This family tree produces olives Harvest: Khateeb family members come from as far away as Norway to harvest their olive trees near the Sea of Galilee.

Sun Journal

November 17, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DEIR HANNA, Israel -- The sons and daughters of Ahmad and Amina Khateeb return to the olive groves of the Galilee about this time every year. They gather under the trees, the fruit heavy and clean from the first rains. Together, they harvest the crop from the fields of their forefathers.

Saleh, at 37 the youngest of the 13 Khateeb children, pokes an oak staff into the leafy, green boughs and shakes it. Olives fall like hail on the plastic tarps spread beneath the trees.

The women sift through the fallen fruit for fat green olives. These will be cured in jars at home. The bulk of the crop, collected in boxes and crates, will be hauled to the local olive press to make oil.

The Khateeb family gathering is being repeated in Arab villages across the Galilee. For this is the time of the olives, the season of harvest.

Every man with a grove will set out for the fields after sunrise and not leave before dusk.

Olive trees cover the hillsides across the country, and stone fences built by hand distinguish one man's land from another's.

An olive branch has long been the symbol of peace. But the tree has also become the symbol of a people, and an emblem of the long-running dispute over land between Arab and Jew.

"If you don't have olive trees, you don't exist," says Ali Khateeb, a son of Ahmad and Amina, and who is visiting from Norway. "When you mention the olive tree, you mention the whole Palestinian culture -- the whole tradition. Oil and earth. The symbolism of the olive tree is unexplainable."

Deir Hanna residents farm about 3,000 dunams of land -- about 750 acres. Several of the gnarled trunks trees on the Khateebs' land stand like ancient gnomes. They are among the oldest trees -- centuries old, as the villagers tell it. The bounty in olives and oil have earned the area a reputation unmatched in the country.

If the American Midwest is the country's breadbasket, the Galilee region -- the area surrounding the Sea of Galilee -- is "the biggest jar of oil in Israel," says Deir Hanna's Mayor Raja Khateeb, the surname of many in this village of 7,000. "This region is the heart of the Galilee.

"We have olive trees since the Noah period. When he sent the dove and it brought the branch, it was from these olive trees."

The mayor tells the story with a mischievous smile. For skeptics he adds: "We are in the Holy Land. Maybe God made the ship land in peace, in the land of peace."

The mayor and his cousin Ali do not earn their living from the land, unlike their fathers.

The sons chose different professions. Raja Khateeb, a one-time biology teacher, was elected mayor 18 years ago, at age 29. Ali Khateeb is a geophysicist who works in Norway for an American company that services the petroleum industry.

Olive trees may no longer provide the main income of the families, but the families nevertheless harvest the crop.

"If you haven't olives, you haven't property," says Raja Khateeb, the father of five children. "The olive tree has been planted by our grandfather, who keeps it for our fathers, who keep it for us, and we have to keep it for our sons, to keep it for their sons."

In the fields this sunny November day, Ali Khateeb joins his sister, his brother and sister-in-law and several hired hands. The siblings have other jobs, but after the first rains the crop is ready to harvest. Saleh, Ali's youngest brother, expects the task to take about four weeks.

The matriarch of the family, 80-year-old Amina, walks to the fields from the village below. Her husband Ahmed worked the field until three years ago; at 96, he is frail and ailing. She enjoys this time of the year, surrounded by her children in the fields.

"It's good for the body," says the small, stout woman, her eyes are as blue as cornflowers. "Of course, the best way [to harvest] is by hand, but it would take 10 months."

Sticks and chain saws help speed the process along, but most of the work is indeed by hand. Saleh, the youngest Khateeb son, uses an oak staff to jostle the olives free. Another worker climbs into the tree, grabs hold of a branch and shakes it. With a chain saw, he prunes a hole in the tree's leafy top so that more sun can reach the olives, a necessity for a good crop.

Ali remembers how his father pruned the trees, like a sculptor carving a fine piece of wood. While the family works, they talk and gossip. A sister teases Saleh Khateeb about his last girlfriend. He warns her that his young wife is a jealous woman.

Amina, her silver gray head covered in a while muslin scarf, scolds her bare-headed son for not wearing a hat. Her children fondly refer to her as the foreman. In front of strangers, they tease her, remarking on the blueness of her eyes and the blondness of her youth.

"When she was young " says Saleh Khateeb, making eyes at her. "You know how much land my father gave to take her [as his wife]?"

Twenty dunams, the son answers. At 20 olive trees to a dunam, that's a formidable price.

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