The Lovely Languages of the Olive Harvest
What do they know of us, I wonder? We American women in our t-shirts and jeans. We loud women, blasting their quiet with strange words. We who are free to leave family and friends for the simple joy of learning. We who travel with ease across oceans and borders they cannot even hope to cross.
And what do we know of them? Who are they behind the hijabs that hide their hair, the long coats that hide the outline of their bodies? What is their home like? What do they experience in marriage? What do they dream of for their kids? What does their religion mean to them?
American Christian women and Palestinian Muslim women. Meeting in an olive orchard. Learning names we can’t remember. Shaking hands. Smiling constantly because it’s the only language we have in common, or so we think.
Then we start picking olives. Some of us strip the olives from branches already pruned from the trees and scattered on the ground. Some of us climb to the tops of ladders, bravely but awkwardly, following the lead of our mentors but lacking their grace. Others of us cannot resist the urge to scramble as high as we dare into the branches of a tree as old as the Roman age. (Yes, that is where I find myself.)
I climb higher than I should. I scare myself, and yet I love it here, up high. I love reaching for a branch almost beyond my reach. I stretch, my fingers inch toward it, and then yes, I have it! I feel the dusty leaves slip through my closed fist. I strip the olives, listening as they hit the black tarp spread beneath the tree. I love that sound, like rain hitting a window.
And I learn a new language: the language of shared work.
The women in the hijabs tell me with their quickly moving fingers how hard they work. They tell me how important the olive harvest is to the economy of their extended family, their village. They tell me that during the several weeks of the olive harvest, they start at sunrise and end at sunset, claiming each moment of light as another moment for work.
And I, in this new language, hope that I am saying to them that their work is important, their family is important, their village is important. I tell them, in the graceless way I pick, that I am an amateur, a newcomer to the olive harvest. But I pick as fast as can, hoping that in my wordless work they will hear the earnestness of my presence, the earnestness of my desire to honor them and their ancient olive trees.
And then, the one woman among us who can translate, shouts “Time for tea!” I discover that it’s harder to climb down from a high branch than it is to climb up to it. The footholds that led up the fat trunk and up the twisting branches inevitably disappear on the way down. The first tentative step on the way up becomes a wild crashing jump on the way down.
But it’s worth it. The sweet sage tea, poured in a steaming stream from a tarnished metal teapot into small clear glass teacups, is delicious. We sit in a circle using rocks for chairs. One woman topples off her rock and we laugh. Then a baby pops an olive into her mouth and all the American women rush to take it out. Our translator laughs as she says, “Relax. Babies don’t like olives. She’ll spit it out.” The women in their hijabs laugh at our ignorance about babies and olives.
I realize we’ve discovered yet another a new language: the language of laughter. The longer we drink tea, the more we speak this new language. And it is beautiful.
Then a woman in a hijab upends a plastic bucket and starts drumming out a rhythm. Her friends begin to sing—a love song, we’re told. A six-year-old girl moves her feet and sways her hips; she holds her head high while her hands draw spirals in the air. Some of us join the dance as if we’ve been dancing all our lives. Others prove we’ve never danced a step. But we dance anyway.
We love this, too—this new language of song and dance.
I find another plastic bucket, upend it and join the drummer, mimicking her rhythm as best I can. We’re in a movie, right? I mean, such moments as this don’t happen in real life, do they? Could I, an American Christian grandmother from Chicago, really be sitting under an olive tree in a small village in the West Bank, dancing and drumming with three generations of Muslim women I’ve never seen before this day?
After tea, we move happily back to our work positions. Olives stripped from high branches plop and bounce, forming tiny mountains of black and green on the dusty tarp. Old women pluck from the mountains the plumpest olives, the ones too perfect to be pressed into oil. The rest they gather in huge white bags the men will later haul to the village olive press.
Lunch in the olive orchard is a feast. Whole chickens, dismembered and seasoned, are skewered on a tall, spiraled spit and covered with foil. While men tend the flames that engulf the foil tower, women open tubs of yogurt and cut thick cucumber slices and tomato wedges. Soft pita baked that morning is torn into chunks, the perfect utensil for scooping hummus and assorted salads. We sit around the edges of a tarp turned tablecloth and pour Coke and Sprite into plastic cups. With our fingers, we pull perfectly roasted chicken off the bone. Even I, a mostly-vegetarian, ask for seconds on chicken. I am that hungry, and the chicken is that good.
And so we add yet one more language to our repertoire—the language of a shared meal, of life around the table.
That morning, before I left my hotel in Ramallah, I Tweeted this: “Helping to harvest olives is high on my bucket list. Today I get to check it off!”
Often, experiences we dream of fail to match expectations. Sometimes they match, but just barely. On rare occasions, such as this day in the olive orchard, they far exceed our dreams.
Sunset comes early in the West Bank in November. Our afternoon tea break is barely finished before we have to gather the tarps and call it a day. As the women of the village walk us to the van that will take us back to Ramallah, and the children skip alongside, we wonder if we should have spent less time smiling and laughing and singing and dancing and eating and drinking, and more time picking. Would our time have been better spent? Would the olive harvest have been better honored?
If the measure of success is the number of olives that travel from branch to tarp, perhaps we could have been more effective. But what if the measure of success is the number of languages spoken between new friends? What if the measure of success is the level of camaraderie felt at the end of a day?
I walk arm in arm with one of my favorite companions from the day, an older woman who laughs lustily and shakes and shimmies when she dances. A friend snaps our photo. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” I tell her, not knowing if she understands.
She smiles. “Inshallah,” she says, in a language we’ve not yet spoken—the language of faith. “Yes,” I respond, “If God wills.”