Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Published June 15, 2005 Volume 11 Number 50
AS THE sun turns relentless, apricot season is upon us. Native today in only three small villages in Palestine – Beit Jala, Salt il Hanafiya and Jifna – the small orange-red mishmish is carried in stores for just days. “He’ll be here in mishmish,” goes the saying – meaning he might not be here at all.
A trip to the heart of the apricot groves in Jifna, north of Ramallah, is a lesson in the fruit’s reputation. “Because I package them carefully so they don’t mold, I only sell them on special order,” apologizes the attendant of a produce market. In stock on a shelf sit the bright fist-sized Israeli variety imported from out of town.
Jifna is known as a village of restaurants and hostels, ancient ruins and sprawling vistas. The community has a history traced to 3,000 years before Christ, and is the site of a Byzantine church dated 300 CE. Nobody knows how long the village has been growing apricots, but farmer Rujad Nasser learned to tend them from his father, who learned from his father before him. The oldest families in the village are able to trace their ancestral roots back 250 years. Today there are just over 1,000 Jifna residents and the same number of apricot trees.
Grafted onto almond trunks for added sweetness, each tree usually bears more than $500 worth of fruit a year. “It’s a worthwhile crop,” says Odeh Zahran, author of a history of Jifna and former chair of the annual apricot festival. Lately it seems there has been a renaissance of the tree, which requires little labor and no irrigation. Farmer Nasser says that Jifna’s clerks and proprietors began to plant and tend the trees again after the economic decline of the Intifada. Zahran, however, links the rise in apricot production to the years just before the Intifada, when Jifna was a busy tourist destination. This afternoon, the local pension stands shuttered and in repair; the only tourist bustle is that of visiting flies swarming happily in the heat. The apricot festival hasn’t been held since 2000. Still, the industry remains healthy. While the cherry-sized miskawi variety is not hardy enough to weather the checkpoints, buyers come to town just to find it.
How do they know when the fruit is in season? Nasser’s apricots are ripe only three weeks out of the year, and in the last decade, the warming atmosphere has hastened the fruits’ arrival from July to early June. Nasser laughs. “The customers know the season by watching for the Israeli apricots. Two weeks after they hit the market, villagers from around Ramallah know its time to come.”
In the lore of Palestine, the apricot has always gotten short shrift. Anthropologist Tawfiq Canaan recorded a 1940s proverb: “A plate of apricot pudding, don’t touch; seek the almond. Pretty girls, don’t take; seek the one of good stock.” Frivolous and inconstant, the apricot is a symbol of bewilderment of both the intestines and the mind.
While early Muslim-era recipes call for stewing lamb and apricots, and an Egyptian dish layers stuffed zucchini with the orange fruit, modern Palestinian cuisine does little to integrate apricots into its palate. (Sweetened meats are shunned by most local kitchens). The fruit is either eaten fresh, its pit cracked and savored too, or boiled into a thick jam. Nasser’s wife, Tariz, says that cooks in some regions pound the pit into a nutty addition to the jam.
“There hasn’t been a lot of thought put into what else could be done with the apricots,” says Nasser. He’s considered drying them, as is done in the Hama region of Syria, but determined it would be too expensive. Apparently apricots aren’t suitable for making wine, the other ancient hobby of this village.
Nasser dreams of what to do with his apricots, even as he knows there is no heir to take over his land. “This is not a farming community,” says Zahran, almost dogmatic in his insistence. “Farming does not comprise a major part of the income.” But from this arm-chair relationship with the earth comes yet another widely-used expression. Back in the days when Palestinians had only one apricot tree in the backyard, the fruits were ripe and eaten in the span of a week. Now the expression “jumaat mish-mishia” (“the apricot week”) has evolved to refer to the tender but short-lived first week of marriage.
Now all that remains is to taste the fickle fruit. If we thought that Jifna’s full-time farmers would be able to satiate us, we were wrong. Even their expertise offers little control over the apricot’s appearance; of Nasser’s vast orchard, his 80 apricot trees yielded no harvest this year.
As we drive away from the village, a migrant salesman is packing crates of apricots and cherries into the back of his car. “No good,” the locals had said of his stock. The fruits he sells are firm and less sweet, picked early to guarantee a longer shelf-life. But from a crate on the side he pulls a tiny furry apricot soft to the touch, a lone sample plucked leisurely from a back yard. The sugars distilled from sunshine and rain run quickly to the back of the throat, and – true to its reputation – in an instant, the apricot is gone.-Published June 15, 2005©Palestine Report