“What does it mean when we don’t want who we are?” This is the question posed by Vivien Sansour, founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, as she embarks on a journey to revive the lost foods of Palestine. When the foods of our ancestors are rejected and the knowledge of traditional crops disappears, what else is lost in our sense of worth, our identity, our culture?

Vivien at the Oxford Real Farming Conference where she was gifted some seeds

For Vivien, this journey started when, following her return to Palestine after living and working abroad, she wanted to eat some of her mother’s favourite dishes. But she found this impossible as memorable foods of her childhood, from purple carrots to ‘dark and handsome’ wheat, had seemingly disappeared. The Jadu’l watermelon, for one, was almost a legend: “People told stories of giving birth in the field of the watermelon, or of driving trucks to Lebanon and Syria to sell it at markets, or how they hid in the field of the watermelon during the [Six-Day] War,” Vivien says. For a crop so prominent in Palestinian storytelling, it seems impossible that it should now be so little regarded, that it had all but died out.

For six years Vivien searched for the seeds of this watermelon without luck. People told her, “You are asking about the dinosaur!” But eventually, she wandered into a farmer’s small shop and asked about the watermelon. “Hang on!” the farmer said, rummaging in the back of an old drawer full of hammers and nails and screwdrivers, pulling out a handful of seeds that were seven years old. “Take them,” he said, “nobody wants them.”

Vivien felt a mixed reaction at the joy of finding the seeds, but wondered, “What does it mean when we don’t want who we are?” “The seeds carry the DNA of our culture, the work of our ancestors, and when he said ‘nobody wants them’, it was like somebody went into my heart and stabbed it!”

What has driven this shift away from traditional Palestinian crops like the Jadu’l? As in many parts of the world, large agribusinesses have pushed certain crops and farming methods, resulting in monocultures of hybrid varieties. In Palestine, this has gone hand-in-hand with the Israeli occupation of the country and, according to Vivien, the active push to reduce Palestinians’ sense of independence and self-worth. She says, “We have been taught that we are worth nothing, that we have to wait for other people to give us something. Our minds have been colonised for so many years by self-hatred.” This can be seen in some people’s attitude to food, with the rejection of traditional crops and local produce in favour of big international fast food brands. This is diminishing people’s knowledge of the land and ties to their ancestral heritage. Vivien says, “It is important for the consumer to understand, you don’t have to eat KFC to be ‘modern’ or ‘good enough’.”

Vivien at the Seed Library in the village of Battir

After finding the watermelon seeds, Vivien began to search for other crops and established the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library. The Seed Library not only works to preserve seeds and improve food diversity and climate resilience in Palestine, it also gathers and passes on agricultural knowledge. During their first year, Sansour and the Seed Library worked with teachers to revive the idea of what a student really is. ‘Talib’, the Arabic word for ‘student’, literally means ‘the one who makes a request’. Vivien says, “We must allow the new generation to make the request of the older generation, to pass down their knowledge.” Through this project, the teachers began asking students to speak with their grandparents about their history and agricultural practices. In some cases, this was the first time the students had sat down and talked with their grandparents about their past. Opening up communication between the generations is crucial to facilitate understanding, a sense of identity and, most importantly, an exchange of knowledge. “This work should have been done yesterday,” said Vivien, “We have failed the new generation.” But the Seed Library is working hard to change that.

Through the seeds that are being collected, people are connecting with their history, and in doing so a transformation is taking place. “These seeds come to offer us the awakening of remembering that we are worth something and that we have something to offer the world,” says Vivien. She notes that when children are told that people around the world are eating wheat today because their ancestors grew it in the Fertile Crescent, their body language changes, they smile, stand up straight. There is pride in what their people have achieved.

Traditional terraced agriculture in Battir

As climate change begins to take its toll on agriculture, especially in areas like Palestine that are already hot and dry, the importance of these ancient seeds cannot be underestimated. The diverse, heirloom crops, from wheat and corn to watermelons and tomatoes, have been developed over generations to have tolerance to heat and drought, to be rain-fed not irrigated. Farmers had the knowledge of how to tend soils and when to plant crops to ensure they grew well. There were winter and summer crops that ensured a year-round food supply and responded to the changing climate.

Vivien spoke recently at the Oxford Real Farming Conference

But the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, while local to Palestine, has a global vision. The problem Vivien identified, of people not wanting to be who they are, is reflected throughout many cultures. Even in the UK, there is a disconnect between wider society and traditional farming practices. Eating a globalised diet, reliant on imported or fast food, means that many people feel alienated from the traditions and history of indigenous British agriculture. Long established family farms continue to die out, along with their knowledge. As we head towards an uncertain climate future, keeping genetic diversity and knowledge alive could be key to our survival.

As Vivien says, “We all are on this boat together, and we could be focused on our national identities and allegiances, but the truth is we are all sinking on this boat together. And when we understand that, we must learn from each other, farmer to farmer, human being to human being, to overcome these challenges.” Vivien’s mission is to create more alliances around the world to achieve this.

And, like the seeds, the Seed Bank’s work is sowing change that is already bearing fruit. Through cooking meals with her travelling kitchen, for example, Vivien has initiated conversations that resulted in a women’s co-op being set up to source food directly from local farmers. More and more of these lost crops are being revived in Palestine, with the famed Jadu’l watermelon to be planted once again this coming summer. Vivien also hopes to start a PR campaign in Palestine to change people’s views of traditional foods.

“What we’re really trying to do is revive our sense of self-value as a people and see the beauty that lives within us. The greatest revolutionary act is to love yourself and to love your community. There is a lot to be angry about, but we can make a different choice.”

You can follow this link to hear Vivien’s talk from this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference where she gave a keynote speech from which the quotes in this article are taken.

For more articles about food and farming in Palestine, click here.

Photographs: Megan Perry