Stories from Afar & Up Close

The Great Competition

Olive harvest “It’s the oil, stupid!”No, I am not talking about the USA and their wars here in the Middle East. Nor am I talking about their nerve-wrecking elections. (I mean, I don’t even know if I will dare to go to sleep tomorrow, for fear of what we might wake up to on Wednesday! Which reminds me of the election-results in 2004, which I accidentally witnessed with the Democratic crowd in an upscale club in New York City. I remember the speech of Barack Obama, broadcasted on the big screen, and someone whispering in my ear ‘watch closely, that there is our next president!’ – I didn’t dare to believe him then, and I can only hope to believe him now.) But that’s not what this post is about. I am talking about olive oil.

Olive oil might very well be as important for countries around the Mediterranean and inwards toward Iran as black oil is for the Gulf States. Back in the Netherlands, I used to work in a Persian restaurant, and the sweet chef would start every recipe with ‘oil olive, lots of oil olive!’ before adding any other ingredient. (This same sweet chef had learned to cook when his political intellectual activities had landed him in prison for a few years. Once his request for asylum in the Netherlands was approved, he set out to find a job, and the overly-helpful placement center thought a kitchen restaurant would be the most appropriate considering his skills. Glad we made use of his intellectual abilities, right? But I digress again.)

So, olive oil. In two years in Lebanon, I have only had to buy a bottle of oil once, and not after all my friends apologized that the harvest had been so meager that year that even they had to get it from the stores. Every other time one of my friends would discover a nearly empty olive oil bottle in my kitchen, he or she would immediately exclaim ‘your next bottle will be from our oil! You have to taste it, it’s the best!’

Harvest close up I have been offered spoons of olive oil when coming to people’s houses for a cup of tea, ‘just to taste’. I have been laughed at when suggesting that someone (usually on their way back to job or studies in Europe or the USA) could lighten their luggage by removing those two-liter bottles of uncle’s olive oil from their suitcases. Good olive oil is a source of pride, and an almost essential part of someone’s identity – even if they had no hand in growth, harvest or preparation of the olives and the oil.

Now that I am living with Walid, I have automatically become part of the sharing of olive oil of his family, much to the chagrin of many friends who have proudly supplied me with olive oil before. Walid’s mother’s family has some olive-groves in the South, and for her and her brothers and sisters there is no question as to which oil will be used in their households – their husbands and wives have no say in the matter. But the pride never really goes away, and when one uncle-in-law had a chance, he offered me olive oil from his family’s village. ‘You know,’ he said with a wink, ‘they may think their olive oil is the best, but we are not from their village, we can eat much better!’

I’m looking forward to the competition. May the best man - uh, oil win.

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