A Time to Pick Olives

Posted on November 10, 2012

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Once again the olive harvest.  I like to speculate that not an autumn has passed since they were first cultivated, back in obscure pre-history, that people haven’t gathered olives here in this place that I live. Taking part in this ritual makes me feel like the tiniest link in a very long chain.

But the analogy goes further, or wider. A few days ago I joined my friend Balkees’ family as they harvested their olive grove in the village of Kfar Reine, outside Nazareth.  About ten men and women – Balkees’ brothers, sisters and sisters-in-law were at work when I got there mid-afternoon. They pulled tarps from under one tree to another and we circled the branches, pulling down their olives till they rained down onto the canvas.  The children ran from tree to tree, collecting olives in buckets, climbing in the branches, and sifting out leaves in an improvised sieve – the screen of an electric fan.  Everyone chatted, joked and laughed, all in Arabic, and I understood only a small fraction.

But that didn’t matter.  The conversation accompanied my work like the most pleasant background music while I focused on the olives – black, green and purple, fleshy and lean, plump and wrinkled, intact and bruised. I heard the muezzin calling and the children shouting. I felt the heat of the sun ease as the day wore on and the shadows of the trees grew longer.  I sipped a small glass of thick, black, cardamom-scented coffee, then returned to the olives.

But most of all, I felt a part of something larger – like I was woven into the fabric of village life that still endures in the Galilee.  Where the community depends on the contribution of each person’s hands, and rewards that effort not only with a year’s supply of olive oil, but with a sense of place, value, belonging and accomplishment.

How few are the opportunities in our modern lives to experience this.  I think my sister, who just pounded miles of pavement on behalf of the Obama campaign, knows the feeling well.

An ingenious sifter

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