Farmers in Palestine create amazing produce in adverse conditions – and are fighting to export them
Palestine produces some of the finest olive oils in the world, not to mention dates, nuts, tomatoes – even wine. Now, despite the conflict, farmers are finding ways to export their produce – and show the world that their country is still the land of milk and honey.
I'm standing in what remains of Taysir Sadia Yaseen's olive grove, looking up at a 12ft-high wire fence. It arrived in 2000 when the Israeli army, without any notice, bulldozed a trench on this rocky, precipitous hillside and erected it on his land, declaring it part of a "security buffer zone". He points to the Israeli settlement that the fence protects. It resembles a suburban dormitory town, like something out of The Truman Show, only fortified and on a hilltop. It is encircled by twice the area of land and served by a new road, exclusively for the use of Israeli settlers and prohibited to Palestinians. This road in turn is guarded by another, military, road with routine patrols – we can hear army trucks whizzing by – and, finally, the fence.
Before the fence was built, Taysir was the proud owner of 1,000 olive trees, which had been in his family for as long as anyone can remember. Now he is left with 400. The other 600 are lost to him – on the other side where he is not allowed access. As a Palestinian farmer, if he tried to do so, Israeli soldiers, who keep watch from an observation tower, might confiscate his tractor or arrest him. "My feelings are of bitterness and sadness," he says. "The Israelis grabbed my land, the land we rely on for our livelihoods." In this village of Anin, near Jenin, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank of Palestine, the unemployment rate is 30% and olive trees are the only source of income.
Taysir's mother, Rahmeh, insists on joining us, even though she is 83, hobbling up the hill with the help of her grandsons and a stick. She shows me her hands. "As a girl I planted many of these trees with my own hands. I carried the saplings on my head. When the fence was put up I wept because I felt I had lost all my efforts." Like so many Palestinians, her family's grief and deep sense of injustice at the confiscation of their land is palpable, yet their attachment to it remains strong. "Our life, our identity, is in the land – even our destiny," says Taysir. "We won't leave it."
That tenacity in the most challenging circumstances has produced results. It started with a trickle of extra-virgin olive oil available from activists and church groups. But now organic olive oil from Palestine, certified by the Fairtrade Foundation and sold under the Equal Exchange label, is finding mass distribution on supermarket shelves. Earlier this year the Co-op started stocking it, followed by Sainsbury's, representing a massive triumph for beleaguered farmers like Taysir. "It makes us happy to know that British consumers are appreciating our oil. It allows us to present an alternative picture to the propaganda that portrays us as fanatics or hopeless victims who must rely on aid. It shows that we are a peaceful, productive people." Fairtrade, he says, has been a vital support. "It guarantees us a market, and the extra profit we get from it means we can reinvest and improve the quality of our oil."
Don't think for one minute that Palestinian olive oil is a "solidarity" product to buy out of compassion or to show support for the Palestinian cause. It may come from a UN conflict zone, but its sheer quality puts it up there with Europe's finest. Palestine has the world's most ancient olive groves, but agricultural statistics show that more than 1m olive trees have been uprooted or destroyed by Israelis since 1980 to make way for settlements. Yet still that oil keeps coming. There's the Nabali olive which produces a buttery, attractively peppery oil or the Rumi, which gives an oil that is quite fruity but more robust. These oils are smooth, persuasive ambassadors for a remarkable range of Palestinian foods that are slowly becoming available in the UK, US and Europe.
Palestine typically features in the headlines in the context of upheaval and violence, but in the West Bank it remains a productive and fertile farming region. Palestine is the biblical Canaan, a fabled land of milk and honey with a long tradition of artisan farming, so organic production is a snug fit for the Palestinian farmer. The foods they now export include whole black and green olives, pickled in the national tradition with oil, sea salt and lemon, or tree-ripened then salted and smothered in oil; sun-dried tomatoes and capers in oil; velvety tahini; particularly large almonds that are much sought after by Italian chocolatiers; aromatic honey; and several varieties of luscious dates like the hayani, barhee and medjool. UK importers are also bringing in za'atar, Palestine's breakfast speciality, a unique blend of crushed wild marjoram, toasted sesame seeds, sea salt and sharp sumac berries that is traditionally mixed with oil and served with freshly baked flatbreads.
