Saturday, March 28, 2009

Zaitun

The olive is no match to the cedar of Lebanon in majestic looks or to the Atlantic Oak in grace when in full spring attire. Yet no tree in the Mediterranean basin inspires more respect and deeper love than the olive. Worship is no exaggeration in describing the ardent regard in which we hold the life-giving native plant that had sustained us through the ages.

As I arose from my bed this morning, early as if I were one of the good practicing Moslems anxious to perform the first of their five daily prayer rituals at the crack of dawn when they are first able to distinguish a black from a white thread, I had a deep feeling of disappointment at having received the news that my book of memoirs, A Doctor in Galilee, had not been shortlisted for the year’s Orwell Prize for political writing. I wished I were religious enough to beat a quick retreat to the mosque to immerse myself in pious blaming of my failure on Allah’s all enveloping will.

Disappointed that I had failed both Allah and George Orwell, I sit now as a supplicant to the olive. The closing chapter of my book does pay homage to a multi-millennium old olive tree. Yet I am perturbed by a sense of failure at having fallen short of giving the reader the full sense of the special relationship between a Palestinian farmer and his/her olive tree. Recently, this dawned on me again as I sat awe-struck listening to a Palestinian grandmother describing her struggle to stop the Israeli settlers and army from uprooting the olives in her field on the far side of the apartheid wall. Her picture clutching for life, both the tree’s and her own, at the trunk of her olive has become an icon of Palestinian struggle for their land, life and liberty. The particular enmity the settlers and the Israeli Occupation Forces seem to hold against the olive is understood by all to illustrate their conscious attempt at erasing Palestinian memory and culture.

A week earlier I had made a trip to Rehovot to visit Yoav, a Jewish friend I inherited in the line of family obligations from my late brother Mahmoud who once taught him. Yoav once mentioned to me that he knows of an olive tree with a more massive trunk than the one I had transplanted to my front yard. He challenged me to come, see and compare. It turned out to be an amazing specimen in the fields of an Italian monastery near Beit-Jammal in the Jerusalem hills. True, its gargantuan trunk is larger than that of my tree but it had split open and a fire had eaten a side away. It may well be older than mine and age may take precedence over beauty but I would never consider a swap.

The missing side of this other ancient tree has been replaced by a spry shoot, a decade or two old that has risen sphinx-like from the ashes of the scorched roots. I was reminded of a passage in Ilan Pappe’s book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, in which he describes how imported pine forests replacing uprooted Palestinian olive groves in modern Israel have succumbed to disease. To everyone’s surprise new growth from olive stumps that have survived for over half a century in the ground has pushed through often splitting asunder the failing pine trunks, a botanical metaphor writ in the Jerusalem hills.

The olive seed is encased in a hard cover that prevents it from sprouting unless it undergoes a natural softening process in the gut of a bird. Nowadays olives are fed to flocks in turkey farms before they are collected and delivered to specialized nurseries. In the old days, in early spring farmers would scout the hills for the wild seedlings to bring back to their land. There were known locations for this, the sites of nesting of wild birds. One such famous spot in these parts was the summit of Abu-Qarad or ‘tick hill’, a steep and rocky mountain two-hours walk from Arrabeh that has long been tamed into a Jewish-only settlement with a winding paved road, an electric gate, and barbwire fence around its modern homes and lush green lawns.

If one looks hard enough one can still find some wild olives among the boulders that intermingle with the tin shacks of the unrecognized village of el-Naim next door. That was one of the rewards of my frequent solidarity visits to the Bedouin community in support of their struggle to gain access to such basic amenities as water, electricity and access road, not to mention their struggle to stay put in their ancestral village against the state’s designs to relocate them.

