Gone Are the Olive Trees

Tartous lost her virginity toward the end of the sexual revolution, that is late 1960’s early 1970’s. Up until then, Tartous was still a very charming city-by-the-sea, surrounded and adorned by orange orchards and olive copses, called locally (Nawa3eer Laymoun & Basatin Zaytoun). The city was perpetually sweet-scented by orange blossom. Come evening in autumn or summer, a light easterly breeze stirred wilder roses and flowers on the nearby hills assaulting the leisurely quiet town with myriads of aromas.
I grew up when everybody knew everybody else. As kids, we would go swimming unattended anywhere on the beach. The sandy stretch had no start and no end. It was ours, and in the summer we would spend all of our waking hours there. We were only asked to come home at meal times. At dusk, men would sit at the Bayader Café (Ahwet Al Biader) exaggerating the number of quails they’ve shot, or the heroics of their hunting dogs (most of the pointer dogs had the names of Murjan and Wardo). Other perpetual topics were the olive season, good or bad; the fish catch, big or small; and the construction of the port by the Yugoslavian company. The women had their own café (Ahwet Al Neswan) where they met between sunset and evening “Maghrib and Isha” and watch TV. The cubic black & white Telefunken was perched high on a wooden pedestal in one corner of the café. They had a choice of one of two channels, Syrian TV from Damascus or Lebanese TV from Beirut. When one of the two channels showed Fahed Ballan the other would have Samira Tawfik. Om Kalthoum was a special treat, usually reserved for Thursday evening. The women would sit, talk, watch and smoke their arghilé in bliss and contentment. The arghilé in Tartous (also in Tripoli, Lebanon) was a strictly feminine accessory in those days. Men rolled their cigarettes from tobacco grown around in the nearby mountains. The more sophisticated smoked Kent or Lucky. Notice that I didn’t say, the rich, but rather sophisticated, a euphemism for pretentious (Mfazlakin).
In season, men would always go hunting on Friday. Quails, thrushes and mourning doves (Ferri, Semmon & Derghal) were abundant. One had to just step out of the city limits, walk about for a couple of hours and return with a bagful for the family’s dinner. There was always plenty to give to a neighbor who had become too old to go hunting himself. Going further up the coastal mountains, Chukar partridges (7ajal), rabbits and even gazelles were plentiful.
The only smoke or pollution Tartous had back then was from the chimney of the olive oil by-product producing plant (Ma3mal al-3arjoum). The leftovers after the processing of oil is called 3arjoum and was used to heat the homes of all Tartoussis. The family would gather around the open Mankal, cover the hazelnuts with the hot ashes and wait in turn to be fed by mother or father.
The port was the beginning of the end. Although, Tartous always had had a harbor the sheer gigantic size of the project meant that doom will eventually fall on the sleepy town. A basin that can accommodate at dozens of ocean going vessels needs at least a thousand trucks per day to load and unload. Just providing a parking space for these trucks meant that thousands and thousands of olive trees had to go. What naively started as the salvation of Tartous from its laid-back destiny is still going on in full swing today to accommodate not only the trucks but the warehouses, the yards, the commercial, administrative and industrial parasites and the housing for all the new comers.
Some of our elderly today are dismayed by the fact that we are buying olives and olive oil from Idlib. No offense to Idlib, but I can understand how these older Tartoussis get tears in their eyes. The liquid gold of Tartous, the best olive oil in the world, the one we ate with everything and in every meal is being replaced by generic shit from beyond the mountains.
Sadly enough, there’s nothing more to say. At least not till another day.


Yazan said…
sooo beautiful writing...
super hero said…
it is just so sad how beautiful things are easily lost for the sake of "development". i was lucky enough to experiece the very last days of a beautiful town. we moved from there almost 10 years ago. and today, when i happen to visit my old town, i feel sorry for all the beatiues that have all gone for good.
Anonymous said…
Absolutely right...

And it didn't stop there. I have witnessed some of the barbarian slaughter myself. Olive tries are constantly removed from the Southern parts of Tartous, for the building of "new university", and from the Eastern parts for building new "houses" for new settlers.

This is not a problem of Tartous alone. Look at Damascus...Thousands of trees, specially Apricot, was removed for the sake of the ever-expanding city. We are importing Orange juice from Saudia Arabia, and one day we'll end up in a big fuckin desert with factories and towers being built in the place of green land.

Nothing is being done, and there's nobody else to blame but us...
Bridget said…
Well said. I could always sense that there was a beautiful city hiding somewhere in Tartous.

The city you describe in your post is why I can't understand this article:


He seems to think a big tourism boom is going to come to Tartous. Unless changes are made, I don't think that's going to happen!
Abufares said…
Thank you for your comment, and most importantly for taking the time to read my blog.I promsise to write about the tourists coming to Tartous very soon.
Mariyah said…
Thank you so much, Abu Fares, for pointing me to this story. I love your references to days gone by...the little gems of moments in people's lives.

The loss of the groves is indeed upsetting. Why does progress have to mean destruction? Still, the region remains beautiful. Perhaps not as it once was but I'm glad to have vacationed there.
Abufares said…
Hi Mariyah
I wrote this post over 2 years ago. Things got even worse during this time.
We're in a deep trouble and we still haven't even attempted to tackle our environmental problems. We should start with education and what we should teach our young ones not only at school but at home as well. We need to curb our high fertility rate. We should encourage urbanization in the desert and discourage it in environmentally fragile areas. But since the utmost we can expect of our government is to play Monopoly (and loose) with the rationing of electricity and water, there's very little hope indeed.
Mariyah said…
The environment is in critical condition. I didn't realize how bad it was until I returned. Most of the complaints I heard while I was in Canada were about the water - or the shortage thereof. The water problem is only the tip of the iceburg. I agree that education is key - for a number of issues directly linked to the environment - not only for children (although that's a good place to start) but a general awareness campaign for all citizens.

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