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The Kia ora coo-ee : the magazine for the ANZACS in the Middle East, 1918

The Staff of Life

The Staff of Life

Now an Oriental—I mean the raw article, unpolished into a state of hard up-to-date fact-ism—would never pass a bit of bread lying on the ground. He would pick it up, kiss it reverently, touch it to his forehead, then either keep it or put it in some cranny of a stone, or in a tree—any place where no foot could sacrilegiously tread on it; otherwise, terribie evil or disease would overtake him or his household. One reason for this superstition is, that bread is their main, and sometimes only, means of sustenance. It is, in every sense, "The Staff of Life" to them. In fact, one colloquial Arabic name for bread is aish, which means the "life". So to tread "life" underfoot or throw it out with refuse is indeed a crime meriting the wrath of all the gods!

A flourishing Arab greengrocer told me this solemn tale a few days ago. He was having great festivities at his house, as it was the seventh day after the birth of his first child—a girl. I was inquisitive as to the reason of such merry-making, since it was "only a girl"—not a BOY. He said he had so much trouble over his first wife, when her first child (a bint also) was born, that he must frighten the evil spirits into effacing themselves—this time, by dint of great and noisy religious rejoicings. His first wife had died a few days after the child was born, and no docter on earth had been able to diagnose her malady until the shieks came and looked into the matter. They fathomed the secret at once. After various incantations, one shiek—the cleverest—asked her very solemnly if, within the last month, she had not thrown bread away into the refuse. She admitted having perpetrated the awful crime. "That is enough", said the sheik,"she will not live". And she didn't.

It seems, the Arab informed me, that upon each shoulder of every human being a good angel resides. In this case a devil "clothed" his wife when she threw the "life" away, and the good angels fled. It was better she should die, he said, than that he should live with a devil-possessed wife.

Another reason why bread is so sacred to them is a more rational, less superstitious, one. They love the article because they toil over it and tend it by hand from the moment it falls into the ground to die, straight through its second birth, then growth into rich fruition. No machinery is used at any time in its career, except an old-fashioned plough. From sunrise to sunset the peasant plods up and down the deliciously earth-scented fields, cutting long, crooked furrows in the rich, dark soil. Sometimes it is two oxen he drives, sometimes a donkey and an ox or horse. Any combination can be seen in Palestine; but it is that of a camel and ox or donkey that gave rise to St Paul's admonition: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers" — it might be rather uncomfortable.

As soon as the heavier rains are over—some time in February—the sower walks along the furrows, throwiner out broadcast handfuls of the precious grain from a bag at his side.

By the end of May the harvest is yellow, ready for reaping, and men armed with short sickles labour unremittingly until the fields are laid bare, only grisley here and there with a short, white stubble that makes them look old and worn out with their labour. In some fields, however, sickles are not used at all, but, as in the days of Ruth, the wheat is pulled up in handfuls by the root, instead. During the harvest time whole families of peasants move out into the fields and camp there under picturesque booths. There is no fear of rain after the first week in May; there may be aslight shower or two or a day of heavy clouds, but that is all.

The strong young peasants cut the tall corn, gather it in armfuls, and carry it across to a field nearby, where threshing is going on. In the near distance, moving about here and there, may be seen a few people diligently at work—like Ruth again, in that exquisite old Testament idyll—gleaning the few ears that fall from the arms of the lusty reapers. No reaper will go back to pick up the few ears he may have dropped, for, by unwritten law, these are the sacred property of the Giver of the harvest, and so belong to His poor; vague and terrible superstitious recompenses are the result of the breaking of this law. Sometimes these poor gleaners are able to collect enough to last them the winter through.

What a picture of pastoral life do the threshing floors and groups of winnowers make! Photographs, of course, do not give the unmatched coloring that the clear atmosphere produces. Patches of wild flowers, pink, yellow,. white, scarlet, and what not, bloom every where between the threshing floors. The men and women are in blue or white, with perhaps a crimson waistband or cap; the sky is a perfect blue, with soft white clouds—and everywhere there are masses upon masses of golden grain shading up into delicate buffs and straw yellows. The picture is exquisite.

In the foreground of the photograph you see four oxen being driven. They are "treading out the corn". Never are the "treaders" muzzled, in accordance with another biblical law, stated in Deuteronomy 24: 4—"Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn". So the animals can pick up a mouthful whenever they feel inclined. Only fair play that! The next step afterthetreading,istothreshout the ears of the corn. An oblong plank of heavy wood is used. It varies from about 1 3/4 yds. to 2 yds. in length by 3/4 yd. to 1 yd. in width, and is fitted underneath with huge hob-nails, each about two inches in diameter. This is drawn by the oxen or cows round and round in a circle over the ears of the corn that lie embedded in the straw. The peasant driver sits or stands on the plank and invites any who will to join him and weight down the "crushing machine". Children jump on and oft in high glee while the "machine" is in motion, and tumble about to their hearts' content.

Grain and chaff are gradually heaped up in a mound in the centre of the threshing ring, and from there are carried over to the winnowers, working in the same field. Winnowing is a most fascinating process to watch. Huge wooden pitch-forks with four prongs are thrust into the piles of grain and then raised high into the air. The heavy grain rushes down vertically off the fork on to the ground, while the "chaff the wind driveth away" (Psalm 1: 4) in a misty cloud, just like golden spray. Again and again the pitch-fork is raised and the chaff cloud glistens in the sunshine, until at last a heap of golden grain lies at the feet of the winnower, and a thick carpet of fine glistening chaff, inches deep, covers the field for yards around.

In the photograph (opposite page) several men are seen standing in the centre. One is holding up a sieve from which a shower of grain is falling into another. These sieves, strung with cat-gut, are used after the first winnowing process is over. Wheat is put into them, then they are jerked about in such a way as to cause the heavy grain to collect in the front part of the sieve, while the fine chaff piles up behind. The man in the picture is in the act of emptying the wheat he has thus separated from, the chaff.

Finally, the day comes when the sacks are filled with the precious harvest and borne away on camels or donkeys, either to be sold in the native markets, on Fridays, or stored up in the houses for the winter season. The chaff or "tibbin" is collected into sacks or huge rope bags and sold for fodder, for use either alone or mixed with barley grain.