My arrival checklist in a new country, includes cataloging, collecting and sampling all that there is to know about a place. To dig deeper, without being intrusive, to be patient and to know that I have two entire years, where many travelers have just a few days and to simultaneously realize that I only have two years when some people have a lifetime. And just like earning the trust of a child, the relationship of a long staying guest in a new country comes with a certain delicate dance, a shy smile, a kind gesture, a lot of apologies for missteps, and a lot of allowing yourself to be led by the hand into uncertain situations. A whole lot of trust and small, beautiful rewards. All of which take time. We must, in our capacity as a diplomatic family, almost immediately, learn to function as locals: driving, shopping, cooking, as the locals do, with nearly zero street cred to ride on. Just fumbling our way through a few days, weeks or months. However, Jordan has been easy, comparatively, but I’ve thrown myself into it, like I do, pushing myself into all the corners to learn more.
Jordan came with the added gift of more time for cultural study. This has been my first opportunity, now the all three of my children are in school, to learn the local language, and not just through awkward grocery store checkout experiences. From the very first week we arrived, I delved into three hours per week of Arabic lessons. This alone is a full time job, but exploration and especially the sharing of information from a new culture is always a process for me. Or maybe I make it into one, realizing the important job I have of getting it right. The job of creating bridges instead of strengthening barriers. I take plenty of notes and I ask plenty of questions. I experience as much as I can, but I also hesitate to share too much until I get my facts straight, I want to understand it well before I pass it along to you.
In a very obvious sense, learning the language of your new home, is an icebreaker for cultural differences, but in a less obvious way, the moments in between new words, verb conjugations and a new alphabet, lies the real magic. In the form of cultural notes, family insights, food stories, friendships and heartbreakingly beautiful similarities between humans. Along with these notes, thanks to a couple of amazing women who have been my teachers, I’ve begun to feel the sparks of stories coming to life here, film scans returning from my lab back home and all those things gathering together to create some really great things in the remaining year and a half we have here in Amman. Up first, The Olive Harvest.
In the past months I had watched the olive trees that line the streets in our neighborhood, grow heavy with fruit. Branches sagging, olives brushing the ground in anticipation of fall.
When the opportunity arose to join Engaging Cultures on an expedition to a nearby village to harvest olives and visit an olive press, we all jumped at the opportunity.
Early one Saturday morning our family and a few other new families boarded a bus bound for Ajloun, more precisely Ba’Un, a small village outside of Ajloun. Our bus cruised downhill from the busy streets of Amman, giving way to fall colors in the surrounding villages, that I’d never expected or dreamed possible here. We crept up winding roads that almost reminded me of orchard roads in Tuscany. At the top, we reached the very end of the road. Unable to go further, we unloaded, and were greeted there by Abu Ibrahim.
Gathered with new friends, on the terra-level rooftop of Abu Ibrahim’s home, we looked out of rolling hills, holding acre after acre of ripe olive trees, and learned a little about the history of the farm and the region. Traipsing through the side yard, we arrived at one must be the textbook photo of a prized olive tree. It’s base was draped in a patchwork of tarps, where we found members of the family already hard at work, gently stripping the branches from ladders, perched precariously in the tree tops. From below, the pitter patter of olives landing on the tarp, sounded like a magical rain, whispering promises of dirty martinis. On the ground, the olives were picked and gathered into buckets and eventually into a sack for transport to the olive press.
The kids jumped right in, tiny hands able to strip a branch in seconds and plucked tiny olives from the ground with little effort at all. The adults, inhibitions intact, picked for a few minutes and then stood back, arms crossed, awaiting the next activity. After a tree-side delivery of tea with zait & za’atar (bread dredged in the farms own olive oil and driven through a spice mixture and directly to ones watering mouth) the kids returned to picking. From the tree tops, nestled in branches only 7 and 9 year olds could climb to, they sang songs and filled their sweatshirt pockets full of olives for their next trip earthward.
The adults, having come to realize that there was no other activity, settled in. A sort of magic that can only come with time and fresh air laid out in front of you. We sat on brims of stone and talked about life and we all eventually returned to the trees to slip our hands rhythmically along the glossy branches to strip them of their burden with the children. We watched a storm roll in over the hills and felt the cool fresh air in our faces, welcome, but unexpected. We gulped this cool new air in our lungs and I watched a group of Americans that had once been strangers and the family of Abu Ibrahim, meld into one cohesive unit, working towards one goal. We learned about new plants from Abu Ibrahim and Paul somehow was tricked into chewing up a pod full of larvae that Abu Ibrahim promised him was gum. We laughed and we eventually filled those sacks, bucket, by bucket. At some point beyond all of our caring to ever leave the orchard again, we were summoned to lunch. We made our way back up the hill and through the side yard and onto the patio of the farmhouse. The children were given rocks and baskets full of green olives which they would be instructed to smash in preparation for brining them for the year’s table olives.
From my perch atop a rolled up carpet alongside the house and under the eves, the smell of lunch being cooked by the ladies of the house wafted beneath my nose and soon the food itself made its way to two simple, plastic tables under an overcast sky. We feasted on hummus, moutabel, salad and maklouba, literally, “upside down.” A dish of chicken, rice, potatoes and vegetables that once complete, is flipped effortlessly onto a tray and is garnished with roasted almond halves and flat leaf parsley. (I’m on a quest to master all of these, so expect more recipes here soon!)
After another cup of tea, we reloaded the bus and crawled up what must be steepest mountain in Ba’Un. We collectively leaned into the mountainside in encouragement of the groaning bus reaching the top and stepped out just in front of a white building, which housed the modern-day olive press. Grumbles of the great machine could be heard from outside and the grounds were a whir of harvest excitement. Arriving with empty bottles and carafes we shuffled through and stepped over the working machines on a quick tour and were led to the fountain of youth at the end, where matriarchs lined up for their turn in a plastic lawn chair filling buckets to meet their family’s yearly olive oil needs. We filled our own bottle, paid and headed out to a pile of discarded olive bits that created a mountain beside the press. The children played in the mound, throwing olive balls like snowballs into the air. With our precious olive oil and equipped with recipes to brine our own table olives and to age our bright green oil we returned, with new friends to Amman.