"The Olive Tree" by Saloua Saidane
The olive tree in my childhood house was huge for most olive trees standards. Its branches stand tall and reaching in all directions, giving the tree a perfect round shape. Its leaves were lush, long and oval. Their colors reminded me of jade, shiny green on the top and a darker dull green-grey on the bottom. The trunk of the tree was short and seemed sunken in the ground from the heavy weight of its branches. It’s almost as if the trunk is hiding suggesting the looker to enjoy the beauty of its lush crown.
For most Tunisians, an olive tree is the source of food, and energy. They wait each year for the harvest season to collect the olives and transform them into an extra virgin olive; a beautiful transparent golden oil with a light tint of green, almost as thick as honey. The precious olive oil is usually shared with loved ones; family, friends and neighbors. People love their olive oil, a magical elixir, for many reasons. Some believe in its medicinal values and drink a gulp of it every morning for breakfast; others eat it by dipping freshly baked bread in it. Once in your mouth, the oil triggers all your senses with its nutty and slightly bitter flavor. A taste that grabs your attention and stays with you, that seduces your palate and make you want more; a true pleasure, a gift from the Gods since the early civilizations of the Mediterranean region.
You can see rows and rows of these beautiful ancient trees covering the arid soil of the central coastal Tunisia. They are about twelve feet apart from each other. Their trunks cracked and twisted from the many winds they stood firm against. Their roots reaching down the deep layers of the soil, trying to suck up the scarce drops of water they can find. They are defiant to all forces of nature, standing firm and resilient. Through centuries, they witnessed all the caprices of nature and learned how to be patient. They are not needy. They are simply true survivors, whose only purpose in life is to produce each year in the winter season, beautiful small fruits that become a magical olive oil.
But our tree was less fortunate and ever more resilient than most olive trees in the country. It was consistent and undemanding. It found itself tucked in a corner of our garden only a few feet from the walls of the house. Its roots probably squeezed under the foundation of the house. Nobody took care of it or gave it much attention and yet it managed to survive feeding on filthy used soapy waters that run through a small drain that emptied a few feet from its trunk. Somehow nothing deterred that tree to survive and bring the most beautiful big oblong meaty green olives each year. Great olives nobody even cared harvesting. Some of the olives that fell on the ground were collected and ended up in brine in a large jar that was stored on the roof of the house. Gorgeous olives trapped in a jar waiting to be eaten. I imagine these olives begging for a better use. I am sure they would have preferred to be pressed into a precious extra virgin olive oil. But their destiny was different and they had to end their journey in brine with their flavor, color and shape altered; trapped in a jar with no fluidity, what a sad ending. But maybe it was better than the ones that fell on the ground and were never collected by anyone. They ended up abandoned on the soil until eventually they dried slowly from despair and simply disappeared in nature.
When we were young kids, and during the long summer days, the tree provided us shade as if to invite us to keep it company. We gathered under its trunk playing with stones or simply telling each other stories. My father managed to tie a rope on one of its tallest branch and we used it as a swing. The tree seemed to enjoy our innocent giggles and laughter and joy. But as we grew older, things changed in our house and so did the destiny of the tree. There were too many children and not enough space to contain them. There was a lot of fear from both my parents. My father used to get a branch from the tree every time he needed to control his daughters. He would select the longest branch. He would cut it with the sharpest knife. He would then pluck away its entire beautiful lush leaves; leaves that for centuries were symbol of peace, glory and abundance are now simply discarded and useless in our house. If they could talk they would probably tell my father to stop but how can you blame them, they didn’t have a voice. Once the branch was bare, my father would test it by whipping it in the air. It had to be strong, flexible and noisy. A noise that was light as it is moved up and louder on its way down to the target; an alert sound as if to ask you to get out of its way because it didn’t want to hurt you. As if the branch was weeping, begging for forgiveness for the pain it will cause. If the sound were not loud and sharp enough, my father would toss the branch in the garden and cut another one. The longer it took to find the perfect branch, the longer the agony from the anticipated torture. All of these preparations were under the watch of all the children, who all of a sudden became mute and motionless. When the right branch was ready, some of the kids would start crying but the others who were the cause of my father’s anger would simply wait defiant for the anticipated slashes. The longer and louder the younger children cried, the more defiant the older ones were and the harder my father hit. It was like a symphony that reached the crescendo, louder and louder sounds mixing together until one of them gave up. Sometimes it’s the branch that gives up and breaks, other times it’s the defiant child who gives up and starts crying, but in rare occasions, my father would give up from exhaustion. And then there was a total silence and the entire joy and happiness machine in the universe comes to a stop.
I often wonder, what my father would do if the tree were not there. He would probably be using his belt. That is what belts are made for to beat people as hard as they can. I don’t blame belts but I feel sorry for the tree. My father made it his accomplice in violence. I think the olive tree was probably sorry for being healthy and still alive. It possibly felt guilty and that was probably why it tried hard to produce the best olives it could to make up for the sorrow it was causing. But nobody really cared. How sad was the destiny of this tree to go from witnessing joy to becoming the symbol of violence; the source of pain and suffering; a tool used to tame and subdue disobedient daughters.
When my father was angry and hitting his disobedient daughters, my mother would be standing there watching and cheering him up. She would say, yes please hit more and longer. They deserve it. They need a lesson. They need to know who is in charge and in control here. And when my father was done and tired, my mother would look at her daughters crying and suddenly her motherly instinct kicks in and she would say: “stop crying now and go wash your face.” That was all she could do. That was all she could say. But then as these torture episodes increased, my mother started expressing her anger by hating the tree. She hated it so much that she decided to get rid of it. A tree that stood there for at least half a century had to go. Her rationale was that the tree was getting too big, and that it was going to cause structural damage to the house because of its big roots. We never saw its big roots but my mother kept on talking about them as the evil moving creature crawling underground and slowly destroying our house. It was a war between my mother and these evil roots that won’t stop growing. And on a beautiful sunny spring day, four strong men using their saws cut our olive tree. It took them an entire day to cut the trunk. It was a slow death that I imagined caused a lot of pain to the submissive tree. It took almost a week to chop the tree into large pieces of wood and dig out all the roots they could reach. We stood there witnessing its death quietly just as the tree at many occasions stood up there watching our tortures helpless. Its wood was loaded on a truck and delivered to a place where it was turned to burning charcoal. My mother wanted some of that charcoal in exchange of the wood. It was great deal for her. She will store it underneath the stairs leading to the roof of the house and will use it in winter to slow cook her favorite stews or to burn incenses to get rid of the evil eye. But who needs to stray away evil when an ancient beautiful tree was killed.
The irony was that my mother decided to add and extension to the house right where the tree was standing. We thought that she needed to add more rooms for the growing family, but instead my mother decided to add a two-car garage in a house that already had a large garage much bigger than the car we owned. How sad! A beautiful and proud olive tree replaced by a useless two-car garage.
Till this day, I still remember and feel for that tree. It is the symbol of all of us sisters tall, resilient, consistent, undemanding, and often unappreciated. We are like the leaves symbol of peace, glory and abundance, shiny and beautiful on the surface and dull and gray on the inside. We tried hard to be the best we could and yet our destiny lacked fluidity and shine but unlike the tree we are older now and own our destiny and despite the damage caused to us we are still standing tall trying to set free from the past and move on to a brighter future worthy of our strength, hope and inner beauty. We are trying in our own ways to carry the soul of that tree and to keep it sacred and blessed in our hearts.