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Volume 23, Number 4July/August 1972

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"To the Olives!"

Written by Michael E. Jansen
Photographed by Jasper Brinton

The road to the olives curves down the mountainside beside our house in Shemlan. It is not a pretty road, shorn of trees and buttressed by heavy gray cement walls where it begins the plunge into the valley. It is not a good road, being rough, water-rutted gravel for 400 yards and then a wide stone and clay swath cut by a bulldoze along an ancient and once lovely pathway. But the road to the olives is heavily traveled, particularly between mid-October and the end of February, when the olive trees give up their harvest. On fine days the workers crunch along the gravel road beneath our bedroom windows as the first gray light appears over the rim of the hill above. A few men, some leading donkeys, three or four in cars, descend quietly. Small groups of women, white, filmy scarves over their heads and long dark skirts swishing round their ankles, walk gingerly, briskly, laughin and chatting; the women carry large baskets, kerosene tins and buckets, and come provisioned with the makings for Arab coffee, round, flat loaves of bread, tins of sardines, labneh and olives and sunflower seeds to while away the long day. These men and women come from nearby villages for the five-month harvest, earning a meager wage for their back-breaking work. "Az-zeitoun! To the olives!" is the battle cry shouted cheerfully in the village streets of the Chouf, of all Mount Lebanon, of the entire Mediterranean in the annual campaign of the olives.

Indeed, it is said that the olive tree’s presence indicates that one is near the Mediterranean. The kinship of the tree and the "Middle Sea" is based on the peculiar character of the olive and the climate create by the sea. The annual cycle of the olive tree exactly matches the cycle of seasons in the mountain ranges which nearly encircle the Mediterranean: chilly, but not severe winters bring forth from the olive trees tiny, cream-colored flowers in March; balmy springs allow the flowers to germinate; long dry summers fill out and ripen the fruit and rainy autumns swell the olives before the harvest.

In Shemlan, as elsewhere, the olive tree is planted on terraces, overlooking the sea, its silver-green leaves rippling and flowing like the surface of the sea below. Terrace walls are painstaking works of art, rough, uncut stones fitted into the hillside. Massive and medium and small-sized trees lean over the edge of the terraces, their long-toed roots curling round the stones. It would seem that each was vying for the best view of the beloved sea.

Some of the Shemlan’s squat stalwarts are as large as the venerable olives of the Garden of Gethsemane, trees which stood when Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem. But a two-thousand-year-old olive is not unusual; the first olive tree in Greece was probably brought to Athens and planted at the Acropolis soon after it was "invented" on Crete in 3500 B.C.. Since it endured at least 30 centuries, the combined life spans of just two olive trees—the tree on the Acropolis and one of the trees in Gethsemane—cover the entire history of civilized man in this part of the world.

We have said that the olive tree was "invented." And so it was. It was just as much an invention as the wheel which was invented at just about the same time. The wild olive or oleaster is an unproductive evergreen belonging, improbably, to the same family as lilac, jasmine, ash and forsythia—or was until a worthy Cretan found a particular tree or group of trees which produced fruit and discovered that the fruitful branches could be grafted onto the wild olive. As a result Crete became the Mediterranean’s largest exporter of oil—and, eventually, of the art of grafting and of the branches themselves. This not only spread the olive culture round the Mediterranean, but made the olive branch a symbol of peace, for with the olive came prosperity and growth, the foundations of peace.

One reason the olive trees live so long is that they simply refuse to die. An olive tree may be hit by lightning, felled in a wind storm, or maltreated by man, but it will not die. Along the terraces on our valley, stand the shells of trees whose hollow trunks are filled with rocks to keep them upright, yet, on one there is a fringe of new leafy twigs and on another a newly grafted branch beginning to sprout. A stump is the breeding ground for branches for grafting.

