Seeds of Ba’al

Today we continue our Dark Kitchen exploration of food and eating in times of collapse. For our latest course in the series Gawan Mac Greigair tells the story of a Palestinian seed library struggling to keep a culture alive through war and occupation.
Gawan's downward career trajectory has included journalism, political research, vegbox scheme admin, gleaning and digging fencepost holes on nature reserves. When moved to write, his interests have included Palestine, refugees and migration, and food systems.

The Travelling Kitchen is an ingenious contraption. It can be dismantled, folded satisfyingly into a compact cuboid and slid into the boot of an estate car. A beautiful wooden construction with the dimensions of a humble street handcart, it is, too, unmistakably a work of art and skilled craftsmanship. It causes a stir as it makes its way across the West Bank, appearing in public streets and squares and cultivating profound conversation.

The kitchen as object is the creation of artist and maker Ayed Arafah. As concept, project and seed of change it is the idea of Vivien Sansour. Vivien has been a photographer, a documentary filmmaker, an academic and a farmer. She is now consumed by her role as founder and organiser of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, from which the Travelling Kitchen project sprouted.

The kitchen is visiting a different West Bank community each month during 2018. On arrival, it is re-erected to provide a focal point for people to congregate, prepare food, swap seeds, share recipes, tell stories and discuss food system issues that include – in Palestine as elsewhere – the growth of agribusiness, with its sterile hybrid seeds and chemical inputs; climate change and water stress; the spread of fast food outlets and junk food diets; loss of land to construction; as well as – in Palestine as nowhere else – the challenges of growing, distributing and gathering food under militarily-enforced apartheid.

In Vivien’s words, it ‘creates a dynamic in which the kitchen itself is like a seed that you sow. People gather around it – elders, youth, farmers, everybody comes together. You might be sitting there talking about the jadu’i watermelon, but then one elder will mention a kind of leek they used to grow. With each seed there’s a story, a tradition, a way of life, and that’s the heart of what the seed library is about. We’re not a seed bank – our objective is not just to collect the genetic code and keep it in a freezer for a doomsday scenario. The idea is actually to keep a culture alive through these little seeds.’

The seed library crew recently returned to their base in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, from a day spent in Nus Ijbail, a village of around 500 people in the Nablus region of the occupied Palestinian territories. Its name suggests a halfway point (Nus) between two mountains (Ijbail). An alternative theory tells of an catastrophic earthquake that left only a ‘half mountain’.

In fact, Nus Ijbail is already doing much to resist the earthshaking forces of homogenisation, extractivism and erasure. Organic farming is widely practised by the area’s farmers, many of whom are organised into a co-operative and benefit from relationships with Fair Trade distributors. This, however, is far from universal in the occupied territories, where marketing, often by Israeli companies, of hybrid seeds – sterile and dependent upon manufactured fertilisers and pesticides – has seen their widespread adoption. This has sped the erosion of traditional farming practices that have evolved over millennia to suit Palestine’s particular topographies, ecological communities, climate and microclimates. It has removed autonomy from farmers who must re-purchase seed each year. It has also seen Palestine’s unique vegetable, grain and fruit varieties threatened with extinction.

If these seeds are not saved and regrown each year, then also threatened is the constellation of skills, knowledge, traditions, recipes, practices and communal culture that accompany their cultivation. Rescuing these seeds and the culture that orbits each of them is the mission of the Seed Library. It is an attempt to prevent what Boaventura de Sousa has called ‘epistemicide’(1).

Say the word. It has a toxic, metallic feel on the tongue. It sounds like something sprayed by municipal contractors in biohazard suits, leaving a wake of expiring insects and bleached vegetation. Or perhaps it’s a charge brought at the Hague in an almost perceptible future. (The accused will surely declare that they don’t recognise the court’s authority.) Santos explains it bluntly as ‘the murder of knowledge’ – words that land like a punch.

Yakteen (Green pumpkin) packaging prototype – (package and photo by Vivien Sansour)

Epistemicide has tended to follow the arrival of a dominating and colonising worldview, advancing like smallpox with European invaders. Our own era’s dominant epistemology loves binaries, flatters itself as uniquely rational and enlightened and refuses to share a table with other ways of knowing, even where they might have complemented and catalysed each other’s evolution if they had been allowed to fall into conversation.

Perhaps we should use the plural and speak of a murder of knowledges, for epistemicide erases the plurality of ways in which human experiences can be interpreted: traditions, philosophies, values and beliefs, rituals, recipes, languages and songs, and all the other multifarious forms taken by the vehicles and prisms of vernacular knowledge. It is a kind of ontological mountaintop removal: when that summit, those foothills, that high pass through which you might have found your way home, have been dynamited out of the air, the views of the universe that could be seen from those places will never be perceived again. It is, Santos lamented, ‘a massive waste of social experience’.

