Humor, Memories, Narrative, Quirky

Cactus Pricking

Since the showdown with the Ministry of Interior in Haifa, I have noticed my psyche relaxing to a healthier, idling state. I was more apt to let writing go this week in favor of spending time socializing – company was dearly missed in exile. This week was counter-intuitively comforting for all its mundane worries, like moving back into my flat and exorcising it of the interim-tenant’s grime. It was almost sundown, and I had just finished moving all my clutter upstairs, when my boss’s ring-tone erupted from my newly kludged cell-phone holster.


“John – hallo! Would you like to pick cactus with us?”

The answer could not have been anything other than “yes” because I had never picked cactus-pears before. Additionally, I had been outlining an entry about ‘communion’ in my head and it seemed like it would be less funny and interesting than one about going to a cactus patch. Nothing against the last supper, of course…

I knew the story was only going to get better when I reached the family court-yard and saw Rajaee Zoughbi, pulling on a pair of heavy gloves. Rajaee is Zoughbi’s nephew of twenty-years, a musician by passion, a budding accountant by study, and all-around interesting guy.

“John! Do you want to pick cactus? Be careful: you will feel the spines in your hands later…”

I was dressed for the occasion in Fred Elmore’s old jeans, Tim Leisman’s discarded hat, and a t-shirt badly in need of retirement. I gave Rajaee the thumbs-up and we climbed into the Volkeswagon station-wagon. We peeled all the windows down and I noticed Zoughbi’s demeanor begin to relax; he is a man heavily relied upon in Bethlehem civil society but his inner boy emerged as he warned me: “…ya John – you will feel the spines later *cackle* but we rub salt on our hands, habeehee. You want to pick a prickled pear, a prickly prickly treat? *cackle*” (salt?!) I tried to disguise my smile. When he is fretful, I remind myself of these moments so that I know it is the weight of his job that sours him a little, not his true nature. He is, well, as sweet as a cactus on the inside.

The cactus patch is on the next ridge, in Beit Jala; as we started up the hill Zoughbi told Rajaee (in Arabic) to look for discarded boxes. I pointed to an empty Carlsburg carton but Zoughbi shook his head (later, it dawned on me that a cheap beer-box was clearly not the way to deliver fruit to family members). We made an abrupt stop on a narrow side-street and Rajaee squirted out the door and pilfered a clutch of plainer cartons.

“For the cactus so we can carry it places.”

Half-way uphill, Rajaee and I bailed-out with the boxes.

“I will go and get the machines,” said Zoughbi. My imagination ran wild with visions of Dr. Seuss-esque cactus picking machines.

“He means he’s going to get the tools,” said Rajaee blandly.

We walked a short distance before I recognized the plot: it was the same place I had picked olives the previous fall. A short flash-back montage danced into my mind’s eye:

                “The hired guy fell on top of me!” –Me

“He wants to know why you did not catch him – he’s joking…” -Z

“I showed him where I live in Michigan by pointing to my hand…” -Me

“He is from the middle of Bethlehem, that’s why he pointed to the middle of his hand…” -Z

“Don’t step on the olives or we’ll lose profit…” -Z

“Sorting the olives on the ground is supposed to be women’s work…” –Rachelle

“GAH! I twisted my ankle… why are the police here?” -Me

“The police wanted to fine me for burning grass but I reasoned with them…” -Z

“How did you get in the tree? Did they lift you up? We should take a picture!” -Everyone

Me, in the middle, olive-pickers on either side.
I thought they wanted me to help them down from the tree. Then they grabbed me by the wrists… I love Palestine so much.

 * * *

                I stepped carefully around the very same series of rocks where I wrenched my ankle. The cacti themselves were the circular kind that look like giant, green, thorn-studded chicken-patties linked precariously to one another. Rajaee ripped a flap from the box and folded it around one of the yellowish knobs growing from the top of a patty. I got a flap and did the same for a while. Somehow, I had imagined the prickers would not be as bad as touted.

“Ar!” he said suddenly. I think anyone can guess why; the fruits were not covered in long needles but with tufts of tiny bristles that, frankly, are ten times more wicked. A minute later, I could testify to this.

Around then, Zoughbi came with two ‘tools’: they looked like tomato cans mounted perpendicular on rake handles. The idea is that one reaches to a distant fruit and wiggles the can over it. Then, you twist the can and the fruit comes off inside. Sometimes. If you twist too hard, the fruit will come flying out and everyone will duck. Most of the time I twisted and twisted at a little pear, the can slipped off several times, and then I finally tried another one. A quick piece of advice: ripeness does not correlate with easiness; try not to twist the cactus part off in the process.

When the sun had almost completely set Zoughbi said “John – thirty more and we can go…”

I picked a pear and proclaimed “wahid!”

Zoughbi responded “’tnayn”, “tilaht”, “arba”, and “khamza” and I excitedly added,


“Six? You already have six?”
“No, we have six collectively…”

“I meant thirty more EACH.” Heaven only knows what Rajaee had.

I trotted to a better spot on the hillside, careful not to break my legs. Just as I was turning the screws on “subbah” I felt something sting me through my cross-trainers. These shoes are normally a good choice because they have plenty of mesh to let my feet ‘breath’ in the middle-Eastern heat. My shoe had taken a big whiff of cactus needles. I leaned against a retaining wall and picked them out while Zoughbi continued to count. He had reached “subbatash” (17) before I said


“Tinein?! What are you doing, John?” Rajaee chuckled.

By this time, I was determined. I started really plucking those spiny devils. I lost a few to the nether regions of the patch but I made-up quite a bit of ground.


“Mish subba’-wa-ashreen? Oh John…”

I scampered onto a boulder, surrounded on three sides by cactus. The potential for a memorable episode, in the most terrible way, was so salient I could taste it. Instead, I found three likely candidates and went to work.

“John – halas?”

“Kaman wahida, bus!” (just one more!) They both cheered and said ‘kaman wahida!’ with pride. Just then, I put the twentieth pear in the box and declared “ashreen!”

“Taleteen?” (30?)

“La… ashreen…” I said, my voice falling a little.

“Oh… well, halas, it’s getting dark…”

* * *

                I knew he was doing it to me. He asked how I felt and I said “fine” without thinking. That gave him license to just start driving to Beit Sahour without batting an eyelash. With my limited Arabic, I surmised from their conversation that we were taking fruit to Zoughbi’s older sister. I missed my chance to say “I’m tired” and protest.

My inner-American rouses to consciousness when fatigue takes over. I began to think of all the little ways I was not in control, remembering small chores to do and lamenting unwritten blog-entries. As she buzzed us into the apartment building, my inner-Palestinian burst forth in song:

“She’s going to feed us! She’s going to feed us! Praise God on high!”

It was not a hot meal but it was surely fit for a king: stuffed eggplant, pickles, rice rolled in grape-leaves (an acquired taste I picked-up long ago), fresh plums. Several small things I love about Palestinian culture surfaced: it’s okay to eat loudly, finger-licking is a compliment, and there is always a beverage if food is involved. I relaxed, knowing the evening over. Of course, it was not: I also had to endure an episode of catus-pear peeling with Zoughbi’s brother Nicola and his grand-daughter. Just the same, I want to close this piece as if the last thing I did was eat that wonderful food rather than hosing down our catch and discussing constipation:

                “Don’t eat too many or you’ll get a hard-stomach”


When we had said our goodbyes to Zoughbi’s sister and loaded into the car to return home, he said to me, “you never know when you will eat,” and then he looked up at the stars and said, “you know, life really is very good—don’t you think?”

“Yes. I think life is really very good, too.”

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