‘The stability of geography and the continuity of land have completely disappeared from my life and the life of all Palestinians.’
– Edward Said
‘The olive tree is our address’
Damir’s family and others were participants in my academic research on the daily activities relating to farming olives, and how communities respond to Israeli settler-colonialism and its structures which restrict this activity. In my own field of study, occupational science, humans have an innate need to engage in meaningful daily activities (occupations), such as caring for their children or tending their garden. Engagement in such activities is facilitated or disrupted by factors such as body structures and functions, the human-built environment, and the natural and socio-political contexts people live in.
The stories I heard during my field visits pointed to a collective vocabulary and a moral code unique to this community, enabling this ancient activity to flourish against the odds. This unique vocabulary encompasses the following notions: ‘Awna that means belonging to, and cooperation with, the community; Sutra provides dignity, survival and protection through growing olives; and Sumud refers to daily acts of resistance creatively and collectively carried out to confront daily injustices. These concepts, springing from Palestinian culture, join the constellation of ‘moral economies’ of other Global South groups, described by J.C. Scott, who told of the daily struggles of rice farmers in Asia in his book The Moral Economy of the Peasant, and John Berger, who wrote about migrant workers and Europe’s last remaining peasants in his books Pig Earth and A Seventh Man – groups who share both the experience of assaults on their belonging by oppressive ideologies and policies, and the need to survive daily injustices.
For me the exploration of ‘Awna and olive growing have challenged the idiom of ‘The old will die and the young will forget’ – which farmers believe to be the aim of Israeli settler-colonialism. As a Palestinian citizen of Israel and the UK, I have always straddled geographies, cultures and ways of life. I was born in Al Nassrah (Nazareth), the largest town of the Palestinian minority in Israel. My family originated from a village in lower Galilee and were peasants before 1948, like the majority of Palestinian families. My ancestors travelled to the city to find work, which was already scarce for land-based, self-reliant fallahin during the late Ottoman period and then under the British Mandate. In my homeland, the native Palestinian community became a minority after their dispossession during the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe), when over 500 villages were ethnically cleansed and destroyed. My family and I have felt like foreigners in our country of birth, and are treated as second-class citizens by the state of Israel. I experienced similar feelings on moving to the UK, where – nearly two decades on – I still struggle to feel belonging to the culture.
‘Awna as a unique sense of belonging to land, history and community, is a sort of moral guidance and glue that keeps the fallahi families together and on their land, continuing to grow olives
‘Awna as a unique sense of belonging to land, history and community, is a sort of moral guidance and glue that keeps the fallahi families together and on their land, continuing to grow olives. ‘Awna’s literal meanings in Arabic include giving and receiving between communities; it is also associated with an elder woman, experienced and wise, who has acquired her knowledge through actively using her skills. In conversation, the term ‘Awna means collaboration founded on solidarity with, and belonging to, family, village, tradition and community – a community that is understood to include land, trees and animals. ‘Awna is ubiquitous in Palestinian culture, and especially in rural poetry and songs.
A folkloric dal ‘Awna song (a call to ‘Awna) is sung during olive harvest in the autumn, a season often dubbed ‘the festival of Palestine’:
Calling you all to gather and help, for olive is the best our country can offer
Calling you all to gather and help, for my country’s olive is the tastiest
Calling you all to gather and help, for my country’s olives and almonds…
(Al-Batma, 2012, my translation)
Not far from the Tent of Nations, I visited Um Weehab and her husband Abu Weehab. Battir, their village, was recently granted World Heritage Site status for its ancient terraces and water-collection system, in order to protect it from the planned construction of the separation wall. This was a collective effort that villagers undertook with the support of other local and global communities. Sitting under their vine, Um and Abu Weehab explained how belonging to their community includes actions such as allowing others who don’t have land or trees to glean the fruit left on their trees after the harvest. They hope that their own experiment with reclaiming their confiscated land, which they quietly replant with olives under the radar of the soldiers, will encourage others in the village to follow suit. The couple told me that their values are founded on a historical, social and political consciousness that they try to pass on to their children about the importance of the land and of olive growing.
