Illustration of Olive Trees on light gray paper
Illustration by Ori Kroll

Olive Tree in Palestinian Culture

My Palestinian Kitchen: Stories of Family & History

By Muzna Bishara |

“لو يذكر الزيتون غارسه لصار الزيت دمعا” 

“If olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears.” — Mahmoud Darwish.

My grandfather passed away seven years ago on the eve of Yom Kippur, a month before olive harvesting season began. The olive trees in his yard, of the Nabali variety, were heavy with fruit that year. The oldest trees in my grandfather’s neighborhood in Kafr Qara were planted in the 18th century by his great-grandfather, and later gave the neighborhood its name — Amara, an olive orchard. My grandfather planned how and when we would start harvesting, made sure to clean the area under the trees so it would be easier to spread the mats and collect the fruit, and insisted we did not begin before the first rain. The rain arrived early that year, two days after my beloved grandfather died, as if the skies were mourning his death.

Shatwat Tishreen (شتوة تشرين), the first rain after summer, is probably the most important seasonal marker in our area, heralding the beginning of olive harvesting season. In Arab culture, it is a blessed time of plenitude, during which most of the home supply of oil is made and olives are cured.

Every year, this period, which marks the end of scorching heat and sun, makes me fall in love with autumn again. While the fields, mountains and riverbeds are dotted with naked trees, the olive tree stands in its glamorous green robe as if in defiance, heavy with fruit. The air changes, too: night falls quickly, too quickly for me, and a soft cold wind blows, as if wishing to come to the harvesters’ aid and protect them from the heat and dryness.

It is a season of unparalleled beauty: family time, hard work, perseverance, love of the land and many childhood memories, in strong contrast with modernity which came and imposed itself on our lives. Globalization has also pushed us away from agricultural traditions, like wheat growing and harvesting, gathering in nature or growing legumes. The tradition of olive harvesting is probably the last still standing, a last string connecting us to the past, creating memories and moments that are identical to those shared by our forefathers. And so, entire families — men, women and children — equipped with ladders, bags, mats, and sheets, wake up early to march proudly and expectantly towards their trees.

One cannot ignore the presence of this time, nor its special scent — the aroma of fresh olives mixed with the scent of soil dampened by the first rain, and pots of sage tea cooked on bonfires in every home or plot.

It is impossible to write about olive oil without becoming engulfed in nostalgia. Stories, images and scents weigh down every tree in my childhood neighborhood, and they come back to me each time I visit. The tree my sister fell off, breaking her hand, the tree with the strong branches we tied a swing to, and the tree under which we lit a bonfire and had a feast. All around me I can still hear sounds of laughter, singing and even crying. In my mind I see flashes of dusty hands holding a steaming cup of tea and a cake on a break from the hard labor. A yard with piles of olives we had cleaned manually from olives and branches, because grandma and grandpa wouldn’t rely on the modern machine at the olive press. A cloudburst drenching all of us to the bone. A night visit to the olive press, celebrated with hot pita bread, mint tea, and a plate of olive oil with a green, pungent aroma.

We’ve harvested our olives seven times since my grandfather passed away — 14 times without my grandmother — and the tradition still stands. The memories stand with it. My own home didn’t use to have olive trees; before we married and moved in, I asked to plant some in our yard. I wanted to convey a sense of belonging and continuity, and I felt it would help me preserve tradition and pass it on to my daughters, and one day to my grandchildren. The trees I planted were Manzanillo, a Spanish variety which is not very suitable for olive oil production, and so I asked my father to graft branches from my grandfather’s tree to the cut trunk of my trees. Two years later I already had Nabali trees, descendants of the beloved and unique trees of my family.

Olives in the Different Cultures of the Region

“One day researchers will probably come to the conclusion that what brings the peoples of the Mediterranean together is not so much the search for common interests or nostalgia for a hypothetical golden age as the deeply rooted, absolute conviction that there is no other oil than olive oil, a fact that should not insult even the greatest lover of butter, as it is eventually a matter of taste,” this is how the French-Tunisian historian and writer Farouk Mardam Bey opens the chapter dedicated to olives is his book, “La Cuisine de Ziryab.”

Illustration of olive branch
Illustration by Ori Kroll

Olive trees have helped shape the landscape of the Mediterranean more than the vine and wheat combined. It is impossible to imagine our mountains and hills without them, and their presence in frescoes and mosaics, as well as in poetry and literature, goes back to early history. Archaeological evidence shows that 7,000 years ago, the peoples of the Mediterranean, especially those residing in its eastern part, already had a special relationship with this tree.

