Women’s History Month: Women in Words
The Olive Tree
By Saloua Saidane
For most Tunisians, an olive tree is a 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 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 makes 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 land of central coastal Tunisia. Through centuries, they have witnessed all the caprices of nature and learned to be patient. Their trunks are cracked and twisted from the many winds, yet they stand firm and resilient. They are not needy. Their roots reach down through deep layers of soil, sucking the scarce drops of water they find. They are simple survivors, their only purpose, to produce each year in the winter season beautiful small fruits that become the magical olive oil.
The olive tree in my childhood yard was huge by olive trees standards. Its branches stood tall, 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 underneath. The trunk of the tree was short and seemed sunken in the ground from the heavy weight of its branches. It was as if the trunk was hiding, encouraging the observer to enjoy the beauty of its lush crown.
Tucked in a corner of our garden only a few feet from the walls of the house, our tree was consistent and undemanding. Its roots squeezed under the foundation of the house. Nobody took care of it or gave it much attention, yet it managed to survive feeding on filthy waters that ran through a small drain and emptied a few feet from its trunk. Nothing deterred that tree from surviving and bearing the most beautiful, meaty olives each year. Great olives that nobody cared to harvest. Some of the olives that fell on the ground were collected and soaked in brine in a large jar stored on the roof of our house. I imagined these gorgeous olives begging for a better use. I was sure they would have preferred to be pressed into a precious extra virgin olive oil. But their destiny was different: They ended their journey in brine, with their flavor, color and shape altered; trapped in a jar with no fluidity, what a sad conclusion. But maybe it was better than the olives that were never collected. They ended up abandoned to the soil, drying slowly from despair and disappearing into nature.
When we were young kids, during the long summer days, the tree provided us shade as if inviting us to keep it company. We gathered under its branches, playing with stones or simply telling each other stories. My father managed to tie a rope on one of its tallest branches, 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 our olive tree. There were too many children and not enough space to contain them. When my father felt the need to control his daughters, my sisters and me, he would get a branch from the tree. He would select the longest branch. He would cut it with the sharpest knife. He would pluck away its beautiful lush leaves. Leaves that for centuries were a symbol of peace, glory and abundance, were discarded, useless. If they could have talked, they would have told my father to stop, but how can you blame them, that 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 whipped up and louder on its way down to the target. It was an alert sound, as if asking 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 would cause. If the sound was 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 of the anticipated torture. These preparations were under the watch of all the children, mute and motionless.
When the 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 defiantly for the anticipated lashes. 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 toward a crescendo, louder and louder sounds mixing together until one of them gave up. Sometimes it was the branch that gave up and broke. Other times it was the defiant child who gave up and started crying. On rare occasions, my father would give up from exhaustion. And then there was total silence, the entire joy and happiness machine in the universe having come to a stop.
I often wonder what my father would have done if the tree had not been there. He would probably have used his belt. That is what belts are made for, to beat people as hard as their wearers can. I don’t blame belts, but I felt sorry for our tree. My father made it his accomplice in violence. I think the olive tree was probably sorry for being healthy, alive. It possibly felt guilty, and that was 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.
When my father was angry and hitting his disobedient daughters, my mother would stand there, watching and cheering him on. She would say, yes please hit more and longer. They deserve it. They need a lesson. They need to know who is in control here. And when my father was done, my mother would look at her daughters crying and her motherly instinct would kick in. She would say, “Stop crying now and go wash your faces.” That was all she could say. That was all she could do. But then as these torture episodes increased, my mother became angry and the anger became hatred, hatred of 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. She said that the tree was getting too big, that it was going to damage the house because of its big roots. We never saw the roots, but my mother kept talking about them as though they were an evil creature crawling underground and slowly destroying our house. It was a war between my mother and the evil roots that wouldn’t stop growing.
One beautiful spring day, four strong men used their saws to cut down our olive tree. It took them an entire day to cut through the trunk. It was a slow death that I imagined caused the tree a lot of pain. It took almost a week to chop the tree into large pieces of wood and dig out all the roots the men could reach. We stood there witnessing its death quietly, just as the tree on so many occasions stood there watching our torture.
To this day, that tree is the symbol of all of us sisters: resilient, consistent, undemanding, and often unappreciated. We are like the leaves, symbols of peace, glory and abundance, shiny and beautiful on the surface and dull green-gray underneath. We tried hard to be the best we could, yet our destiny lacked fluidity. But, unlike the tree, we survived, we are older now, and we own our destinies, despite the damage done to us. We stand tall, trying to set free the past and move on to a brighter future worthy of our strength, hope and inner beauty. In each her own way, we carry the soul of our olive tree; we keep it sacred and blessed in our hearts.
About Saloua Saidane, PhD
Saloua Saidane, PhD, is a full-time assistant professor at the Chemistry Department of Mesa College. Educated in Tunisia, France, and the United States, Dr. Saidane has a keen awareness of the joys and challenges of diversity, and she is dedicated to making effective education accessible to all.
Photo credit: ©2014 Kit-Bacon Gressitt