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Date posted: April 01, 2003
By Mike Odetalla

I cant say for sure when it happened. Nor can I say for sure how it happened, but rest assured it happened. I had fallen hard for this, my first love. I was smitten but could not really explain how or why. I was a mere child who could not put into words the feelings that I had for this fair maiden, the true extent of which did not reveal themselves until much later on, only after I was separated from her. The vast distance between us only made me yearn more for her ever more. She was in my blood and there was nothing on this earth that could remove her.

Her name is Palestine. The first time I laid my eyes on her was December 1st 1960. That was the day that I was born onto her soil and drew my first life giving breath from her sacred air. She nourished me with food grown in her earth, watered by her dew and this mixed with and formed my flesh and blood.

It wasnt until 1965 that I began to see and feel her beauty and warmth. I was an inquisitive and very adventurous child, raised in the village of Beit Hanina, a suburb of Jerusalem. I spent days upon days exploring the hills and trees that encircled the village of my youth: running from my familys fruit and olive orchards, to the caves in the hills; I was never at loss for adventure. A slingshot, handmade from olive wood and the rubber of a car inner tube, was my constant companion. All the children in the village had slingshots dangling from their back pockets: one's proficiency and marksmanship with a slingshot was a source of pride amongst the youth in our village.

How can I describe such a love affair between a man and his land? The early spring mornings, richly colored hills alive with wild flowers, plants, and blossoming trees, watered by life-giving spring rains. Standing on the balcony - high, overlooking the valleys and outward to the hills - that was built by my great grandfather, I saw what he had seen, admired and loved: an ancient grape vine planted in the early 1900s, snakes its way up the staircase, covering the balcony, providing shelter and protection from the hot summer sun, its lush emerald canopy a source of shelter and its leaves rolled by my mother, grandmother and sisters with tender, loving hands into a staple of our daily food, as were the giant bunches of golden grapes, hanging just above my head, dangling in the breeze.

I would climb the hills, where my other grandfather lived and scan the valley below, seeing my village, and the mosques minaret - my compass from every point. To the west, my familys fruit orchards, a living carpet of green pink and white blossoms the fields, hills, and valleys alive with village people tending their crops and orchards. Mule and horse drawn plows tilling the orchards and open fields: turning over long, straight lines of fresh earth as the plows dug up the dirt. Shepherds and their herds of sheep and goats, baby lambs born in the early spring months, dot the hills grazing on new grasses, plants, and flowers. To the east, my familys fig and olive orchards, fields of red poppies waving in the breeze. The women of the village roaming the hills, collecting a variety of herbs and plants to be used in our everyday lives to season our food and heal our wounds and illnesses. Whatever was not used immediately was dried and saved for later. My mother assigned me guard duty at the edge of one our groves where the plums and apricots were grown: my job was to keep the girls from neighboring girls school away from the trees and their fruit. The girls loved to pick the small unripe and still green fruits: these are generally sour and they liked to dip them in salt and munch them for snacks, likewise, the green almonds, so abundant in Palestine. My mother, bless her, used to make pickles from just about anything: green plums, apricots, and almonds as well as the usual stuff like cucumbers, eggplant, and green tomatoes. All of our vegetables were grown in our own gardens.

Summer, with its heat, helped ripen the golden apricots, plums of every color of the rainbow, fuzzy peaches and other fruits that were in abundance. The early summer months meant the apricot harvest, later the plums and peaches, and finally grapes and figs that ripen only in late summer. Nothing has stuck in my mind more than the early mornings, waking at dawn and running down to our orchards to collect fallen apricots from the ground: these were ripened by Mother Nature and still covered by the cool, early morning dew that waters the Palestinian countryside in the summer months in the absence of rains. I would select one of these golden beauties, lift it over my mouth and squeeze the drops of golden sweet nectar onto my tongue. The taste still lingers with me today, 35 years after the fact, never duplicated. What we did not consume, my mother transformed into jams and jellies so that year round, we enjoyed the abundant and delicious fruits of our land.

Fall ushered in the olive harvest: the most celebrated of harvests in Palestine. Olive trees can live for many hundreds of years and are a very vital part of Palestinian life. Cared for as one would for a newborn child, olive trees are synonymous with Palestine and her people. The orchards and their crops are an integral part of Palestinian life. The olive harvests were festivals: the hills and valleys become alive with people; entire families, scores of people carry ladders and sacks as they make their way to harvest their precious crops. The olive harvest was, by far, my favorite season of the year. I loved to be with my siblings as we picked olives and ate our meals under the very trees that my ancestors had planted and harvested before me: where they ate, like me, under the same trees hundreds of years before.

After the harvest, olives are either turned, cracked and pickled or sent to the nearby presses to become the best cold pressed virgin olive oil on the planet. To this day, I still receive olive oil from my mother that is pressed from the olives grown on our lands: the same trees that my ancestors harvested and that I climbed and harvested as a youth.

The winter months were spent in relative quiet indoors. There was no electricity in the village of my youth: we burned wood to heat our humble abode. A large metal barrel, with both ends cutoff, would be placed atop the round stove; the wood piled into the barrel and the fire lit. After the wood had become glowing embers, it would be carried inside to heat the. Some used kerosene heaters but most used these simple wood-burning stoves that I loved. As kids, wed take eggs and bury them in the hot ashes of the fire to roast; after a few moments they were ready to be taken out and eaten: the taste so much better than simple boiled eggs; sometimes wed bury potatoes and other vegetables to get them cooked. The elders would make coffee and tea at the edge of the glowing embers.

The winter months brought the much-needed rains, even the occasional snowfall: we kids absolutely loved the snowfalls. We would run outside to play in the snow, knowing full well that it would melt fast at it touched the earth. The sight of the snow-covered hills was a rare and awesome sight: olive trees covered in snow is also a sight to behold. Families huddled by the fire, exchanging stories and tales handed down for generations. We had an old radio, but we usually provided ourselves with our own entertainment, giving root to an indescribably feeling of closeness with community and family. Such was the life that made me fall madly in love with my beautiful Palestine. Her soil is intermixed with my blood; her air fills my lungs; her beauty forever displayed in the museum of my mind One never forgets his first love

Today, my village is barely recognizable from what I remember. It is encircled now by Jewish settlements that seem to dominate and choke her. There is a Jewish only highway that cuts straight through the heart of my beloved village like a giant scar on an otherwise beautiful face. Most of the olive orchards have been destroyed and uprooted by the Israelis in their unquenchable thirst for land. The village is cut in half; its people are not allowed to travel from one side of the village to the other not even when their lands are there. People are cut off from their lands, crops, orchards, more importantly, families by roadblocks, and soldiers. Palestine today, is a land bleeding and in pain. May the grace of God heal the wounds and mend its broken hearts so that she may know true peace.

If I close my eyes and think hard enough, I can still see the things that made me fall madly in love with my homeland. Yes, she has changed. And yes, she has a few scars, some wrinkles and lines, but these only make me that much more attracted to her my first and true love.

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