On our way to Zabuba, the most Northern village in Palestine, I vowed that we would never return. We were already running late before we got lost following the woefully bad navigation app, we scratched the car turning an impossibly tight corner through narrow streets and we were bickering and in a bad mood. Then we arrived and were given such a warm welcome that all of that melted away instantly.
Our tour guide for the day was Mohamed Atari who had previously taken us on a hike around Zababdeh. Today, we were in his home village to learn more about Palestine’s tobacco growing industry. On arrival, we were ushered into a sheltered area where chairs had been assembled around the coffee pot. Along with biscuits and sweets, cubes of homemade jam were offered on cocktail sticks.
Mohamed said that Zabuba was famous for its tobacco as the chalky soil here gave a light taste to the leaves that those in the know could distinguish. ‘We are professional smokers’ he said laughing, handing round the seeds that were usually planted in the Spring. An older gentleman present nodded, he had been 12 when he started smoking and had clocked up 50 years of experience already.
Tobacco leaves hanging up to dry and right – tobacco plants growing
Much to the delight of our kids, and the other family with us, our transport for the day was to be a tractor drawn trailer. A friendly young man called Tamer was introduced as the tractor driver and it was his family’s fields that we were off to see. Tamer was a vet by trade but even those with professions still had to help out tending the family land.
As the tractor rumbled along, Mohamed chatted with us about family life in rural Palestine. He told us that Tamer, who was 31, was engaged to be married this summer. Mohamed said that he had warned Tamer that he needed to finish building his house before getting engaged. He explained, ‘if you ask to marry someone, the first question the family will ask is if you own your own house’. The other reason, Mohamed said, speaking from experience, was that ‘if not, the girl will want to choose everything, and it will be very slow’. Mohamed continued to explain that if you passed the test of having a house, then the girl’s family would want to come and see it before they agreed to the marriage. Despite having just met Tamer, we were invited to attend his wedding.
Mohamed explained that families worked together as a single financial unit and the annual income from the tobacco or other produce would be invested in those that needed money for study or home building or improvements. Mohamed started planning his own house age 18 and he said that it took him 12 years to compete it.
Meanwhile, the tractor had been bumping along past verdant fields of tobacco, cucumbers, sesame, chickpeas and watermelon. In some of the fields, workers hunched over the crop, methodically working along the lines to pick small cucumbers. It was a perfect rural scene, apart from the tall electric wire fence which stood several hundred metres away, chopping the land in two, with a concrete watchtower at one end.
Mohamed said that the fence around Zabuba was one of the earliest parts of the Israeli Separation Barrier to be built in the year 2000 and that it instantly cut many people off from their places of work. The silver lining to this he said, was that ‘many people went back to their land’.
We hopped off the tractor and started trying to make ourselves useful by picking the first leaves of tobacco. The plants were surprisingly bushy with lush, green leaves like a giant lettuce growing in neat rows. Mohamed explained that the outer, first leaves were the best quality but that these were mixed with leaves from the second and third pick to make a well-rounded cigarette.
I had refused the rubber gloves Mohamed offered us, and before long my hands were coated in a sticky black glue like the thick sap from a tree. I realised this was what normally ended up in a smoker’s lungs and gave smoking such a dangerous reputation.
We picked leaves for around an hour and the large sack started to fill up. We joked that the village children would need to come and tidy up the plants we had missed or messed up. Jumping back on the tractor, we trundled past more fields, and Mohamed jumped down regularly to offer us fresh samples.
At one stop, it was chickpeas growing on vine-like tendrils. These were peeled like peas to reveal one or two green chickpeas inside. They tasted fresh and sweet. A little further along, we were invited to pick green peppers from low growing plants. Mohamed then boarded the tractor with two fresh watermelons under his arms and offered them to us. There was a sense that the land was bountiful, and that people could take what they needed without damaging the supply.
We then stopped outside several houses with a barn to the back, where the dried leaves were taken to be made into cigarettes. Earlier in Zabuba, we had seen the freshly picked leaves strung up in rows to be dried for 20 days before they were transported to this barn. An ancient looking cutting machine was demonstrated, and piles of tobacco lay on the ground like hay, waiting to be stuffed into the cigarette papers. A fresh smell, like tea leaves hung in the air.
The final stop was a small shop to buy water, where we saw the local cigarettes being sold in packs of 20 for 4 NIS (just under £1). Although smoking is not to be glamorised, if one does smoke, then these were as natural, fresh and organic as you could hope to find anywhere in the world.
Tobacco picking might not be the first thing that comes to mind for a family-friendly day trip in Palestine, but it was fascinating to see the end-to-end process and how this rural industry continues to provide a good source of income for this small village hanging on to survival on the Northern edge of Palestine.
You can arrange a tour of Zabuba and the tobacco industry, or hikes around Jenin and Northern Palestine by contacting Mohamed Atari at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 0597-437949.