Widely regarded as the most blessed time of the year, Palestinian families in Gaza wait all year for the olive harvest season.
A Boy in the Shahin Family Helps His Family Pick Olives During the Olive Harvest Season in Gaza, October 2022. (Photo: Mohammed Salem)
The Shahin family sits happily in a circle in their home, located in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood east of Gaza City. The house is warm and lively, and the smell of the meal inside the oven fills the whole room. Everyone can barely contain their excitement at tasting the season’s new olive oil. On the menu is musakhan, a traditional Palestinian dish utilizing the freshly harvested olive oil to make a layered dish of taboon bread, onions cooked in copious olive oil and sumac, and often topped with chicken.
Widely regarded as the most blessed time of the year, Palestinian families in Gaza wait all year for the olive harvest season. Starting in October, families prepare harvest tools, mats, plastic rolls, high ladders, and pails, venturing out in the early morning to visit their lands, finally able to pick the olives after an entire year tending to the trees.
Everyone in the Shahin family participates in the harvest, considered the most important season of the year. They spend weeks on end together, enjoying the olives, and the resulting fresh and thick green oil, as an accompaniment to their meals. “When I dip the first piece of bread into the oil we made, I feel all the effort we put into harvesting melting away,” Amr Shahin, 13, says from his family farm.
He is part of a group of teenagers participating in the harvest. As they continue to pick up olives from the ground, Hassan, 12, points his finger to his cousin Mahmoud, a year older.
“Take Mahmoud for instance,” says Hassan. “If he doesn’t have olive oil for a week, he will die!” They all snicker, coming down from their ladders to participate in the interview.
The olives go through a short process to be ready for consumption, either as pickled olives or as fresh-pressed oil. The family all joins together under the tree to carry out a designated task within the division of labor necessary for olive picking.
Picking as a family tradition
The Shahin family owns eleven acres of land, home to three hundred olive trees. They work daily, from afternoon to sunset, taking advantage of the presence of the young boys after they get off from school to climb up the tall ladders and pick the olives from the top of the trees.
Their mothers wait for them to get back from school. They have their lunch at home quickly, then get to work. Mothers sit under the tree while the boys are up on the ladders, picking the olives and letting them fall down amid their mothers and sisters, who pick it up and separate the olives, dividing the green and black olives into separate bags. After harvesting, the olives are taken home in plastic bags. The family sells a few bags to their neighbors when they get back home.
The fastest way to prepare the olives for eating is to smash them with the flat side of a rock, without breaking the pits. Then the olives are mixed with salt and red pepper, and stored in containers for a week. After the curing period, the olives are ready.
And when the family judges the quantity it harvests to be enough, they send it over for pressing.
Olives into oil
Extracting the oil from the olives is a long process, entailing taking the olives through several stages in the ancient olive press factories in the Gaza Strip.
Located among the farms east of al-Shuja’iyya, the Kishko Olive Press receives hundreds of people, who bring olives from their land in plump bags.
“This year the olive harvest is good, and when trees hold an extra amount of olives, the oil extracted becomes less than usual,” Salah Kishko, the owner of the press, tells Mondoweiss.
According to Kishko, this year a gallon of olive oil — containing sixteen liters — would require over 150 kg worth of olives. During the previous season, it would only require 120 kg. The amount varies each year, says Kishko, depending on the season’s prevailing climate. The amount of olives that his press goes through daily numbers over three hundred tons, which explains the good season.
The first step of this process is dumping the olives into a steam machine, in which the olives are moved through a tiny steel conveyor belt to be cleaned as the steam drags the tree leaves and other impurities.
The olives are cleaned and washed by water, and then transferred to another machine for mashing. The olives then are pressed, turning the olive into wet mush.
This renders the green olives soft and ready for oil extraction. At the end of the machine, two young boys received the olive paste mixed with the pits on a canvas, who transfer it to the pressure machine.
Dozens of burlap sacks loaded with the smashed olives are lined up between the jaws of the press. The pressing continues for over an hour, during which time the pure oil leaks into a metal basin and then into a filter tube. When the pressing ends, the cores remain inside the ceramic circles, while the pure oil goes to purification.