Humor, Memories, Narrative, Quirky

MORE Cactus Pricking

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Three of us left the compound a while before sunset. We needed two people on the passenger side of the station-wagon to poke their arms out the window in order to carry the picking tools, which were tin cans mounted side-ways on the end of long poles. These are the instruments and this is the account of my second time witnessing the art of cactus picking.


Unfortunately, there were only two poles: Zoughbi took the longer one and Rajaee took the shorter. Zoughbi, realizing my lack, expressed remorse but I gently cut his apologies short and ripped a flap of cardboard from a nearby box. Last time, Rajaee let me use the pole while he picked using a piece of cardboard for a grabber; I saw this as my chance to show my unselfishness. Because the cacti are on a hillside, one does not simply walk up to them and start pilfering but I thought I could pick faster without the tool by scrambling across the rocks. This is how stories where I seriously injure myself tend to begin.

Yet I was vindicated by every plump and bristly صبر* (cactus fruit) plopping into my three-flapped cardboard box. I picked with the same cavalier exuberance and masochism I learned from picking raspberries in the patch behind my childhood home in Michigan. In those days, I pressed between the thorny branches to pick the most succulent of all fruits. I thought I had morphed into an expert cactus-picker, for a minute, until I glanced at my hands. A raspberry thorn pricks you once, the instant you touch it, but a cactus bristle quietly embeds itself and pricks for hours. It looked like someone had put tiny hair-plugs just above my wrist. Knowing how much that would hurt later, I decided to make the most of the time I had left. Needless to say, I did not try to push between the cacti.

At one point, I balanced on a rock with one foot and leaned, with my other leg extended for balance, to grab an especially pink صبرة. I was proud: my box was nearly full. Just as I grabbed for the next one, a wasp burst from the shadows! I flinched and brushed against a big, green cactus frond. Clothing only half-exists in the cactus dimension: the bristles went into my shirt and itched my belly the rest of the evening. It was a small price to pay to avoid being envenomated. Meanwhile, my hands were already starting to burn as I watched Zoughbi finish filling his bucket.

When picking one, make sure to mind the others…

“عشرة كمان…” he said, setting his goal at ten. We counted with him as the muted pink of twilight diffused through the olive trees. I snickered, thinking about the time last fall when a branch broke and I was almost clobbered by a falling…
“ست…ةةةةة!” –the sixth صبرة slipped and tumbled from the mouth of the tool! We cringed, then relaxed as it collided with a frond and changed direction, lost forever in the netherworld between cacti that none dare to enter. After a dozen, we called it quits and returned to the compound.

“My hand is full of pricks,” said my boss, innocently.
Later, we rubbed our hands thoroughly with salt, especially between the fingers. The salt crystals were supposed to help pulverize and remove the thistles (شوكا). This was the phase where Amu Nicola joined us and suggested we rub our hands with sand instead. Luckily, we had none or we might have made an even bigger mess.

Each cactus fruit comes with its own sheath that needs to be removed. We dumped all the containers of fruit onto a patio area and doused them with buckets of water to either wash-away the bristles or make them clumpy— alternatively, to water the nearby ivy vines since the bristles seemed just as numerous and pernicious. One person cuts a lengthwise slit and peels back the armored jacket to expose the naked fruit while the other carefully snatches it. The process happens faster this way. Zoughbi used a piece of cardboard to hold them while he peeled, while Nicola gingerly held each with his big, sausage-sized fingers. He is surprisingly adept.

Color may vary…

I was Amu Nicola’s snatcher. Intermittently, he peeled the skin and thrust a fruit into his mouth. With some coaxing, I started eating them too. Zoughbi insisted that I had earned some and I whole-heartedly agreed with him. The صبر in every way seem to satisfy the golden mean: they’re not overwhelmingly sweet, have a glorious texture, require peeling but have no inedible pit, and are not at all acidic. Maybe the alkaline chemistry of cacti compensates to make the fruit neutral. Nevertheless, as I gobbled my ninth صبرة, Zoughbi became concerned that I would develop ‘hard stomach’.

“How many did you eat? We are accustomed but you might get – what is it?”

“Constipation!” said Rajaee, proud to remember his English.

“Eat some خوخ ليلة…” said Zoughbi. The Arabic term might be new to my friends in the West but, trust me, ya’all know what خوخ ليلة are: plums, the dark kind that are often dried to make prunes. I tried to wave him off, reassuring him that I had a drawer of plums upstairs, but he insisted I go inside and eat خوخ ليلة equal to the صبر immediately.

