The Day the Olive Harvest was stopped by Mohammad Khashan

A CHAPTER FROM A MEMOIR
Translated by Issa J. Boullata

 

Mohammad Khashan ALT insode
Palestinian writer Mohammad Khashan

About two months before the Nakba,1 a dirt road was opened, approximately one kilometre away from the village and parallel to the main highway that passed through the lands of the villages of Suhmata and Deir al-Qasi. Working on it was by forced labour imposed by the Liberation Army, I think. I heard someone say “When we finish opening the road, we will be kicked out”. And this was what happened.

In October, the season of olive harvesting began. I always joined in the harvest with my family and I enjoyed it. The climate was moderate and my work was no more than collecting olives in a container, then loading them into a large sack. When the sack was full, my father loaded it onto a donkey, which I then led to our home where the olives were emptied and piled on a flat platform in front of the house. Finally, the olives were taken to the old-fashioned press (before the engine-driven one was built in the year before the Nakba) and were ground and pressed. This was one of the most beautiful occasions: a large millstone was turned by a mule or other animal; the olives were ground and made into fine pulp and put in hair-baskets, which were then heaped one on top of the other in a metallic press operated by men who increased the pressure on the baskets. The olive oil then ran from the baskets into a channel that led to a cistern. The oil was scooped from the cistern and put into vessels brought in by the owner of the olives. At the bottom of the cistern, dregs of the oil remained and these were to repair house platforms and in making black soap. White soap was made from the pure oil by adding a chemical ingredient the peasants called qatruna and boiled with the oil to make it fluid. This was then poured into flat receptacles and, before the fluid solidified, was cut into cubes.

As soon as I entered the oil press chamber with my father, I found myself in a world of traditions that has been passed down, especially when our turn to have our olives pressed was at night. The press chamber was lit by an oil lamp that was just a small bowl with a wick in one end. My mother made food for the workers, who, if it was lentil soup or mjaddarat-burghul,2 added fresh oil, making it a delicious and nutritious meal. In a similar lovely group atmosphere, many other tasks were completed, such as winnowing – which is removing the chaff from the grain; such kind of work could not be done by the owner of the threshing floor alone but only with the help of his neighbours, with whom he would take turns to share the work. The owner of the threshing floor prepared lunch for the winnowers. Those who passed by the winnowing group did not say, “May God give you health”, rather “May it be blessed!”. I waited eagerly for such occasions year after year.

We harvested half or, sometimes most of the olives, but did not grind them. They remained in a heap on the platform in front of the house. That was in October 1948 and [political] conditions were becoming worse; yet people continued to act as though nothing had happened. Some simple precautions were taken by us, such as hiding our provisions in the hayloft, and perhaps other and better safeguards. We saw people who had been forced to leave for exile from the district of Tiberias and other places; they passed by our village in May and June on their way to Lebanon, our village being not more than a few miles away from the border. My father knew a lot about the villages there, and had acquaintances too. We therefore took another precautionary step, and moved provisions of wheat, bulgur, lentils and oil to the Lebanese village of Rmeish.

A few days before the fall of my village, when people forced into exile were increasing in number, I heard about a battle between the Jews and the Liberation Army. I attended the funeral of one of the army’s soldiers in our village cemetery, and a group of soldiers fired five shots in the air in his honour. In those last days, I saw the Liberation Army withdraw their field hospital and set it up in an olive grove in front of our village; two days later they withdrew again and took away sacks of provisions with them. I felt that bad things were about to happen. Some of those forced into exile entered our village thinking it was safe, although they had fled from villages not more than twenty kilometres from our village. One of the scenes that affected me greatly was that of a young woman driving several animals carrying various loads, and one of the animals carried two earthenware jars. As she and others were entering our village, the animal carrying the jars bumped into a wall; the jars broke and the oil in them flowed over the ground. I heard the woman say “There is no power and no strength save in God”. I admired this woman’s fortitude and was sorry for her.

