specimens placed under a special microscope. Of the dozens of beautiful paintings strewn around her workshop, the most beautiful was of rumman. It had various views of the fruit: whole, split open, or in the bud.
In the old days our pomegranates gave three varieties of fruit, one large with glistening red cover and extra sweet kernels when ripe, the second with golden yellow-green cover and sweet-and-sour taste and the last smallish in size with green-colored, celadon-like peelings and strong lemony sour flavor. The last was the most valued by my mother who incorporated it in her cooking at well. In season, no degree of pre-warning and repeated castigation was enough to stop us children from raiding the trees when my father took his daily siesta. The telltale permanent stains on our clothes and black fingertips from scraping the skin off the delicious fruit left us with little option but to fall back on our feigned honesty and admit our crime day in and day out till the end of the season.
Those pomegranate trees were older than I was. My father used to relate the story from the first year they bore fruit, when they were the envy of everyone in the village including a mentally handicapped cousin and age mate of his. This cousin could perform the miraculous feat of climbing over the high wall of the courtyard and steal the fruits. One night my father caught him in the act. As he tried to deliver a punishing spanking with his open hand to the cousin’s rear the latter protected his buttock with his bony elbow causing my fathers arm to fracture at the wrest. For the rest of his life my father accepted that as well-deserved punishment for his intended cruelty to a mentally handicapped person. Never again in all of his life did he commit a cruel act or say no to requests from simpletons.
Obviously, my father’s hard learned lesson was not the cause of the special regard in which villagers, even today, hold those with a mental handicap. They credit them with special powers, almost magical, mystic and holy in nature. Especially pregnant women trust the predictions of Mahel, another village ‘saint’ with divining powers and reward him generously especially when his prediction is of a male outcome of a pregnancy.
Those trees lived to see the establishment of the state of Israel as did my father. Two days after our area succumbed to the invading army the trees succumbed to the dozens of work animals pillaged from their owners by the Israeli army and herded in our court yard because of its wall, gate and location fronting the central square in the village. Having nothing else to eat for the period of their incarceration the animals stripped the bark off of the trees before they were trucked away to the army’s slaughterhouse. My father lived for a dozen more unhappy years without ever replanting the pomegranate row.
So, long before its antioxidant healing properties made the pomegranate the culinary rage of the rich, my family had a year-round supply of home-made grenadine concentrate. Now-a-days, each summer, pests, family and friends literally eat into our ample pomegranate crop. And we join in the effort with our daily breakfast cereal supplement and my after-siesta snacks direct from the tree. Just this year I discovered a new combination: fresh pomegranate and passion fruit; heavenly! And each autumn we salvage what is left after all such parties have claimed their share; we squeeze the peeled fruit and boil down the juice into a constant supply of concentrate for our use and for guest receiving at our home.
My first attempt at establishing my own orchard, while the home it now surrounds was still but a fuzzy dream, was to plant a row of pomegranates. I recall forcing myself to make time for the chore in late winter one year and suffering a major disappointment a few weeks later when all of the cuttings I had stuck in the ground failed to sprout. For years I envied my good friend, Abu-Ayman, who had pursued a successful professional career as a medical technician, rising in the ranks to head the lab in our regional hospital, while at the same time keeping an active lifestyle as a successful farmer who managed to accrue, by sheer persistence and hard work, more land in the village’s fertile Battouf Valley than the generous share he had inherited from his father. Since ever I started practicing medicine in Arrabeh I had dreamt of matching his work ethic. He married a traditional villager from a conservative family, a distant cousin whose fair skin, blue eyes and reputation as an adroit fine Palestinian needlework artist had made her the subject of fierce competition between eligible cousins before my friend successfully gained her hand in marriage thus outdoing all others thanks to his college degree and offers of gold jewelry by the kilogram. All through the year, day in and day out, come hell or high water, he rises at dawn and puts in few hours of physical labor in his land before he drives to work. And in the evening, especially in summer, he drives back from work directly to join his family in the fields where they eat what his equally diligent wife had prepared for them and spends the remaining hours of light enjoying the late afternoon cool breeze and the lovely audiovisual show of sunset and twilight augmented by nature’s own daily songfest.