Cultivators of the olive have learned to respect the peculiarities of this very peculiar tree: to wait patiently from one year to the next for a tree which, for its own reasons, refuses to bear; to be indulgent of a tree which, for a time, decides to bring forth fruit on one side only, or, sulking, suddenly lets its unripe fruit wither and drop. Man has had a long time to learn about the curious whims and idiosyncrasies of the olive, even about individual trees which have been handed down from generation to generation. But, if there is anything more individualistic than the olive tree, it is the man who cultivates the olive. No one cultivator agrees with another; each has his very own way with the trees: ploughing once, twice or three times, irrigating or not irrigating, plucking and harvesting early or late. In Shemlan everyone does the large-scale ploughing and plucking at the same time but there is no agreement about the best time for either. The Shemlanis are bound by the schedules of their workers, who will only come after the fig and grape harvests and before the spring planting.

The white-scarved women disappear round the curve and the first wail of a transistor radio echoes across the valley. Only occasionally now do the women sing their traditional songs; the radio has brought popular Arab music and Oum Koulsoum to the olive terraces.

They begin the harvest by gathering the fruit that has dropped to the ground. These olives are shriveled and dry, hard, leathery and inedible, but they are carefully picked up one by one to make oil for soap.

The second phase of the harvest is plucking green olives for pickling. Most of this is done by the Shemlanis themselves who take just enough for their own use. The great bulk of the crop remains on the trees until late November and then, depending on the weather, the harvest begins in earnest. In a third phase, the ripe black fruit is shaken from the trees by the men and collected by the women. Then, when this is done, the men climb the trees and beat the branches with long, supple poles and the olives rain down onto the terraces. Systematically each tree is beaten and, at the same time, pruned of dead and unproductive branches. White smoke bubbles out of the sea of silver-green leaves from the fires kindled from the discarded twigs and branches. The terraces are scrupulously neat and constantly tidied. It is difficult enough to pick up olives from a clean terrace, but from one littered with leaves and rubble, it is impossible. Finally, the stubborn olives still clinging to the branches are plucked directly off the trees.

The green olives plucked during the first phase of the harvest and the good quality black olives gathered later on are pickled in brine made of unrefined salt and water, the brine being salty enough when it can float a raw egg. The olives are carefully sorted according to size and perfection. The large ones without blemishes are pickled whole and the smaller, imperfect fruit are thumped gingerly with a stone, the skin and flesh cracked, before being immersed in brine. The unbroken olives are ready to eat only after nine months or a year and keep for two years or more; the broken olives take three months and become soft after 18 months in brine. There is great disagreement amongst the Shemlani ladies on the best method of pickling olives. Some soak them overnight in a tub of water, others do not bother. Some wash the olives first and then hit them, others hit first and wash later. A villager from just over the hill, from Beisour, cuts slits in the fruit with a sharp knife and adds lemon juice, lemon peel and chili peppers to the brine. Some ladies recommend bitter orange leaves for flavoring; others argue for garlic and bay leaves or lemon and wild thyme. How mankind learned to pickle this strange bitter fruit to make it palatable remains a mystery. It is certain, however, that the Mediterranean must have played a key role those thousands of years ago when man discovered what to do with the olive: it was the salt of the sea that made the fruit edible. Again the kinship of the tree with the sea is affirmed.

The man who put the olive to use probably extracted its oil first. It is a curious fact that oil from so bitter a fruit flows sweet as soon as it is crushed.

The olive presses of Lebanon have no sophisticated machinery; the work is done today almost as it was a century ago. The great stone wheels, each weighing a ton, press the fruit as they did in Roman times: crushing the fruit and stones to a pulp and adding cold fresh water to make the oil flow.

The oil flows down into a gutter round the tray’s edge and through a hose into a series of deep marble basins. The oil is reddish brown as it flows from the pulp. A workman pours cold water on the stack in the press. Oil and water flow together and begin to separate in the basins, the golden oil floating on top of the dark water. The oil is carefully skimmed off, the last drops are caught in a tin cup and the oil is drawn off through another hose into the centrifugal clarifier, the only piece of really modern equipment in the press. The machine runs for a long time, whining and spluttering: water begins to flow into a waste trough and then the oil flows from a spout, slowly at first and then in bursts, cloudy and golden.