A ten-minute drive to the south-west I visited Abu Nedal, a writer and farmer, in the small village of Wadi Fukin. The village has an ancient water collection system. The villagers are struggling with encroaching colonies built on their confiscated land. Abu Nedal told me the significance of ‘Awna: ‘‘Awna is one of the most important moral values we associate with olive farming. Al ‘Awna means unity, solidarity, empathy. You are with me in good and in bad times. We collaborate and exchange expertise, we help each other and share our skills and tools for work, and all of that without exchange of pay. People need each other, and ‘Awna for me is a moral behaviour, a value and a cultural heritage passed from previous generations.’ Abu Nedal is concerned that ‘Awna, as a way of life, is being targeted by the Israeli state whose aim is to destroy the self-reliant farming sector, and make people dependent on menial work. This has happened to his son and many of the villagers who lost land and trees and needed to find labour elsewhere, including construction work in Israel and in the colonies built on their land.
Back in the Tent of Nations, I learnt that ‘Awna as a moral code consists of many attachments, for example to the land, trees and natural surroundings. Damir spoke about what growing olives means to him: ‘The olive is a blessed tree, it is your address and your identity. Growing olives means you are present here for thousands of years; it means you are rooted in this land, and because you are rooted in this land, you will continue. Our ancestors planted the olive, it is history; this connection between the past, present and future is very important. This young tree that we plant today will tell our story to the coming generations.’
Farmers describe caring for trees as if they were their own children, others relate to the olive tree as a bride being prepared for her wedding. Families do not separate the human race from other beings with whom they share the Earth. It is a connectedness that spans species, which has pagan, pre-monotheistic roots. Communities related strongly to their natural surroundings, enabling them to make sense of the natural forces influencing their lives. They worshipped gods who provided rain and fertile soil for their crops, and others who protected them from adversities. One of those gods whom the Cana’nites, Philistines and other native societies of Palestine believed in was Ba’al. Part of a pantheon of gods, he was worshipped for his power to bring storms and rain, thereby controlling food production. Many of these stories are believed to be the bases for Abrahamic beliefs. St George, or Al Khader in Islam, who fought evil spirits and was a symbol of fertility, is believed to have been based on the story of Ba’al. Today ba’al is a term used everyday to refer to any produce that is naturally irrigated from seasonal rains.
Families do not separate the human race from other beings with whom they share the Earth. It is a connectedness that spans species, which has pagan, pre-monotheistic roots
This bond with the natural environment led to the development of expertise about periods for preparing the land and other key times in the farming calendar, such as for picking olives. Farmers know when to expect a productive season or a good yield, and when the weather is going to settle after the winter, by watching the stars or the movement of birds – as Al Batma, a local woman from Battir, recorded in her book Palestine the Four Seasons. She writes that fallahi families know when the harvest season is approaching by looking for a star named ‘Es’hail’ which often appears at the start of autumn. This star has been associated with the beginning of the olive-picking season as it predicts the coming of the first rains, during which the summer dust is washed off the trees and olives can be harvested. Communities associate their daily and seasonal farming routines with spiritual, religious and cultural events strongly linked to natural processes. This way of life, and the values it is founded on, including this important alliance with what David Abram calls the ‘more-than-human’, were transplanted into each generation.
‘Awna’s special status among rural families does not only span the natural elements, it also connects people to their history, ancestors and traditions. Nedal, Abu Nedal’s son, works in the village as a barber during the weekend and as a labourer in Israel, in addition to growing olives. He is the main breadwinner for three households: his father, his mother who is separated from his father, and his own family. ‘Because I was born in a family of fallaheen I have to continue with the same lifestyle. I have land inherited from my grandfather that I planted with olive trees. For me, there’s this connection, something in the unconscious happened between me and this tree, it is a historical relationship.’ I was often told by farmers that their attachment to the olive trees is historical: their ancestors have planted for them, and they must now continue to plant trees for their own offspring.
