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Olive Trees, Oum Kalthoum, and Jasmine Blossoms

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.02.2006:

By Mike Odetalla

This Week in Palestine

July 2005

In my home, sitting in front of a picture window facing an easterly direction in order to catch the morning sun, I have two small Palestinian olive trees growing in gold and green ceramic planters. I will not go into the details of how I had managed to get these two small cuttings out of Palestine, but that is where they came from. At first, when the fragile trees finally arrived from their long journey, I was not really sure that they would survive, but as soon as they arrived, I ran out and purchased two gold and green ceramic planters and quickly transplanted the young trees in them with some fresh soil and pebbles that I mixed together. For the first few weeks, the olive tress didn’t look like they were going to make it. The leaves started to wilt, then began to fall off the tender little branches. I didn’t know what to do, except to make sure that they had enough water and sunlight. I even called back home to Palestine for advice and was told to make sure to put them in a place where the morning sun can get to them.

And so, like the Muslims who pray facing east, my Palestinian olive trees were soon facing the east, toward the land of their birth, in Palestine. After a few weeks of them sitting in front of the big picture window in our living room, I noticed that the trees were soon beginning to look healthier, the leaves stopped falling off, and shortly thereafter, much to my delight, new growth could be seen emerging! I was like the ‘proud doting father’ as I tended to my ‘little babies.’ My wife and children were now beginning to tease and harass me about the way I paid so much attention to the little ‘refugees’ from Palestine. I could swear that the more Arabic music we played at home, particularly Oum Kalthoum, Abdel Haleem Hafez, and Fairuz, the faster these little guys seemed to grow. Now, nearly ten months later, the little olive trees are healthy and vibrant, almost triple in size, with beautiful shiny leaves.

One day, while listening to Oum Kalthoum (by myself, since my kids don’t appreciate her as much as I do; although they love Arabic music in general, they think she is “boring”) and tending to my little trees, my mind started to drift back to the first time that I had ever heard the legendary Oum Kalthoum, the single greatest singer in the Arab World, whose popularity was and still is unmatched, even 30 years after her death. Her songs, especially the patriotic and moving ones that I had heard as a child during the 1967 war and after, stirred in me emotions that I had never ever felt before. Grown-up men would have tears welling up in their eyes and lumps in their throats at the sound of her voice. When it was announced that the Egyptian radio station would be broadcasting her concert, in which she sang “Alfi Leila wa-Leila” (a thousand and one nights) in the spring of 1969 (I was eight at the time and getting ready to emigrate to America with my mother), I remember the streets in our village being empty as all of the men ran home or congregated in coffeehouses to listen to her sing. I took our old battery-operated radio (we had no electricity then) and sat in my favourite place, the huge windowsill of our house, whose walls were more than four feet thick and which overlooked the courtyard where my mother planted a dizzying array of fragrant flowers, spices, and vegetables. I especially loved the soothing, delicate scent of the jasmine plant that ran up the side of the house and right next to my window. When the cool breeze blew, it would fill the house with the pleasant aroma of jasmine blossoms.

After hearing that song, which is almost an entire hour in length, I instantly became a fan of Oum Kalthoum, singing the song over and over to myself as I ran and played in the hills and orchards of my village, forever linking the song, the cool breeze, and the heavenly scent of my mother’s jasmine plant. To me, at that exact point in time, I was as close to “heaven” as humanly possible for an eight-year-old child!

Towards the end of summer, in 1969, much to my anger and dismay, my mother and I emigrated to the US to join my father and the rest of my brothers and sisters who had gone there earlier. Upon arriving in Detroit, Michigan, I was no longer exposed to Arabic music, let alone Oum Kalthoum, hearing it only when I rode in my father’s car. Most of the time, I had to listen to Motown Music, which was the rage at that time, especially in the predominately African American neighbourhood where my dad owned a small grocery store.

