October 20, 2015

The Olive Harvest

The olive harvest in full swing at Mr. and Mrs. J's olive orchard

If you live in Beirut, or any other urban center, you probably haven’t noticed, but the olive harvest is in full swing. There are an estimated 14 million olive trees in Lebanon, and now is the time that olives need to be picked. If they stay on the tree much longer, they’ll shrivel and dry up, losing their oil contents.
And so all over the country, people are right now picking, sorting, packing, pressing and preserving olives.
The olive mills are working full speed, and until late in the evening you can see orchard owners drop their olives off at the mill; an appointment to get your olives pressed can be a daunting task during these weeks. And you cannot just leave your olives lying around or they’ll attract worms, which brings down the quality of the oil. It's a busy time.
Olive harvesters (Mrs. J is in yellow)
I’ve lived here like forever, and although an avid olive (oil) fan, I had never assisted in an olive harvest. I mentioned this to a Dutch lady, Mrs. J, married to a Lebanese, and proud owner of some 200-something olive trees in the south.
Well, why don’t you come down south next olive harvest, and see how it’s done?” she suggested.
Great plan. But whenever I would mention this to other Dutch friends, they’d say, “Oh, but I’ve never been to an olive harvest either! Can we join?” And soon we had a whole group of potential olive pickers.
Slowly a plan hatched; we’d all go down south during the olive harvest with our families (read ‘children’; very few husbands were up for this adventure), pitch our tents in the olive grove and spend the weekend picking olives. 

A fantastic experience for us, but most importantly for our children! After all, this would build memories that would last a life time. 

We’ll get back to those kids later.

We got the call last week. “The harvest has started.”

And on the road we went. Mrs. J's orchard is situated in the surroundings of Kfar Tibnine, a village under the eye of the Beaufort Castle, an old crusaders castle that has seen a plethora of occupiers since then.

The entire region happens to be in mourning this week; it’s Ashoura, and the shia are commemorating the unfortunate demise of Hussein, the prophet Mohammad’s grandson, at the hands of the Ommayad
Chaliph Yazid the first.
If you’re interested in witnessing the final battle, I suggest you visit Nabatiyah this Saturday; the last day of Ashoura is an interesting spectacle.

Almost everybody is wearing black for the occasion, and every evening there are gatherings where the story is told over and over again, while the crowd cries along.
This gypsy caravan of Dutch olive pickers driving through town – looking for an olive orchard - must have been quite a sight, but everyone was very helpful in directing us to this olive orchard in the dark.

Mrs. J's husband, still going strong, running the entire operation, and Umm Mahmoud, a Syrian Bedouin

We found the orchard, and pitched our tents in the olive grove, which soon looked like a refugee camp, with some 9 tents, 6 women, 1 man and 13 children/teenagers. Mrs. J’s husband has been married to her for a very long time, and he is no longer surprised at the odd things the Dutch will do.

You’re sure you do not want to sleep in the house?” he asked, “We have beds, you know.
But no, if this was going to be an olive picking experience, we wanted to sleep among the olive trees.

 Olive oil in Lebanon is consumed in quantities that are mind-boggling to Dutch people. If in Holland you buy your olive oil by the liter (or half a liter) from the local supermarket, here we buy it in units of 20 liters, preferably directly from the orchard.  Prices may range between $110 to $150 a tank (as we call 20 liters here), which requires approximately 60 to 65 kilos of olives.  

Finally learned about the difference between green and black olives:  The black ones are ripe, the green ones almost.

Lebanon has some 170,000 olive farmers, although many have the olive trees as a side business (these are just general numbers; data is notoriously vague in Lebanon.  Source). The olive harvest is not a stable one; last year was a bad year, with practically no olives, whereas this year promises a bumper crop.

'The annual production of olives differs enormously from one year to the other. It varies between 50,000 tons for a bad season, to 190,000 tons for a good crop year.  Lebanon produces between 6,000 tons and 16,000 tons of oil depending on the production years (ref: Agricultural Census, FAO – Ministry of Agriculture, 2000)'.(source)

The south is a region with a biblical allure. Soft sloping hills covered with cypresses and olive trees, small villages; brown and ochre, mixed in with silvery green. People mainly live of the land. 

Mrs. J. usually hires Syrian laborers  to help in the harvest. Many orchard owners deploy the entire family during the harvest, but that often is not enough. Olive picking is a labor intensive business. The olives need to be literally wacked out of the tree with branches, or raked out with short little rakes. Plastic sheets need to be spread around the tree to catch all the olives. You need to climb the trees to work the inner upper regions, whereas long ladders help you to beat the olives out of the upper parts on the outside. 

Mr. and Mrs. J. at work
We worked along a number of Syrian Bedouins, originally from Sweida, who had fled the war some three years ago, and now made a living as day laborers in the agriculture section in the south of Lebanon.  
Finding Syrian labor used to be easy and cheap; however, the Ministry of Labor changed the rules of the game this year. In order to ‘protect’ the job market for Lebanese, hiring Syrian workers has become much more complicated and expensive. But, as my Dutch olive farmer explained, it’s very hard to find Lebanese pickers. “They won’t do this kind of work, too tiresome.”
We kind of got that bit, after a while.

