“Long live farming! Long live nature!” Omar calls out as he stands on the terrace with his fists thrust above his head.
I smile and look up at him from a plastic mat where I am sorting a mound of green olives. The wrinkled and bruised ones are tossed into a crate that will eventually go to the olive press. The unblemished olives are kept separately for pickling with lemons and small green peppers.
Omar has been making grand statements like this since I met him on a Sunday evening when he returned from Jordan’s capital city of Amman, where he lives with his wife and grown daughter and works in IT.
This statement spoke to me: “Everyone has a soft spot for the land. Some more than others, but it’s in all of us.” And he clearly has a soft spot for this land, on which he owns an estimated 500 olive trees and has built two homes, one the main house used by family, farm volunteers and Airbnb guests, and the other a separate house for the farm workers.
Both houses have rooftop views of the green trees and dry soil of neighboring farms, the small city of Jerash in one direction, the large city of Amman in another, roughly a one-hour drive away, and a nearby mosque that sounds a beautiful call to prayer five times a day.
From what he tells me about his life, I guess Omar to be in his upper sixties or early seventies. He has age spots on his face and hands and walks with a slight lean forward on a wooden cane. He wears a loose baseball cap to keep the sun off of his face.
He started the farm with fruit and olive trees. The fruit trees went bad and the olive trees survived, so he stuck with them. He now also raises chickens, geese, ducks and sheep; has some growing orange, clementine and pomegranate trees; and preaches sustainability and reuse for everything imaginable.
There are pieces of leftover bread and date pits drying on the roof of a building that houses the chicken coop. The dried bread will be crushed and fed to the chickens. He is not sure what he will do with the date pits, but like many things, he saves them first and figures out their use later. Tuna and bean cans become ashtrays for guests (smoking is as much a staple in many Jordanians’ diets as is olive oil). Sheep wool is used for mattresses. Rotten tomatoes are cut up and mixed in with the chicken feed. The chickens fight over who gets the bits of red out of their usual beige diet of crushed bread crumbs, among other grains and some occasional greens to add variety and aid digestion. Leaves that fall off of the olive trees during harvesting are given to the sheep as a snack they quickly devour.
“My father is an old hippie at heart,” one of his four sons had told me on the way to the farm on a Thursday afternoon. His ad for volunteers to help with olive harvesting described it as an opportunity to “learn with joy,” which was enough to pull me there. That, and my love of olives, or “zeitoun” as they are called in Arabic.
I found out quickly that while he may be a hippie at heart, he also has some traditional ideas. “You are in charge of this,” he says, pointing to the refrigerator shortly after we meet for the first time. “Familiarize yourself with what’s in there. Get to know it,” he says. “For dinner tonight,” he says, “I’ll just have yogurt soup and some salad.”
“Ok,” I say, with a bit of alarm rising in me. I did not realize I would be preparing meals for him. For us. And, it turns out, sometimes for the people who come and go from the farm–family, friends and guests who visit for the day.
That evening, I anxiously pace the kitchen gnoshing on bread sticks, wondering what will be required of me. Although I absorbed some skills watching my mother, I have never been much of a cook, generally preferring the ease of repeating the same simple meals to creating particularly special dishes. The food I make, I have always thought, is fine for me, but it is nothing I imagine others would savor.
Our first morning working together, he explains what will be our routine. At 7:30, we start by feeding the chickens, first mixing the dried bread, grains and chicken feed in buckets and then shelling it out by hand into feeders as the chickens nudge each other out of the way and jump in the tops of the feeders to reach a bigger share. My knuckles get skinned from digging my hands deep in the buckets to mix the dry grains. As the first week goes on, Omar sees my softness in how I feed and watch the chickens, letting him know of any potential problems, and starts calling me their “mama.”
After the chickens, the day varies. Some mornings I lay out grass in feeders and on rocks for the sheep until they pad their way back to the farm from their morning grazing. One day I water fruit trees in plastic buckets that make up the farm’s irrigation system.
