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Fruits of Palestine

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 18.02.2006:

FRUITS OF PALESTINE

Cultural meanings

1. THE BLESSED TREE

Olive is the major crop in Palestine, covering about 25% of the gross agricultural income. The olive cultivation, picking, pressing and marketing involves more than 100.000 people and is an important economic base in the West Bank.

The Palestinian farmers feel very close to their land. The olive tree, which has deep roots and can reach an age of many hundreds of years, symbolizes the Palestinian love for the land. Palestinians favour planting trees on uncultivated lands to protect them from Israeli colonization.

Meals are usually prepared with olive oil. It contains unsaturated fat and diminishes the cholestorol level. There is an old saying which expresses the health of the olive oil: “Eat oil and butt the wall.” You will be as strong as a goat which hits his head against the wall.

When the Prophet Mohammed died all trees mourned and cast their leaves. Then came one and said to the olive tree: “Oh Olive Tree, the Prophet is dead and all trees mourn — Why don’t you mourn?” The Olive Tree replied: “Break my wood and see the grief in my heart. So he broke the branch from the tree and saw the grief in her heart. Her grief was in her soul and therefore not seen by man. That’s why nowadays you can see the black streak in the wood of the olive.

During the gathering and transport of the olives a man used to pass in the street carrying pictures of Christ and the virgin Mary. Behind him followed a donkey bearing four tins. He asked those with olives to contribute a little to the Convent of Al-Khader, crying “Oil for Al-Khader, oil!” People came out of their homes carrying bottle glasses full of oil which they emptied in a tin, after which they kissed the picture.

The olive tree was honoured during Palm Sunday. Young Christians used to carry a whole olive tree from Bethany all the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and walk the streets of Jerusalem with a cross.

The day of olive picking

The olive harvest takes place in Autumn. The harvest is like a feast. In the past the municipality used to send a crier into the streets to announce: “Oh people of the town, by the order of the municipality, the olive gathering will be on Monday the … of October.” Even the children got a day off to help with the olive harvest. The whole family went early in the morning to the fields. The men picked the olives from the trees and the women took them from the ground. Songs and jokes among the pickers helped to finish the tough and tiring job. In the afternoon people would join each other for sandwhiches, sfeeha, coffee and tea prepared by the landowner.

Preparation of olive oil

When gathered the olives used to be packed into goatskin bags and carried to the mill. There the olives were piled in a great stone basin and crushed by a millstone. The pulp was then put into flat baskets pressed on top of each other in a rude kind of press until the soil ran out.

Olive oil to heal the spirits

Olive oil calms down the spirits. Susan Shomali from Bethlehem University: “One day during the Intifada Israeli soldiers came to search my house. They thought that I hided people. At the time I expected a baby. My mother in law was afraid that my fear would hurt the baby. She let me drink some hot water with olive oil. She believed it would calm down and that I would overcome my fear.”

OLIVE TREE: A POEM

Nice and generous you are

Giving us wood, oil, and olives

Your oil’s color is golden

Your taste is wonderful

It makes us healthy

and gives us a long life

I enjoy the taste of olives

The sliced green and salted black

We are happy to eat you

There is nothing more delicious

Be sure to plant the trees

It is a great loss

Plant the trees

So you will reap the benefits

There is no other tree

Giving the same benefits

Iskander Khoury

Beit Jala

2. OTHER FRUITS

Apart from the olive tree, many fruit trees bear symbolic meaning in Palestinian culture.

Grapes: According to a legend, the grapes are the tears of an angel who grieved over the sins of Adam and Eve.

After the olive tree, the grape tree is the most prominent fruit tree of Palestine. You may find delicious grapes of different varieties especially in the villages around Hebron. The white ones have sweet juices and the red-black ones fleshy and firm fruits.

The Palestinian woman uses the grapes for making dibis (fruit juice). The grapes are gathered by the women and crushed by the men in a rock-cut vat. The women boil the juice and put them in jars. In Winter the mother gives the vitamin-rich juice to her children, or sometimes to the sick. Some say dibis is the Biblical honey.

Sabr or cactus: It has several meanings in Arabic including prickly pear and aloe, but also “patience.” In the national Palestinian vocabulary sabr stands for “sumud” or steadfastness. Sumud refers to the people’s determination to stay on the national land and not to give in to any pressure to leave the country. The cactus often marks the borders of a village. It grows along the walls and prevents thieves or goats from entering private lands. If you cut the skin of the cactus you find a sweet and delicious fruit. It is very healthy, and used as a medicine against diarrhea.

Apricots: “Until the apricot season.” Means: never. The apricot season is in the Summer but lasts only a very short time.

Pomegranates: They are deep red when ripe. The bride is often compared to a pomegranate for beauty. It is said that every pomegranate has one seed which has come from heaven.” Moslems take care not to drop or lose any of the seeds, since they might be just the one which came from paradise.” There is the proverb: “Pomegranates fill the heart with faith.”

The following song is from Artas:

“I love pears and I eat pears

And the girls of Artas are sweet, my Mother

I love pomegranates and I eat pomegranates

And the girls of Silwan are sweet, my Mother.”

One author says that Palestinian peasant songs often resemble the poetics of the Song of Songs in the Old Testament, with its ode to love.

Dates: They are brought from Mecca as a baraka (blessing) and as a special means of making children speak sooner. If young children suck such a date, they will become good speakers with a sweet voice. Christians believe that a date from the palm in Mar Saba (a Greek Orthodox convent to the east of Bethlehem, located in the desert) is the best cure for sterility.

Raisins: Traditionally Palestinian women dried vegetables and fruits for winter. Although modern equipments now ensure the supply of foods and vegetables throughout the year, many Palestinians still dry fruits because of the delicious taste. Women still pick ripe grapes for making raisins. They dip them in a layer of wood ash and water, sprinkled with a little olive oil. After draining they are left for two weeks in red earth on the roof to dry in the sun.

Raisins are thrown at the bride, together with rice, salt or sweets, in order to protect her against the evil eye.

From: “Sahteen: Discover the Palestinian Culture by Eating”, published by the Freres School, Bethlehem, part of the Culture and Palestine series issued by the Arab Educational Institute-Open Windows, Bethlehem, 1999.

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