To see Abu-Ayman and his ever-doting wife at work is to know the meaning of a healthy lifestyle. Here is this brown-skinned thin man in baggy pants who had just downed a meal fit for a camel, a baseball hat covering his balding head in the old visor-forward style, wielding a hoe and zigzagging at the speed of light between the vegetables he had planted individually with his own hands, whacking a weed here or straightening the direction of a watermelon vine there. And he is constantly mindful of the needs of the two goats at home saving greens for them and assigning the task of milking to one child or the other.
One spring day I had it with my siblings’ envy; I imposed on my cousin and brother-in-law at whose house we were staying to allow me to prepare a dozen pomegranate cuttings from his trees for planting. The next morning I was up at dawn and had a cup of coffee with my early-rising sister and her first-cousin husband. I grabbed my prepared cuttings and a hoe and walked energetically to my own field inherited from my farmer father. I prepared the holes with the prescribed distances between them, stuck the cuttings in, inserting them in what I judged to be the upright direction, packed the ground well around them and left directly to work in copy-cat imitation of Abu-Ayman. That day it rained and I felt happy for the prospect of life for my pomegranates.
For a few days I did rise early and make it to my land to putter around my first independent farming experiment and to make measurements of the land at the eastern edge of the village shared with my four brothers and to imagine putting a house in a corner of that inherited land. (It never occurred to me that any of my four sisters might demand her rightful share of the land, and indeed when the time came all four sisters happily signed the customary release papers relinquishing their rights to it.) By mid-spring it was obvious that all my efforts had been in vain. Apparently I had misjudged the direction of growth of the cuttings I had made and planted them upside down. Since then I have learned the way knowledgeable farmers make cuttings: you snip the twig straight at the bottom and at a bevel at the top so the direction of growth is obvious.
Or perhaps it was the fact that the cuttings sat for a whole day in the open causing the tips to dry up and fail to take root. I had learned a thing or two about that as well: locally everyone knows that you should wrap the cuttings in a newspaper, drench the paper with water and wrap the bundle in a plastic bag. A while back I discovered a more primitive, yet a cleverer way of achieving the same end using natural products only.
Dr. Ali Badarneh, my friend from a much younger generation and co-founder of Elrazi, the Center for Child Rehabilitation, is married to Maria, a fellow student of psychology he met at the Russian institute of neuropsychology famous for its founder the world-renowned Luria. They reside in Arrabeh but spend their vacations in Crete, her island of origin. Both consider it highly damaging for the psyche of their three young children to spend one whole uninterrupted year in violent Israel especially when a child is a member of the trauma-ridden Palestinian minority. On more than one occasion we have joined them for part of their summer vacation in Crete and befriended Maria’s family and especially her grandparents who, in their eighties, still lead an active farming life. When the old man came to visit his granddaughter in Arrabeh Maria and Ali brought him to see my garden. They acted as translators as I showed him around and bragged about the variety of trees I have. It was spring and when I described the special properties of one variety of pest-resistant and late ripening pomegranates, he got interested. He asked for a potato, pulled out his pocketknife, cut a length from a spry twig and stuck it in the potato to keep its base moist.
The following spring Didi and I visited Crete on our own. We wanted to hike the Samaria Gorge, reputed to be the home of the greatest number of native flowers in all of Europe, and Ali and Maria had no vacation. On one of our drives we came to a familiar spot where the previous summer I had made a scene by pulling off the road and climbing over a fence to eat some particularly luscious figs to the objection and consternation of my wife. I figured that rural Cretans would be as generous as Palestinians and would be certain to welcome a stranger quenching his lust for their delicious fruits. It is not only a custom but also a commandment to feed a wayward stranger. The prophet, we are told, would eat a fruit from the side of the road without asking permission from the owners. No hording though; just enough to reflect the evil eye from damaging the envied tree.