By 9:30, we stop to eat some fruits. He shows me how he likes the oranges and grapefruits sliced. He directs nearly everything I do and gives repeated reminders–what containers to use, how to put the chicken feed in the feeders, how to soak the cheese that is too salty–though when I mention I forgot some of his “instructions,” he corrects me. “Suggestions,” he says.
As I go about my work he calls out to me periodically using one of the many nicknames he has given me. “New York, New York!” he might say, “How are you?!” or, knowing that I speak a bit of French, he says, “Are you content, Brigitte? Êtes-vous content?” He sees my limited cooking skills a result of being a city person who lives on conveniences like take-away and Starbucks–nevermind that I nearly always ate at home and do not drink coffee–and plies me with advice on eating, living and staying healthy. “Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and don’t go to Starbucks.”
One evening after dinner, I show him my blog. He tells me I need to stop traveling so much. “You must settle,” he says. “Having family, people to take care of you, this is important and rewarding.” He talks about the problems of industrialization, saying he sees the farm as an example of an alternative way to live. One night he goes on at length about how there are no strong leaders today like there used to be. “Obama,” he says with a sneer as he lays on the couch with his iPad propped on his legs, “is not strong enough…You can’t say, ‘This is a red line’ and then not follow through. People expect you will support them and you don’t.” He is from Syria, though he got both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in the U.S. and as far as I know has lived in Jordan all of his adult life.
After the fruits each day I prepare the “main meal.” I learn to put out labneh (strained yogurt) with olive oil and tomatoes, his favorite homemade apricot jam, pickled olives from the farm, flat bread warmed over the gas burners and, of course, a bottle of olive oil, which is needed with everything even when we have already added it to the food. Among other things, at the table we pour extra olive oil in our bowls of yogurt soup or foul—a dish Omar teaches me to make with fava beans, tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic—and drizzle it over the labneh and cheese.
We eat on the terrace of the main house with the scent of jasmine vines hanging from the second floor terrace overhead. Inside the vines birds have built a nest, and I watch them fly in and out and listen to their tweeting. He generously sits back after each meal and says, “Good meal, Brigitte…good meal.”
A week into my stay, other volunteers arrive for the weekend. They are a couple who lives together in Amman, one teaching Italian and the other working at a camp for Syrian refugees. We begin the olive harvest, along with Omar’s daughter and her friend, who are also visiting for the weekend.
We swipe our hands along the long, thin branches of the trees as the zeitoun plop, plop, plop on the dark green net we have laid under the tree. Some trees have green olives, some black and some are black with a purplish hue. We take turns climbing the tree to reach olives at the top branches. “Go inside,” Omar will say, to make sure we look at the tree from every angle and do not miss any olives. He uses his cane to pull down tall branches. He tells me to make a lip at the ends of the net so olives do not roll down the slope of the hill. We climb a wooden ladder to grab olives we cannot reach. The farm workers say “khalas” (“finished”) when they think we are done, though you are forever finding a stray or two dangling somewhere you thought you already checked, and Omar occasionally arrives with a shirt pocket full of olives he points out we left at a previous tree.
At the end of the weekend, the volunteers and family go back to Amman, and I carry on the harvesting with the farm workers, both Egyptian men who are married to women who live in Egypt. One has young twins in Egypt. They each see their families only rarely.
Between the olives, the kitchen and giving tours to guests who come to stay at the farm for a day or overnight—“Your guests,” Omar calls them. “My guests?” I think—I am working a lot. One day when Omar is in Amman, he calls to tell me that I have some “guests” coming. Soon after, a school bus arrives and roughly 20 elementary school kids pour out. One of Omar’s sons is with them and watches the kids, but I still have the clean-up to do in addition to the harvesting. Meanwhile, Omar texts me to snap photos of the kids on the farm. The constant requests and reminders are beginning to wear on me. I take long walks on the curving, hilly roads at the end of the day to have quiet time, occasionally fending off barking dogs from a neighboring farm.
Farm life, I have learned, is a never-ending job. There is caring for animals, caring for the land, cooking, cleaning and hosting. Omar has a hand in multiple personal and business ventures connected to the farm and indicates that having the Airbnb guests is sometimes too much in addition to the farming work. I suspect this is why he has made them “my” guests.
