The Palestinian West Bank is one of the regions where agriculture was first practiced. In these dry hills, farmers have had thousands of years to cultivate crop varieties that can survive an extreme climate: a short spring and a long, hot summer watered only by the occasional rainstorm. In Arabic, the Palestinians’ traditional allotment-style garden plots are called “pieces of paradise.”
But lately, Palestinian farming culture has fallen under threat. As Vivien Sansour, founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library says in an article in The Guardian, “That threat came from several things. From agri-companies pushing certain varieties and farming methods and from climate change. Places, too, where people would forage for edible plants – like the akub thistle – have come under threat because of issues like the spread of Israeli settlements.”
Sansour adds, “I realised that what was also under threat was something deeper – the connection to a sense of cultural identity. The songs women would sing in the fields. Phrases, even the words we use. So it is about preserving the local biodiversity, but it is also about the importance to Palestinian culture of traditional agricultural methods.” Sansour sums up the central role of farming in Palestinian culture by quoting an old saying: “‘He who does not eat from his own adze cannot think with his own mind.’”
The Palestine Heirloom Seed Library will be launched this coming June in collaboration with the Walid and Helen Kattan Science Education Project. As well as preserving rare seeds, the project will encourage students and teachers in Palestinian schools to discuss the importance of traditional farming practices.
One teacher, Inam Owianah, said that at first, “I wasn’t even sure what an heirloom variety was. And then I understood! It wasn’t just about the seeds, but about an intimate connection to our heritage. And the students started to understand that civilisation is not just about buildings but about a way of life …. I started asking my students to ask their grandparents and parents about the stories and sayings associated with the plants.”
In a part of the world with such a long agricultural history – and where so much is changing so quickly – it seems that the stories and the seeds might be of equal value. One example Sansour mentions is jadu’I, a rare species of giant watermelon once grown in the northern West Bank. “Before 1948, it was exported around the region. It was famous in places like Syria. It has almost disappeared. One of the most exciting discoveries so far is that we found some seeds for it. They are seven years old, so we need to see if they are viable.”