After many months of listening to that type of music, I soon stopped humming the Arabic songs of Oum Kalthoum in my head and was now trying to sing along with the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smoky Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and the host of popular singers that Detroit was producing at that time. Later on, when my dad sold his store and bought another one, this time in a predominately white ethnic neighbourhood in Detroit, I started to listen to more Rock and Roll, again forgetting all about the music that I had loved as a child in Palestine. The stereo in the store played Rock and Roll day and night, and I was now singing along to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Aero Smith, and the rest of the popular rock bands of the 1970s. This lasted all the way through my high school years, until the summer of 1979. Furthermore, in 1975 Oum Kalthoum died. Four million people were out on the streets of Cairo for her funeral. Grown-up men, like my own father, cried at the news of her death. Although I saw the large funeral on TV, I didn’t really “feel” anything at that time.

In the summer of 1979, right after I graduated from high school, I made my first trip back to Palestine since I had left in the summer of 1969. My mother had returned to Palestine in the spring of 1971, electing to give birth to my brother in Palestine, rather than in America. Upon my arrival, I noticed that many things had changed, some for the better, but quite a bit more for the worse. Our village was finally connected to the Jerusalem electric grid and now had electricity. Television antennas, which were non-existent as I was growing up, were now on every rooftop. Also, the Israeli policy of building settlements on lands confiscated from their Palestinian owners was now in full swing after the Israeli/Egyptian accords at Camp David. Already, in Beit Hanina, the Jewish settlement of Neve Yaacov was being built as well as the large settlement of Ramot Allon, which loomed menacingly above Beit Hanina, having been built on the village’s hills to the south.

I awoke early the first morning “back home” and walked around our home, inspecting every tree, plant and flower in my mother’s overcrowded courtyard garden. Much to my pleasure, the things that I had remembered fondly as a child were still there, including the magnificent jasmine plant, which was more like a tree now as it snaked its way up and around the window to the roof of our ancient house.

After breakfast, I went out to the centre of the village and then made my way to our orchards, which were filled with apricots, plums and other fruit trees, and then finally, to my favourite part of my village, the hills that dominated our landscape, where as a child I had spent countless hours playing, flying kites, and exploring. After a few hours in the hot summer sun, I decided to head back to our house and get a cold drink and cool off. My mother greeted me with a pitcher of homemade lemonade, made from freshly-squeezed lemons that grew on the tree in her garden, with fresh mint leaves for added flavour. I poured myself a large glass and made my way to the windowsill, which now didn’t seem quite as large as I had remembered. I sat down in front of the open window, relishing the cool jasmine-scented breeze that was wafting through the window and plugged in the new radio that I had brought with me as a gift for my little brother. I fumbled with the dial, trying to find Arabic radio stations in the midst of the many Hebrew and English stations that weren’t around when I was a kid.

After a few moments, I finally dialled in a radio station from Cairo, Egypt. Soon after a song by Abdel Halim Hafez had finished, the unmistakable beginning of Oum Kalthoum’s song, “Alfi Leila wa-Leila” emanated from the radio. Goose bumps and a shiver ran through my body. I was, in an instance, transformed to a place ten years earlier in my life. Memories, suppressed for nearly ten years but nevertheless still bubbling near the surface for that whole time, were now gushing forth like a tidal wave. I sat there for nearly two hours, reflecting, thinking, and most of all, remembering… Remembering my childhood, the war, my village, our trips to Jerusalem, and remembering Palestine.

Like the olive trees in my home in America when I placed them in front of the window facing east, I, too, started to experience a “new growth and appreciation” of my homeland, of its earth, rocks, trees, and the scent of delicate jasmine blossoms, carried by the cool afternoon breeze through an ancient, hand-built home in Palestine, while the Great Lady from Egypt sang, “a thousand and one nights.”

Mike Odetalla, a Palestinian/American businessman and a father of three, was born in 1960 in the Palestinian village of Beit Hanina, a suburb of Jerusalem. He lived through the 1967 War and moved to the US in 1969. Although he has lived in the US since then, he has made numerous trips to his homeland where he still has many family members as well as his family’s lands and orchards. Visit his website at

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