At the entrance of our village, on the curve of the road where our house was, my father helped those forced into exile as they came in sight. My mother from inside the house shouted to him: “Kamel, come in here and let us see what we ourselves should do.” The next day, I was in a fig tree grove of ours near the village cemetery – it was the threshing floor’s fig tree grove or the Abbas fig tree grove. There was a man grazing a few goats in the cemetery. All of a sudden, two aeroplanes flew from the west: they were as large as passenger planes and moving slowly. The man said to me: “Mohammad, do you think those aeroplanes are Arab or Jewish ones?” The man seemed to have confidence in my knowledge as a schoolboy, maybe because he was illiterate and I was well known in the village – and this made him think I perhaps knew about the aeroplanes. I immediately said to him: “They’re Arab planes.” He asked: “What makes you think so?” I said: “Don’t you see that they’re flying low? If they were Jewish planes, they wouldn’t do that.” I had forgotten that our village had only rifles. I had hardly finished my words when we saw smoke enveloping the village of Deir al-Qasi, four kilometres to the north of our village. I hastened home. About an hour after Deir al-Qasi was bombed, a jeep belonging to the Liberation Army arrived; they had also seen the smoke and thought the bombing had happened in Suhmata. Despite my young age, I was surprised the Army did not know the exact spot that was bombed. My family went to the metal box containing money and our land documents, and took everything out. I had an earthenware savings jar and we broke it; it was as if we were sure we had been defeated. In the jar was the sum of seven pounds and about thirty piastres. The pounds were added to the family money, and the thirty piastres went into my pocket – and this was what the Israeli soldier stole from me.

My mother had advised me to take the family Qur’an with me as, should the Jews come, she said, they would tear it up and trample on it. But the next day, when the aeroplanes attacked our village, I forgot my mother’s advice. The people being forced into exile were arriving in droves and were increasingly at a loss what to do. The day following the bombing of Deir al-Qasi, which I think was the 27th or the 28th of October, 1948, my mother was at home in the afternoon baking bread on the round iron fire-dome. All of a sudden, Jewish aeroplanes appeared from behind the western hills. I had thought of a hiding place if there should be bombing – it was a room-sized cave in the middle of the village, which dozens of others like me, considered a good shelter, too. I ran to the cave, which was west of our home, but my mother saw me and shouted at the top of her voice: “Go back! Get out of the village!” I rushed back and ran eastward. Directly outside the village houses, there were enclosures for goats, some of which were old, unused, and in ruins; they were called Caesar’s Enclosures. When I reached them, I heard the sound of the first bomb from an aeroplane which we called “Kazan”. I hid closely behind a wall. On the other side of the road, I saw the two mukhtars3, Ali Saleh and Jiryes Kaisar. Like me, they too had left the village for fear of the bombing. When they heard the sound of the bomb, they lay flat on the ground which was a very stony dirt road. When I saw them do that, I laughed and, instead of lying on my belly too, I stretched out on my back and looked up at the aeroplanes above, with the two letters UN. They released the second bomb and I saw it coming down through the air; it was big, long and black and it appeared to be coming down on me vertically. I recited the Muslim creed of faith4 and did not move. Then I heard the sound of the second bomb exploding in the south of our village, while I was at the north. I got up and walked to the threshing floor of the upper neighbourhood, where I saw almost all of its inhabitants assembled: babies crying, women screaming and looking for their children, brothers, fathers, and mothers. I was alarmed at this scene and I ran home. We left our home with two beasts carrying mattresses and things we could gather up, and we went up to a plot of land on the mountain. My father went back to our home to bring what he could; but when he returned, he had brought nothing. My mother asked him the reason and he told her: “The bombing damaged the lock and I did not want to break down the door to get in”, as though he would go back later and repair the lock. It was with such naïve thinking that people treated matters! This time, the situation was not like the times when, as danger loomed, we had gone up to the mountain and later returned home. The bombing from the air was a prelude to the advance of the Jewish army as an occupier. We slept that night, and the next day my father began to move what we had brought from home and take it to the village of Bqei‘ah, no more than four kilometres away.

As a result of the Israeli bombing, there were martyrs and wounded. The names of the dead were: Hassan Mousa and Khalil Salloum (he was sick and they killed him at his home), the blood of Christians and Muslims thus mixing in the defence of their village; Khalil ‘Abboud, who was from the village of Bqei‘ah but happened to be in Suhmata during the bombing; Sumayya ‘Amer, wife of Tawfiq al-‘Abed Qaddoura; ‘Atallah Mousa; Mustafa ‘Ali Qaddoura; Mohammad ‘Abd al-Rahman Qaddoura; and Mozeh, wife of As‘ad Nimer Mousa. Among the wounded were Hammoudi and Mohammad al-Hajj Ibrahim.

