their clothes are as bright as the tomatoes they carry

Falahyeen, Southern Syria, 9 August 2008

As I rode down the highway, I passed tent after tent set up for tomato harvest. These tents sat up on the edges of enormous fields of greenery. Outside one of the tents, there was a celebration going on: I could see the men dancing traditional dabke folkdance and the women sitting around clapping. But this was the exception. Most of the falahyeen were working hard.

Along the side of the highway there were fruit and vegetable stands set up in which about 80% of the produce on sale was ripe red tomatoes. In the fields beyond, I could see women in long skirts and long-sleeved shirts and covered heads, tirelessly picking tomatoes off of vines.

A little down the road, there were half a dozen women crossing the highway. Most of them had enormous buckets of tomatoes – holding easily 20 kilos of tomatoes each – resting on their heads as they sprinted across the south-bound lanes, then walked across the grass median strip to the north-bound lanes. They waited there for us to zip by.

As we sped past them, I noticed they were wearing very bright clothing. One woman was wearing all red with faux gold coins adorning her headscarf and her waist. Another was wearing a blue skirt with a bright flowery blouse and a headscarf in another bright colour that I can’t now remember. These women walked tall and strong and with unending energy.

On one Saturday a month ago, we had the opportunity to join three falahyeen women in their work. They were picking rocks out of a field that is used for a eco-agriculture project, and we joined them for two hours. We moved rocks for two hours then went straight for the cola and tea. They had had been there before we arrived, but they still managed to make an arduous task into a dazzling party for us. Each girl wore a long skirt and trousers under her skirt, a warm long-sleeved blouse and a headscarf. I don’t think they wore it for decency – after all, they were happily flirting with the boys in our group. It’s just what they wear.

Some of us stopped by their home after the work was over for the day, and they had cleaned the dirt smudges off of their faces and hands. Their faces were still dark and sunburnt, their heads still covered, their smiles still wide. And their clothes just as bright. They looked like they were ready to start making their lunch… but first, they wanted to stop and drink tea with us before we returned to the city.

The falahyeen I saw today lived in tents on the sides of the fields. They are a sort of migrant worker, going to the fields where and when they can find work. Right now the tomatoes in the South need picking. The sun in August is relentless here, and they work all day in the fields. But their energy doesn’t let up. They jog and laugh and party, and the girls talk with boys and the boys with girls. They get the tomatoes picked and even take them to the produce stands to be sold. Their clothes are as bright as their smiles, which are just about as bright as August tomatoes.

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