In Algeria, I Found Peace in Picking Olives

The pandemic pushed my family and me to return to our Berber village. Harvesting olive trees has transformed us

In Algeria, I Found Peace in Picking Olives
Workers in Algeria pick olives / Ryad Kramdi / AFP via Getty Images

It was a quiet, warm December day, and I was busy gathering the olive fruits that had fallen to the ground from the trees in our front yard, when it hit me that I hadn’t felt such inner peace and joy in a very long time.

It was a year into the pandemic when my family and I decided to move back to our Berber village. We’d been living in a city in the south of Algeria (Laghouat) for 20 years. And though we were nurturing the idea for quite some time, we always planned it as a thing to do in the distant future. And like with many future plans, there was little indication that we would take such a drastic decision as we were all relatively anchored in our lives — my father was lucky to still be working at a restaurant even during the pandemic cooking for special deliveries, my little brother and sister were pursuing their studies, and I was teaching English at the university.

But the days were rolling by almost always in the same way at home, with a monotonous rhythm. When we could, we worked or studied. And when we couldn’t, because of an assigned lockdown, we stayed in our residential apartment watching TV, cooking, playing dominoes, surfing the net, reading or literally just looking at the light green walls of our apartment. This later was a sure pastime, particularly on the days of violent sandstorms when looking out of the window was impossible. And for the increasingly rare times the sky was clear, the only view we had was of the other dull, mildly brownish residential buildings.

They were hard and desperate times for all, but none of us confessed it to the others loudly. Instead we carried on with heavy minds and hearts on existing in a loop we called life. But the increasingly unbearable seclusion had a positive. It made each of us inwardly see what we missed and ponder on what we desired and wanted in our lives. So in March, when as we were discussing a possible two- or three-day visit to our village, my father said, “Let’s go and stay there,” no one showed reluctance or protested. We were simply unable to fight our desire to reconnect with the nature that kept on calling us and the longing to live in our ancestors’ land we were all born on.

And so we found ourselves leaving behind the life we knew for so long and adjusting to a new one, full of challenges and uncertainties but nevertheless much more meaningful. The thing that eased our reintegration into village life was one of the oldest traditional practices in our region: olive harvesting.

The olive harvesting season started formally two weeks into November, however the preparations for it began weeks before. And my family was part of that. My parents, who didn’t set foot on our inherited field in years, were waking up every day early to remove the shrubs blocking their path to the olive trees, which they then pruned. It was hard work. They had to learn to walk very long distances again, use tools such as pickaxes and hand sickles, and not be anxious in the presence of the wild monkeys living there. But they hardly complained of the difficulty despite their old age, and they hardly felt alone even though they were practically in a forest. They were overjoyed to relive their younger years by being in nature and caring for it. And they met the other villagers on the road to their fields too, making them feel a sentiment of belonging again.

Unlike our parents, who had a past experience with the season of harvesting olives, my two siblings and I were mostly unfamiliar with it and what it entailed. (I do remember walking in tow behind my mother as a child, before we left, merrily going to our field and gathering olives with my tiny hands, but it’s still insufficient to make me an expert.) Nonetheless we started feeling its unique atmosphere before it began as well. It was impossible not to, when it was the main subject on everyone’s tongues, both in the village and the town. Be it children, bus conductors, bakers, or hardware sellers and teachers, hardly anyone spoke or thought about anything else. Their occupation, age or gender simply didn’t matter; gathering the olive fruit did. This created a buzz that was a kind of communal rhythm that we were all a part of. And it was hard to fight the urge to participate in an upcoming nature festival with other people. And so we did.