My brother carried the rifle we had bought. During battles, the Army positioned the young fighting men of the villages mostly on the nearby hills and in the rear. This raised suspicions among the young men because, before the Arab armies entered the fray, they used to confront the enemy and win victories, and their morale was high. But after the 15th of May [1948] and the entry of the Arab armies, the situation changed.5 My brother and the other young men found themselves in a bad position with the Liberation Army arriving late so they advanced to the front lines. However, before the Jews began the attack, the Liberation Army was ordered to withdraw, and abandoned the peasants, leaving them with old weapons that were dangerous. I myself saw many a rifle explode and injure the person firing it. Someone went to the fighters and asked: “What are you doing here? The Liberation Army has withdrawn!” So the fighters abandoned their positions and went back to their villages. Meanwhile, my father had moved us to the Bqei‘ah, a mountain plot, and had then gone back to fetch some things. He found my grandfather there, for he used to live with us, sitting on a straw mat. He told my father my brother As‘ad had come, hidden the rifle under the mat and made him sit on it, and told him: “I’m going to Lebanon.”

Of the memorable scenes of those two days when we were on the mountain plot is the break-up of the Liberation Army, with each soldier left to his own devices. Groups of two or three soldiers, as well as men on their own, came to us and asked my mother for directions to the road leading to Lebanon. Slapping her cheeks in lamentation, my mother had pointed north, saying: “I don’t know what will happen to these people as the Jewish army will have reached the Palestinian–Lebanese border before them.”

My mother, my sister, and I spent the night in Bqei‘ah and my father remained on the mountain plot. In the early morning, almost at sunrise, my father arrived with my grandfather and the rifle. Divine providence may have saved them for no sooner had they arrived than we heard the sound of bullets, to which there was no response. There was a group of Jewish commandos, perhaps less than a hundred strong, who had arrived at the square in the middle of the village, where there was a fountain. I saw them, after a brief pause for a muster, washing their faces in front of the house we were sleeping in. I went out to the square to look at them. Their weapons were ordinary and not all of them wear in uniform; some of them were clean-shaven and others had beards. They walked along the village road and I walked behind a tall, slender soldier carrying a small machinegun of the kind we used to call Sten-gun or Tommy-gun. Walking behind him, I wondered to myself, “This is the man who will expel us from our country!” I did not have any fear of this soldier, and I walked behind him for a few steps, then returned home.

I remember we were not the only guests in this home, there was another family. The host had a good cow, for which he was offered thirty-five pounds; but he did not sell it. It was a very good price in those circumstances. The morning after the commando group had entered the village, a company from the regular Jewish army entered wearing uniforms and helmets with nets. A Jeep driven by a tawny female soldier led them. The soldiers climbed on to the roofs of the houses, some of them were on the roof of the house opposite ours, with machineguns of the type we used to call Bren-guns. Unlike the previous day, I was afraid of these soldiers although they did not harm anyone. The people of our village and other nearby villages knew how to hold out and remain in their country; they were our brothers, our neighbours, and our friends from the sect believing in one God called Bani Ma‘rouf, and known as Druzes. The house in which we spent two days was close to the road leading to the village of al-Rameh. I went up the road and saw women with their children in tow; they were barefoot but their outward appearance suggested they were city dwellers; I did not know the reason for their distress. In the evening, we heard a voice shouting: “Everyone who is not of the people of Bqei‘ah must come outdoors at seven o’clock in the morning, and walk in the main road. Whoever does not walk in the main road will be fired on by the army.” A humiliating and sad silence reigned, but we did not forget that we were guests. So we packed all our things – I saw some people throw away the wool stuffing of mattresses and keep only the cloth covers. I do not know how we spent that night! Following the orders of the occupying forces, in the morning we went outdoors not knowing what would happen. We were about to leave the village. We were at its entrance, where there is another fountain, not the one in the middle of the Square (Bqei‘ah has a third fountain called Tiriyyeh that irrigates a group of gardens, while the one in the village irrigates the gardens that surround it as well as the houses). At the entrance of the village, we remembered we had forgotten to take with us two containers of labneh6 (called labnet ambris in Lebanon7). One was large and could hold six rotls8; we used to sell one rotl for one Palestinian pound; the other container was small and held about two rotls. My father had hung the two containers on two pegs at the entrance of the house where we stayed, the larger container on a somewhat high peg and the smaller on a lower one. My father had said to me: “Go back, Mohammad, and fetch the containers of labneh”. I went back quickly and tried to lift down the large container, but I could only touch the bottom of it so I took the smaller one, carried it on my back, and hastened back to my family. The container was dry, for we were at the end of October, which was usually the time we sold the labneh in the large container, keeping that in the smaller one for our own home consumption: it would be cut into small balls or cylindrical pieces and placed in glass or earthenware jars and steeped in olive oil, making a nutritious and delicious food. When I returned to my family, my father asked me: “Why didn’t you bring the large container?” I said: “I couldn’t.” In fact, I was afraid, as a Jewish soldier had placed his machinegun on the terrace in front of the house and I did not want to ask for any help from the house’s inhabitants; I did not even notice if they saw us or not. As soon as we left the village and took the main road, I saw thousands of people walking just like us. I had not seen these people in Bqei‘ah, and, I realised they had been forced into exile, like us, from neighbouring villages and had spent their nights in the open air around Bqei’ah. We walked for a while, then we saw a man going the other way, perhaps having forgotten to take something, like us – as confusion and bewilderment had taken hold of everyone! Among those walking beside me was a young man whose name was Hussein Hassan Mousa; he was driving some cows and goats. A man from our village asked him: “Where are you taking these cattle, Hussein?” Hussein replied: “These are our cows and goats, man.” The man said: “The Jews have put up a checkpoint at the intersection of Tarsheeha-Bqei‘ah, and they seize cattle.” Hussein drove his cattle away off the road and abandoned them on the plain of Suhmata. I looked back at the abandoned cattle – this, too, is one of the scenes I find difficult to forget.