In the desert-like landscape of Jericho I see another demonstration of the resilience and resourcefulness of the Palestinian people, most especially its women. With the help of the go-ahead Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee, a co-op of 40 women has taken over a disused date warehouse to make maftoul. Somewhere between couscous and cracked wheat in texture, maftoul is a hand-rolled grain, traditionally eaten at special occasions, which takes a whole day to make from scratch. Women sit cross-legged on the floor rubbing a mixture of local white and wholemeal organic wheat flour and salty water together with their fingers until it forms small particles, steam it, then sun-dry it in a greenhouse in a fierce 60°C heat. The technique is ancient and highly skilled.
The idea of making this most traditional Palestinian speciality into an income-generating enterprise originally came from women's co-ops in Gaza, but since 2007, with the election there of a Hamas government and the subsequent Israeli blockade and bombardment, they were forced to give up. Now in Jericho production has been restarted by women whose families have been living in the UN refugee camp Ein Al-Sultan refugee camp for over 30 years. Now the Palestinians are left with less than 12% of pre-1948 Palestine, and women make up 67% of the refugee population. "We are immigrants in our own land," explains Hamda Blilat, who speaks for all when she says that they still hope one day to return to their original homes. In the meantime, they doggedly produce a ton of maftoul every day.
I am invited to lunch with the ladies of the co-op to taste this morning's batch of maftoul. Free-flowing, nutty and full of flavour, it is served with chicken roasted on the bone with lemon and sumac and a lightly spiced broth full of vegetables. Food production is the backbone of the Palestinian economy, and two-thirds of the work is done by women. In this co-op the majority are breadwinners in their large families because their husbands can't find work or are dead. These women take an entrepreneurial pride in their maftoul and are delighted to think that consumers in the UK can taste the fruit of their endeavours. "For us it's a cultural exchange. This traditional food explains who we are and what we do," says Fathia Abu Shakar.
The switchback road from Ramallah, Palestine's capital, to Nablus, its largest town, is extremely beautiful. Reminiscent of the Mediterranean, centuries-old olive groves are built in vertiginous terraces with honey-coloured limestone walls. For five years, until this spring, there was no way to drive through Nablus. Considered by Israel to be a hotbed of Palestinian anti-occupation groups, particularly the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, it was encircled by Israeli checkpoints through which the population could only pass on foot. Today it looks like a normal bustling city where people are doing what people do when they have something to celebrate: stocking up for a feast.
The signature dish of Nablus is a toothsome cake called kunafa. I watch it being made and instantly appreciate why the speed and deftness of these bakers is admired throughout the Arab world. They steam semolina and thinly spread it on a round tin tray, about 3ft wide, stud it with a goat's milk cheese – somewhere between a mozzarella and a halloumi – cook it on one side over a naked flame, flip it like an enormous pancake, then douse it with rosewater syrup and sprinkle it with crushed pistachios. The resulting confection is worth getting fat for. The semolina is addictively gritty and caramelised. The cheese adds chewy bits to the texture. It's sweet but not cloying; no wonder a long queue of Nablus citizens snakes out the door. The central food market is also rammed with people. It reminds me of markets you find in Sicily or Istanbul, where the produce is impeccably fresh – prickly pears, grapes, green almonds, plump aubergines, ripe figs, red-green tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, cherries and more – all naturally grown in hot sun, endearingly deaf to the body-fascist horticultural specifications of global supermarkets. On the corner a baker with a wood-fired oven is turning out hot, blistered flatbreads in record time. Next door the butchers are boning out lamb for mansaf, the quintessential Palestinian dish of rice served with a sauce made with dried yoghurt and tender meat, or chopping chicken to top the celebratory dish, musakhan, which consists of flatbread covered with a layer of onions softened in stock then dusted with sumac and toasted pine nuts.
Palestinians love to eat, and their legendary hospitality is boundless. Somewhat counter-intuitively, given that Palestine's main religion is Islam, many Palestinians also like a drink. Historically Palestine has been a diverse, pluralist, tolerant culture, a mix of Muslims, Jews and Christians with Bedouin and Ottoman influences. Attitudes to alcohol are relaxed, and Palestinians make a range of beers at the Taybeh microbrewery, between Ramallah and Jericho, along with wine and brandy at the Cremisan vineyard on the outskirts of Bethlehem, an area with a history of wine-making dating back to the Iron Age.
Anywhere other than Palestine, Cremisan winery, with its magnificent chateau-like building that dates back to 1885 and its painstakingly constructed terraced vineyards, would be a heritage site with Grade A listing, and its wines – especially its "hock", which is made from Palestinian grape varieties and resembles a good Austrian Grüner Veltliner – would earn favourable mentions in international wine magazines. But since currently Palestine is neither a country nor a state in the usual sense, it enjoys no such protection.
