El Beir Arts and Seeds, home to an heirloom seeds library in the Palestinian town of Beit Sahour, is located next to Mary’s Well, the site of many claimed miracles. “It makes sense because I think seeds are kind of miraculous,” says Vivien Sansour, the woman behind the project. She believes that “farmers are both artists and scientists. It requires a lot of imagination to create the variety of food that we eat today. And it also requires observation, because they had to watch and select seeds to grow the vegetables we know and love.”
The search for seeds and identity
Whilst living overseas, Vivien longed for the food she grew up eating in Palestine. When she returned she was alarmed to discover that many of those vegetables were disappearing or had gone completely. Losing these familiar things meant losing a part of her identity, so she decided to start collecting the seeds of vulnerable vegetables and bringing them back to the fields. That’s how the seeds library project started.
The journey of searching for heirloom seeds, handed down through multiple generations of families, was also her journey of trying to discover herself.
“Every seed has a story, every seed has a collective memory. I’m still finding out about who I am through seed varieties. In the end we are all seeds.”
When she grows these seeds with farmers, often something they haven’t been able to grow in many years, Vivien feels a victory. “Then the children come and ask questions about it and they learn about who they are.”
The change in Palestinian agriculture
Agriculture plays a major role in the Palestinian economy, but the traditional Palestinian way of practicing agriculture is being completely transformed. Israel and the international community, in the name of agricultural development, are pushing Palestinian farmers into monoculture, and into producing food in greenhouses, which requires large quantities of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. The soil is being poisoned, biodiversity is being destroyed and farmers are losing autonomy and the ability to live off the land. Israeli agri-business, like all agri-business around the world, is selling the myth that their hybrid seeds are better and that farmers need them to increase production.
“You’re not a producer anymore, you’re a consumer, and what better way to enslave someone than turning them into your consumer. This is happening all around the world but here you have it doubled with the military occupation.”
But Vivien doesn’t see the occupation of Palestine in isolation from the global context. “I don’t think it would exist without all the other connections in the world that make such a brutal military occupation exist. But it’s not only a military occupation we live under, it’s a greater political and economical system in the world that is causing us to be slaves to agri-business companies and multinationals.”
Heirloom seeds that are rain-fed are referred to as “ba’al” in Palestine. The word ba’al originates from the Canaanite Deity Ba’al, the God of fertility and destruction. Summer varieties rely on the moisture that is retained in the soil, while winter varieties draw from precipitation.
“When you put a ba’al seed in the ground, you’re not conserving just the seed but also conserving traditional knowledge and practices, and allowing farmers to be fully independent of agri-business and other dominating forces. Through these seeds we can truly be sovereign.”
Ba’al seeds represent what Vivien calls agro-resistance, but they also “represent our ability to give something extremely valuable to the world. Our future in Palestine is very much linked to a global future. I think there is definitely a responsibility and obligation for us as a generation to leave the future generations with more things that they can use to survive.”
“A long lost love”
A ba’al seed that has a special place in Palestinian hearts is an ancient variety of wheat called “Abu Samra” (“the dark and handsome one”).
Palestine is at the center of diversity for wheat, but today Palestinians grow only two varieties of the cereal, and one of them is an Israeli hybrid variety called “Dariel”. In the place where wheat was first cultivated, people are importing flour.
“In the villages people talk about Abu Samra as a long lost love, as a person who left and never came back. People say things like ‘Oh, Abu Samra! His bread was tastier than cake!’ or ‘If only Abu Samra would come back!’” So, Vivien is bringing Abu Samra wheat back to the farmers.
Vivien hopes the seeds library will not just provide a platform to conserve Palestinian biodiversity but also culture diversity. “I keep a piece of glass corn, which is a very colourful corn, at the table, and people get surprised. It allows a conversation about the diversity in the world. Corn is not just yellow corn, but that’s how we think about a lot of things in life. You have to be a certain gender, a certain class in order to be acceptable. I hope it will show people that nature provides us this abundance of ways to imagine life.”
Seeds, self-love and resistance
While people in the West are becoming more concerned about the quality of the food they eat, a lot of the empty calories they don’t want to consume are being dumped on the other half of the planet. If you go to any supermarket in Palestine you will find overly processed food, loaded with cheap oil and sugar. And this has a disastrous impact on people’s health. “When you destroy someone’s health you’re also destroying their spirit. You’re telling them they are not worth anything. That’s when occupation really wins, when we start to believe we are trash and we start to eat trash and we start to live as if our lives don’t matter.”
This encouraged Vivien to start thinking of resistance in new ways. She believes the greatest form of resistance to a colonial power, to any power, is learn to love yourself.
“We do that through understanding that even if the colonial power tells you that you’re not worth anything, the reality is that your great grandparents left the world a great treasure. These little seeds carry within them the DNA of people who are rising beyond nationalistic discourse and understanding the value of who they are as a human collective. So the best form of resistance is to refuse the dialogue of your oppressor, to say ‘I am not trash and I’m not gonna eat your trash. I think we all can make a choice in making our lives a little bit more tolerable in this time. Because we will be free. Not right now, but we will be. I feel free when I have these seeds in my hands.”
You can learn more about the seeds library on its Facebook page
Update June 2019: The Seeds Library was recently moved to the West Bank village of Battir, located west of Bethlehem