We waited in the back of a van gutted for the purpose of later transferring bags of newly picked olives from the fields to the one room olive oil factory. Ismael drove, while his parents waited for us to arrive with food, water, and our two able bodies, hands ready to work. Ismael was the oldest of his parents’ five children, born by two mothers and one father. He was not permitted to enter the fields to help his parents and his younger siblings attended school 6 days a week. Internationals were allowed to cross through the fence to help, most of the time. Husbands and wives rolled past us in donkey led wagons. Tractors waited patiently in line to be admitted. Some were denied. “You can go through, but your tractor can’t.” Anyone with knowledge about farming/harvesting knows that you need a tractor.
We snuck pictures of the military, dressed in their khaki colored uniforms, large guns slung over their shoulders, with ammunition within hands reach to pop in and use as needed. When it was our turn at the gate, they checked our passports, Ismael spoke Hebrew with them, and one of the women tried not to chuckle at his humor and relaxed personality. They waved us through.
We went slowly over a dirt road, two settlements in view on each hill overlooking the land we were to help harvest, and a one planned for the hill in front of us. The sun had just risen over the hills surrounding the valley. We climbed out of the van upon arrival and after hellos and good mornings in Arabic, we were motioned towards a tree with tarps surrounding the base, to catch the olives as they were combed out of their branches. We were given hand size, plastic colored rakes and instructed (by example not dialogue) to comb them from the top of the branch down, the olives falling to the plastic surface beneath them.
As each purple colored olive fell into its next life, I heard the sound of rain falling from wet branches onto the leaves beneath it echoing in my ears. A soothing sound imagined in the moment. The color of the olives deceived me into believing I was harvesting grapes and we would be participating in a grape stomping ceremony afterwards. But such was not the case. The branches scraped at the tops of my hands as I climbed beneath the droopy ones to get every olive visible. I was finding myself in a jungle of thoughts.
Ali and I exchanged stories and laughter, shedding top layers of our clothing as the sun rose higher in the sky. Staying fully covered, of course, respecting the Musilm traditions. Ismael’s mother made sure we had water and brought fruit to us. Ali sneaking my apple in, because I can’t stand apples, nor can I turn a generous offer away. Mid-morning we stopped for lunch and sat cross-legged on a tarp with our “hosts,” a feast of labaneh (cream cheese type stuff), hommus, fresh olive oil, and pita before us. The mother kept pushing food and sweet tea in our direction until our bellies were full and we were ready for a nap. We did not submit to one, but took a short break under the shade of a newly harvested olive tree. Then we began work on another tree. There is a simplicity and peace found in working in an olive grove for an entire day. Moments are lost and found in thoughts you never knew you had.
We worked from 7am until 4:30pm, sunrise to sunset. Near the end, two of their children showed up to help us. We exchanged names and secret smiles with each other, crossing boundaries that language barriers set. Ismael showed up with the van again and in a flash it was loaded and we were off to go through the fence again, back into the village. At the gate, to the left, it was the Police this time. They didn’t pay much mind to us, they were too busy posing in front of their police jeep with machine guns propped in shooting position. Smiling for the camera, pictures they would send to their mothers or girlfriends, or hang on their fridge to show how tough they were. An excellent site for a 10 year old girl and 14 year old boy to see on their way out from spending the afternoon combing olives through the branches and into their future.
15 December 2004
revisiting experience in Jayyous end of November