In October last year, I joined the Amos Trust for my first trip to Palestine. The Amos Trust is a small, creative human rights organisation that works to raise awareness of the restrictions and hardships many Palestinians face under occupation. On this culinary tour with a twist, we travelled the West Bank meeting farmers and food producers, eating in local restaurants and with families in refugee camps and Bedouin villages. Heartening and heart-wrenching in equal measure, the ten days spent exploring Palestinian food culture showed a people with a deep love for the land and the food traditions that come with it.
Farming is a fundamental part of modern human existence; it is the embodiment of self-reliance and a physical manifestation of connection with land. Cultivating the land, arguably, signals a right to that place, while the existence of longstanding cultivation, such as olive trees which are hundreds of years old, give evidence of historic livelihoods that can challenge the narrative of an occupying state. In Palestine, this could not be more sharply delineated. Struggles over land rights and resources are at the heart of conflict here. Yet food and agriculture also provide a source of hope. What could be more freeing than being able to feed oneself – no longer beholden to corporate interests or reliant on an occupier for the most basic necessity? And what could create a more meaningful connection to the land than nurturing it, tending it and safeguarding it for the next generation?
This is certainly the sentiment driving Daoud Nassar at the Tent of Nations, a farm near Bethlehem. Daoud and his family have spent the past 27 years in a legal battle to keep their land, a battle that is still raging. Surrounded by Israeli settlements that are illegal under international law, Daoud’s family face regular attempts to remove them from the farm – including physical attacks on them, roadblocks to prevent people visiting the farm, legal threats and even the offer of an open cheque for purchase of the land. They have also had trees on the farm destroyed. Daoud’s response? “This land is our home and what we’ve inherited, we cannot sell.”
Despite the problems, Daoud is deeply influenced by his Christian faith and preaches non-violence. He says,
“There are many reasons on a daily basis that cause you to hate. But refusing to hate means for us that all people are created in the image of God and they are not created to hate each other. In every human being, including one you might call an enemy, there is something good and something bad. The good we want to respect, but the bad we don’t want to accept. We have to stand up for our rights and tell the other that what you are doing is unjust.”
For Daoud and many other Palestinians, farming provides a means of non-violent resistance. By continuing to cultivate the land, he keeps hold of a connection to his history, culture and identity. He retains some independence, economically and psychologically. Perhaps this is one reason small farms and food businesses are still prevalent throughout the West Bank. We visited Shahed Grape Company, for example, which produces a range of grape products in south Hebron from beautiful traditional vineyards tended by local farmers.
The vineyards themselves are small pockets of paradise, with a calming atmosphere that invites you to sit and simply appreciate the trees and the soil. The farmer walks quietly along the rows, pruning branches by hand. The grapes are some of the best I’ve ever tasted and the products from Shahed (including a sweet syrup that I’m told cures most ills!) are exported to several countries.
Businesses like this provide local employment, give a lifeline to farmers and strengthen Palestine’s connection with the international community through their economic relationships. They also show a side to the story many often don’t see on the news, a non-violent perseverance to continue normal, daily life and live in peace with their neighbours.
Next, we went to Um Al Kheir, a Bedouin community in the South Hebron Hills. We heard how difficult life can be in the village, living just yards from an illegal settlement. Facing home demolitions, water restrictions and regular intimidation from settlers in an attempt to force the Bedouin to leave the area, the ramshackle tents and tin shelters that comprise the community give new meaning to the word steadfast – or, in Palestinian, ‘sumud’.
With ten beehives (soon to be twenty following a fundraiser launched by the group I was travelling with during our visit), they produce delicious honey, flavoured with thyme, which grows well in the desert environment. “I love the bees,” said Tariq Hathaleen, one of the young villagers, “They can get through the settlement fence!” The honey produced from these bees is a lifeline for the Bedouin who have lost the majority of their livestock in recent years due to land and water restrictions, and it is something that, perhaps, transcends the politics and realities of their situation.
In Battir, a small village just outside of Bethlehem, traditional irrigation channels are used to water ancient agricultural stone terraces that grow a diverse array of fruits and vegetables. The site was deemed so important that it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014. In a rare alliance with nearby Jewish settlers, this successfully led to the planned route of the separation wall being diverted away from the site. Could a mutual love for the land and desire to protect the environment help bring about peace? Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case as there have been recent attempts to build a road and a new settlement on Battir’s land. What will this mean for the future of Battir? Continuing to raise awareness of the site’s significant agricultural heritage and environmental importance is crucial in keeping this unique place protected.
We met Vivien Sansour, founder of the Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library and a force of nature herself. Her mission to revive Palestine’s ancient crops started when she was dismayed that she could no longer find some of the favourite foods she remembered eating as a child. As with many small farmers around the world, the pressures of multinational corporations caused farmers to move away from their traditional crops in favour of cash crops. In Palestine, crops such as tobacco, which ruins the soil, have been grown, while traditional fruits and vegetables have been neglected. Vivien says farmers were made to feel as though they were ‘primitive’ and ‘not good enough’ by Israel’s occupying state agricultural policies and by outside corporations, which led to a rejection of traditional crops. She now encourages farmers to cultivate heritage crops again, such as a variety of wheat that she calls the ‘dark and handsome one’ – it has long black ‘whiskers’. “Farmers are the last stronghold of our resistance,” she says, and through her work with the Seed Library, she is resuscitating the strong, independent food culture that Palestine once knew.
But perhaps the most iconic food of the region is the olive. Sadly, many olive farmers face attacks from settlers, and this was the case just south of Nablus, while we were there. This meant we had to visit a farm north of Nablus instead, where we helped harvest olives and visited a local press. It was a beautiful village – peaceful and green, and the farmer had typical Palestinian generosity. It felt a far cry from what we knew farmers just a few miles south were facing but reminded us too of what life could and should be like across Palestine.
Canaan Fair Trade provides the essential economic support for many olive farmers in the region, partnering with more than 1,600 farmers through the Palestine Fair Trade Association. Zaytoun work with Canaan to source olive oil for UK markets, and this partnership is one such story of how a network of dedicated individuals can make a significant difference, coming together and working tirelessly to support Palestinian farmers by creating markets for their produce.
We left Palestine feeling very moved but with an overwhelming sense of inspiration, and I am often reminded of something Daoud said – “We believe that one day we will see the sun of justice rising again.”
Photographs: Megan Perry