A typical response from the dominant worldview might be: Heritage seeds and old ways have been superseded by something better, more efficient and more marketable. It is sentimental nostalgia to seek to preserve them in aspic. Times change and one must change with them, or die. But – to reply on that utilitarian field of play – what if heirloom seeds actually offer routes to survival?

Vivien Sansour carrying homegrown Baal zucchini (Photo by Ayed Arafah)

Vivien argues that some Palestinian varieties have remarkably drought-resistant properties that, in the context of climate change and water stress, could offer lifelines: ‘There is an heirloom zucchini, very buttery and delicious. And it was the genius of our ancestors who kept selecting and developing this zucchini that I can now put in the ground at the right time, use literally zero irrigation and have zucchini all summer. It’s not an accident, it’s something they did over millennia and it is not something to take lightly, because it is going to determine whether we survive or not.’

These resilient strains are Ba’al varieties – the reference to the pre-Abrahamic Canaanite fertility deity hints at how far back their provenance might stretch. Summer Ba’al varieties, including tomatoes, can thrive on little more than morning dew. Winter Ba’al, including spinach, rocket and onions, are rain-fed only. But can even these survive the severity of conditions that climate science says might befall this region?

‘We’re not a seed bank – our objective is not just to collect the genetic code and keep it in a freezer for a doomsday scenario. The idea is actually to keep a culture alive through these little seeds.’

‘Trust me, that’s a question we think about every day,’ says Vivien. ‘I think they will do better than others, but that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be looking into breeding the best varieties the way our ancestors did, based on the changing climate. These seeds evolve as you go along. This year I had some fava beans that stayed green longer, even after the rain stopped, so I saved seeds from those; I’m collecting varieties that tolerate more. We’re not claiming to have the answers to climate change, but it’s one attempt that I think will provide us with at least more options.’

Field trials by the Seed Library, involving 20 farmers, aim not just to rescue varieties of tomato, wheat, cucumber and watermelon, but also to continue that work of skilful, watchful selection for properties that best fit changing conditions. Heirloom seeds are not inert and ornamental inheritances meant, like grandmother’s vase, for reverent display on the mantelpiece. Their meaning and value lie in the continued practice of choosing the most promising mutations from each generation of seed.

El Habeh Soda Heirloom Wheat, also known as Abu Samara, ‘the dark handsome one’ (Photo by Vivien Sansour)

It is no exaggeration to say that these varieties seem imbued with personality, even personhood. The Haba Soda wheat strain is known better by its nickname, Abu Samra, and its mention frequently inspires people to relate childhood memories of its flavour – ‘Better than cake!’ Some remember being clipped round the ear for over-watering tomatoes and so jeopardising their exquisite flavour.

‘People really cared about what they ate as a flavour, not just about size and quantity,’ says Vivien. ‘But we also learn that people really respected and surrendered to the power and generosity of nature. The stories of these crops remind me of a time when humans were perhaps less anxious, and more trusting that nature would provide for us. In this work I find myself examining my own journey and my own anxiety and seeing how we as a human species destroyed so much due to our incredible fear and lack of faith in anything that is already there.’

Gathering from nature’s wild generosity is also a deeply-rooted feature of Palestinian culture and Mediterranean cuisine, but one that is also threatened: “At the opening of the Seed Library we served khobeizeh, a wild foraged green. The older generation know what it is but the younger ones do not, and this was an opportunity to talk about it.

‘We have a huge array of wild greens, but those varieties have become less and less integrated into our cuisine because of lack of access to land. So for example, akoub, a kind of thistle: in many areas where women traditionally went out to gather it, the army confiscates it and fines them – they say it’s illegal, supposedly for the protection of nature.

‘It’s very similar to what happened in the Americas, where the Europeans made large areas into nature reserves, making it difficult for Native Americans to actually make use of their land, which is how they had lived. It’s the same for us, but it is also often because of military control and military zones, so it’s not as safe to go and forage there.’

Violence, or its threat, is an everyday lived reality under occupation and apartheid. But I am startled to hear that Vivien, a horticulturalist, perceives it even in her own work: ‘Agriculture, while important of course, is violent in its roots. It’s emotionally violent in that it comes from a sense of lack, as if we’re constantly tormented because we feel we don’t have enough and we want to make more, we want to save more, we want to control what’s around us to fit our needs and to soothe our anxiety. Which we all do in our real lives.’

