First week of November in Jordan has welcomed me with cooler temperatures, leaves falling off the trees, and sun setting just as I walk out of the Academic building after classes. Days still warm and sunny, are now followed by nights where temperature falls below 5 degrees Celsius. Hoodies and sweaters once deep down in the closet are now piled up besides my bed, warm tea with lemon has replaced coffee (okay, that’s a joke – you know me too well). It’s officially fall.
And although this very mysterious season with scent of surrealism and romantic aura to it, here in the Middle East is very different than in Poland or Pennsylvania, where last year I experienced a beautiful autumn as if from one of Rembrant’s paintings, this season in Jodan too is like a masterpiece on canvas. But as in my home country we talk about “Polish golden fall”… fall in Jordan is all about silver.
In Poland, at the beginning of November we come to reflect on the death and gather during All Saints’ Day in memory of our beloved family members and friends, who are no longer with us. At that same time in Jordan we, celebrate the joy of new life.
November in Jordan and the Arab World opens one of the most important and definitely busiest seasons in agriculture – the great olive harvest.
As some of you might know, majority of Jordan’s landscape is desert-like, with long chains of mountains extending on the South and embracing the sandy and ever-windy Desert Wadi Rum. Jordan has a very limited access to water: the only coastline is that of the Dead Sea, which with 33.7% salinity, is one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water. (The Dead Sea is also bordering Jordan to the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west – which has some interesting effect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of which I will write about some other time)
Jordan’s climate is dry. The land exposed to sun radiation through majority of the year, causes weather conditions be generally unwelcoming to most forms of agriculture – which results in majority of the produce being imported, mostly from Egypt, Palestine, and Morocco.
However, there is one plant that seems to be created by nature particularly for those harsh conditions and grows surrounded by rocky landscapes as a symbol of life and hope. It is the olive tree.
When the window of about two months between November and October as olives are ready to be picked, opens – Jordanian people gather and spend long afternoons on the groves. Old men from Ajloun climb up the leaders and the silver of their hair blends into that of little olive leaves.
The kids are chasing each other around with sticks from olive trees, moms prepare bread with fresh zataar and pour sweet tea into small cups. Sometimes there will be a group of young men dancing dabke around the trees and dogs would sit on the porches and watch all this in last delicate rays of warm sun.
At the end of the day, baskets filed with little fruits are stocked up on the trucks and from the groves taken all the way through the desert roads into manufactures where the olives would be pressed into a fresh oil and poured into little glass bottles, dark not to damage the properties of precious oli – the liquid gold of the Middle East. Because as much as we talk about oil as a treasure of the Gulf countries, we should include in our discussions a fact that there is more tan just one kind of this oli that we are talking about 🙂
Very often as we think about olives we narrow our discussions down to the Medditerreanean region and particularly Greece – where those little fruits are coming from. I remember the stories my mom used to tell me about long days on Crete, where she used to work and pick olives during summer. In Greece – olives are the foundation of daily life of the people and a source of grand portion of the Acient history.
But the great impact the olive tree has on the lives of people across all continents shows us that symbolism and importance of the olive tree extends way further than the South of Europe.
Olives were cultivated about 8000 years ago in Anatolia, from where they spread to the Middle East being among the oldest known cultivated trees in the world.
And believe me that if you are eating dinner with an Arab family or drink coffee with some friends in the Arab World, thare is no way there won’t be a discussion about olives – an amusing dispute about who has the best olives, which country grows the healthiest trees, or which oli is of the highest quality, is an unseparable part of the culture at the table, hence the bottle of “pure glold” standing at each table in every house.
Olive trees and olive branches are mentioned many times in the Bible and the Quran and their nutritional values, extraordinary taste, healing powers, and fundamental role in preparation of any meal have assigned them a symbolic and mystical valule across almost every religion represented in the world.
The olive tree, a universal symbol of peace – was an object of tension in the Arab-Israeli conflict in 2001-2002. Constituting a major point of refference in the dispute, olives were recognized with a potental of shifting the path of the entire conflict.
The first recorded evidence of olive cultivation finds it place in the excavations in Palestine and Jordan, dating back to 3750B.C.
And the local saying in Jordan tells us that “a home where there is no olive oil is a home where there is no love.”
Jordan plays a crucial role in production and export of the olives today, being world’s 2nd and 8th largest exporter of table olives and olive oil respectively, and imports negligible quantities of both commodities compared to exports. Not only are olives being picked by the local families and company workers, but also by the schools’ students. It is quite usual for many schools to have abbreviated classess during olive harvest, so that children can help with olive picking at their homes.
King’s Academy, near a little town of Madaba, grows few hundreds of olives on its campus. Last weekend, I had a chance to take part in the grand harvest, where almost the entire student body and teachers gathered to to pick tens of killograms of little fruits.
At King’s, all the olive oil used in the kitchen for preparation of our meals and the olives we eat for breakfasts and dinners all come from the Nabali olive trees that grow on our campus.
Nabali is one of the oldest olive cultivars in the Middle East, originated on the banks of the River Jordan. Gardeners and security memebrs take care of our treasure every day, watering the plants and keeping them in a good shape. Those organically grown olives are the most delicious, and King’s Academy takes a huge pride in this beautiful tradition of our annual olive harvest – every year the Royal Family of Jordan is being supplied with the olive oil that King’s Academy students help prepare.
Being here in Jordan during such special time of the year is for me a purely unique experience, so much allowing me to connect with the local communities and the cycle of life in the Middle East. Looking at those silver trees that sourround, turning my face into the warm sun, and closing a fist full of little fruits, I feel deeply that happiness coming from olives is more than finding two of them in your martini when you are hungry 🙂
Sorry Johnny Carson!