The Politics of Olives: An Arab Staple
By Colby Cyrus/Contributing Writer
A substantial amount of cultures make claims or connections to certain foods which are near to their heart. Some claim lamb meat, others affirm that they are the rightful owners of rice. Arabs are no different, placing special importance on the olive. However, the olive is unique in not only its ties to Arab culture, but also its political nature.
Olives are among the oldest tree species in the world, originating approximately 8,000 years ago. After the first trees were planted, cultivation soon followed, marking the beginning of the link between Arab culture and the olive. This small tree species, also known as Olea europaea, has also been incorporated as a political symbol in the modern Arab world.
A publication by the Arab American Tribe uses the example of the 2001-2002 Arab-Israeli conflict, where Israeli forces destroyed a significant number of olive trees, causing damage to not only Palestinian agriculture, but also general ways of life, people’s dignity and pride in their symbol of identity. This was especially shocking, considering the usage of the olive tree as a symbol of global peace and the special claims that Arabs as a whole make to the olive itself.
Disputes over control of Palestinian farmlands persist, many of which are sites hosting great numbers of olive trees. In general, then, the olive tree represents not only unity between Arabs, but also tense conflict between groups whom the olive is intended to unify.
There may be hope, however. Recently, a Palestinian olive oil company enjoyed receiving the silver medal at Domina, the international olive oil competition held earlier in May in Palermo, Italy. The Palestinian Chronicle reports that Palestine’s Mount of Green Olives came in second in the contest, which Italy ultimately won. Spain received third place honors and the bronze medal.
Photo Credit: Palestine Chronicle
However, looking past the medal, recipients may reveal a bigger picture: not only did Palestine perform exceptionally well in a competition devoted to such an important food for Arabs, the contest alone suggests that perhaps the entire world can agree in unison on the significance of the quality of Palestinian oil.
Aside from any political aspects, olives are also increasingly religious in nature. The Arab American Tribe notes that the Quran makes several references to not only olives but also trees, oils, and branches. Olives also make an appearance in the Bible, wherein they are seen as representations of beautiful religious practices. The mix between both politics as well as religion contributes to the preciousness of the olive in Arab culture.
Olives in general were viewed as a symbol of richness and affluence, and serve additional purposes in Palestinian lands, such as the making of olive wood and soaps. Accordingly, olives are rich in nutritional value, sometimes grouped into the category of the healthiest foods in the world. The special cultivation process of olives serves as a means to unite Arabs in the Mediterranean and North Africa. One can hardly find any Arab or Arab American home that has no olives and olive oil.
While olives are typically seen as just another food, they are much more than that to the entire Arab culture; they symbolize peace. Olives are politics and religion, often at the same time. Most of all; however, olives are unity. In addition, they represent tranquility and the unison of a whole group of people who can agree on its significance.
Despite a tumultuous recent past, the future of the olive is bright in regards to its ability to unite Arabs not just in the Mediterranean and North Africa, but across the entire world.