Note: This is the last chapter in my book of memoirs, A Doctor in Galilee, Pluto Press, 2008. It is posted here as the first sample of my writing in the process of applying to the Writers' Institute.
April 30, 2006
My central gardening achievement this spring has been the realization of my long-held dream of transplanting an ancient olive tree to grace the entrance to our yard. Friends and relatives have not stopped coming to view it. To guard against the evil eye of so many potential jealous admirers, my sister Jamileh has adorned its gnarled two-meter wide trunk with a huge blue bead and an amulet purchased on her pilgrimage to Mecca. Since its arrival I have reshaped the western side of the yard to measure up to its imposing stature and majestic look. I have refashioned the iron-gate, the ‘mosaic’ entryway, and the metal fence around the entire property. I find myself obsessed with daily tending to its welfare: watering its roots, manicuring its bark, and checking for signs of new growth sprouting from its branches, stripped clean during the transplanting process.
In Palestine, and probably in the wider Middle East, olive trees are described in terminology used to specify their relative age. ‘Rumi’ olives are those whose age is counted in millennia, their origin attributed to the golden era of the Roman Empire when the planting of olives was popularized throughout its domain -- though at one point a local ruler was apparently enraged enough to decree the destruction of all olive trees in Jerusalem. A local tour guidebook identifies as a ‘must-see landmark’ an olive tree on the Wadi Salameh hiking trail that winds among neighboring hills -- the location from which I moved my own tree. The guidebook estimates the age of that landmark tree to be over six thousand years. That is sacrilegious, of course, if you are a strict follower of the Jewish faith. According to that calendar, we are now in the year 5777 after creation. Obviously, that puts my tree at about the same age as God himself. Such an assertion is not so blasphemous to Galilean ears accustomed to hearing local bards declaim their lovesick song: ‘Tathal ahibbick ta-yikhatier rabbina’ -- I will still love you when God turns old and feeble.
The second age category is that of Amari olive trees, generally assumed to be from the era of Arab rule in the area. The age of Amari trees is estimated in centuries. A Rumi or an Amari olive tree is also known as a’amoud -- a pillar, in recognition of its stability, permanence and stature, physically, figuratively, and economically. This is in contradistinction to a nasbeh, Arabic for a monument or a memorial structure. A nasbeh is valued far in excess of its actual economic worth. To me as a villager, the term has romantic connotations evoking youthfulness, vigor, and the promise of future material wealth.
Ancient cultures had a mystical fascination with the olive. Adam was buried with an olive seed in his mouth, Noah eased his ark on land after the dove brought back an olive leaf as a sign of the return of tranquility, and the olive branch is the universal sign of peace and reconciliation. The Greeks received only two special gifts from their Gods: the olive and wisdom. Athena herself bequeathed the olive to her city, Athens, as an inviolable symbol; anyone desiring to harvest its sacred fruit had to take a vow of chastity. Olympic victors were crowned with olive wreaths and rewarded with huge amounts of olive oil, up to four tons. Hippocrates recognized the salutary health benefits of olive oil, while the ancient Egyptians used it for mummification and stocked their Pharaohs’ tombs with cured olives. The aphrodisiac powers of the olive fruit are legend the world over. The olive tree inspires and amazes: its majestic solitude in the stony Mediterranean terrain and magnanimous silence in the face of draughts and downpours have echoes of immortality.
In this, our holy land, the arrival and eventual hegemony of monotheism did little to contain the olive’s godly pretensions or to dislodge it from the inhabitants’ hearts. Jews incorporated the wood of the olive into their Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount, and their most glorious revolt against the Romans was energized by the miraculous performance of its oil. The entire Christian church is referred to as an ‘Olive Tree’ and its prophets were anointed with olive oil. What Christian does not know about the Mount of Olives! In our local churches, till the present day, no baptism is complete without the priest marking the forehead of the baby with the cross, his forefinger dipped in holy olive oil.
Mention olives in any rural social setting here and an air of seriousness and veneration bordering on awe materializes instantaneously, even in the most secular of circles. People start mumbling the name of Allah and his blessed prophet, or the Blessed Virgin Mary, in due respect. Of all fruit-bearing trees only the fig, perhaps the first plant to be domesticated by humans anywhere on the face of the earth, has an equal moral stature, weighty enough for Allah to adorn with it the opening passage of a chapter in his holy book, the Koran. In another setting Allah, the creator and light of the universe, compares his own luminescence to that of a star-bright crystal lamp in a niche, the lamp fed oil from a blessed olive tree, the tree existing in a mystical location ‘neither easterly nor westerly.’ Could that be my tree, I wonder?
