Forbidden Fruit

Every year, at exactly this time, in the brief month between the last rains and the beginning of spring, Samia and her girlfriends in the northern Galilee village used to rent a minivan and leave in the middle of the night for the uncultivated fields in search of the young thistles of the aqub (gundelia). Ten women crowded onto the benches of the special taxi at 3 A.M., made their way to the fields in the south, the north or in the direction of the territories, following a tradition that began at the time of their mothers' mothers and will end, they always assumed, in eternity.

But eternity is a relative term in today's world, where wilderness areas are gradually shrinking. Today, many of the wild plants used in traditional Arab cookery for hundreds of years are designated as protected, and picking them is prohibited. Ecologists claim that excessive picking of plants such as the aqub (known in Hebrew as akuvit hagalgal) and za'atar (hyssop) has already brought them to the verge of extinction.

But to families that have picked these plants from ancient times and learned from their ancestors that land must be used carefully, with consideration for the yield of future years, this law is considered almost anti-Arab. Not that they can do much about it. The presence of supervisors and the high fines imposed on the pickers - last month a resident of Wadi Ara was fined NIS 5,000 for picking za'atar - have scared away some of the women, and the number of cab drivers who agree to take the group is gradually declining. But this week, at the end of a dry winter that delayed the beginning of the aqub season, Samia and her family went on a secret picnic of forbidden fruit.

Samia, all excited, was ready at 7 A.M., equipped with comfortable sports shoes, a bucket and a knife with a large blade. As hard as the task is - producing one small potful of cooked aqub requires almost an entire day of backbreaking work - she loves these days of wandering in nature in search of the weed. The rest of the family - brothers, sisters, sisters-in-law and nephews - got organized slowly, and on the way stopped at a butcher's to buy meat.

Exiting the village in the direction of the fields, the family vehicle was detained at a police checkpoint, where they were asked to present their ID cards. There is a great sense of humiliation. Who ever heard of such a thing, that citizens are required to present identity papers every time they leave home? On the way to the picking site they mentioned other humiliations: For example, last week, one of the brothers wanted to enter a pub in a neighboring moshav with his friends, and was told simply that village Arabs are not welcome.

On the hills, covered in soft green, kida seira (calicotome villosa, or spiny broom) is now in riotous bloom. "Dulek," meaning oil lamp, is the plant's name in Arabic, referring to the way it lights up the hills with patches of yellow. It is reminiscent of the way the hills of Provence are illuminated by purple lavender. Clumps of it conceal groups of cyclamen, anemones and tulips. The blossoming of the yellow flowers is a sign of the advent of summer.

The family scatters over the hills. Samia is tireless. She skips over the pebbles in the shallow stream, pushes aside piercing raspberry branches, climbs up the hills with breathless determination and crosses green wheat fields. The men of the family, who are faster, serve as scouts; they locate the aqub and wait next to it for the skilled hands that will uproot it.

All eyes look downward in order to identify the green-reddish flowering of the aqub thistles. The moment these are found, gloved hands take the knife in hand, skillfully dig beneath the root and remove the edible parts.

Five long hours of picking produce reap two big, beautiful sacks of aqub. The family is pleased. Blankets are spread, the grill set up and a smell of charcoal soon follows. The men roast pullets, hot dogs, seasoned kebab and tiny pink lamb chops. Only during the alfresco meal, comments one of the sisters-in-law, can the women relax and leave the work of preparing the food to the men. Samia happily drops down on the grass and devotes herself to her small nephews. The hard work is still before her. On the way home, they place the sacks of aqub in the car of the one deemed to look "most Jewish."

The television is on in Samia's room. She shares it with another sister, who is also unmarried; they both remain in the home of their older brother (there are five women in the house - his three sisters and his two wives). These women sit on beds, on the floor and on low chairs, busy peeling the small thistles of the aqub while watching a telenovela on the Tunisian channel.

In this room, in front of an Egyptian film or the cooking program of "Chef Ramzi" - Chef Ramzi Nadim Shwayri from Lebanon, the most famous Arab cook - much of the kitchen's manual labor is done. On the Feast of the Sacrifice, for example, after the family lamb is slaughtered in the inner courtyard and its blood drained, the women retire to this room to cut it apart. The men, almost like hunters from the dawn of history, roast the organ meats on the grill - testicles, liver, spleen and lungs - which are at their best just after slaughtering, when they are still soft and hot. Two weeks ago, they cleaned and filleted the meat of a shark caught by fishermen friends, another activity forbidden by law, but permitted in the opinion of those who consider it a divine law to use the gifts of land and sea.