By Nimrod Ben-Zeev / The Social History Workshop
Translated by Keren Rubinstein
Hebrew article published in Haaretz blogs, 28 May 2014
“As Ras al Nakoura appeared in the distance, dim on the blue horizon, the car stopped. The women got out from among their baggage and approached a peasant squatting by the roadside with a basket of oranges before him. They carried the oranges with them, and the sound of their wailing reverberated in our ears. Your father got out from beside the driver and reached out to receive an orange. He stared at it mutely, then burst into tears like a baby.”
Ghassan Kanafani, The Land of Sad Oranges, 1963
“I’m driving home now, when I suddenly sense a familiar smell: a night time haze, with the mild rotting odour of orchards, then I see a nearly full moon. I really want to leave the tedious negotiations right now and go for a nightly navigation (not too long, at my age). On a moonlit night, navigating is a pleasure. Good night, guys”
Naftali Bennett, Facebook, February 2013
What is it about oranges and orchards that continues to connect their smell, sight and touch with the hearts of oppositional national ethos – the Israeli and Palestinian – and with connotations, media and time frames so far apart, and to have this effect on such different characters? What is the connection between the physical-sensory experience, and the feelings it arouses, and how is it influenced by its historical and cultural context? In turn, how does it shape it? And what is the history of this connection between sense, body, identity and ideology?
Seeking to address such questions is Sensory History, based on the understanding that our senses are not only determined by our physiological nature, but are also influenced and shaped by culture, and shape it in turn. The encounter between two national movements – the Zionist and the Palestinian – and with the intense sensory experience of the orchards and citrus fruit, grants us a golden opportunity to try to handle these questions.
Towards the end of the Ottoman period, citrus became the main export of the land. In 1873, even before the first aliyah [Jewish immigration wave, K.R.], the British Consulate in Jerusalem reported that only one sixth of the citrus produced in Palestine was meant for local consumption. The rest was exported to Egypt and Anatolia, where it was shipped mainly from the Jaffa port, the hub of the citrus growing industry. Rising demand for oranges in Europe guaranteed that when Jewish settlers began establishing their first orchards, the citrus industry was already fairly developed and skewed towards export.
During the British Mandate, the centrality of citrus as an agricultural sector and one for export reached unprecedented proportions. If in 1927 the value of citrus exports constituted about 43% of the overall exports of Mandatory Palestine, which at the time hovered around 830,000 Lira, then a little over a decade later, in 1938, citrus constituted 84% of overall export, which by then was worth around 4 million Lira. In 1926, around 1.5 million citrus crates were exported from the country, 63% of which came from Palestinian Arab owned orchards. In 1938, the number of citrus crates for export reached around 11.5 million, 60% of which came from Jewish owned orchards. Throughout the Mandate period, most packaging was carried out by hand. Growing, picking, sorting, and packaging of citrus fruits, and especially of oranges that back then were almost always sold under the “Jaffa” trademark, were central industries in the country’s economy, providing employment for tens of thousands of Arabs and Jews.
The centrality of citrus fruit and orchards in the lives of the country’s inhabitants, Jews and Arabs alike, was expressed in abundant references in literature, poetry, painting and elsewhere. Citrus fruit continued to feature in arts and culture even once the orchards themselves began disappearing from view, as they turned from actual landscape to its memory alone. These references sketch a world of sensory experience that shaped life along the Palestinian-Israeli coastline, in the shadow of the biyarat – the orchards. Because these formative sensory experiences were common to both nations, and ensconced physical, symbolic, personal and national dimensions, they became in themselves a battleground.
Such was the case, for example, for manual labour, that sanctified Labour Zionist value perceived as a necessary step in the establishment of Jewish nationalism in Eretz Yisrael [The land of Israel, i.e. Palestine, K.R.], which also found expression among the thousands of citrus labourers and linked the sense of touch with the unravelling national confrontation. The actions of fruit picking, sorting and packaging forced the Zionist citrus labourers to adapt skills and sensory sensitivities that would enable them to carry out the job quickly and almost automatically. The labourer had to know exactly how to pick the fruit; she had to know how to sort fruit fit for export from that for culling or brara – a local term that was picked up by Hebrew speakers – all while barely touching the fruit; she had to develop the required skills for packaging each and every fruit separately. So, for instance, the “Letters from Eretz Yisrael” column in Hatzfira newspaper of January 21, 1898, read:
The harvest is a wisdom not a job, and one must practice it with skill and knowledge, how to hold the apple [that is “a golden apple” or orange, N. B. Z.] as you clip it, so as not to squash nor press it, nor leave too long a stem nor touch the fruit itself with the shears, and other details, and much speed and caution, but – a man of Israel can learn this wisdom easily; additionally the arrangement of the fruit in the crates demands knowledge, how to be sparing with space, lest the fruit in the crate take up more than its share; and caution, lest one maiden crowd her neighbour, and speed, lest the whole formation take too long, and this knowledge too is easy to teach and practice.