An olive tree produces more oil and of a higher quality as it ages. Like wine, the older the more rewarding and intriguing. Yet, a local turn of phrase in our region attests to the special emotional investment traditional farmers have in their olive seedlings. When someone commits a particularly heinous crime or speaks utter nonsense violating other people’s sensitivities, villagers commonly condemn the act as a deed deserving retribution by doing damage to the aggressor’s olives. ‘Haki bitqashshar aleh nasib’, they would opine, --talk deserving of stripping the bark off of young olive trees’, the harshest of all possible punishments short of physical elimination of the person himself.
In our fourth grade reader, a collection of Arabic literary gems selected by the venerable Palestinian educator Khalil Sakakini, we read a story about Khisru, the wise Persian king. Seeing on one of his royal outings an old Arab farmer planting olive seedlings, the king questioned the man about the meaning of his labor. He must realize, he reasoned, that the trees would never come to fruition in his lifetime. “They planted, we eat; we plant, they will eat,” the old man responded, enigmatically summing up the multigenerational interdependence of olive farming. The king was struck by the simplicity and astuteness of the explanation. “Zih!” he shouted to his servants, using the Persian royal codeword for ordering a monetary gift for a subject.
“You see, your majesty, my olive seedlings have already yielded their first crop,” said the farmer pocketing his prize money.
“Zih!” the king shouted again, “and let us get away from this Arab before he robs us of all of our imperial reserves.”
For the past five years I have had an urge -- no, more, an infatuation -- to add an ancient olive tree to my garden. It started when I found the remains of an ancient Rumi olive tree lying on the edge of a field belonging to a fellow villager. I was taken aback by the crime of allowing such a living record of farming life in these parts to be chopped for wood. My attempt at resuscitating it apparently came too late, the tree trunk having been out of the ground for a couple of weeks before I saw it. Still, as I did my utmost to bring it back to life, it responded to the attention by sending a new shoot out of the ground. The trunk itself was never revived ,and now I use it as another stand for displaying my fossil finds from Mount Carmel.
As my failure fully to revive that wisp of ancient history sank in, I developed an obsession with Rumi olive trees, so firmly rooted, generously predisposed and wisely accepting of history’s perturbing turns and twists. Something about those trees evokes in my heart fond memories of my early childhood, days when we lived and labored in our olive orchards. I had to have one in my front yard. Every hike I took in the Galilee wound up being a hunt for the perfect Rumi tree. I saw thousands but each had something missing: some were not majestic enough in shape, squatty or too tall; the trunk of others was hollowed out to a mere thin shell that would not stand the physical injury of the transplanting process; and still others were not old enough. Last year, when a neighbor decided to pull out half a dozen old olive trees to empty the land for construction, I accepted his offer of one tree as a present. It was not exactly what I wanted but, then again, it was free of charge and I would be saving another venerable eyewitness to the history of our village. Even if its trunk was not carved that beautifully by the exigencies of history and natural phenomena, it still was of an age and height that compared favorably, for example, with those venerated olives in the Garden of Gethsemane. But alas, in the process of moving it, the trunk was damaged and I was left dreaming of my perfect olive tree again.
Then one weekend I accepted the offer of a friend to drive to his own olive grove in Wadi Salameh. He owed me a favor and had heard of my Rumi olive prospecting. We saw several worthy a’amouds that he or one of his relatives owned, but none fit the picture I had in my mind, my imagined tree occupying the space in my redesigned garden, a tree whose mere sight would inspire visitors and passers-by to reconnect instantaneously to our ancient roots in this historic land.
But leaving the site, my eye was caught by a beauty of an olive tree, a Rumi a’amoud of imperial stature, imposing configuration and monumental proportions. It stopped me in my tracks. I knew I belonged to that tree. It was the long-lost mother I had been searching for. It took total possession of my senses. The struggle of proving our relationship, our belonging to each other, to the rest of the world started right then and there. I had to find the person who had formal title to ‘my’ tree. That took the better part of a year. No one seemed to know to whom the well-tended piece of land around it belonged. A search of land records in the surrounding villages yielded the promising result that the land belonged to the Nassar family in Arrabeh, my village. I started inviting friends and distant acquaintances from that clan for rides in my new Subaru Outback. The rides invariably took us past that a’amoud. I had to be careful not to divulge my love story with the tree for fear of driving its price beyond my financial means. Eventually the trail led to the land’s owner, a school friend from my childhood days.