Cremisan is sandwiched between two Israeli settlements. It is earmarked to become part of Israel behind the infamous "separation wall". More than twice the height of the Berlin wall in all its 25ft-high, brutal, grey concrete and razor-wire ugliness, complete with sniper towers, electric sensors, thermal imaging, surveillance cameras and checkpoints patrolled by young Israeli soldiers with guns, it is only 60% complete. Once finished, it will encircle the winery and cut it off from its neighbouring Palestinian village, although it is much closer to it than the settlements. The only thing holding up its completion is the opposition of the Italian Salesian fathers who currently run the winery using a Palestinian workforce, and the intervention on their behalf of the Vatican. "We can speak out more than the Palestinians with the Israeli authorities," explains Cremisan's Sara Faustinelli.
Papal influence notwithstanding, in order to export its wines Cremisan still has to negotiate all the obstacles placed in the way of Palestinian food and wine producers by Israel. Water supply is unreliable because so much of it is siphoned off from deep aquifers for Israeli settlements. The Palestinian Hydrology Group says that Palestinians use only a fifth of the water used by Israelis, but pay four times as much for it. So Cremisan's growers, like many Palestinian farmers, are building rainwater-collection systems in order to be more self-reliant. The whole business of getting Palestinian goods to market is slower than it should be because they have to be driven to an Israeli checkpoint by a Palestinian in a van that is half empty (so it can easily be searched), offloaded, then picked up on the other side by a driver with Israeli number plates. WhenPalestinian goods arrive at an Israeli port, they undergo further rigorous security checks. The net effect of this system is to double the cost to Palestinian exporters.
In Jerusalem, Avi Levi, director of the Israeli environmental group Green Action, ever mindful of the necessity of reducing food miles, believes that Israel should be Palestine's most important export market. He brings fairly traded Palestinian olive oil into Israel and sells it through consumer co-ops. If the oil came directly it would travel 50km, but because it can only come in through four or five Israeli checkpoints, and must travel by a circuitous route around the separation wall, Israeli road blocks, random "gates", and cannot be transported on settler-only roads, the journey clocks up 150km. Physical and fiscal impediments to trade mean that Palestine's economy is constantly disrupted. As a result it can be cheaper for Palestinians to buy vegetables from a distant Israeli polytunnel than from a nearby Palestinian village. But Green Action is intent on mainstreaming Palestinian olive oil in Israel, not just to help Palestinians but as a way of getting Israelis to see that it is in their interest to make Palestinians prosperous. "We want to make the point that educated Palestinian farmers with good livelihoods will make better neighbours than starving, resentful Palestinian refugees," says Levi.
Every Fairtrade product sold through Green Action has a photo of the producer and a label that explains his or her story. "When we first put Palestinian farmer Nasim Shlabi on our bottles of olive oil, we made the mistake of taking his picture under a tree with too much shade and potential buyers thought that he looked like a terrorist. So we said to him: 'OK, trim your beard and smarten up a bit', and took the shot in bright light. Now everyone loves him. They even phone him to ask questions," says Levi. In Maariv, one of Israel's largest-circulation newspapers, Green Action's Palestinian olive oil has come out tops in a comparative tasting.
Under an olive tree in Bopa village, near Jenin, sipping cardamom-scented black coffee with Asad Salaw, he tells me how heartened they are to have foreigners show some interest in their situation. "We long for a future with peace and an end to the Israeli occupation, which is a burden on our shoulders and our children's future. We hope for support from the international community by consuming our foods."
Like every other Palestinian farmer I have spoken to, he is adamant that he will never abandon his land or his olive trees. For the Palestinian people the zaytoun, or olive, is a source of life and dignity.
I set off for Bethlehem to taste zarb, a dish in which wine and herb-soaked pork are cooked in the Bedouin style over wood in a sealed clay oven, at the Osh Al Ghurab restaurant, which is located in a former Israeli military base, now a USAID-funded peace camp. We arrive late because the main access road has been closed without notice by Israeli soldiers guarding a handful of settlers.
The zarb tastes fantastic, meltingly juicy and kissed with the aroma of wood smoke. I am still thinking fondly of it as I return to my hotel and pass by the small display cabinet with tourist gifts, among them an embroidered pencil case with the words "Palestine – the promising land". It's a sentiment that neatly encapsulates both the current predicament and the future promise of the Palestinians, a stateless people, but with so much potential waiting to be realised.