ALMOND TREES IN BLOSSOM: Mangeshi the light of my eyes
By: Francis Kalo Khosho
Last Saturday, I was caught up in a daydream, a surreal vision where I was standing on the roof of our house in Mangeshi, the light of my eyes. The sky was a very rich blue and the sun was shining brightly. The birds were particularly awakened this time of year, flying around and singing in such beautiful harmony. I was able to see all of the wondrous trees that surrounded the village. The particular trees that continued to catch my eye seemed to have delicate, white branches that looked as though they were capped with snow. They happened to be the elusive almond tree which surrounded the vineyards of Mangeshi.
This particular time of year, the village became a sea of blossoms due to the abundant amount of these spectacular trees reaching their peak. They were aesthetically astounding and as a result were easily arrested into one’s memory. This was part of the triumph that was Mangeshi’s fertile plain; bounded by Bathre zori to the north and Qam matha (part of the Gara range of the Zagros Mountains) to the south, Sardashti to the east and Hasari to the west.
Out of all the trees in the land of Mangeshi, the almond trees would blossom the earliest, capturing the attention of the villagers who watched diligently for their first bloom, thus marking the beginning of winter’s end (late January/early February). The beautiful blossoms were a harbinger of spring and the bountiful harvest that was to come.
Almonds have a rich antiquity, having been cultivated and eaten throughout history. The Bible even documents their importance through various passages; one such passage refers to Jacob ordering his sons to take some of the riches of the land of Canaan, to the man of Egypt (Joseph). “Then their father said to them ‘If it must be so, then do this: take some of the best products of the land in your bags, and carry them down to the man as a gift; a little balm and a little honey, some aromatic gum and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds. (Genesis 43:11) As made clear by this passage, almonds were considered to be some of the best products of the land. The villagers of Mangeshi that grew up on such fertile parcel understood how lucky they were to have this rich soil beneath their feet.
It can be said that some of the best poetry and songs of our village have been dedicated to the beauty of the almond tree. Much of our culture is steeped in traditional song and dance and therefore it has been important for songwriters to capture their memories of our homeland in words. My good friend Hana Shamon from Chicago, IL is not only a distinguished writer and poet, but also a son of Mangeshi. Some years ago, he wrote a beautiful song sung by one of our beloved singers Janan Sawa, which goes, “shetha pqekhla mburtena ma dewn khezya mathwatha leth besh khletha menakh” (the almond tree blows and its blossoms have seen many villages, you’re the prettiest of all.) This visual is captured not only in song but in our memories.
The reason almond trees have such a strong presence in my memory was their longevity; they always seemed to be a part of our village. When we would ask our parents when the trees were planted, they would say our grandparents planted them. However, I always wanted to know more about this special tree and thus took it upon myself to do some research. I found a great deal of information on the symbolic nature of the almond tree as well as facts about its various properties. It turns out that the almond tree is actually a symbol of abiding love. There has been an association between the almond tree and themes of love, friendship and forgiveness, which actually makes sense considering its romantic and visually soothing nature.
Factually, the trees grow to be 15-20 feet in height and are astoundingly not afraid of the cold. In fact, during the cold season, the trees provide much needed nectar to the wild bees. The almond itself actually forms inside a soft, fleshy exterior. In Mangeshi, we used to eat it while it was a soft green (kosikni). Although the exterior appeared to be beautiful, it was not ripe, and therefore unpleasant to the taste; instead, we preferred to eat the strong interior that contained the seed. The bees were always busy pollinating the almond tree blossoms and collecting pollen. When the blossoms began to fall to the ground, it was a signal that their work was done, and before you knew it, green almonds (kosikni) were visible from the branches. Green almonds, the name given from the color of their hull, were not ripe, but the very smooth, white colored almond on the inside was edible. As the green almond began to dry out, it would split, exposing the nut inside. It took a couple of weeks to completely dry. However, once it dried, the harvest would begin by shaking the trees branches (mpasa) or physically climbing the trees to pick them up. The almonds would fall to the ground, and were then gathered and put in sacks in order to transport them home by donkeys in order to be properly cleaned. The nuts were then stored in cool, dry places away from heat.
Almonds themselves come in two varieties, sweet and bitter. The sweet almonds are the most common almonds that the average person would be used to. The bitter almond on the other hand has distinct differences to the sweet almonds, not just the taste. The bitter almonds contain a toxic amount of prussic acid, which can be further refined into a poison called cyanide. Consuming seven to ten unprocessed bitter almonds can actually be lethal to a human, according to The Encyclopedia Britannica. Consequently, the prussic acid must be drained out before they can be used by humans as food. Therefore, bitter almonds are generally boiled or baked, in order to drain out most of the hydrocyanic acid. Usually oil extracted from bitter almonds is then used to make flavored liqueurs. In Mangeshi, the bitter almonds were very rare. The only place that I was aware of was (shethi d’hagi baif) which used to be a vineyard belonging to Hana Koki. Hana Koki was a merchant (karwanchi), and I was told that he would take his bitter almonds to the city of Mosul (Nineveh Province in Iraq) and exchange it with other merchants. The bitter almonds in Mosul were used to make soaps, due to their stronger almond scent.
Since we are in this same time of year, it has brought me much joy to not only recall the beautiful memories these trees produced, but also research the many uses and attributes of this bountiful nut. I hope you all take the time to enjoy all of the splendor the Spring season has to offer; I send you all a twig of almond tree as a symbol of my love.