Culture : Through Ages of Palestinian Upheaval, the Olives Endure : In the occupied West Bank, centuries-old harvest rituals thrive. Picking the fruit lets local Arabs earn money, socialize--and escape, for a while, the violence of their lives.


There is probably no public activity in the Holy Land, barring perhaps religious and communal strife, older than the gentle autumn harvest of olives.

To hike into the stone-laden valleys and to clamber over the worn terraces to pick the ripening fruit is to travel to an elemental age. Yet, there are details that break the trance. On a recent afternoon in the groves near this ridge-top village, F-16 jets of Israel’s air force screamed overhead. A boom box blared news of Saddam Hussein.

But imagine that the jets are arrows and Hussein is the ancient Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar--he himself is said to imagine so--and focus again on the core rhythm of the harvest. It seems to beat much the same as it did thousands of years ago when the Bible said this was a land “of wheat and barley and vines and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey.” For a few hours at least, there is a partial release from the compression of violence that dominates news from the lives of Palestinians.


As in many contemporary scenes of rustic charm, it is deprivation that gives the olive harvest beauty. The Palestinian population of the West Bank is sufficiently hard-pressed to continue the Mediterranean chore of picking olives in the old-fashioned way. Unlike wealthy Italy, for example, no chemicals are sprayed to encourage the olives to fall here; no fork-tongued machines grab and shake the twisted trees to loosen stubborn fruit. No waves of migrant workers are imported to do the picking, for the Palestinians themselves are migrant laborers in large numbers--in the fields and factories of prosperous Israel, and in the offices and plants of oil-rich states in the Persian Gulf.

Families harvest on plots too small to produce more than side income. They come, young and old, girls in jeans and aunts in long, black, embroidered peasant dresses, boys in UCLA sweatshirts and their fathers in checkered-cloth headdresses, to pass the day on and under the trees, alternately reaching and stooping, picking and sorting, sipping tea and, at midday, eating in the shade.

So last month, when the Israeli government forbade Arabs from the West Bank from entering Israel to work in order to ensure a break in the whirl of civil violence that threatened to spin out of control, the timing was not bad. No one sat at home moping about lost income. Hands were in demand all across the West Bank.

“Welcome. A hundred welcomes!” Hajeh, a graying grandmother in Husan shouted to an arriving visitor and two nephews who, having been turned back by soldiers on their way to Jerusalem, were available to start picking.

Hajeh, her cousin Rima and Rima’s family had left their hilltop house early. They were planning not only to pick from their own rows of 10 trees, but also from groves owned by other relatives who hold steady jobs and cannot pick the olives themselves. In return, they will receive half the harvest and perhaps make $300 for three weeks’ work, plus a two-year supply of oil for their own use.

It’s not much, considering that anywhere from four to 10 family members are involved in the picking. A single worker hauling bricks in Jerusalem can make $15 a day.


In any case, olive income will supplement earnings from a hodgepodge of sources: the father and three of the young men in the family work as house painters; another son is working in Saudi Arabia; a fifth studies in the Soviet Union, and two others are in local schools.

The family network of jobs has been shredded by local rebellion and foreign politics. Frequent strikes called by leaders of the Arab uprising interfere with the building trade.

Two of the sons, Abed and Basal, both in their 20s, spent four months in jail and then, for six months, were forbidden to enter Israel. The military government of the territories issues orange identification card covers to quickly pinpoint those who have been jailed for stone-throwing or other anti-Israeli activity. Palestinians can retrieve the regular green cover only by staying out of trouble.

Majid, the son in Saudi Arabia, held a good-paying job working in a Riyadh storeroom until Iraq invaded Kuwait three months ago. But then widespread Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein prompted a Saudi backlash, and Majid’s boss fired him. He found another job, but at lower wages, in another warehouse.

“No one can say it doesn’t hurt when Israel cuts us from working or we go on strike,” said Nimer, the oldest son. “There are simply not enough jobs in the West Bank to keep us busy.”

In these autumn days, the sun, appearing offended by the skimpy rain clouds just now gathering, has lost its usual vigorous shine. The paler light softens further the already dull green of the olive trees and of the scrubby bushes that push out everywhere from the flinty rock, so that the valleys sometimes seem to be in a perpetual dawn.


The harvest begins with the laying of mats around the base of the trees to catch the falling olives. The pitter-patter of the fruit as it lands on the burlap and plastic sheets is the most characteristic sound of the picking, along with the whistle and bleat of pack donkeys and the songs that from time to time burst from the lips of the women or young men.

