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Olive Offerings

Cultivating olives in Palestine bears more than fruit

by Hanne Foighel with photographs by Ahikam Seri

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“Olives are life,” said Talha Darwish with a smile, repeating a Palestinian adage. “With olives in the house no one ever starves.” The 56–year–old retired teacher now depends almost exclusively on cultivating olives and other produce, such as grapes and apples, to support his family in Al Khader, a Muslim village near Bethlehem named for St. George.

Long have Palestinians considered olives their most important crop. At the Darwish home, olive oil is served with bread every morning along with locally grown thyme and homemade jams and yogurt. During the harvest season, the family often takes the same meal with them as a packed lunch with cured olives, tomatoes and cucumbers. And almost every evening, olives find their way to the dinner table.

Mr. Darwish owns a considerable amount of land, which includes four olive groves. He received the property from his 76–year–old father, who despite his age continues to farm his own land.

“My father gave this land to me and now I cultivate it together with my family. I teach my children to work the land.

“Here,” he added pointedly, “we have a relation to our land.”

Mr. Darwish and his 46–year–old wife, Zuhra, have eight children. Two of their daughters are married with children. Several sons currently attend university and the youngest is in fifth grade. In autumn, during olive–picking season, the children take turns helping out their parents.

One morning last September, the couple and one of their elder sons, Matassem, set out together with their white donkey on the 40–minute trek to the family’s olive grove on the mountain slope facing the village. Until October 2000, the Darwish family drove their car to the grove. But after the second intifada erupted, the Israeli Defense Forces closed the road connecting their village to the adjacent mountain. No longer able to transport their harvest by car, they now depend on the ever–reliable donkey to carry heavy loads.

Upon arriving at the grove, father, mother and son began picking olives by hand, collecting fruit ranging in color from light green to deep purple. By the end of the afternoon, they had filled two large sacks, together weighing some 220 pounds.

After hauling the heavy loads on either side of the donkey, the three weary pickers headed home. On the way, Mr. Darwish projected that he and his family would finish picking all the fruit in this grove within the next six days and then move on to his other groves.

“There are 70 olive trees in this grove I planted some 20 years ago. In other fields to the south of the village, I have another 300 olive trees. All together, I have almost 400 trees. This year, I expect about 127 quarts of oil,” he said.

After returning home, Zuhra Darwish worked another five or six hours sorting the olives, setting aside the purple ones for her husband to press for oil while she cracked the green ones for curing.

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Tags: Gaza Strip/West Bank Palestine Farming/Agriculture Economic hardships Occupation