Now I recognized the same tree and broke off three small twigs from it, one each for me, for Ali and for my fellow village gardener, Toufiq. Then we drove over to Grandpa’s house in Arvi on the southern coast, stopping on the way at a store to pick a kilogram of potatoes. As we arrived we found Grandma down with the flu. Grandpa however was well and received us with smiles, hugs and all sorts of physical gestures of welcome. There was no one around to translate. I handed him the bag with the potatoes and the twigs and explained in detailed hand gestures what I wanted done with the contents expecting that, as the source of the wise farming trick, he would understand my purpose. A peculiar faint smile spread across his weathered Mediterranean face as he stowed the loot away. Soon an English-speaking young woman arrived and I asked her to explain to her grandfather that I needed my bag back together with a kitchen knife to shape the cuttings the right way. As she did he broke out roaring with laughter and reached out for a jug of raki and a set of glasses. He had thought the bag was a present we brought on the occasion of visiting his sick wife.
He took us to his field to show me how well the pomegranate seedlings started from my tree were doing. The source was one of many exotic fruit varieties that Kamel, my fruit tree advisor and source, had supplied me with. It was part of a deal in the best of our subsistence farming bartering traditions that came about spontaneously without it ever being openly formulated into a binding agreement: I took care of his children and he of my trees. He is much younger than I am, one of Toufiq’s few dozen nephews. When I came back from the States he was still in agricultural high school, a middling student with limited promise beyond the prospect of turning into the standard semi-skilled construction worker that most of our boys become after high school. But he landed a job at an experimental agricultural station and climbed through the ranks from weeding and ditch-digging to the head of the fruit tree section. He dabbles with developing new fruit varieties by bombarding seeds with ionizing radiation and has one variety of pomegranate named after him, ‘Kamel’. It has huge fruits with pinkish skin but tastes less satisfying than it looks promise. And that is Kamel for you; the year his youngest child grew to where he needed less care Kamel stopped visiting my orchard regularly.
A memorable story from Kamel is instructive in explaining his adaptive skills at work: In October 2000, at the start of the Second Intifada and at the height of the demonstrations that frequently exploded into riots and confrontations with the police, Kamel did a favor to a soldier. As he drove his car back from work he saw her standing at the bus station at the entrance to Arrabeh, obviously panicked and uncomfortable with where she had found herself. Israeli media had pictured our communities as the aggressors and a danger to neighboring settlements. Kamel picked the young woman up, reassured her, turned around and drove her to her home in the nearby settlement of Tzivia. She asked for his address. Two weeks later Kamel offered me two entrance tickets to the famous Country Club outside of Tel Aviv where the soldier’s father worked. He had received them by mail with a card thanking him for “saving our daughters’ life.” Kamel felt uncomfortable with the prospect of going to the country club for a weekend and thought that I may jump on the opportunity. He related to me that he had shared his story with his boss at work emphasizing his different attitude with a literal translation of a local expression: “You think all Arabs are Arabs. In fact there are Arabs and there are Arabs!”
With the exception of the dark-skinned variety that I exported to Crete, pomegranates are often subject to damage by pests. Last year I introduced a new fruit-farming trick I learned in China and it worked well. In October of 2007 when we visited China, while climbing up the side of the massive mound over the undisturbed mausoleum of China’s first emperor, not far from the site where China’s most famous relics, the Terracotta Soldiers, were discovered, I stopped to pick a couple of ripe pomegranates from a farmer’s stall at the edge of his field. Through a translator I learned the details of how and when to wrap each individual fruit in the bud with a thin translucent plastic bag. Later we were to see thousands of acres of apple orchards loaded with luscious red apples all individually wrapped in plastic bags. What remained was for me to figure out which was more damaging to the environment, chemical spray or plastic.
In my garden I used this labor-intensive preventive treatment on my pomegranates, apricots, apples, pears and persimmons. With the exception of the pomegranates, fruits benefiting from this modality of Chinese wisdom seem to ripen earlier but to be slightly more watery and less flavorful. But for my rumman it was perfect.