“Of course,” continued Nimer, “if the Jews want to keep us out of Israel forever, fine, if we get a state. For that, the sacrifice would be worth it.”

In villages like Husan, the struggle over who owns the land is described as a battle between Arab and Jew, not Palestinian and Israeli.

Nimer, 33, reconsidered as he reached up from a ladder’s height to the farthest olives. “Even with a state, we would probably have to go back to Israel to work because, really, there is no economy over here.”

He pulled down on the branches, massaging off the strands of olives with a milking motion. In some places, harvesters whack the olives to the ground with sticks, but that bruises the fruit and randomly knocks off branches, which take a long time to grow back.

The sorting--fat olives to eat, skinny olives to press into oil--gives time for gossip. Marriage and births or lack of births--”Why doesn’t Noor have any children, do you suppose?”--are hot topics.


Courting can go on in proper view of relatives but with the minor privacy offered by the foliage. Basal, the former prisoner, arranged himself shyly atop a tree to pick opposite his fiancee, Fatma. When their conversation descended to a whisper, Khaled, a high school student, launched a well-aimed olive to break the spell and two old women began a song about a wedding dress and a young groom.

Ahmed, the father, arrived leading a goat. The animal was meant to feast on broken twigs, although with customary contrariness, he preferred to leap up on the bark and help himself to leaves growing low on the tree.

The goat appeared to be a pet, but it was nameless.

“Why give it a name if you’re going to eat it?” explained Ahmed, who at 52 has lost most of his teeth.

The idyll is broken by the excited arrival of Farres, a friend of Khaled’s. Groups of youths threw stones at an army patrol in nearby Hader; the soldiers fired tear gas. There is trouble also in Bethlehem, where soldiers chased someone through the open-air market. Abed sent word that he wouldn’t come home until the uproar was over.

“He can’t afford to get caught in a roundup,” Nimer explained. “They will throw him in jail again.”

The talk turned to personal experiences in the intifada. An old woman recalled a raid on her house, with young stone-throwers scurrying out the back and soldiers running in through the front. In the hubbub, someone stole a pair of gold earrings.


Khaled boasted of the minor bullet wound in the leg as he was running from soldiers on the same day that a young man from Husan was killed. His mother, Rima, sighed and rolled her eyes.

Lunch came in a big pot. It was dumped onto a platter, revealing yellow rice and chicken, a dish called maklube or--appropriately enough--”upside-down.”

Everyone sat on the mats and ate with spoons. Nimer talked about emigrating to the United States where a cousin earns $48,000 a year making neon signs. Ahmed slowly ate a hard-boiled egg and remembered harder times when eggs were never eaten but sold in the market in Bethlehem. Basal and Fatma sat apart. Mother Rima reclined and put her head on Khaled’s lap.

The family’s youngest son, Riyad, 12, arrived with more news of tear gas in Hader and everyone wondered where Abed was.

A radio nearby reported that an Israeli soldier who, with two others, beat to death a Palestinian in their custody two years ago was sentenced to two months in prison. Then Police Minister Ronni Milo came on, explaining why Palestinians are being barred from their work in Israel.

“The closing of the transit points for workers is a message to those murderers and those who think they can do things without a response,” he said.

Ahmed urged everyone back to work because the sun was going down and the wind was whipping up. Abed arrived to pick his share and said no one had been hurt in Bethlehem.


“Welcome. One hundred welcomes,” shouted Hajeh.

The radio was turned off and Khaled began a song:

The olives of my land are very beautiful,

the olives and nuts of my land.

And the mint, and don’t forget the spices.

When the omelet is ready, how good it tastes .

With olive oil,

bread and soft cheese .

The kind of food that makes us forget the cold of December.

Khaled stopped and his mother joked that he sings so that everyone will forget that he doesn’t like to work. Soon, only the sound of falling olives broke the silence of approaching night.


California and the Olive

California accounts for most of the olive production in the United States, primarily in Tulare, Tehama, Kern, Glenn and Madera counties.

While there are olive trees in Israelthat probably date back to the beginning of the Christian era, the olive didn’t arrive in California until the 18th Century, brought here from their Mediterranean homeland by Franciscan monks and planted lovingly at the various missions they founded.

Today, the so-called California olive--large, smooth-coated and black or green--dominates the $300 million-a-year U.S. olive industry.

So where is the nation’s olive capital? Livermore, east of Oakland, claims that title. But so does Lindsay, east of Tulare.

Take your pick.