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UTSC Centre for Ethnography Speaker Series: "The Qualities of Palestinian Olive Oil"

Centre for Ethnography Speaker Series, Fall 2012


In this paper I focus on a particular case: olive oil in 20th century Palestine. I discuss how the semiotic metadiscourses regarding olive oil are particularly politically charged in contemporary Palestine. A shared Mediterranean valuing of olive oil for ritual, curing, beautification, and nurture was effectively torn asunder with the establishment of the state of Israel in1948, when separation of the “Peoples of the Book” (of the monotheistic tradition) and the question of who “owns” olive oil came to the forefront as much as it did for who “owns” the land. A semiotic “flattening” is the current emphasis on the importance of the production of olive oil as staking a claim to the land that Palestinians already own, but which is under continual threat of confiscation. This has meant a dramatic transformation in the qualisigns highlighted in contemporary Palestinian olive oil: to be saleable abroad, olive oil must be determined to be “extra-virgin”, a quality that makes no reference to the spiritual world, but rather to an internationally recognized domain of connoisseurship.


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