It’s the beginning of the olive harvest season, but the doors of Musa Halaf’s oil press in the Beit Kerem Valley in the Galilee are shut. In Rameh, where Halaf was born, the olives are harvested later than in the rest of the country. “We used to begin the pressing only after Christmas,” says the meticulously dressed, dignified-visaged Halaf, 78. “In our region, where we still grow ancient olives of the Syrian variety, we harvest the olives using poles, and it’s easier to harvest them ripe, when they’ve started to blacken.” In Rameh, people continue to take pride in their olive oil’s reputation, which extends throughout the Levant. “If today in Lebanon you say ‘olive oil from Rameh,’ which is already mentioned in the Old Testament, you’ll be treated like a king,” says Halaf. But the late harvest is not the reason why the doors of the oil press have been shut in recent years.
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“The whole industry is down,” says Halaf, a real estate assessor. “The demand is there, but the price is unrealistic. People are looking for what’s cheap, and here we work by hand. Rameh olives are raised without artificial irrigation or fertilizer. The yield is relatively small and people don’t want to pay the high price this dictates.”
These days, Halaf says no one makes a living from olives, which were the main source of income for the people of Rameh for generations. “If anybody is still selling olives today it’s marginal income, and only a few people continue to harvest, for their own families only. Some of the agricultural land was expropriated in 1948; some was sold to the people of Beit Jann and other communities; large tracts were split up among brothers. Today almost everybody works at something else, and for most people it’s not worth losing a work day to deal with the olives.”
In Rameh, Halaf says, unlike other villages in the region, there are no more farmers. “That’s not sad, that’s the price of progress. You can’t go back, even if life then seems simpler and more pleasant,” he adds.
To this day, Halaf and his wife live in the beautiful two-story house his father built in the 1920s. “This was the first house outside the old village,” Halaf says, adding that the villagers used to say of that his father “had gone to live with the foxes.” Halaf now operates his large olive oil press only to produce oil from the family orchards. He also prepares thick, meaty cured olives, whose taste is unforgettable, from the ripe olives he still harvests with his own hands. “They’re not black, because there’s no such thing as a standard black color for the olives unless you add artificial coloring,” the patriarch says. “The olives ripen in various shades of green-purple-black, and the ancient Syrian olives and the oil produced from it has a special taste that people aren’t sufficiently aware of.”
Halaf says that in the 1980s he started an association of organic olive growers, wanting to emulate the model of a district in Spain where growers got together to market their olive oil and preserve its quality. “But in the end I gave up. The ancient olive groves of the Beit Kerem Valley are unique and should have been declared protected. Farmers must be helped to maintain and preserve them. The Jewish National Fund spends a lot of money to take care of sterile forests. So why don’t they treat the olive groves, which are hundreds or thousands of years old, as protected edible forest species? But politics comes in here too.”
Oil the modern way
People from all over the region began last week to carry sacks of olives to the modern oil press belonging to the Hatib family in Deir al-Asad. The stream of people is still just a trickle; in the northern part of the valley the harvest is later, and most of them come on weekends when they don’t work at their regular jobs. But flow will increase in the weeks to come and the oil press will work seven days a week from dawn to midnight. There are hardly any large-scale growers in the area; most are pressing olives for their families. As in the old days, they leave 10 percent for the owner of the oil press, who markets and distributes the oil he produces under the label “Beit Kerem Olive Oil.”
“My full name is Hassan Mohammad Ali Ahmet Hatib,” Hassan Hatib states proudly. A lawyer by profession, he and his brothers manage the oil press during harvest time. His name contains five generations of harvesters and oil producers. “Hatib was the man who established the first press, underneath the family home high up in the ancient village, around 1860. The olive press was passed down from generation to generation, from Hatib to Ahmet and from him to Ali and to Mohammad, and every generation renewed it and suited it to the spirit of the times. My mother, who died three years ago, was able to see the oil press renewed four times in her lifetime.”
During the time of the first Hatib, the oil was pressed with one crushing stone operated by donkeys, camels and horses. At the beginning of the 20th century, two millstones were brought in, together with a small motor to operate them. “All the rest was done by hand,” Hatib says. “Men who were enormously strong would press the oil out of the crushed olive mash. Weaker people couldn’t do the work and the oil was produced very slowly. It was only at the beginning of the 1960s that my father brought a separator for the oil, and only in 1975, when the village was hooked up to the electricity grid, did the whole thing become a mechanized line.”
The family oil press operated on the same site for more than 120 years, until 1989. “The narrow alleyways of the village were made wide enough for donkeys and camels to go through carrying sacks of olives, not for tractors and trucks,” Hatib says. “During the 1990 harvest we moved the press to the place it is now, on the slopes of the hills near the entrance to the village, and at the end of the 1990s we decided to bring in a modern assembly line from Italy. Today we have equipment that can process four tons of olives in an hour.”
The rooms of the original olive press, under impressive stone arches high up in the village, were partly destroyed in 1948, but the space that remains is still beautiful, and it still contains centuries-old oil jars, covered with a thick layer of dust, and parts of hand-operated and mechanical equipment from various times.
“This is my family’s heritage,” Hatib says. “I dream of reconstructing the old oil press so people can come visit it, and see the ancient tradition of olive oil production. During the harvest, when people and donkeys crowded the steep terraces, my mother used to bake fresh bread twice a day in the large oven outside the oil press, and the aroma of the crushed olives would spread through the alleyways, and I have no words to describe the taste of the fresh bread dipped in the first oil of the season.”
“In each of the Arab communities in the Beit Kerem Valley, there are at least three or four oil presses,” says Dr. Yifat Reuveni, a lecturer in management at Tel Aviv University, who has for the past year and a half been leading an olive oil project in the Valley. “This is traditional local industry that has huge potential, but suffered for many years from neglect – for various reasons – and today it’s hard for these small family businesses to remain profitable.” This pioneering and exciting project now has seven oil presses as members, including those of Musa Halaf and the Hatib family. Its goal is to brand the regional olive oil, standardize quality and produce the oil in Israel and abroad.
The Hatib Olive Oil Press (Beit Kerem Olive Oil), Deir al-Asad, 050-564-5058 (The oil press and the lively social life surrounding it is best seen during the harvest season.)