As the oil flows into the containers brought to carry it home, the workers turn to the remains of the olives still in the press: great cakes of detritus stamped with the weave of the baskets and blankets that, dried and crumbled, is used for heating and for stoking bakers’ ovens as it burns steadily and gives an even and long-lasting heat.

Nothing of the olive is wasted. The wood is used for fuel and for carving, the fruit is, as we have said, pickled and eaten, the oil is used for cooking and for dressing salads, meats and vegetables. For centuries it has been used in lamps, rubbed into stiff joints, served us a hand lotion and bath oil, applied to the stomachs of pregnant women to prevent stretch marks and, of course, later used for baby. In spite of the modern world, the olive continues to hold an important position in the Mediterranean household and is so greatly respected that nothing is ever planted beneath an olive tree; to do so would offend this marvelous, temperamental and demanding friend.

Our oil was something special. One of our eight trees gave us more than enough fruit for pickling and so the rest of the olives went for oil. We cleared our trees early and kept our fruit separate in the press. The pulp was reddish brown and clean smelling, while pulp from less good fruit smelt strong and was a dark brown color. "Helou! Helou!... Sweet! Sweet!" was the cry of the workman tending the crushing wheels. And the oil was sweet too. A green gold flowing into our glass gallon bottles.

The oil yield was good: one pound of oil for three and a half pounds of olives. This is the average yield for good olives, the average for Lebanon being one pound of oil for four of olives.

The cultivation of the olive is one of the most important traditional occupations of Lebanon. Three-quarters of the olive trees in the country are old trees and almost all belong to the traditional varieties, baladi and shetawi, or are a mixture of the two. Today, as in Crete 5,500 years ago, the secret of good olives is not in the breeding, but in the grafting. In Lebanon, baladi branches are grafted onto shetawi trunks as the baladi fruit are larger and fuller and remain longer on the trees than shetawi olives. However, baladi branches on a shetawi trunk to do not produce only baladi fruit, but a mixture of the two.

Mr. Elia Tabib, a Shemlani shopkeeper who has turned to olive cultivation, plans to make big innovations in his terraces: "I’m going to change all my trees. Then I will have the best kind of ripe eating olives to sell in my shop. My trade is all in olives now." A few years ago Mr. Tabib bought terraces with about 300 trees in the valley. He began to develop the long-neglected terraces, ploughing the trees several times a year, building a tank for irrigation, pruning and grafting. Already his trees stand out, a darker blue-green pool in the silver-green sea of leaves.

Mr. Tabib uses his black eating olives to stock his shop, bartering the fruit for soft drinks, tinned goods, sweets, everything he sells: "If they don’t take my olives, I don’t take their goods. That’s all there is to it. They have no trouble selling good olives to their workers." Olives can be good business, bringing as much as 300-400 percent net profit in a good year.

And Mr. Elia is not the only Shemlani who has discovered—or rediscovered—the olive. The valley of olive terraces below the village is awakening. The path gave way to the new road two years ago. Now new reservoirs for storing water are being built on the terraces. Instead of ploughing or digging their terraces once a year, more people are doing it three or four times. This year the villagers introduced the "drop cloth" in the collecting process, spreading white canvas (formerly airplane escape chutes) on the terraces beneath the trees to catch the fruit as it falls. Patiently the trees accept the frivolousness of man and patiently they bear fruit as they see fit. But when the ploughing begins in the spring, we see just how ancient this culture is; a workman with a splendid pair of black bulls appears over the horizon. He comes from Jezzine, four days walk from Shemlan, a long, curved wooden plough, the length of a tree-trunk, over his shoulder. The ploughman and his bulls work the terraces for two months. Tractors cannot manage olive terraces. So we end where it all began: with the wooden plough, the graft on the wild oleaster and the Mediterranean close at hand.

Michael Elin Jansen was born in Michigan, and educated at Mt. Holyoke College and the American University of Beirut. She lives now in Shemlan, a village in the mountains of Lebanon, and has written two books on the Palestinian problem.

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the July/August 1972 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1972 images.