Before we moved or even thought of seriously doing so, when we were still settled in our urban dailiness, we used to watch television programs about our region, “Tizi Ouzou.” And later with the access to the internet, we looked at pictures of it. We reacted with squashed “ohs” of pleasure and longing at the sight of its green and snowy mountains, of its signature fig and olive trees, and of its simple houses nestled comfortably in between. But at those moments we knew we couldn’t afford to return yet. We loved our city, with its modernized side where shops, schools, roads and residential buildings were built. And with its charming old side, where we could wander in the fruits and vegetables souk, among the many voices of the vendors and buyers, or inside the narrow paths of the ancient residential city after it between its old low-rise houses. However, there was always something missing. Something essential. It didn’t matter how much we enjoyed the offerings of the city; we wanted what only our village could offer: an abundance of greenery.

In the first months of the pandemic, when confinement was the rule everywhere in the world, I heard and read in the news about how many people moved out of the city to their homes or other family members’ homes in villages, or suburbs to escape being secluded for days behind closed doors. And to be in contact with nature. At first I thought it was too much of a drastic and an honestly unhelpful decision in the face of what was happening on a global scale. But later on I realized, by living in nature and an open space, how much I was wrong. Especially by doing it consciously and actively.

When my family and I set foot in our village, it didn’t take long for that to happen. We found ourselves practically surrounded by forests and mountains again. Owls’ hoots and wolves’ howls filled our nights with nature’s sounds. Fruits and vegetables—figs, plums, green soybeans, peas, mint leaves and nuts—that we would’ve bought from supermarkets not long ago actively engaged us in handiwork to have them on our table. It was a soothing, very privileged change not only of knowing where our food came from but also in relearning that nature is alive too in the process of caring for her, attending to her needs and witnessing the growth happening in her in real time. Living in nature allowed us to create a mystical connection with her and to understand that we are part of her, not outside or opposed to her.

And perhaps the thing that mostly made it inescapable to relearn those lessons and was beyond our wildest imaginations of doing while we were brooding within the walls of our apartment was finding ourselves standing next to our very old but still strong olive trees and communing with them — I say our olive trees because each family owned theirs in the wilderness and no one is allowed to touch them without permission — as well as learning to treat them as beings and to respect their imposing silence.

We woke up early in the morning during the clear days when the season of picking the olives finally started, and each of us headed to work beside the trees. My parents and my little brother went to the field every day for almost two months, from 8 in the morning to 4, sometimes 5 in the afternoon. Together, they spent the day picking black, ripe olives and filled two sacks with it before carrying them to our relatives’ traditional oil mill in the village. I did the same but in our backyard — I was eager to go with them, but because of poor health, I was unable to walk long distances.

Over the days my curiosity about this practice grew and I was full of questions such as: Why did it have such a festive mood to it? How did we and all our neighbors acquire those wild fields? Questions which never occurred in my mind a year ago. And so I went asking all these kinds of questions about it to my parents but also some people in the village I met. And when I didn’t ask outright, I listened carefully to any conversation around the subject.

No one seemed to know exactly how anyone came to possess their olive trees. They told me they inherited them from their ancestors. That sometimes the family property holdings long preceded the French occupation. That the French soldiers didn’t confiscate them, as they did a part of our house to be a strategic outpost, because they were too far into the wilderness.

I was also told about a particular tradition or ritual they had to follow. It sprang from a myth, but again they didn’t know its origin, which became hard to trace. The tradition or the ritual in question was that no one had the right to start harvesting olives unless one particular family did. It was believed that those who didn’t respect and observe the ritual were exposed to falls from the trees that sometimes led to death when trying to climb them. Because of the strong belief in this myth, members of that family always made sure to start collecting olives as soon as it was time, so that people wouldn’t have to wait.

As I was eager to add more to some of the practical knowledge I acquired over the days, I went on to read more about the trees. I wasn’t surprised to learn that they possessed extensive root systems, tolerated drought, and preferred hot and sunny weather, or that they required only to be pruned and handled correctly and regularly. I love how they seem to be rational and not too needy in what they demand, even though their offering is abundant and generous.