And yet she acts – and she acts as if it’s not too late to do so. It’s something I struggle with, despite living in much greater peace, privilege and freedom in the West: How to act from a position of seeming powerlessness? What sources of strength and knowledge to draw on and build from in a time of unpredictable, oppressive chaos? For Vivien the answer seems to be a faith in collective action, in the living, breathing ancestral ways of knowing and doing, and in the power of communal storytelling – heirloom knowledge – to forge the components necessary for ongoing, tenacious, stubborn survival. Faith, hope and action pollinating and fertilising each other.

‘I feel that the journey of reviving these crops and of the seed library is about these same things. We live in a very unpredictable, unsettling, violent reality, and yet within this violent reality we’re trying to find some consistency, some peace of mind, some life and some way to somehow love ourselves, because we’ve been so trained to think that we can’t produce anything, that we’re not good enough.’

Vivien’s ‘we’ is the ‘we’ of colonised people everywhere, she explains.

‘They had been told they were not good enough, that their traditions were “primitive”. So the seed library acts a catalyst where we shift the dynamic to: “Wow, look what my grandmother did, she passed down to me a seed that can live without irrigation, and if my grandmother is intelligent enough to save these seeds and pass them down to me, then there must be something good in my DNA, just like there is something very brilliant in the DNA of this seed.’

Fakous and Yakteen sketch by Ayed Arafah, (Photo by Vivien Sansour)

‘It’s a shift in terms of how you think about your power versus the power of those you’ve been trained to think have so much power over you. We cannot combat these powers by trying to create an equivalent power, whether it is military or public relations, or a form of fighting in the traditional sense.’

I point out that she has just paraphrased Audre Lorde’s maxim that you cannot dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools.

‘Exactly, I totally agree with that. And I feel it, I feel it strongly, because I think for many years, like many Palestinians, I felt there was nothing I could do in the face of this reality. And then someone asked me, “Well, where do you see your power?” And I had to sit with that question for a few years, actually, until I found a lot of power in the beauty that exists in the middle of all this chaos.

Abu El Abed – farmer from Battir explaining the great benefits of heirloom seeds (Image by Vivien Sansour)

‘There is so much beauty – and I think this applies not just to Palestine but everywhere – and I feel it’s our duty as human beings living in this time to expand the beauty as much as we can so that it can hopefully overshadow the ugliness. So at least we know that we’ve left the new generation more beautiful spaces that they can find hope and power in, rather than just concrete, concrete, concrete. Our grandparents didn’t leave us concrete, they left us a live seed. There’s nothing more powerful than this message.’

This message, expressed through convergences of action, story and conviviality, will be borne through the West Bank as this year unfolds. Next to host will be the conurbation of Al Bireh, a city of 40,000 stomachs, countless passionately defended recipes and who knows how many new stories. After that, the village of Al Shawraweh and its thousand souls will welcome the kitchen’s unfolding, and will proudly show the visitors its golden-green fields of the Abu Samra heirloom wheat they call ‘the handsome brown one’ – that flavour better than cake, its grains swelling with the promise of the most extraordinary freekeh soup. At some point amid all this, the library must answer queries about Ba’al nut varieties from a thirst-stricken Californian almond industry in search of drought-ready alternatives. And welcome a delegation of Norwegians bearing old wheat grains on a pilgrimage that will retrace these Northern hemisphere seeds to their birthplace. This subtly rebellious, cross-fertilising, storifying project has already begun to cultivate a quiet, restorative revolution in Palestine that also offers gifts to a wider world-in-crisis.

(1) Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, 2014

Photo: Gawan Mac Greigair

Khobeizeh

The Palestinian wild green, khobeizeh, is known in English as common mallow (in Latin, Malva sylvestris), and is widely available to forage for in Britain. Take a little care in choosing a place you feel confident in picking from, as it likes to grow on roadsides and field edges where runoff and spray residue might be present. This is a very simple Palestinian recipe:

INGREDIENTS:

Khobeizeh leaves – stems removed
Olive oil
Onions
Garlic
Salt
Lemon juice
Pinch of chilli pepper

(I don’t think you need your hand to be held on amounts – include from each what you think you’ll enjoy.)

METHOD:

Rinse the leaves and chop fairly roughly. Fry the onion for a few minutes before adding the khobeizeh leaves, garlic and salt. Simmer on a low heat until cooked, 10-15 minutes perhaps. Serve, adding a squeeze of lemon and some chilli pepper.

 

Gawan Mac Greigair’s downward career trajectory has included journalism, political research, vegbox scheme admin, gleaning and digging fencepost holes on nature reserves. When moved to write, his interests have included Palestine, refugees and migration, and food systems.

On Twitter he is @gawanmac, and there’s a selection of his freelance writing available at gawmac.wordpress.com.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 13

The Spring 2018 issue is a collection of essays, fiction, poetry and artwork about what it means to be human.
Read more

 

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