The Dutch at work (actually, the mothers. No child to be seen anywhere)
Working alongside Bedouin women is an experience in itself; at least for me it was. Our worlds could not be more apart. They’re tough and hard working, and as curious about our lives as we are about theirs. The ladies marry very early (being a bride at 13 and 14 is normal), and start early with children. Umm Mahmoud, who ran the crew, had 9 children, and her 15 year old daughter was currently pregnant.

Yet they're by no means simple. Um Mahmoud asked me to whatsapp pictures to her, so she could share them on Facebook (although that's not exactly a sign of wisdom). They were joking the whole time, teasing one another, meanwhile doing most of the work. 

A younger boy, Abdul Rahman, was absolutely intimidated by our gang of long-legged teenage girls in shorts. His mom wanted him on the picture with them, but he’d rather have dug a hole.

One courageous dad assisted us
Not only do the olives need to get picked, but you need to separate them from the leaves and bag them. The tree needs to be pruned, and the branches need to be re-cut for fire wood. 

I learned that – since it is such a labor intensive business – and the entire family has to pitch in,  many Lebanese hate to harvest olives, as they were forced as small children to help. Apparently these are not fond memories.

 We had indeed noticed by then that after an hour of picking, those children, whom we had so carefully prepared, and made enthusiastic about the whole camping experience and olive picking, and for whom this was all organized , were nowhere to be seen.

Separating the leaves from the olives. Child labor, as far as they were concerned.

They were hanging around in the trees, picking the occasional olive every half hour, looking for turtles, playing with the dog and the cats, looking for outlets to charge their electronic devices, and socializing the rest of their time.

They quickly noticed that we could detect them in between the trees, and now and then we’d haul them back for a task.
“Bring the olives to the sorter and separate the leaves.” They’d do that until the pails of olives were empty, but they did not come back for more.

We’d have to go back to find them again, but by then they had figured it out, and chose ever more remote spots in the orchards, until in the end, it was just the moms in the trees, and an occasional child.

But that didn't matter, I thought it was a awesome experience, and hopefully, in many years from now, they will still remember their weekend camping in the olive orchard.

The olive grove is in a region that has known lots  of upheavals, and Mrs. J  had lived through quite a few of them. 

Her house is right under the Beaufort Castle, which was first occupied by the PLO, than the Israelis, taken over by Hezbollah right after the Israelis pulled out, and finally handed over to the Lebanese government. For years and years she could not venture to the right side of her property; the Israelis would fire warning shots to indicate she was not allowed to walk there. Her sister in-law’s property was razed by them as well; it blocked their view of a village in the distance.

I wrote a few stories about the village of Arnoun, across from her house. It once woke up, in 1999, and suddenly found itself in the occupied zone, until it got liberated again 2000. It’s in Dutch, so not much help to you.

Mrs. J. was lucky in 2006. Although her drive way was strewn with shrapnel, and she had to sweep it before she could get her car in, the house remained intact, and no cluster bombs were left behind in the grove.

Her neighbors were not that lucky. I did loads of stories in that region in 2006 (in Dutch), where farmers and their staff lost hands, feet, legs or even their lives while stepping on cluster bombs during the tobacco harvest. (Check the archives of August and September 2006 for English stories) . Hundreds of children were injured or killed as they were playing in the fields.
Olives in bags waiting for the press

There seems to be something sinister about a year with a 6 in it, Mrs. J mentioned, as we had lunch with the olive picking staff. 
Next year promises to be a bad year. It will be in 2016. 1976 was a bad year with the civil war, and so was 1986. We had lots of Israeli bombardments in 1996 ( Grapes of Wrath) and in 2006  too. (In 2006, 43 days of Israeli bombardments resulted in the loss of over a 1,000 Lebanese lives) and next year it is 2016. It has a 6 in it, so it must be bad,” she laughed.

She has no intention whatsoever to leave.
Some serious olive pickers

And so I spent the weekend harvesting olives in an olive grove in the south, with some Syrian Bedouins. Mrs. J just mailed me; we gathered some 600 kilos olives this weekend, and she just brought them to the olive mill where they will get pressed.
How many people can say they use the oil of olives they have picked themselves?

Apples are next :) 


Anonymous said...

Once again, another super post Sieskie.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your lovely post. For a Lebanese expat, your blog serves to remind me of how beautiful,crazy,unique our country is. Can't wait to go back.....

Elie Touma said...

What a wonderful insight to olive gathering experience. I once did gather olives from an olive tree with my daughter when living in Limassol Cyprus about ten years ago. It was a lovely experience for us too. Thanks for sharing your adventure with us.

Fadi said...

My favorite blogger.
Thank you for sharing!

Julianne Ostrosky said...

Love this piece!! What an awesome experience 😀 Wonderfully captured... enjoy the fruits of your labors Sietske!

Julianne Ostrosky said...

Love this piece!! What an awesome experience 😀 Wonderfully captured... enjoy the fruits of your labors Sietske!

Emie said...

Mooi verhaal, schitterende foto's!

Anonymous said...

I loved the olive harvest as a kid! What's not to like? I was handed a stick and told to beat the ever loving crap out of the trees! I miss those days and made great memories!

...probably wouldn't volunteer for it now though.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha ,cute story. But you did not mention if you'd do it all again.

ehden said...

we visited Beaufort castle a few weeks ago and noticed the olive groves. Interesting part of Lebanon. we enjoyed it