I also went on to learn more about the olive trees and their harvest in a new language, which I never expected. But as things unfolded during the pandemic, I found myself moving away from delivering lessons to those learning English — a second foreign language in Algeria — at the university to speaking a completely new lexicon in my own mother tongue, Kabyle. I learned that when we cultivate olives in our mountainous village we use an “akechwal” (a wooden basket). We engage in a task my ancestors called “ashraw uzemmour,” which means cutting the branches, then picking the olives from them. We then take the small fruit to the “imeinsra” (the olive oil mill). I have expanded my linguistic horizon with new words about nature, and that indeed has been a welcome change from the words that surround us lately, verbiage related to the pandemic and war.

The olive gathering season continues, its zeal undiminished. It simply informs the daily life from the local mosque’s imam advising on precautions to take when climbing the trees to the children running back from school to join their families in the fields, taking pride in helping however they can and taking the opportunity to add merry with their playfulness to the mood. And from people asking one another wherever they’d meet about their olive harvesting: Have you gone today? How many trees do you have left? Always ending the interrogations with an affectionate “Rebi akyin” (may God help you) to them while watching weather predictions religiously.

Growing up far from our extended family members and relatives, my siblings and I didn’t care much about our lineage and didn’t ask about it. The rare times one of us had questions or pondered over it, we couldn’t foster the courage to ask our parents. We felt awkward about it, as we had left our village bitterly after growing tensions and disputes over property distribution, with my parents having cut off most of their relations. And so we spent most of our growing years away, floating in space uprooted and barely knowing the names of our grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins and what they looked like.

And living in a city where we were part of the Berber minority made us feel a continued malaise, a sentiment we retained behind closed doors. We didn’t fit in despite our good intentions and the good intentions of most of the people around us, or at least those who didn’t call attention to our differences or call us with filthy names such as “cheats” because our region was always the first in final exams or “stealers” because we were allegedly taking their jobs. (Though later on, I’d witness the same happening, but this time with the tables turned as people from our region taunted Arabs.) With the pandemic, our feelings of loneliness grew. During the lockdowns, we realized our visceral need to be on our ancestors’ land, to be among our folk with whom we shared a common past and sometimes blood, as intermarriages were common in the village in the past.

During the first weeks of our new life we observed the village and the people. We were soon to find ourselves shifting from a feeling of estrangement to familiarity that is only possible to behold when experienced in contemporary life after months of imposed social isolation. People walked down the steep, sometimes wild paths and greeted each person on their way. People naturally knew about one another’s news as if the whole village was one big family but just living in a very big house. And everyone, young and old, knew each other by name. When I thought about it, I realized that it was impossible not to know about the lives of others. This was not only because it’s normal in a village but also because of communal traditions like olive harvesting, in which everyone feels the responsibility, the need and the love to participate.

Taking part in the harvest meant automatically being a part of the community. Olive and its oil are sacred and holy in our region. Abandoning one’s trees when they can be cultivated provokes scorn. But we are all proud of one another when we all pitch in.

The harvesting also had the power to bridge the distance between our past and present. It helped in our reconciliation with our people and for the strife between us to dissipate. Our extended family, relatives and most of the village encouraged us to set foot in our field again, though the task was difficult. They handed us tools and showed us how to use them. My parents talked pleasantly with their cousins about the past, recalling how they used to collect olives. Much of their upset over inheritance had cooled with time and distance. It turned out that gathering around olive trees allowed them to open up and start healing.

Much of this experience wouldn’t have been possible, though, if the wildfires of the summer that devastated many villages in our region—including the fields and olive trees belonging to my older sister’s in-laws—had reached our village. I remember the threat starting one night a few yards from our house. Were it not for the vigilance of our young people who kept watch tirelessly at all hours, our fate wouldn’t have been much different. The wildfires left a great scar and a feeling of anxiety in many. But they also pushed us to work harder and become much more aware of the wonders of nature, including our beloved olive trees.

Like most of humanity, my family and I have gone through challenging times in the past couple of years. We took a big risk when we left the life we had known and returned to our ancestral village, guided by the desire to reconnect with nature and the land. Our new life amid the olive trees leaves us physically exhausted every day. Our minds, however, are finally at peace.

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