It was then that I discovered a historical curiosity about olive trees that is common knowledge to most farmers in the Galilee. Although the old school friend owned the land, he did not own the tree itself. That honor belonged to another former classmate of mine, one from Dier Hanna.
In the shadows of the Ottoman Empire, subsistence farming and heavy land taxes had yielded a real estate system that valued the productive olive tree more than the land on which it stood, thus allowing one to own a tree independently of the land. Once I uncovered this strange system, everyone in the village with whom I discussed it quoted an example of conflict and intrigue between neighbors or relatives prompted by this separation between ownership of the tree and ownership of the land on which it stood. Apparently, such circumstances obtain only in the case of ancient olive trees; no other tree has the permanence, status and traditional value as a source of livelihood to rate a special custom or even an Ottoman law recognizing its sanctity.
Though the owner of the tree does not own the land, he or she has at their disposal, for as long as the tree lives, 64 square meters of land around it, an area traditionally recognized as the olive tree’s mihrath or cultivation space. In other words, the olive tree ‘owns’ the land around it. In fact, that is the wording of a local axiom: ‘Ezzatoun bumluk’ -- Olives own, it states simply. At least in my case, that depicts the true relationship between me and my tree: it possesses me more than I it. And in the constricted perspective of rural life, that meant forever: the ownership of such an a’amoud devolved down the generations in patrilineal inheritance, just as the land did in a parallel, separate fashion. When the male descendants divided an inherited field between themselves, such a division took the number and known productive potential of the olive trees into consideration and not the area of the land.
No self-respecting villager would ever think of messing around with these sacred inheritance traditions, even when everyone knows that the rules of tree ownership would never stand the test of modern reality in an Israeli court of law. Both sides to such a conflict would probably end up losing out, somehow, to the superior interest of the Israel Lands Authority. So, everyone keeps away from the courts and settles land claims internally, in the traditional manner of consensus seeking among honorable neighbors. Only in one known case in Arrabeh did a farmer violate the honor code of conduct and set fire to an a’amoud on his land belonging to a distant relative. With the death of the tree, no further claim could be made to its mihrath. End of conflict. Shortly, though, he lost a son and one of his work oxen broke a leg.
The wife of the landowner from Arrabeh on whose field my Rumi a’amoud stood was effusive in welcoming my proposal. It would free their land of the intrusive presence of another family’s tree. She went as far as equating this intended good deed of mine with the time I cared for her little son, now himself a physician, when he came down with polio. I graciously accepted her thanks, black coffee and dish of home-made sweets.
Then I made a second visit, this time to my former classmate from Dier Hanna. He is a huge man and he gave me a long and sincere bear-hug leaving me momentarily breathless. After coffee and fruits, I broached the subject of the tree. He turned pale, twirled the tip of his mustache with his fingers, coughed nervously, while his breathing became noticeably labored. He seemed to be in a real bind. Apparently he found it difficult to deny me my first ever request for a favor from him, especially after the welcoming hug, but found it equally difficult to commit such a treasonous act as selling an olive tree that has been in the family for who knows how many centuries. He excused himself and left the room to consult with a brother. A short time later he returned beaming. Eureka! “The last wish of our late father when we gathered around his death bed in this room was that we guard our land, our olives and our womenfolk; in short, our honor. But you took good care of him in his old age; he was always pleased with the way you treated him when he fell ill and came to your clinic. We know he would have given you that tree if you had asked him for it. It is yours on two conditions: No money will be involved and you will put a sign identifying the tree as a present from the Khalaileh clan.” The deal was done and I tried to thank Ahmad with a failed bear hug of my own.
Last spring, when I first saw my tree, I started digging a hole in my garden where I planned for it to stand. In the cool afternoons I would be joined by Bashar, one of my many solicitous teenage grand-nephews. We would take turns digging and shoveling the earth out. By the time the rains started in late autumn, we thought we had accomplished the task; we had dug a circular hole, two meters across and one and a quarter meters deep.
On Thursday, two days before I was due to bring my bride home, I consulted with a friend, a civil engineer. We visited the tree together and he took exact measurements. Bashar’s and my labors had not been totally in vain. The depth of the hole was adequate but we needed to double its area. Bringing in any mechanical equipment was out of the question; it would mess up my garden. I contacted Camal, a good manual ditch digger, and he estimated the assignment would require a minimum of two days’ labor. He wanted to start on Saturday, the day the tree was due to arrive, as Friday was set aside for praying at the mosque. I pressed him and finally he agreed to do the work in a day, provided I pay him for the two days’ work. I did not quibble; I wanted to get the job done before somebody changed their mind about my tree.
