It has been 10 years since I left Lebanon. I’ve been obsessing about an extended trip for a very long time and now it’s coming together. In June, July and August, I will be back in my village with my parents, though this time I have a wife and an 11 month old daughter with me. If you’re in Lebanon and would like to catch up, I’d love to hear from you.
The photo above is one of very few I have of my olive grove back home. I will take some decent shots this year. I miss that land and want to get to know it again. I wrote a short story about my olive trees a few days ago. I don’t think I’ll find a suitable publication for it, so here it is. Hope you like it.
An Opaque Life – A Short Story
Fouad Kassab, April 2011
My grandfather, Jiddi, planted two hundred olive trees in the land around his stone home in the small Lebanese village of Ain El Delb. The olive grove sits between two hills where it gathers the rainfall; in front of it stretches a large orchard, a shelter from the Mediterranean sea air. The grove’s position, its fertile soil and the attention Jiddi afforded it allowed the trees to grow and flourish more than any else in the region. “The trees”, Jiddi told my father “are a blessing from God”. He made sure that the fruit was picked with the greatest amount of care and banned anyone from shaking the trees or striking the hard to reach branches with bamboo sticks, as was and still is common. “Would you hit someone who fed you?” he’d rhetorically ask. The trees passed down to my father and Jiddi’s message passed down with them.
At five years of age, I was too young to help with any of the harvests by the time war reached our little village. We left our home and returned when I was 16. For their first season, the trees yielded little fruit, shocked by the effects of conflict and abandonment. My father had a good word with them, and they recognised his voice. They surely trusted him since, come the second season, they gave with such generosity that their branches bent down to touch the ground, heavied by abundance. Each year I would pick the olives delicately with my fingers, dropping them carefully below me on soft, woollen blankets. I climbed the trees with my brothers, stretching and reaching for the high branches, with not a bamboo stick in sight.
I was 20 the year before I left for Australia. I remember the first day of that year’s harvest clearly. It was hotter than usual, and much drier; the fruit were shiny and bursting with oil. I handpicked the best olives for my mother who preserved them in brine. My father took the rest to be pressed into oil, and eager as I was to taste the season’s offering, I accompanied him to the olive mill. The olives were crushed by a large millstone, then pressed and passed through a centrifuge out of which our oil gushed in brilliant golden green, opaque and unfiltered. Right beside the mouth of the precious oil spring sat an old woman baking paper-thin markouk bread on a seasoned saj, a searingly hot, convex metal grill. Perhaps it was the pleasure of being rewarded for a hard day’s work or maybe I was feeling especially sentimental knowing I’d be leaving soon, but that moment has never left me. Folding the crackling sheets of just-baked bread, dipping the crisp shards into the purest, most beautiful of olive oils and consuming them with my father in silent joy is, to this day, one of my happiest memories.
A few months later, I was in Sydney. I found myself a job as a tax accountant, and on one night I was out with some of my colleagues at a local pub. One of them asked me where I came from. I told him, and he exclaimed, “Oh? You don’t seem very Lebanese.”