In order to carry out such tasks, Jewish workers, many of whom had no prior experience in manual labour, were forced to adapt local patterns of touch that were utterly foreign to some of them. If “occupying labour” was indeed a necessary stop en route to the rebirth of the Jewish nation, as it was depicted, then it obliged the workers in the orchards and the sorting and packaging factories to learn how to touch and feel like the Palestinian Arabs whom they were destined to replace.
Moreover, within each community some were considered more talented and better suited for the labour of this industry. In a notice published in Hatzvi on 19 November 1909 about a shortage of citrus workers in Petah-Tikva, the reporter stated that fruit picking and packaging require “little talent and light hands,” therefore the orchardsmen of Petah-Tikva needed urban workers, such as were found in Jaffa. That sharply contrasts “peasants working all year round at gruesome jobs…using their rough hands to shove and injure the fruit so it cannot be shipped far.” Since the amount of labour required for the city’s orchards could not be supplied by Jaffa’s Arabs, some, according to the reporter, recommended “bringing families from the Yemenite migration into Petah-Tikva, since it is well known that women and children can also work and earn as great labourers by picking golden apples,” or that “families will come to the city… Satisfied workers such as Yemenites, such as those from Damascus, such as those from Ur Kashdim (Urfalians) [Turks].”
Workers’ need to adapt their body and regulate their senses in favour of work in the orchards was not the only form of reciprocity between citrus fruit and the national body. It also led, for instance, to the attribution of medicinal properties to the scent of citrus, while living near orchards was said to be immune strengthening. As already mentioned, citrus and the way in which it was mediated by the senses also had a real emotional charge, just as Ghassan Kanafani’s The Land of Sad Oranges states in its very title.
The illustrated book “That’s how you eat an orange” by Nachum Gutman can teach us something about the ways in which we learn how to touch, observe, smell, and taste, but it can also link sensual experience with feelings. In this humorous text, Gutman draws the connection between the right way to feel the orange, and the preparation of the body for appropriate responses to that experience, found along the fault line between the physical and emotional (“a fragrant smell that widens your chest”; “the heart opens up to it”). The heart – the home of both private and national sentiment – also stands at the heart of the Palestinian poster, “Al Quds fi’l qalb”. An orange basket is placed on a woman’s head, she represents Palestine or perhaps the Palestinian nation, and citrus trees adorn the Dome of the Rock. Citrus, therefore, steeled the hearts of people from both nations. The nature of this emotional charge is inexplicably linked with history and has transformed and developed over time. After 1948, citrus fruit and its scent were imbued with new symbolic and emotional meaning, virtually reversed in the Zionist and Palestinian narratives. For the Zionism that followed the establishment of the Israeli state, the smell and sight of citrus became symbols of national renewal, success and the revival of the land. Contrarily, for Palestinian nationalism they became signifiers of absence, and of the yearning for what once was and is no longer.
There are many ways in which the senses and sensory experiences shaped the lives of the national groups in Israel/Palestine – whether it be the myriad experiences provided by the orchards; the flavour of hummus or baklava; the foreign or familiar feel of fabrics; the smell of soap from Nablus or Haifa; the sounds of the muezzin, the voices of Hassidic men, or the bustle of cars and radio transistors gradually filling the streets, homes and cafes during the Mandate period. Tracing all these carries the potential to understand the national conflict differently as well. Focusing on the ideologies that preserve, fuel or attempt to quell the fire of the conflict, which was and remains the dominant theme in attempts to explain the history of Israel/Palestine of recent centuries, leaves us estranged from the way in which most of the population lived and experienced its world, the boundaries of its group and the encounter with whomever was outside of it, “a neighbour”, “an Other”, “a foreign woman” or “an enemy”. Furthermore, the ideologies themselves and the feelings they were accompanied by had explicitly physical and sensory dimensions. Sensory History allows us to at least try to understand the ways in which history felt against one’s body, while not really feeling the reality of history as it was once felt.