The importance of olive oil has made it the subject of numerous mythologies and folktales. Its reputation as being able to cure every sickness and disease, as well as its use as an illumination source, have granted it a status of holiness. The pharaohs, for example, believed the goddess Isis introduced men to the secret of olive growing and the production of olive oil — a fact that’s mentioned many times in papyrus scrolls as part of ancient Egyptian culture. According to the Greeks, it was Athena, the goddess of art and science, who planted the first olive tree. In the writings of fifth century BC Sophocles, it is said that “there is a tree unlike any we have ever known, which grows on the soil of Asia and is a gift of the gods, guarded by Zeus’s eyes.” The Abrahamic religions tell us about the dove who flew back to Noah’s ark with an olive branch in her beak, turning the olive’s branch into a symbol of peace and reconciliation.

The tradition of growing olive trees began on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and presumably spread from there to Egypt and Greece, and then to North Africa. Many years passed before it reached Italy and Provence. One cannot summarize all the historic, geographic, economic and mythological knowledge in one short article, so I will be focusing on the olive tree’s connection to Arab culture.

Throughout history, residents of Arab countries of different religions and sects have venerated the olive tree and granted it symbolic meanings associated with no other tree. A whole Quran surah, or chapter, is dedicated to it surah al-zaytun (the olive), and it is frequently mentioned in other chapters as well. In surah an-nūr (the chapter of light), it is said that God’s light is like a lamp “lit from a blessed olive tree, neither of the east or west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light.” The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), says “Eat the oil (of olives) and use it on your hair and skin, for it comes from a blessed tree.”

The Olive Tree as a Symbol of National Struggle

It’s hard to write about olive oil in the Palestinian kitchen without mentioning the fact that the olive tree is a symbol of the Palestinian struggle for national recognition, making Palestinian olive oil one of the most political foods in the world. The survival of ancient trees — even those much older than my family’s 18th century trees — are physical evidence of our presence and identity. They show us our roots were planted in this land centuries ago. Thus, for a Palestinian, referring to the olive tree as “just another tree” would be insulting; the olives are all we have left, and holding on to them and protecting the land in which they are planted is considered part of our national struggle.

In addition, the domestic economy of many families relies on olives, as the oil and fruit are expected to maintain it until the next harvesting season. Thus, this season highlights questions about land ownership and control. As olive trees grow slowly and take years to bear fruit, whenever a tree is uprooted, vandalized or dies, the heavy emotional loss is accompanied by actual damage and puts the family’s survival at risk.

Olive Oil in the Arab Kitchen

Arab consumption of olive oil does not amount to that of the Greeks, who lead global consumption, yet Arabs are certainly heavy users. The harvest season brings with it several dishes that use plenty of fresh, high-quality olive oil, made from olives that are carefully — and usually, manually — harvested, as they are selected for equal size and equal maturing time. The finest oil is presumably the zeit elnefak (زيت الإنفاق), made from mature green olives. Among the typical regional dishes of the season, one can find artichoke tagine on the western tip of the Mediterranean (an artichoke and meat confit with black olives), and in Lebanon, mezze based almost exclusively on olive oil — with no other fat or meat — like different vegetables confits and cooked or fresh salads.

Chicken over flatbread topped with almonds
Photo by Matan Choufan

The Palestinian kitchen, too, has traditional dishes for this season. In the past, olive oil was used in Palestinian homes almost exclusively, and a plate of zaatar and olive oil can still be found on the counter in every home. Fatayer — pastries filled with fresh zaatar and onions, with plenty of olive oil — are baked throughout winter, and of course, there is mussakhan.

This shared dish holds a special place in Palestinian food culture: a pile of wide pita, layered with slow-cooked onions in olive oil, topped with juicy chunks of chicken that are cooked in the same oil and then roasted. The dish is sprinkled with fresh sumac, and eaten with one’s hands. This month I am sharing the traditional family recipe of my childhood that I still make today. There is also a recipe for a chocolate, date, and olive oil tart, a riff on the ka’ak biscuits traditionally prepared in this season. Here, an olive oil-based shortcrust sprinkled with nigella seeds is made into a tart that is filled with sweet dates, chocolate ganache, and olive oil, a combination that’s entirely new for the season.  

Slice of chocolate and olive oil tart on a blue and white plate
Photo by Matan Choufan

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