The farther we went forward, the larger the number of people on the road until we arrived at the checkpoint manned by some soldiers who spoke Arabic like us. One of them stood in the middle, he alone granted permission to pass. Others stood by and watched; they asked the women to put down the loads they carried on their heads and wait for their turn to be inspected. Let me pause here, and say that my father was fortunate to reach the village before the Jews had entered it, and brought with him the rifle my brother had left and made my grandfather sit on. That night my father took it and gave it away to a man he knew. He, my uncle, and my grandfather had given that man forty of their goats to graze that, after some years, would be divided according to a designated system; this is a matter that required knowledge and trust. After some hesitation the man agreed to take the rifle as his part, as my father later told us, for these were no times to carry weapons. My father kept the rifle’s leather strap for possible later use.

The distance between Bqei‘ah and the checkpoint near the village to the west was no more than four kilometres. The position of the checkpoint was strategic; to the right was a slope and to the left a wide, open plain. I heard the sound of a bullet and someone say they fired at a man they had seen at a distance. I saw some young men disguise themselves by covering their faces with soil and, in the middle of this crowd and in the midst of fear, I saw the man who did not sell his cow or abandon it the way Hussein had earlier. Like us, he reached the checkpoint. One of the soldiers said to him: “Tie this cow to that rock.” He handed the soldier its halter and said: “Take it, Sir.” The soldier screamed at him: “I told you: tie it there!” So he tied it up. I saw a soldier frisk people, seizing any money or jewellery they had. I was overcome by fear, for our money was with my mother and she had wrapped it in soft muslin tied to her waist. She usually wore a large dress with a broad belt [to tighten it at the midriff] but under these circumstances she had undone the belt so the dress appeared larger than her slender frame. She approached the soldier and said to him: “Come now, ya ‘ammi,9 search me and let me go.” He looked at her and said: “Go!”

The soldier at the checkpoint spoke Arabic and stood in the middle of the road, helped by other soldiers. After my mother went through, she said to him: “Brother, let my children pass.” He said: “Where are your children?” My sister and I were beside him, so she said: “These are my children.” He said: “Follow your mother.” We followed our mother but she said to me: “Go back to the Jewish man and beg him to let your father pass.” I returned and said to him: “Ya ‘ammi, let my father pass.” He searched me and found on me the change that had remained of the savings jar that amounted to about thirty piastres, He seized the money and said: “You’re all pimps . . . You smuggle money on animals.” I went back disappointed, without my father or my money. This is an act I can never forget, how a single soldier can harm the reputation of his army with his behaviour. Till now, I hold no respect for this army in spite of all the heroic deeds and capabilities attributed to it. A little later, I saw my father at a distance. A soldier was slapping his face hard, then he let him go. This soldier was not the one who robbed me of my money. In Lebanon, we asked my father: “Why did the soldier hit you?” He said: “He asked me what town I came from, and I named a village other than our own, so he slapped me. I took a good look and recognized him, but said nothing.” This soldier used to be a government employee who counted cattle for tax purposes. They dropped in on shepherds when their cattle came to drink, asking them about their herds and their owners.

