Art: by Helen Zughaib

Planting Olive Trees
As told to me by my father Elia Zughaib ©

Planting Olive Trees, gouache on board, 15 x 20″, Helen Zughaib

This is a story that was told to my father by his father. It is a lesson that is taught to children all over the Middle East in one form or another.

Visiting Jiddu (Grandfather) and Teta (Grandmother) in their mountain village was always a special treat. Teta would have special sweets and my favorite food prepared for me. Best of all though was Jiddu taking me with him to the fields. Sometimes it was a brief trip to see how the plants were growing. But sometimes Jiddu would ask me to be “Jiddu’s helper” and help with the small chores. During one visit, Jiddu told me that we would be planting olive trees. Because we would be staying in the olive fields all day, we had to bring with us a zuwaidy (picnic lunch), water and other provisions.

The next morning, Jiddu and I set out for the fields much earlier than usual, with a donkey carrying our provisions and small olive plants. We worked hard planting the young olive trees in furrows Jiddu had dug earlier. My job was to hold the plant straight while Jiddu would dig a small hole in the ground for each plant. Then I ladled some water from the water drum on each new olive tree. During our break for lunch, I told Jiddu that next year I would return to help him harvest the olive crop. He smiled and said that would be difficult because olive trees take many years before they bear fruit. Disappointed, I asked him why we were bothering to plant olive trees if we would be dead before they would give us any fruit. He looked at me with a very serious expression and said, “Zara’u fa akalna, nazra’u fa ya’kulun.”(They planted so we would eat; we plant so our descendants will eat.)

Making Raisins and Drying Figs, gouache on board, 15 x 20″ Helen Zughaib (Dad and Jiddu in the tree)
Making Molasses, gouache on board, 15 x 20″, Helen Zughaib (fire burning)
Making Kibbeh on Sunday Morning, gouache on board, 15 x 20″, Helen Zughaib (my dad sleeping on balcony)
Subbhiyyi with Teta, gouache on board, 15 x 20″, Helen Zughaib (women smoking hubbly bubbly drinking coffee)

Helen Zughaib was born in Beirut, Lebanon, living mostly in the Middle East and Europe before coming to the United States to study art at Syracuse University, earning her BFA from the College of Visual and Performing Arts. Helen currently lives and works in Washington, DC, as an artist. She paints primarily in gouache and ink on board and canvas. More recently, she has worked with wood, shoes, and cloth in mixed media installations. Her work has been widely exhibited in galleries and museums in the United States, Europe and Lebanon. Her paintings are included in many private and public collections, including the White House, World Bank, Library of Congress, US Consulate General, Vancouver, Canada, American Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, the Arab American National Museum in Detroit, Michigan, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Her paintings have been gifted to heads of state by President Obama and former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

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