I went back to visit my family this week. I intentionally say “went back” and not just “went.” I usually say: “going back to my hometown at the end of the week.” Also, people ask me: “When are you coming home?” even though I no longer live in our house in the village of Eilabun. I have been living in Haifa and have lived abroad for the last 10 years or so. Yet, the house in which we were born and raised remains the place to which we always go back. It is our first home and holds the first place. Among the components and comforts of this first place besides family, memories and tranquillity, lies the orchard.
I am lucky to be part of a generation that has experienced and played in orchards. Perhaps the word hakura, meaning orchard, will not be used as much in the next decade and may even vanish entirely. Hakura is a piece of enclosed land planted with trees near one’s home. It is larger than a garden and smaller than a grove. This particularity defines the concept and features of villages in our country and the world. There is no village without orchards. It is the lung of the home and family and the source of its simple seasonal cultivation of crops. It is the childhood playground and the first yard of imagination before going into the bigger world.
My first memory of our orchard was the snowy year of 1992. I vaguely remember a small slope of soil covered with snow where I, my cousins and the neighbourhood would children sled down, laughing over and over. After that year, we grew a bit older and the orchard and its surroundings became our daily playground. We would play from the early morning and return home with the sunset in our dirty clothes. There, we discovered soccer, hide-and-seek and Easter egg hunts and tricks. We also dug new roads with our toys there. It was the public space for the neighbourhood children and the place where we first rebelled against adult authority. It was a small geographical area but an endless world. The long hours of fun passed as if they were minutes. It is where we first searched for truth and grand narratives. It was our first encounter with unwritten poems and stories. It gave us a taste for freedom and an expression of rebellion.
Our orchard was surrounded by a rock wall covered with dandelion bushes, creating a world both protected and undetected. Under the orchard, cats birthed their kittens there. Adults would warn us to avoid going there because there might be a snake, which we thought was the devil who licked and spoiled our food whenever it fell on the ground. Despite that, I was an expert at navigating the dandelions across the wall. Because of my speed in entering and exiting, even barefoot, I was the one responsible for bringing the ball back after a child’s reckless kick sent it into the dandelions. Hence, I was proudly called the Master of Dandelions. Entering these parts felt like I was a jungle boy who befriended animals starring in a mystical adventure. Somehow, everything piled up in there whether we tossed it in or not. Therefore, the heart of the dandelion forest became an exposition of garbage and forgotten objects that we used as props in our made-up games. I hid my wooden weapons there, waiting for the next big war.
What made our orchard special was that it was relatively spacious. It was a shared land that belonged to my father and uncles. It lived with us every day of the year, producing fruit every season. There were and still are figs, apples, berries, lemons, peaches, grapes, grapevine leaves, pomelos, loquats, passionfruit, greengages, clementines, oranges, plums, almonds, carob, thyme, vegetables, legumes like chickpeas and green peas, olive seedlings and others. Every Sunday morning, we used to make bread and manakish in the orchard’s woodfired oven for the whole week. That was before gas ovens invaded our villages and terminated the endearing quality of homemade bread. There is still a chicken coop in the orchard today that stands quiet in the face of the eggs produced in the Israeli kibbutz.
Whenever I visit my family, I sit on a chair outside and look at the orchard from above. Although I left my childhood playground, I am still breathing the air of that unique world, especially that we live in the last days of orchards. It brings me joy to see my nephews—the smartphone generation—experience the orchard like we did more than 20 years ago. I am happy that they get to have this experience now before the imminent death of all orchards.
I do not know what we can call our orchard and a few others remaining in our village and other villages in the Galilee. Shall we, for example, say ‘orchards that survived urbanisation’, ‘orchards that survived concrete’, ‘orchards surviving modernity’ or ‘postmodern orchards’? I have no idea. Contemplating the orchard, especially while sheltering in place during the Coronavirus pandemic, brings me back to it not only through memories but also as a surviving space—so far. It survived the hegemony of the capitalist and colonial system and has been creating an abundant life away from attempted destruction that the political and economic reality brings about.
My contemplation leads me to the inevitable tragic conclusion that there is no longer a possibility for the orchards to sustain. Our orchard survived the structural transformations of the Palestinian Arab villages after 1948. These transformations include displacement, confiscation of lands, besieging Arab towns and supplanting Jewish ones, not expanding the building areas and developing Arab towns as peripheries of Israeli towns. Our orchard will have the same fate as other orchards. They became cement—apartments and offices for rent.
Dividing the orchard and planning its future has already begun, and so has the typical disputes over its boundaries. And so, the nostalgic discourse and reminiscing will seem completely unrealistic. When the first bit of concrete is poured into the orchard in the next couple of years, it will be officially buried. We will do the same special ritual we do in the funerals of orchards. There will be grilled meat. People and relatives will come to offer their blessings and give away sweets to neighbours. There will be nothing left for me in the orchard except for lingering memories.