On Friday morning, he showed up early. By noon he was finished, making it to the mosque just in time for the noon prayer. He even had enough time to do his ablutions in the hole he dug, an auspicious sign for the success of the transplanting operation. The water used in washing the head, face, hands and feet of a good Muslim in preparation for entering the mosque and standing before Allah has near-magic powers, almost sacred in its value. After he collected his money, he picked a bunch of grape leaves and a pocketful of green almonds from my orchard for his wife to satisfy her cravings in early pregnancy. She was carrying a boy this time, after four girls, so Camal was catering to her every wish. Camal is a borderline mentally handicapped young man, mainly due to cultural and environmental deprivation. But, boy, does he dig ditches! At this stage in my biological life, and with my current range of interests, I think I would opt for his muscle power if it were on offer for exchange with other bodily systems of mine.
Then came the mechanical part: the heavy equipment to dig my tree out; the lift with a minimum capacity of ten tons to raise it out of the ground and then lower it again into the welcoming womb Bashar, Camal and I had prepared for it; the wide platform truck to carry it the ten-mile distance between the two locations. Finally, Camal would return to cover its roots with few tons of fertile soil.
Fortunately, the operation took place on Saturday, the Sabbath day when Jewish agricultural and forestry inspectors rest. An Ottoman law, still on the books in Israel, prohibits endangering the life of an olive tree. To enforce it, a permit has to be obtained before an olive can be moved from one location to another. I learned of the requirement, however, only after we had finished digging around my tree. I could not leave its damaged roots exposed and jinx the whole project. But equally the contractor I had commissioned to do the task was afraid for his livelihood; if caught, he would be heavily fined and his equipment impounded for a month. It makes one wonder how Israeli contractors and military commanders have been arranging so easily the ‘transfer’ of so many ancient Palestinian olive trees from the occupied West Bank. According to reports in the Israeli media, this is big business, with the stolen trees sold for tens of thousands of dollars to the wealthier residents of Israeli suburbs.
To allay the contractor’s fear, I personally guided the truck over a rocky unpaved back road so as not to be seen with our illegal heist on the open road. The scariest part, though, was negotiating the roads through Arrabeh. Not only did we have to move through some particularly narrow alleys but also the height of my tree on top of the moving platform exceeded that of the electricity, phone and cable TV lines strung haphazardly across the village skies. The contractor wanted me to sit atop the tree and manually lift or cut obstructive wires. The thought of parading through the village in such fashion did not appeal to me. I paid him an extra amount and he enlisted the help of a friend for the task. I prayed for Allah’s protective graces all the way home. Mercifully the clandestine operation was completed, but not without the typical rural communal fanfare and curiosity-engendered assistance and interference from a dozen curious neighbors and twice as many children.
I do not feel any inkling of remorse about having broken the law. After all, the wise Ottomans wanted to protect olive trees, and mine shows every sign of being alive and vigorous. Had I been a Hellinic subject, however, I might not have taken the risk. In those days endangering the life of an olive tree was punishable by death, and I certainly want to be around to tend and enjoy the new addition to my garden.
The horrific sense of history inspired by this continuous biological link between me and my land is simply awesome. Are the Palestinians not the historical descendants of the Minoans of Crete? Were the Minoans not the first olive farmers in recorded history? Did Minoan culture not revolve around the trade in olive oil? Was the trade by way of Phoenicia? Could the Phoenicians, Canaanites, Israelites, Egyptians, Hyxos, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Moguls, Crusaders and Turks have played a role in influencing the life and physique of my own tree? Yes, indeed, they may have. Any or all of them may have enjoyed the afternoon Mediterranean breeze in its cool shade. Any or all of them may have tied their trusted mounts to its sturdy trunk and cut a fresh shoot from its base to hurry the steed along -- the reason, most likely, for all the beautiful, football-size knots on its trunk. Any or all of them may have seduced, or raped, one of my maiden progenitors, leaving his telltale imprint on my amalgam of genes. And any or all of them may have dictated their rules and regulations to my ancestors, who submissively incorporated them as ‘ours’.
But at bottom, it was those Minoan olive oil traders and their Palestinian descendants, clinging to their land and subsisting in the shadow of their olive groves, that morphed into an ambitious nation laying claim to Arab culture, the last dominant culture of significant impact. My tree knows and attests to all of that; that is how it all started. This horrendous behemoth, with its two-meter wide, beautifully sculpted trunk and over ten square meters of in-your-face exposed root system saw it all. I can prove my belonging to this piece of the earth’s crust through it; its roots are my surrogate roots. And they are taking hold in my land that I inherited from my father, who inherited it from his father, who …