October marks the start of the Olive Harvest in Palestine. This has huge economic significance for the many thousands of families who make their living of the land, but it is also an important cultural and historical tradition. This week’s blog looks back on a memorable day I had during last year’s olive harvest.
On the day I went olive picking in the West Bank of Palestine not a single olive was picked. I shouldn’t have been too surprised really as plans change frequently here. I’d been told to head to the small village of Al Walaja not far from Bethlehem and my first mistake was putting blind faith in my phone’s map app to get me there. Driving in Israel and Palestine is a pandora’s box of surprises – on this occasion the surprise was a metal barrier blocking the road I planned to take. I cursed, and despite being tantalisingly close to my destination, turned around and re-joined the highway to take another entry road into Bethlehem. Ignoring the ‘danger to life’ signs that mark out Palestinian roads I drove into a small village praying it would connect me with a bigger road. The streets were deserted here apart from the odd stray cat or dog picking through litter at the side of the road. A few locals eyed me suspiciously but not maliciously, and I drove on. Finally, a familiar road emerged from the warren of narrow streets.
Arriving about 90 minutes later than planned, I was worried that the olive pickers would think me a lazy slacker for being such a late arrival. As it was, I was led into the farmer’s house where everyone was having their Arabic coffee with a biscuit. ‘Oh we can’t pick olives today. Not after the rain last night’. I took a seat and settled in, not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed. This was the house of Omar Hajajeh’s family and they had been cut off completely from the village of Al Walaja when construction of the separation barrier begun in 2010. The Israeli forces had built a special tunnel connecting the family to the village and they had to seek permission for visitors to use it. The conditions of their existence were so highly regulated that Omar has previously likened animals in a zoo to having better treatment than them.
The three other volunteers sitting with me in Omar’s front room had founded a small UK charity called Humanity Calling and the outcome of this visit was that they provided Omar’s family with six sheep. This would improve the family’s self-sufficiency on the land. The four of us jabbered away in English quite happily while the volunteer co-ordinator, our friend Mohammad, exchanged news and conversation with Omar in Arabic.
Mohammad made a few phone calls and being typically sketchy with the details said that we had a few more visits to make. The other volunteers and myself, suddenly finding ourselves with an olive free morning, were happy to be directed to whatever ‘business’ was needed. Leaving Omar’s house, the five of us piled into my car and started driving beyond Bethlehem on the Hebron road.
‘We’re going to see an old woman and her olives’ Mohammad said. But no, not to pick them. ‘Do you know her?’ we asked. Everyone knows of her he said, but no, he hadn’t met her. After a few wrong turns we drove up to where an old woman was waiting on the roadside with two younger men. This was the entrance to the four dunams of land she owned and where her olive trees stood. She greeted us with a big smile and several bunches of grapes which she immediately foisted upon us. She looked at least 75 years old and hobbled when she walked but she shrugged off the offer of an arm to lean on. She wore her independence stoically despite her swollen ankles and was dressed in a traditional embroidered Palestinian thobe. Her teeth shone white when she spoke to us, urging us to eat more grapes with such a mixture of persistence and kindness that it reminded me of my own granny.
Many years before, she had bought this land with her husband to provide for them and their son. Both the husband and son had tragically passed away and the woman now tended this land by herself. This meant travelling by bus, every day, with bottled water to feed the trees with. Looking around, the edges of her plot were strewn with empty plastic bottles. These trees were her reason to get up every day. This was her corner of Palestine that she would defend till the death. That defence was becoming more challenging, not only because of her own creeping age but because of the settlers who tried to intimidate her.
Stunned, the other volunteers and I stood humbly by, wondering where her strength to keep fighting came from. I feared I might have sold up years ago for a quiet retirement. We concluded that existence can be resistance. This woman’s land was her purpose and her pride, and this fuelled her strength to go on. A few phone calls were made, and it was settled that the charity would provide her with a new water tank and the means to rebuild the perimeter wall to keep the settlers at bay. For a modest investment, these would give her security and help to maintain her livelihood.
There were other days last year where we got to actually pick some olives, but the memory of the old lady sticks with me as the most striking. What an inspirational character! I hope that despite lockdown we get to put a shift or two in olive picking this year.