The communal celebratory atmosphere of the olive harvesting season in Palestinian villages is a childhood memory I still cherish decades after my estrangement from active agricultural involvement beyond maintaining my showy fruit and flower garden. Still today I make it a habit every fall when not traveling to invite myself to the grove of a friend or a relative and to join in their family’s arduous labor of olive picking. I time it to coincide with their noon mealtime and may have secretly connived to have the lady of the household prepare mjaddarah, the local cracked wheat, lentil, onion and olive oil dish savored with fresh yogurt. Prof. McLaren, the famed child nutritionist, once told me that he experimented for years with locally-based infant weaning preparations before he came up with a most nutritious mixture which he was surprised to learn was nothing but the classic mjaddarah and yogurt. Locals traditionally consider it musmar el-batin; it ‘nails’ your stomach firm for the day. But I eat it for its satisfying taste not nutritional value.

As a side dish when dining out in the fields, it is customary to eat home-preserved veggies including both green and black olives. A standard joke mocking foreigners is about how they think that the two types of preserved olives come from different tree varieties and not two stages in the ripening process of the same fruit. Such ignorance of people who have reached the moon is always entertaining. A friend of ours from Galilee who married and moved to live in California tried once to share her special recipe for preserving olives with a neighbor. With her limited English she tried to explain that you add enough salt to the water you use to preserve the green olives till an egg floats in it. With her limited English communicating skills her neighbor must have misunderstood. When our friend enquired later about the success of her neighbor’s experiment, the latter expressed satisfaction with the taste of the product but complained of the smell of the rotting raw egg she had cracked on top of the container.

On such occasions, passing through the empty village streets –everyone is in the olive fields- I am struck by what an uplifting effect the sharp acrid scent of akar, the rancid liquid refuse from the olive presses in the various neighborhoods, has on my soul. My late brother who ran the perfect country store would close it in season and join everyone in the fields. When I would chide him for abandoning his shop he would respond: “I feel as if there is a wedding to which everyone in the village is invited except for me.” Ahmad was handicapped, his lift arm paralyzed by a childhood accident that must have torn his axillary nerve plexus. But he lived his entire life in full denial of his disability and often outdid others in functions that required the coordination of two hands. At the end of each day when the collected olives needed to be brought home in huge bags, Ahmad was the expert in sealing them shut. He would fashion a series of long thin spikes out of the suckers, the useless new shoots at the base of the trees, that he would use to drive through the joined edges of each sack’s opening to sew it shut. And Ahmad would join forces with the strongest member of the team to pick up each sack and load it on our donkey’s back.

The real big finale was always the day when the olive crop that we had collected for the season was taken to my uncle Salih’s press for the golden magic liquid to be squeezed out of it. We lived not far from the press which we called el-babour, a generic Arabic term for an engine, whether the one that drives an olive press, a train or a ship. Everyone would pitch in to bring the olives to the press: women carrying open containers on their heads, men sacks on their shoulders and donkeys heavier ones on their backs. The olives were piled up in one of the wide concrete-rimmed basins along the sidewall of the babour. We all hung around and waited our turn. My father would be torn between using his prerogative as the brother of the owner of the press to secure an early turn and his wish not to alienate strangers and loose their business. When our turn came, the two baddads, or press workers, shabby dress and unwashed skin thoroughly drenched with the semi-sacred juice of the olive, would start dipping their measuring devices, Jeri cans opened at the top and with hefty sticks affixed across them as handles, and delivering their content under the two huge rotating stones while keeping count so that they put aside every twelfth measure as charge for the chore.

As a child I would stand to the side and try to memorize the entertaining counting system they used, the same one I would hear my parents using when measuring out olive oil or wheat from our field to sell to a merchant or to another villager. The counting system relies on altering the Arabic words for the numbers one to ten to expressions of blessing the produce, the moment and the contract of sale to protect from envy and the evil eye. It goes something like this: Baraki, blessing, for one; min karim, God’s generous gift, for two, … samha, forgiveness, for seven, yella el-amani, God’s trust, for eight, and so on. Those alternative numbers would be shouted loud and clear to overcome the noise of the machinery in the press. Yet the same was done also in the calm of our house, the blessing numbers repeated several times each while my parents scooped out the produce to fill the standard volume measure in use, the ratil for oil and the saa’ for wheat. The party at the receiving end of the transaction often would repeat the same pronouncement in equally loud and reverential voice. The whole process had a ritualistic serenity to it and would put my parents and their interlocutors in a semi-trance not unlike the one they entered into five times a day to perform their prayers.