As my time comes to an end, Omar implores me to stay longer. He feels I am a good fit and wants me to train the other volunteers for the remainder of the harvest. I have already been doing that with a new volunteer, a thin 20-something woman from Russia who sometimes uses the generally well-meaning Jordanian phrase of “as you wish” with a bitter tone.
From the start she seems to be questioning the volunteer position, saying that it should be “light work.” She rolls her eyes when I double-check a tree for remaining olives and complains to me that I work too hard. Meanwhile, Omar seems annoyed that I am leaving, commenting multiple times that I am spending too much on the week-long trek I am about to take. “No Jordanian would pay that,” he says.
A few days before I leave Omar gives me an afternoon off to visit the ruins of the Roman city of Jerash. He picks me up that evening with his Saudi Arabian nephew in tow, driving us to the farm along back roads.
He points out where Palestinian refugees have now made their homes in Jerash, talks about farming in the area and shows us olive trees that are hundreds of years old. Eventually, he turns the car into the parking lot of the local olive press. I had wanted to see it the night before when the farm workers brought stuffed bags of the olives we picked for pressing.
Omar walks us through the press, explaining each step. I am grateful that he remembered how much I had wanted to go and made it happen. I have now seen every step of the olive oil process, literally from farm to table.
On my last full day Omar once again announces that I will be having guests. An old friend of his arrives with his daughter and granddaughter. I give them a tour of the farm, feed them foul and clean up after everyone. When they leave, I clean out the refrigerator and clear the outside table of rotting vegetables. I chop tomatoes for the chickens. Omar’s nephew then announces that the guests are here, and I need to show them the barbecue. “The guests?” I say, “I thought they were already here? And I don’t even know how to use the barbecue… Omar wants me to water the plants… I can only do so much,” I complain.
Hearing my exasperation, the nephew helps me give the guests a tour. I water the plants and then go to the bathroom before heading out to pick more olives. Omar sees me leaving the bathroom and reminds me I need to pick the olives. “Yes,” I say, “I’ve been running around like crazy.” He pauses and looks at me. “Tonight is your last night,” he says. “I want you to have a special meal.” I soften, touched by his gesture. “Thank you,” I say. “Can you prepare it?” he says. Speechless.
We strike gold in the form of a frozen okra stew that his wife had prepared some time ago. I heat it and make rice to go with it. The okra has tomatoes and bits of lamb that give it a deep flavor. It is some of the best food I have eaten in Jordan thus far.
We eat on the terrace with Yasmine, the Russian volunteer. Two stray cats make their regular dinner-time visit to beg for food. As usual, Omar first shoos them away and then hand feeds them food. As Omar talks about how the chickens are going to miss “mama,” Yasmine softly announces that she is considering leaving tomorrow morning, too. Dinner quickly becomes awkward.
The next morning I leave on a bus to Amman. Yasmine is next to me, suddenly affectionately squeezing my arm and asking me to join her at another work exchange she has scouted in Petra. I cannot go. My mountain trek awaits.
Some Notes on Work Exchanges:
Work exchange opportunities vary significantly in terms of how much you are expected to contribute and what is offered in return. The most common request I have seen asks for five hours of work for five days a week in exchange for free room and board. The room could be a tent, a shared room or a private room. And the food could mean that food is provided for you or that you have access to a kitchen that you can use to prepare your own meals.
The work for this exchange was demanding, but it was a rewarding way to experience a place. I got to know people and a culture through sharing the farm work and having long conversations. I learned about Jordanian hospitality, raising chickens, olive harvesting and the current refugee situation. And I even learned how to prepare some Jordanian foods, an integral part of connecting to a culture.
You can find worldwide work exchange opportunities on Workaway, HelpX and Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). While Workaway and HelpX list work exchange opportunities of all kinds, WWOOF is focused exclusively on farming.
Among the many interesting people I talked with at the farm was Lara Darwazah, who writes about Jordanian food on her blog A Life on a Plate. She has also made an interesting short documentary about Jordanian, Palestinian and Circassian food that is available on the site.