Village of Burqin
A Spiritual Destination
Spread across vegetable plains and olive hills, the village of Burqin is located only 5 km west of the city of Jenin. In comparison to other villages in the area, Burqin is considered a big village with a population of 6000 people and a municipality that governs a little over 19,000 Dunums. With a 45-member PFTA cooperative, Burqin produces over 80 tons of olive oil per year. Known as Arous Falastin or Palestineʼs Bride, Burqin has historical significance in the Christian tradition as the village where Jesus is said to have performed the miracle of curing the ten lepers. The Greek Orthodox church of St. George in the heart of the village is considered to be the third oldest church in the world. It was built over the cave where the miracle is said to have happened, where infected people were quarantined and given food through a hole in the roof. Today, the church serves as a place of worship for both Christians and Muslims alike.
With 12 Christian families living with a majority Muslim population like “brothers and sisters” in Burqin, the village serves as a role model for diversity. People in Burqin pride themselves that they donʼt simply tolerate each otherʼs differences, but they celebrate them. With great enthusiasm, Um Mohammed explains that her brother, although a Muslim, was baptized in St. George. “My mother wanted him to live because she had lost many children before so she baptized him in the church and my brother has a godfather and a godmother. We believe that Saydna Issa (our prophet Jesus) indeed passed through our village and cured people and in the end we are all Palestinians with the same ancestry.”
St. George is not the only holy place in Burqin. On top of the mountain behind the village center is the gravesite of a Muslim spiritual leader named Sheikh Saleh. According to the elders, he was a spiritual man whose faithfulness made people go to him and ask him to pray for rain in dry seasons. Until today, some people still go up to his gravesite to picnic and pray, adding more to the multiplicity of the place and its community.
Diversity at its Best
Welcoming diversity is probably Burqinʼs most prominent feature. When asked what is the most unique thing about their village, most residents respond in no uncertain terms that it is the willingness to integrate and welcome strangers or El Ghoraba. With Canaan Fair Tradeʼs facility in the heart of Burqinʼs largest olive groves, people from all over the world have been experiencing the warm welcome of this picturesque village that brings together so many diverging elements in perfect harmony. From narrow streets and wide plains to tradition and modernity, representing not only the spirit of a place whose people embrace pluralism in the most spontaneous of ways but also a community whose values are deeply rooted in gratitude. Since 2008 when the Canaan Fair Trade factory was built across from Araba valley, internationals have frequented the village to learn about Palestinian olive oil production in its ancient and modern contexts of a state-of-the-art olive press and old Canaanite ruins of olive presses.
Canaanʼs special blend of Estate olive oil comes from Burqin, from a piece of land called Al-Bayada that is famous for its flavorful olive fruit, which is harvested and pressed immediately at Canaanʼs facility. Burqin coop produces 10 tons of the Estate olive oil, which has been receiving international acclaim for being collected from trees that are hundreds of years old. This makes the people in the village very proud. Um Khaled was born and raised in Burqin. She has worked in the plains for the majority of her life, from picking cucumbers to harvesting wheat. She says, “Canaan introduced us to other cultures. People who come learn about what we have. We have Za'atar, olives, wheat, and many more things. As we share the wealth of our village with the world through the presence of this company in our neighborhood we also get the chance to improve ourselves not just financially but also in ways that even our schools sometimes fail to do. When you walk into the company, you feel like it is your home and it is very organized. It serves as an example for the significance of peopleʼs commitment. People who smoke may throw their cigarette butts in the streets but if they are in the Sharikeh (company) they smoke outside and they put out their cigarettes in ashtrays. This is all because we feel part of it. I feel itʼs my company. It is not for foreigners and it was created by someone from here and not a stranger. This is of utmost importance because Canaan has become a major landmark for Burqin. You cannot mention our village and not mention Canaan Fair Trade at the same time.”
Strolling down the street from Al Marah (wide open space) or what is sometimes called Wast El Balad, Arabic for town center, one can easily meet people hanging out in late afternoon sipping tea and coffee while playing Backgammon. From elders to youngsters, people in Burqin are far from shy. If you happen to walk in the village center expect invitations for something to drink and icebreaking jokes from the youth who make you immediately feel at home. Al Marah is typically bustling with activities and the aromas coming out of Burqinʼs most popular eatery, Al Anini, will surely make anyone hungry for a traditional egg omelet prepared with onions and mountain herbs.
Aside from being a friendly community, women in Burqin are well known for their specialty foods including homemade tomato paste that is eaten with a little bit of olive oil and bread baked on hot stones in traditional clay ovens, Taboun. Um Khaled, whose son Walid works at Canaan Fair Trade, prepares her tomato paste only from organic rain-fed tomatoes. “Most women in Burqin like to make their own tomato paste because we like to know what we are eating. I wash the tomatoes well, I salt them and then I smash them with my hands until they become liquid. After I take out the skin I strain the juice in a big container. I cook it for hours- at least 6 to 7 hours- on high temperature and I keep stirring until the liquid becomes solid then I put it in jars and I top it with a drop of olive oil and some pepper and I store it for eating and cooking for the whole year.”
The Days of the Watermelon
84 year old, Um Hashim remembers Burqin when its valleys were filled with Jadouʼ watermelons, a variety that is hard to find these days with the introduction of non-indigenous seedless watermelons. “People would sell watermelon not just in Palestine but all over El Sham (greater Syria which includes modern day Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan). We would take our kids to the Marj (the Valley) and take little beds for them so they would sleep while we pick. We would carry the melons on our heads in Al Qoneh (big metal containers) and put them in trucks where the men would take them to sell in Beirut and other cities. We would often spend the night in the field. Those were wonderful days, I wish I were as strong as I was then. We used to work more but we were happier and more rested. Today people are stressed. There is so much displacement and people are finding it harder and harder to stay in El Marj.”
Unfortunately, Um Hishamʼs words seem to ring true in a time when most farmers in Burqin are struggling to maintain their vegetable farms due to lack of access to water. While underground water is abundant in the area, residents of Burqin are not allowed to dig for their own water resources. A permit from Israel must be obtained before any well is dug, with a limitation on the amount of water that can be pumped. Farmers in Burqin are forced to buy water by the truckload, which is too expensive to sustain them in their fields.
According to Um Hisham, Burqin has been facing many challenges since 1967 when Israel limited access to water and started introducing herbicides and pesticides that are damaging the soil. Um Khaled, who has worked in the green houses in the valley of Burqin, says “when farmers get these chemicals they do not get any instructions about proper use. There is no way to know how and when to use them, and most importantly, people do not know how harmful these chemicals are not just for the soil but for our health.” This is why she says many people are starting to go back to the traditional ways of cultivating and with Canaan Fair Tradeʼs commitment to organic agriculture and the environment, locals are starting to see the benefits of going back to organic growing.
Better Soil for Better Community
Mohannad Ghanim and his family grow organic lemons for Canaan Fair Trade. This year they have transformed their lemon grove to an intercropping model where they are operating an organic olive tree nursery and a vegetable garden. The Ghanimʼs are very excited about their land and they hope they will be able to sell to Canaan Fair Trade most of their produce. According to Mohannad, “there is nothing better than the taste of an eggplant or a tomato planted in my yard naturally. I can smell the tomato from a meter away and I can see a growing number of lady bugs and other species which makes me certain that we are doing something right.”
Indeed, the people in Burqin are doing something right, from investing in the recovery of their land to the celebration of their cultural heritage, and they are determined to go beyond survival making their village a lighthouse of hope and affirmation that a good way of life is possible.