The olive harvest showed me what it means to have a family

Noura Selmi

Mondoweiss  /  November 24, 2021

Ahmed Abu Alreish is 93 years old and I joined him to harvest olives from his land. The bottle of olive oil I took with me carries in it some of Ahmed’s stories about Palestine.

Our current house is located between two olive groves belonging to our neighbors, and my room overlooks an olive tree behind the house. It is the only olive tree in our garden. Unfortunately, this year the tree did not produce much fruit or oil. 

My mother was the most affected by this unfortunate event. She has always loved the olive harvest. We moved to Gaza in 1995 with my grandfather. “The olive harvest showed me what it means to have a family and a house,” she told me that year. 

In September 1996, Israel opened a tunnel that stretched alongside the Al-Aqsa mosque, which caused confrontations between Palestinians in Jerusalem and the Israeli police. The tumult spread to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. At that time my family lived near the border with Egypt in Rafah City. I recall one particular day where my mother was sitting on the balcony and saw a young Palestinian man who was shot by an Israeli soldier near the border. Terrified, she and my grandmother left the house and never returned. 

This impromptu move interrupted what would have been a day of harvesting olives from that tree in the yard.  “Everything turned upside down,” she told me. That is how we were forced to say goodbye to the olive trees and our house. Later, my uncle hosted us in his home in nearby Khan Younis. In front of his house, there was land full of olive trees. We ended up living in his home for 10 years. 

“I woke up every morning to the sunshine running through the olive branches. Our breakfast was never empty of olive oil,” she said. 

My uncle was the only one in the neighborhood who had an olive orchard. Annually, when autumn arrived our whole family along with some of our neighbors would harvest the trees. I remember some of the rituals. We used to wake up at 6 a.m. and start the day. The harvest was tiring, but the celebratory mood was activating. 

Everyone has a story to share about the olives.  

I used to walk between these trees. I was impressed by the height and the width of the trucks. As a child, it felt as if I was walking in a forest. I used to tell my grandmother how beautiful her forest was. She used to laugh and mock me and say, “These are olive trees, Noura. We have much more in Palestine.”

I wondered back then about what she meant. I am a grown-up now; I know what she means: The roots of the olive trees represent our roots in Palestine. 

For me, they are physical reminders of how we Palestinians could have remained in our original cities and towns, which is why it is so distressing to see an olive tree uprooted or extracted from the land. 

Olive trees can live for thousands of years. Each one has embedded within it its own story and history.  And often, harvesting olives means stories from older relatives. 

Last month my friend from university, Ghada, who also lives in Khan Younis, spoke with me about the olive oil shortage this year. Yields are at a record low due to climate change. She invited me to their olive trees growing in front of her house and showed me how her grandfather harvests.  

When he told me that he was born in 1921, I said what every Palestinian says, “here is another proof that you are older than Israel.” That is why Israel keeps cutting olive trees. These trees are evidence of our existence. 

Every harvest, Ghada’s grandfather, Ahmed Abu Alreish, who is now 93 years old, harvests the olives with the help of his sons. He gathers all of his grandchildren and tells them stories about his youth in Palestine. “This gathering will enrich your knowledge so you will never forget,” he said. 

With every olive harvest, Ahmed insists on making musakhan by himself. He loves to add more olive oil to this dish of spiced chicken served over flatbread. According to Ghada he has Alzheimer’s and is beginning to forget aspects of his life. His memory of the trees on his family’s original land, which is today inside of Israel, is still sharp. Ghada says he likes to say his memory is “made of steel,” although talking about the loss of his home during the 1948 Nakba and his beloved tress makes him weep until today.

When I saw him press an olive between his hand to make sure that it was ripe, I was sure he was an expert. 

I returned home with a bottle of olive oil in my bag. This bottle carries some of Ahmed’s stories about Palestine. That night, I assembled my three young brothers and my young sister under the olive tree beneath my window, and I poured everything I heard from Ahmed into their ears. 

My young brother noted, “Now I understand why there is a picture of the olive tree on most of my school books.” In fact, most of our school books have olive trees on their covers because they are related to our culture.

Noura Selmi is an English language graduate and a writer in Gaza