Family Tree – Olive Trees in Palestine
By Kamila Gerasim
Any amount of time spent in Palestine displays the dusty green hue of olive groves across the landscape. Far more than simply vegetation that seems to thrive in this part of the world, the olive tree carries with it a significance to Palestinian society. As this tree has grown in the land for thousands of years, it has collected the stories of many.
When I asked a local Palestinian from Bethlehem what the significance of the olive tree is to them, their answer mirrored that of countless other Palestinians I’ve spoken to.
“We have a saying in Arabic that, when translated, goes something like this: ‘Generations before us planted the olive tree knowing they wouldn’t see the fruit of their labor, but that the generations that followed would reap the harvest of the trees they planted before.’ This is why we continue to plant olive trees. We reap the fruit of what our forefathers planted. It is a symbol of the sustainability, the presence and the existence of Palestinians in the land.”
This deeply rooted identity is evident as the harvest season comes around in mid-October to November. Families gather in their olive groves in the morning, and begin the harvest together. For several days, the harvest itself becomes a family gathering. With some picking and shaking olives out of the trees, others sift through the olives already picked and still others help prepare lunch that will be enjoyed under the shade of the grove. This season is one of harvest and reaping, but it is also a sweet time of family fellowship and remembrance of those that cultivated the land before.
The olive tree alone stands as a symbol of resistance and sustainability in its ability to survive weather conditions that don’t allow much water. This resilience could be paralleled with the Palestinian struggle for freedom and human rights. Even under harsh conditions, Palestinians persevere. Just as empires have risen and fallen on this land, the olive tree withstood those adversities. Palestinians, likewise, lived, and continue to live, under several empires, regimes and occupations, and yet, they still exist. With an identity that is woven into the land like the roots of the olive tree, Palestinians, too, have a long legacy of existence and resilience in the land.
Uniquely and beautifully representing the Palestinian people and their existence, the olive tree holds a special place in society. A Palestinian farmer shared with me the following:
“When we lose olive trees due to violence from Israeli settlers, it is as if our family has been violated. These trees have been passed down from generations before us, and we have inherited them from our ancestors to care for them.”
The olive trees of Palestine, therefore, have become something of a common thread of culture and an essential part of the family structure for countless Palestinians. Their symbolism of peace is one that is not taken lightly, nor entered into carelessly. The presence of the olive tree in this land is the constant reminder of Palestinian existence, continued presence and perseverance in the midst of trial. All of this culminates in the desire to live in peace, to seek peace and to cultivate peace. Sowing seeds of peace and justice requires fortitude and time. Just as the generations before planted, cared for and tended to the olive trees that are now harvested, so too, must we, living in the land, sow seeds of peace.
The presence of the olive tree demands action, for the tree cannot flourish without being tended to and harvested. The same is true of the Palestinian presence in the land. It demands action from those living here. At whatever stage, there should be the constant engagement of planting, cultivating, tending to and harvesting within the context of Palestine. Planting seeds of peace and dignity, cultivating a culture of resilience and sustainability, tending to the needs of society and ultimately reaping the harvest of justice and equality. Though it is allegorical in many ways, the metaphysical symbols of the olive tree are principles that have a practical application today.
May this family tree, the legacy of the olive tree, be passed down to many more generations as Palestinians continue to exist in the land.