Solomon's Grove


100 • Cycles

Volume 10, Issue 01
February 23, 2024

24 And Solomon said, Bring me a sword. And they brought a sword before the king.
25 And the king said, Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.
-1 Kings 3:24

Solomon’s olive grove sits steadfast on the hillside. Not the kind of hill that rolls, but the kind that jolts and jars. The kind that scores the sky like the ragged edge of a key. On the rocky bluff, Solomon toils at his trees, feels the twine of his basket biting into his neck and relishes in the softness of the oil gathering in the cracks of his palms. At the centre of his grove is a tree much broader than the others – an olive tree planted during the Umayyad conquest of Spain. Knowing that this land will soon pass to his four sons, Solomon fears for the fate of this tree which he has cared for. So, he divides his land in four equal parts with the tree at its centre – for each son a quarter of the land and a quarter of the tree. The tree could not be cut down without the approval of all four branches of his family, a consensus Solomon felt sure would never occur.

Since before I can remember, I have participated in the Spanish olive harvest. Every year, my uncle took me and my cousins to the family grove. I always revered Solomon’s olive tree, one quarter ours, which marked the corner of my family’s plot and the start of our three neighbours’. It was not its physical size that impressed me, but its age – my own life felt dizzyingly fleeting when set before a tree planted a millennium ago. With each harvest, I grew taller, closing the gap between my outstretched fingers and the lowest fruits, yet the tree never seemed to change.

The story is obviously a myth, a reworking of King Solomon’s Judgement but, truth aside, it has potency as a folk tale. In gesturing toward antiquity – in this case both vernacular and biblical – the story binds my family into a contract of stewardship and preservation of our land which extends beyond the span of a single life. Mythic stories of this kind also provide communities with a common structure about which more mundane encounters with nature can be incorporated. With time, these myths become entangled with ordinary family memories – with the annual harvest, the recounting of stories, and the consumption of olive oil.

Solomon’s tree also serves a functional role as a delineator of property. In a time before satellite images, the boundaries between plots were drawn from the landscape, threaded around its natural protrusions – watercourses, boulders, lines of growing trees. A thousand-year-old olive tree is a particularly distinctive marker, and it is likely for this practical reason that Solomon’s tree became the delimiting point of my family’s land. Thus, the tree serves a dual archival purpose, both as a repository for collective memory, and as an organic ledger in which the separation of land is recorded.

… Because I cannot own a piece of paper,
I shall carve my memoirs
on the courtyard olive tree. …
I shall carve bitter reflections,
scenes of love and yearning, …
I shall carve the serial number
of every stolen piece of land,
the place of my village on the map
to the uprooted trees …
I shall carve dedications
to memories threading down to eternity,
to the blooded soil of Deir Yasin
and Kufur Qassem …

-Tawfiq Zayyad, The Olive Tree, Translated by Sulafa Hijjawi

In this poem, the Palestinian writer Tawfiq Zayyad imagines writing his memoirs on the bark of an olive tree. Zayyad’s tree bears witness to his memories and to the trauma of the Deir Yasin and Kufr Qasim massacres, which drenched its roots in ‘blooded soil’. The line, ‘memories threading down to eternity’ brings to mind the image of roots weaving not through space but through time, and alludes to a similar image in Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, The Second Olive Tree – “she lives a friendly sister of eternity, neighbour of time”. The two poets seem to be touching on the same idea – that while human memories fade or falter between generations, the olive tree, capable of living for millennia, remains as witness.

Zayyad oscillates between the lyrical – ‘I shall carve bitter reflections / scenes of love and yearning / for my stolen orange grove’ – and the legalistic – ‘I shall carve the serial number / of every stolen piece of land’. Here too, we see the olive tree involved in a dual process of remembering, as a vessel for Zayyad’s memory, and as a ledger to keep record of stolen Palestinian land. With this understanding in mind, the IDF’s uprooting of Palestinian olive trees is simultaneously an attempt to erase the collective memories of Palestinian communities and an effacing of the organising structures of Palestinian property. It is only through this levelling of historical delineations that a new grid can be applied as an instrument of illegal Israeli settler projects – a grid marked out not by the natural world but by overpasses, checkpoints, and perimeter fences.

Andalusians of Jaén,
proud harvesters of olives,
tell me from your soul, then,
who nursed the olive groves?

Your blood, your lives,
not the exploiters’
who were enriched by
your sweat’s generous stream. …

Jaén, rise bravely
from your lunar stones,
you cannot be enslaved
with all your olive groves.

-Miguel Hernández, The Olive Harvesters (1937), translated by A.S.Kline

“I am here like an olive tree. We will never leave our homeland.” This was how Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, responded to the recent Israeli order to evacuate his home in Gaza City. This kind of radical ‘steadfastness’ to one’s land, known in Arabic as sumud (صمود), is a long-standing strategy of non-violent Palestinian resistance, which takes the olive tree as its emblem. Strikingly, it is not the first liberation movement to appeal to this symbol as evident in the work of Miguel Fernandez, a Republican poet killed during the Spanish Civil War. The poem, The Olive Harvesters, is addressed to the farmers of Jaén, a southern Spanish city which served as a Republican stronghold against Franco’s army. While writing from an entirely different context, Hernandez seems to capture much of the spirit of sumud in his final two lines – ‘you shall not be enslaved / with all your olive groves.’ Whilst the roots of your trees remain in the ground, you will never be enslaved.

There seems to be an irony in this use of the olive, a particularly shallow-rooted tree, as a symbol of ‘steadfastness’. If it is not for the depth of its roots, why then does the olive tree recur as a symbol of an oppressed people’s connection to their land? Is it the ruggedness of the olive, its ability to grow in the harshest soil? Or is it perhaps that same dizzying sense of history that I once felt in Solomon’s grove – the olive tree’s fixity in time as everything around it grows and decays in blurry parallax.