I recommend not eating too many of of these at one time, either.

I stood inside by the sink as a fresh bucket of water filled, filching plums from a nearby tub and contemplating the goodness of life, when the punishment for eating too much of something delicious is to eat another delicious thing in equal quantity. My day had lacked some luster before that and, at last, it seemed like a bowl of raspberries (in lieu of plums, sorry) was all I lacked. In hindsight, no number of cactus fruits could reckon with the fiber from a dozen plums and the pair of mangos I ate earlier in the day but I think the details of the morning after are best left alone في الحمام. Let’s just say it was a very ‘regular’ morning.

The sing-along portion of the evening was still before us. Zoughbi is wont to insert extra jolliness into his work by singing songs in Arabic. Up until that night, I assumed he was always singing traditional songs that everyone knew but me. Now, I have my doubts; this explains why he is the only one singing too often. He has been making-up silly songs all along. Regardless, he and Rajaee decided that it would be even more fun if I started singing.

I chuckled. Shoved into the spot-light, I discovered no strikingly appropriate song rushing to my lungs. I felt embarrassed. Zoughbi insisted, burying me even deeper in my shyness. I wondered why I can function so differently in one context versus another. I began June by serenading Precious “Toots” Matzo during the final session of our workshop in Mindanao. The facilitators decided to do an affirmation circle, where we each were given another’s certificate and required to present it to them with a speech. Babu quickly added that we were welcome to sing our sentiments. There was no doubt I had to sing. First, I was early in the affirmation circles and wanted to clear the air so other people felt comfortable singing (no one else sang. Soak that in). The other reason was that ‘Toots’ and I had bonded quickly and I felt as if I should give her 100% effort. I thought she would sing back but I think poor Toots was too stunned. I got a big hug, though.

It is really a matter of timing for me. A melody finally crept into me {“When You’re Happy & You Know It!”}  and I pulled my Arabic together for an attempt:

عندي صبر في بطني—هذا جيد

عندي صبر في بطني—هذا جيد

لكن… ممكن…لزم أكل خوخ ليلة و… مش عندنا مشكلة في الحمام…

عندي صبر في بطني—هذا جيد”

For those who do not read Arabic, a translation by Google:

[I have patience in my stomach – this is good! “
I have patience in my stomach – this is good!
But … Possible … necessary to eat night peaches and … We have not a problem in the bathroom …
I have patience in my stomach – this is good!]

As I enter those words into the translator for the first time, I discover that there was an extra meaning in the word “صبر”. The ‘patience’ it required seemed to make them even more delicious the night we picked them. Yet two days later they are as addictive as ever for everyone. Zoughbi commented at dinner today that there must be something chemically in them that makes you forget your stomach is already full. ( خوخ ليلة appeared as ‘night peaches’, amusing me to no end…)

“Sing us another song, John. You can sing in English.”

“I don’t know what I would sing in English…”

“You sang something in English – you have a beautiful voice.”

“All I can think of is… okay… how about: {“The Nearness of You”}

‘It’s not the pale moon that excites me;

that thrills and delights me?

Oh no: it’s just the flavor… of صبررررررررر.  {roll the ‘ra’ to get the full effect!}

It isn’t your swee-eet conversation

that brings this sensation!

Oh no: it’s just the prickles from صبر

When I chew you in my mouth

and I eat you… then have some خوخ ليلة

My wildest dreams came true!

And I need no soft light… *crescendo*


if you will only grant me.

The righ-ight to hold you ever so tight—‘


On second thought, maybe I would rather not hold them so tight.”

“Do you want to go picking again on Sunday?”

To pick or not to pick: that is the question.

*Curious about how to pronounce the Arabic? The cactus fruit is “ssubr”. Plums are “khokh laiyla” (good luck ). “Six” is “sitah” (or “sit—ahhhh!” in this case!). If you plugged عشرة كمان into a translator application, it might have given you ten violins but that is actually “ten more” in Palestinian Arabic. Finally, لا  means ‘la’, which is no.

* * *

Bonus Song: (“Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera)

Chase your cactus with a lovely night peach!

First you pit them; later on you [spit] them! {and by spit I mean something else…}

Open up your mouth and

you’ll find that they’re not foul but

if you have too many, then you will regret

eating all those peaches of the night!!

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