As a child and a member of the owner’s extended family my presence in the inner sanctum of the press was tolerated by the beddads and their bosses, my older cousins, who frequently kept an eye on what was happening there. I was fascinated by the mechanical magic of the process from beginning to end. Every so often one of the workers would reach under the humongous rotating stones and swipe a handful of the crushed olives to assess how fine the mush has become. When he judged it right a side outlet would be opened manually and the pulp pushed out by the metal side arms attached to the rotating stones. Donut-shaped flat jute baskets are filled with the crushed pulp and stacked up around the central metal rod jutting from the base component of a hydraulic press. As the pressure is applied with the turning of a lever the precious fluid flows into massive vats on the side. Jift, the solid refuse remaining after all the liquid has been pressed, is an excellent fuel valued by housewives for heating, cooking and baking of bread.

For hours at end I would sit atop a pile of jift, enjoy the warmth emanating from its fermenting innards, and wait for the moment when a mechanical failure occurred so I could go closer and touch all the magic parts of the engine. Babours were the only modern mechanical equipment in our village. On the very rare occasion when a taxi arrived from the city, we children would run after it and compete in sneaking a ride on the back fender till the driver would stop and chase us away. With the advent of WWII the British established a training camp at the edge of our village and we got the chance to ride in their armored trucks and even tanks, thanks to our mutual curiosity with so many thick mustachioed Sikh’s, nimble Indians, and skeleton-thin Senegalese conscripts.

What fascinated me most as I sat in my warm jift perch was the two piston engine mounted such that the two arms, ‘dancers’ the beddads called them in warning me to keep away from them, stood upright and alternated in their labored up-sideways-then-downward strokes to force the metal rim that transmitted the mechanical energy through thick leather belts to all the moving parts of the press. I would watch and watch till I would fall asleep marveling at the fact that those two dancers never once moved out of synch with each other. Still today, the hypnotic effect of the synchronous circular motion of the two pistons hugging the opposite sides of the metal rim and cooperatively moving it round and round provides a better remedy for my occasional insomnia than the flock of sheep jumping over that imaginary green fence.

There were no electric centrifuges in those days, only huge open barrels in the dark back area of the babour, for the mixed extract to sit in. Within hours the oil would float to the top and be decanted into smaller containers and carried home to be stored in large glazed ceramic jars imported from France where they apparently were intended originally for wine storage. As I sit now in my study I look out at one of the half-dozen jars that my family once owned and that I now display in my center courtyard atop a wine press stone dating back few centuries before Christ. Those jars were bought, I was told, from Gazan traders who transported them on camelback from Jaffa’s port to outlying villages.

The day we pressed our olives would always end with a gala celebration. My mother would have made a stack of msachan, bread soaked in fresh olive oil, topped with chopped onions flavored with sumac and sweet paprika, and roasted with chickens in our outdoor oven, the taboun. For the finale we always indulged in a treat of sweets, especially halva bartered from the country store for a ratil or two of oil.

As the oil was skimmed off in frequent consecutive visits from my parents to the final fruit of their year-long labor, the separating oil would diminish to the thinnest of layers. My mother would carefully and patiently touch her flat palm to the liquid surface, bring it out over a flat container held in her other hand and with the tips of her fingers massage the drops of oil from it in a repetitive milking motion. The process even has a specific term for it locally, yqaffi. The minor impurities floating in the oil gave it an additional bite, a burning aftertaste that I never ceased to appreciate. To this day, my favorite dish in season is fresh olive oil savored with freshly-baked flat bread and a few green onion leaves. Recently I have discovered that you can freeze the special fresh taste of olive oil direct from the press. I have several liter-size bottles in my freezer. Especially when Didi is not around to force a proper meal on me, that is what I eat.

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