The Olive House in Toronto: Beit Zatoun

Posted: March 12, 2012 by mahmerkhan in Feb. 29

Hello to you all,


This post is about the space that I have chosen to analyze as an everyday part of Toronto life. Instead of choosing an area (Chinatown, Koreatown, Little India/Italy/Portugal, Greek town, etc) I have chosen a non-profit business called Beit Zatoun House. This place is on 612 Markham Street (Annex area aka Bloor and Bathurst, one block east) and its a semi community centre but more of a space that encourages and preserves culture. Beit Zatoun is Arabic for “The Olive House” and it specifically revolves around the Palestinian Diaspora. Why the olive you ask? Well, one of Palestine’s main exports is olive oil. Palestine has olive trees that are over five thousand years old. So old, that there is a mention of the olive tree in the Quran. And to this day, the West Bank is producing “authentically Palestinian” Olive oil which is sold all over the world at about $19.99 for a litre in glass bottle. The proceeds go to charities such as the red crescent (Palestine’s Ambulance and Hospital services.) You can buy this oil at places such as 1000 villages and ofcourse Beit Zatoun.


Palestinians relate to this symbol of olive because of it’s abundance in daily life. Before 1947, olive oil was never sold in markets since everyone cultivated their own olives and made their own olive oil hence the lack of demand. Now being diasporic, the longing for Palestinian olive oil is ever growing. In Barghoutti’s book “I saw Ramallah”, he mentions the officialness of being diasporic in his own homeland when he buys olive oil from a market. He mentions this would bring shame to his mother and family because buying olive oil signifies that disconnect between the cultivation of land. Almost transcending instantly him from native to tourist by just one transaction. Just being surrounded by olives, Palestinians can identify olives and olive oil as being part of their constructed identity. This attachment is increased once the diaspora is established, the longing grows. This is the same with oranges and lemons (Theres actually a move called Lemontree about a Palestinian daughter inheriting her fathers orchard but her neighbours happen to be the Israeli Defense minister…very interesting to see the least, you should watch it!!!)


With the business of anything comes politics. Palestine is a hotly contested subject as many of you know. Israel has control over most of the area since 1947 and thus has control over many of the exports including olive oil. It is thus naturally a place of exclusion for some. However, Beit Zatoun is not closed to anyone, they welcome all and their website states “ Beit Zatoun is a cultural centre, gallery and community meeting space that promotes the interplay of art, culture and politics to explore issues of social justice and human rights, both locally and internationally. This reflects the focus of our work: to bring peace and justice to Palestine and Palestinians and to use the space and resources to achieve the same goals in a broader global context.” Thus the olive is not only a symbol of identity but also a metaphor for building peaceful relations. Beit Zatoun also sells books, rents out the space for conversations and has an annual discussion on one of the more famous events called the Toronto Palestine Film Festival aka TPFF. The TPFF has been happening every year for the past 5 years (this year is the 5th annual.) The main venue is the Bloor Theatre on the same block as Beit Zatoun. TPFF promotes the Palestinian narrative through film. For 7 consecutive days the Bathurst Bloor Annex area is full of Palestinians remembering the 60 odd years of being exiled, building constructive relations and most importantly remembering Palestine. Beit Zatoun receives no government funding and thus operates through donations.


In one way Beit Zatoun is a museum and others it is not. In a few ways it acts a mediator of objects that are authentically Palestinian, however it is not a museum per say because there are no exhibitions or tours. Beit Zatoun is originally intended for a space for discussions, conferences, round tables and gatherings. It takes on the role of being authentic and representative because of theses discussions and its activism in promoting Palestinian culture and by selling the olive. For larger society, people may not recognize the olive as being Palestinian but with a little explanation by the receptionist, you can see the connection. Many would think the Kuffieyeh, Mahmood Darwish (Poet), Edward W. Said (Orientalism) and the Palestinian Boy (Handala) would be representative of the Palestinian diaspora, but indeed the olive and particularly olive oil are cultural representations of the Palestinian. Hope you liked it, see you Wednesday!

  1. elyssamayer says:

    You appear to be well informed on the Palestinian diaspora, which is both insightful and captivating. Although, Beit Zatoun is a place, would you consider it an object in of itself? It is a thing, something that holds a geographical space, that holds meaning and exerts power and perspective. I wonder to what extent do the founders of this organization use objects, or the associations of objects (like the Olive), to fuel a Palestinian connection?

    • mahmerkhan says:

      Hmm, I don’t know to what extent but I definitely think they use the olive as one of the objects to make that connection to Palestine. I am sure that they would use the scarf and the “handala” as well even the TPFF as a way to strengthen that connection. But more importantly, I think a place can be both a space and definitely act as an object. An object makes acts upon you and you act upon it. In that same light, if you go to a museum you are in a space where the the place acts upon you (you’re receiving information) and you act upon it (you’re keeping the place going). I think this is an awesome topic which I plan to ask our Professor about.

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