‘You want coffee? I need coffee…’
Our red-eyed host was clearly in need of a caffeine fix.
We’d been waiting in the honey-coloured courtyard of Dar Abu Hassan guest house for about an hour when he arrived. The delay was a classic combination of the British belief in bright-and-early and the more abstract Palestinian interpretation of time.
Hassan stumbled into the kitchen and emerged with a huge, thick, black, almost sticky Arabic coffee. He sat with us and rubbed his eyes.
‘3am! At 3am they called me.’ At 3am they had called him from the olive press on the other side of Battir. It was nearly his turn. Except it wasn’t, because there were still ten people in front of him and now he was awake. So he had waited up until it was his turn.
Battir olive harvest
It was the middle of November when we arrived, and also the middle of the olive harvest. Not that the olive harvest is always in the middle of November; it depends on when the first rains fall.
‘It is always after the first rain of the season,’ explains Hassan, ‘because the rain, it washes all the dust off the trees, and it helps to make the branches soft, so it’s easier to pick the olives.’
Streaked along the Makhrour Valley, which runs from Battir to Beit Jala just outside of Bethlehem, there are ancient terraces of ancient olive trees. And families are out picking their olives. They pile them up in sacks and buckets and take them to the olive press in Battir. A huge, roaring, shuddering, spluttering automated olive press on the outskirts of the village.
It looks like a serious production line and a family day out rolled into one. The place is packed with local families, waiting their turn to tip their precious harvest in at one end, and bottle up the glistening, golden oil at the other.
And it goes on through the night.
A tour of Battir
But we hadn’t been waiting to see the olive press, as impressive as it was. We were waiting for Hassan to show us around this remarkable little village in the West Bank; his home and his passion. And so after a caffeine hit, we set off from the little guest house on a meandering loop of the green belly of Battir.
We descend down into the valley and look out over the invisible Green Line to Israel, where the railway snakes its way from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Palestinians travel from all around the West Bank for selfie opportunities on the railway track here, and sight of a train they can never catch.
Battir is beautiful. It’s lush and green, and its ancient landscape turned out to be its trump card; it’s the reason there’s no visible border.
Feisty villagers fought to stop the Israeli government from building a three-kilometre stretch of the separation barrier here. In 2014, Battir made it onto UNESCO’s World Heritage List for its ‘Land of Olives and Vines.’ And in 2015, after a three-year legal battle, the Israeli High Court of Justice froze plans for the wall in Battir.
Stone terraces that can be dated to Canaanite, Roman, Crusader and Ottoman times step down the steep valley and stretch along the hillside for miles. But this is no defunct pile of ancient archaeology; these terraces are tended and crops burst from the plots, all watered by a very clever Roman-era irrigation system.
The maze of water channels–fed by seven natural springs–make sure that each of Battir’s eight terrace-farming families gets en equal share of water every week. It’s why in Battir, there are eight days in a week.
Aside from olives and vines, crops include tomatoes, oranges, lemons, spinach and chickpeas. But the most famous in these parts is the vibrant, violet-coloured Battiri Betenjan—eggplant or aubergine. It’s smaller than your average aubergine, and sweeter.
It’s the end of the betenjan season, but yakteen are very much in right now. Pumpkins, or gourds, are everywhere. Light green, bottle-shaped baubles hang from trees and are strung across ancient stone walls like monstrous Christmas decorations. There are hundreds of them.
We follow the irrigation channels up the hill to the Roman pool and spring, stopping at The Terraces Cafe. Hassan runs the cafe and the guesthouse with his two brothers and his sister, Fatima, who is looking after us tonight.
‘Everything we serve is from the land. There is no meat… there are not many Palestinian restaurants where you would go for a tomato stew!’ he says proudly.
From the land
Dinner is a feast of Battiri produce cooked by Fatima; a huge aubergine and potato maqlubeh with the last of the season’s Battiri betenjan, salads, pickles and olives all from the land.
Hassan eats with us and shares his plans for Battir, and his work in helping other countries preserve their cultural landscapes. He is a man with many strings, and passions. But right now he needs his bed, so we bid him goodnight.
The next morning we’re woken by the reverberations of the muezzin. It’s hours until Palestinian breakfast time, so we hit one of the many hiking trails Battir has to offer, following the Makhrour Valley towards Bethlehem. It’s a good start to the day, and there’s hot shakshuka waiting for us when we get back.
More info on our trip…
We stayed at Dar Abu Hassan Guest House in Battir. It has three family rooms and can sleep up to ten people. A traditional Palestinian breakfast is included, as well as a tour of the village. Hassan will happily help you with the hikes and trails around Battir, and can be hired as a tour guide. Lunches and dinners can be prepared on request for an extra charge and are highly recommended!
The guest house is also home to the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library. You can read about a fabulous food tour we did in Nisf Jubeil, organised by the seed library.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can hike from Jerusalem to Battir. Read about it in the post Hiking across the Green Line to Battir.
Just days after our trip to Battir, I was sad to hear from fellow blogger Kirsty at East Jerusalem Diaries that Israeli settlers have set up camp on the outskirts of the village. Read her blog post about the problem of the West Bank’s shrinking outdoors for more info.