This checkpoint was a short distance from the other main road that came from Acre in the west and then turned at the entrance of Suhmata toward the north. The farther north we walked, the denser became the crowd – families c of adults and children, with animals carrying belongings. Exhaustion and fear took hold of all. I saw more than one woman discard the load on her head and carry on walking. No one was sure of safety at the intersection of Suhmata–Bqei‘ah. We were at the western entrance of our village and, although the road was good, it had a difficult ascent called al-Dabash. On both sides of the road, I saw abandoned mattresses, sacks of grain and boxes of ammunition. I saw similar scenes all along the way from the checkpoint almost to the borders of Lebanon. There were also smouldering armoured cars. As we were making the climb, we saw a fat woman coming back and we asked her: “What’s the matter? Why are you coming back in a hurry?” She said: “They’re firing on the young men at the entrance of Suhmata.” I was never as frightened as at that moment. I was afraid for my father. He said to my mother: “Zahra, take the children, and I’ll escape from here through the olive trees, and we’ll meet in Lebanon.” She said to him: “Do you think the Jews are not paying attention? They are on the roofs of the houses – as you saw in Bqei‘ah. As soon as you leave the road, they’ll fire at you! It’s better for you to stay with us. We either live together or die together.” My father accepted my mother’s advice and soon afterwards we reached the entrance of the village without running into any soldiers. The woman, who said she had seen a young man from our village being fired at, might have come to know about the incident later on. Driving the two animals with a short stick, I could barely keep up with them as they were going fast without being prodded. When they reached the entrance of the village, they instinctively turned as if to go in. I had to beat them hard, especially when I saw Jews sitting on the hayloft of our home. My mother used to say to me: “If the Jews come, they will sit nowhere but in this house.” And I used to respond jokingly: “Yes, of course. It is Yaldez Palace!” I used to hear this name mentioned in my village and came to know that it referred to one of the Ottoman palaces in Istanbul. I was able to direct the two animals north; when they sensed that they were not heading home, they slowed down and I had to urge them to keep going. This too is one of the things difficult to forget: it is as though an animal knows when it is going too far from its homeland and decides it does not want to go farther.

On the way from the checkpoint on the Lebanese borders, Jewish lorries and jeeps passed by, each driven by only one soldier. Each jeep had something covered as though it were a cannon. On the road there were cars, people and animals, not to mention the terror and rumours about people getting bombed and killed! It was the day of “gathering”! This was my feeling on the road. It was the Day of Resurrection! We were less than one kilometre from our village when, suddenly I saw my beautiful blond cat running, frightened and meowing, among the cars, the young men and the animals. It was looking for us and it ran passed us, meowing like a crazy animal. I tried to shoo it away from the danger of being run over by cars. I saw it running toward the olive tree groves. My heart was torn to pieces! How often did this cat lie beside me or sit on my lap allowing me to play with it and stroke its back as it arched its tail! I was very sad, a silent sorrow – for who knows whether one will stay alive?

My father carried a metal can that he had filled with water at Bqei‘ah. There was thirst and fear! People asked my father for water. He lifted the lid only to find the water almost boiling because of the heat. He emptied it and walked away. These were unforgettable moments of great terror! A nation being driven away from their land by the force of weapons; evicted from the land of their fathers and forefathers!

Deir al-Qasi lies between Suhmata and Lebanon, a distance of about four kilometres. We crossed the centre of Deir and, not far from it, was the road that separated Lebanon from Palestine; it was on a line extending from Ra’s al-Naqura on the Mediterranean in the west to the Syrian village of Banyas in the east. We crossed the road – and I did not know that this was to be my last personal moment of Palestine!

The day we crossed the road separating Palestine from Lebanon was the first day of November, 1948, if I remember well.

 

 

Excerpted from the author’s memoir al-Khat al-Shamali (The Northern Line), published by Manshurat al-Jamal, Beirut–Baghdad, 2012

Published in English in Banipal 46 Spring 2013

 

 

 

Translator’s Notes:

1   “Nakba” in Arabic means catastrophe, calamity, or disaster. “The Nakba” refers to the loss by Palestinians of their ancestral homeland by the establishment of Israel on the land on May 15, 1948. See The Palestine Nakba: Decolonising History, Narrating the Subaltern, Reclaiming Memory by Nur Masalha (London & New York: Zed Books, 2012).

2   Mjaddara consists of lentils and rice usually, but burghul (parched cracked wheat, called ”bulgur” in English) replaces the rice sometimes
3  – A muktar is a village chief.
4  – “I testify that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.”
5 –  Army units from the Arab states entered Palestine on May 15, 1948, to support the Palestinians by a decision of the Arab League, and the Arab Liberation Army was ordered to withdraw.
6  – A sort of cream-cheese, made by straining yoghurt.
7 – So named after Ambris (Qambris), the Lebanese family who makes it and markets it. Information provided by Lily Farhoud Boullata.
8- A rotl is a unit of weight in the Near East, equivalent to about 3 kg in Palestine.
9- Ya ‘ammi literally means: O my uncle. But it is used in common speech in Palestinian Arabic when addressing another who is not really an uncle, and it is said as a means to urge, to cajole, and sometimes to tease or even to oppose.