Filmmaker, screenwriter, author and journalist Alia Yunis is a versatile woman with olive oil in her heart. With her writing appearing in the Los Angeles Times, Aramco World and Sauveur among others, she has also been published in numerous anthologies, featuring both fiction and non-fiction. A PEN Emerging Voices fellow, The Night Counter (Random House), is her first novel and her most recent work is a documentary feature film called The Golden Harvest, in which she tries to understand the profound, often troubled relationship between the people of Mediterranean and their olive trees. 

Born in Chicago, to Palestinian parents Shafiq and Abla, Alia’s father immigrated to the US on a Math’s scholarship and eventually became a respected environmental engineer and her mother an adjunct sociology professor at the American University of Beirut. Growing up in the States, both parents were academically driven and encouraged Alia and her younger brother Isam to achieve their fullest potential. But they became worried when they only saw her reading and not being more gregarious.

My parents were very strict about education-like all Palestinians. There just aren’t enough degrees we can get. But I was so shy, so when I was 15-years old, my parents actually forbid me from reading anymore books unless I went to some parties and was more social.

Preserving their culture was fundamental to her parents as it was a struggle to achieve and sustain.

Expressing our heritage was intrinsic to life in the far flung Arab American community in Minnesota in the 1970s and 80s, where we lived when I was a child. It was a very small community, spread out randomly through the state, not like today, and we would gather for picnics in the summer, Thanksgiving and Christmas, eating turkey with hummus and lubya bi zeit; a kind of Sweden meets the Middle East spread, as the kids were always pushing for the more traditional Minnesota foods, so we could feel normal. This was mostly about pushing Scandinavian Christmas cookies and Jello desserts.

Our parents were pretty determined to make us speak Arabic. They joined forces with the other Arab parents, until they found the place: They drove us an hour every week to attend Arabic language school in a room that a Lutheran church gave us. Of all the mixed religions that we could have been, I’m pretty sure none of us were Lutheran.

From a young age, Alia always new she wanted to work in film but her parents wanted her to be a doctor or engineer, so she found a compromise with them and studied political science and journalism at the University of Minnesota.

I had some idea that with journalism I could save Palestine. Academically, Palestine was my driver. I wanted to help some way. I’m not sure I have ever figured how to help.

After graduating, Alia worked for the Al Jazeera news agency but found news production did not stimulate her anf was unhappy. She then decided to return to school, receiving her masters in Film at the American University in Washington, DC.

Alia then left for Hollywood, after winning a comedy award from Warner Brothers, writing a spec script for the hit TV series for Murphy Brown, also interning on Full House.

It’s a tough industry and I was so lost as everyone around me was so confident, and I was the only Arab in room.

If the Olive could recall who planted it, its oil would run as Tears.

When her father died in 2008, Alia wanted to connect to learn more about her his past and met with his family in what is now Israel for the first time.

I had never met his immediate family and it was very emotional for me. But it was not like the West Bank, I I knew before. Nothing had prepared me for the inhumane science fiction experiment of the Israeli occupation, but at the same time I was taken by the incredible physical beauty of the place.

The Golden Harvest

Remembering her dad’s love for olive oil, Alia was inspired to understand his adoration for the olive tree further.

My dad was born in Palestine and so was olive oil. He was an expert on tasting oil and people respected his decree. Playing backgammon and testing a new batch of olive oil was how I pictured my father genuinely happy.

And it wasn’t just her father:

Almost every time I talked to people with Mediterranean roots about olive oil, they would jump in with an olive oil story that was also tied to family, politics, science, history or health. Olive trees can also represent loss and frustration, as demonstrated in the scenes of Palestinian farmers who can see their trees on land that has been seized and divided, but can’t cultivate them.

During the making of her documentary The Golden Harvest, Alia travelled to five different locations; Italy, Greece, Spain, Israel and Palestine, where olive trees not only dominate the landscape, they are a symbol of identity and family, as well as industry.

Trees ground us in our roots and the nature that surrounds all of us in the Mediterranean is the olive tree. It gives us a sense of home, even if we are living away. It is special to all three religions in the region. Throughout the world, there is no other tree like the olive tree, that can produce so much, physically and emotionally.