For olive growers, ‘Awna also expressed connectedness and collaboration between the living human communities. The most important level of human attachment is that between the members of the family, or hamoula (extended family), at the village level. A village often consists of one or a few hamoulas. The village in Palestine is still considered the ‘family of families’: it embodies solidarity between members of the clan and constitutes a defence against imperialism, absentee landowners and the higher socio-economic classes.
The second level of attachment among farming communities is that developed with other individuals or groups from other villages and towns in Palestine. Abu Nedal told me about the agricultural committee established in the 1980s in Wadi Fukin. The aim was to provide support for farmers in the region to maintain their land-based livelihoods despite the growth of Israeli colonies. The committee proved effective in providing experts and volunteers to help farmers care for their trees and crops in an environmentally sustainable way. It continues its work today and has spread nationally, and currently works with farmers all over the West Bank.
Beyond the family, village and nation, ‘Awna has acquired an international meaning. Since the early 2000s there has been an increase in grassroots activism in support of ordinary Palestinian communities, including olive farmers, by voluntary organisations and individuals who visit the occupied territories to see for themselves the impact of the military occupation.
Damir explained to me the importance of global solidarity: ‘We hosted 40 people; those 40 come from 40 families, who come from 40 towns. Solidarity with the Palestinian people is widening, as these people go back home and tell a story in a positive way – not the stereotypical picture they see in the news. I tell them about what happened to us, they experience Palestinian hospitality, and these things give an alternative picture of our situation to the outside world. They come and see, then go and tell.’
This collaboration between global communities helps Palestinians resist the colonisation of their land by raising global awareness of everyday injustices, and by forming bonds of solidarity. As a result of the ongoing colonisation, military occupation and the lack of state welfare or support from the Palestinian Authority, solidarity includes organisations and international connections formed by local groups. The Joint Advocacy Initiative works with international church groups to galvanise global support for olive farmers. I met members of Ta’ayush, an Israeli-Jewish organisation, while planting olive saplings with a farming family. Ta’ayush were present on the land to monitor and document IDF and settlers’ behaviour towards the family, to help the family communicate with the IDF in Hebrew, and to physically assist with the task of planting trees.
This international element recently added to ‘Awna not only supports Palestinian families, but also inspires people to consider their own situations. A few international volunteers and activists stressed that their time in Palestine helped them consider their own privileges and belonging, and the agency of marginal communities in their own countries.
For the Palestinian olive growers the discontinuity of land is not the end of their sense of attachment to place and people. Despite the assault on their way of life, families persist in relying upon this quotidian wisdom of belonging that spans geographical, historical and species boundaries.
My geographical distance from Palestinian land and community didn’t stop me from developing a sense of belonging that led me to feel at home anywhere in the world that is used for shelter, work, cultivation, and for living in harmony with nature and other human communities. During my exploration of ‘Awna as a consciousness and a way of life practised by my own community, I studied my homeland’s history and society – topics banned from the curriculum in my former school and university in Israel. My research caused me to visit communities I would not otherwise have come to know, because Palestinians are segregated from each other by the separation wall, by checkpoints and a complex web of precarious citizenship and residency rights. By reconnecting with my land’s unique tradition of ‘Awna and those who have steadfastly preserved and evolved that tradition, I have developed a new relationship with land and heritage in Palestine, in the UK and, in fact, everywhere I go – a sense of belonging that transcends human-made boundaries.
Al-Batma, N., Palestine the Four Seasons: Customs, traditions and seasons (JMCC, 2012) – in Arabic
Berger, John, A Seventh Man (Viking, 1975) and Pig Earth (Vintage, 1979)
Scott, J.C., The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 1976)
The unabridged version of this piece was originally published as ‘A’wna’ in Dark Mountain: Issue 14 – TERRA