The Woman Refusing to Let Palestine's Farming Roots Die

Vivien Sansour founded The Palestinian Heirloom Library in hopes to revive plants threatened by occupation, climate change, and agribusiness.

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Mar 8 2019, 7:25pm

Vivien Sansour was working as a writer and photographer in the northern West Bank when she began to hear stories about Jadu’I, a succulent watermelon once abundant in Jenin, Palestine, from the farmers and families she was documenting.

“Everybody was talking about how they gave birth to their kids in the watermelon fields, how in the war they used to hide in the watermelon fields, [how] they exported Jadu’I on trucks when the borders were open before ’48 to Turkey, to Syria, everywhere,” she tells Broadly. “[But] whenever I asked about it, they would say, ‘Oh, you're asking about the dinosaur.’”

Under Israeli occupation, Palestinian farming has suffered greatly. A 2015 study by the United Nations documented the devastating effects of the occupation on Palestinian agriculture due to “restrictions on access to land, water and markets; loss of land to settlements and the separation barrier; demolition of structures and infrastructure and the uprooting of trees; restrictions on access to essential agricultural inputs; dearth of credit for agricultural production; flooding of Palestinian markets with agricultural imports from Israel and settlements; and environmental damage.”

For years, Jadu’I was considered among the occupation’s agricultural casualties—but this narrative of Jenin’s beloved watermelon didn’t sit well with Sansour. “I couldn't accept that it was lost,” she says. “I fell in love with the story of this watermelon.” Convinced that the seeds of the fruit had to still exist somewhere, Sansour went looking for them, mostly among farmers in Jenin.

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Inside The Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library. Image courtesy of Vivien Sansour

In 2014, amidst her search, Sansour founded The Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library, which serves to “find and preserve ancient seed varieties and traditional farming practices.” With the library, Sansour’s goal was to essentially recreate her hunt for the Jadu’I seed with other varieties, then find farmers across Palestine willing to bring the seeds to life. “The main function of the library isn’t for the seeds to stay in one place,” she says. “The main function of the library is for the seeds to stay alive in the fields of farmers.”

Logistically, Sansour explains, the library works like this:

We reach out to farmers, we don't wait for farmers to come to us. I go to farmers that I hear about, or that I meet while I am in a village; I have a huge network of farmers that we go to and say, “Would you like to try to grow this?” Or, they tell us about how they used to grow something but it has disappeared, and we say, “OK, we can bring that back.”

The other side of the library is a physical space called Art and Seeds, which Sansour is moving from Beit Sahour back to its original location in Battir this week. There, seeds are preserved in jars surrounded by agricultural and cultural art, and doors are open to members of the public looking to learn more about traditional Palestinian farming and indigenous varieties.

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A look inside Art and Seeds. Image courtesy of Vivien Sansour

In 2016, six years after she learned of the elusive Jadu’I watermelon, Sansour finally found its seeds in a farmer’s drawer among his screwdrivers and hammers. The man told Sansour that he’d had the seeds for seven years, but that no one seemed to want them. “It was a bittersweet moment, because of course I was happy I found them, but I also was so sad that that is where we've reached in terms of rejecting who we are,” Sansour remembers.

In Palestine, agriculture has served as more than a means to making a living or getting dinner on the table; it’s come to represent a national history and identity with pride in its soil and its capacity for self-sufficiency. (The olive tree, for example, has long been regarded as a symbol of Palestinian resilience.) However, in the decades since 1967, due to permit restrictions, settler attacks, water supply limitations, and more agricultural consequences of Israel’s occupation, Palestine has become increasingly dependent on Israeli agricultural imports. As a result, many young Palestinians today have replaced farming and traditional foods with Israeli supermarkets and chains like KFC. Sansour credits the latter’s popularity over Palestinian food to “the violence of self hatred that we have been fed.”

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Sansour holding seeds seated next to a woman in Walajeh, Palestine

In addition to environmental concerns, the idea that Palestinian society was losing its agricultural traditions was in part what led Sansour to start the library. As a child in Beit Jala, Sansour recalls one such tradition. “We had a very big fig tree, so, throughout the summer, my mom put them in bowls and sent me to the neighbors to give them figs,” she says. “The neighbors, in return, filled the pot with something else that they have—maybe they have a special kind of grape or pomegranate—and send it back to us. It was this exchange of the abundance of our earth together.”

Eight years ago, Sansour was back at her family home when she noticed they had grown extra grapes. She filled up a bucket and left it in front of her neighbor’s door. Weeks went by, and Sansour never received the bowl back or heard anything from her neighbor, so she decided to ask her if she had enjoyed them.

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Image courtesy of Sansour

“She said, ‘Oh, I didn't know what that was, so I threw it away,’” remembers Sansour. “It told me that not only was the tradition completely gone, but that we have become so disconnected with the idea that we share our fruits and vegetables. She was so far removed from this beautiful tradition that she thought there was some kind of mistake. I guess it was that moment—one of many moments—that I was reminded that I don't want to forget who I come from. I don't want to forget to be faithful and trusting; that nature will provide; that people will continue to be generous.”

Next on Sansour’s seed revival list is the white cucumber, a variety that was once commonly grown in the south of Palestine. “Only like two, three families grow it still,” she says. “This last year, we were able to engage 20 farmers in growing it again. What we're doing is bringing it back to our fields and bringing it back to our market. This is how the library truly works—the farms are the library.”