Palestine Heirloom Seed Library

Seed Leader: Vivien Sansour

Vivien Sansour is the founder of The Palestine Heirloom Seed Library and the Traveling Kitchen project. Both initiatives aim to bring Palestinian seed heritage back to the dinner table. Vivien was born in Palestine and grew up in Bethlehem. She does not live in one particular place as her work takes her to different communities around the world – from Palestine, California, North Carolina, Central America, the Caribbean, and the Hudson Valley.

What is a seed? “The seed, the seed, the seed….for what is it but a continuation of ourselves? Aren’t we all seeds? For me seeds are about two things: magic and design- a relationship of convivo and constant coevolution between human and plant desires that is always designing what we eat and what we grow.” – Vivien Sansour

About the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library from Vivien Sansour:

The Palestine Heirloom Seed Library and its Traveling Kitchen project seek to preserve and promote heritage and threatened seed varieties, traditional Palestinian farming practices, and the cultural stories and identities associated with them. Based in the village of Battir, a UNESCO World Heritage site outside Bethlehem, the Library also serves as a space for collaborations with artists, poets, writers, journalists, and other members to showcase and promote their talents and work. Working closely with farmers, we have identified key seed varieties and food crops that are threatened with extinction and would provide the best opportunities to inspire local farmers and community members to actively preserve their bioculture and recuperate their local landscape. The Library also has launched a global platform for conversations about biocultural heritage. Its Traveling Kitchen is a mobile venue for social engagement in different communities, promoting cultural preservation through food choices. 

Part of the Fertile Crescent, Palestine has been considered one of the world’s centers of diversity, particularly for wheat and barley. This biodiversity, which has kept us alive for millennia, is being threatened by policies that target farmers and force them to give up their heirloom seeds and adopt new varieties. Heirlooms, which have been carefully selected by our ancestors throughout thousands of years of research and imagination, from one of the last strongholds of resistance to the privatization of our life source: the seed. These seeds carry the DNA of our survival against a violent background that is seen across the hills and valleys through settlement and chemical input expansions. 

Heirloom seeds also tell us stories, connect us to our ancestral roots, remind us of meals our families once made at special times of the year. The Palestine Heirloom Seed Library (PHSL) is an attempt to recover these ancient seeds and their stories and put them back into people’s hands.

2020 Seed Reconciliation: Yaktin

From Vivien Sansour:

Like most farmers around the world, Palestinian farmers are facing the dangers of agribusiness, corporate seed, land dominance along with political violence. But many of these farmers are the heroes who have been safeguarding these precious seeds and the knowledge these seeds carry. Palestinian heirloom seed varieties are under threat; many have gone extinct. These seeds that have been passed down to us over the centuries carry in their genes the stories and the spirits of the Palestinian indigenous ancestors. Aside from their cultural significance, these seeds carry options for our future survival as we face climate change and the erosion of agrobiodiversity worldwide. As such, it is urgent that we save and propagate them.

From Seedshed:

While Vivien and Seedshed have had overlap for a few years, it wasn’t until Vivien participated in our “Seeds of Resistance, Resilience, and Reconciliation” panel at the Organic Seed Growers Conference that everyone was able to meet in person. The entire Seedshed team was moved by Vivien’s story of “The Handsome One” wheat and touched by the song she played that was written to honor the seeds. 

We also learned more about her work and the types of support the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library needs to thrive. Our partnership grew out of this meeting. And, just like seeds themselves, we decided to start out small. This year, Seedshed will be growing just one variety with Vivien, Yaktin, a beloved edible pale green bottle gourd. We planted 150 seeds and are trying out different ways to grow them here and bring the fruits to full seed maturity. 

Seed Partnership Goals:

Two of the most important seed sharing challenges Vivien would like to heal are land access and seed access. The ancient UNESCO farming terraces in Battir, where many of the endangered varieties are being grown, are under constant threat of annexation. So in addition to activism at home around protecting these lands, it is important to have back-up farms in other areas growing, caring for, and collecting the seeds. Secondly, it is very difficult to mail seeds from the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library to the United States. Through growing and sharing these seeds in the US, Vivien is hoping to create cultural seed access and offer culinary food justice to diasporic Palestinian’s and other people from Middle Eastern heritage living in the United States. We are honored to help support Vivien’s vision of seed justice.

Seed Cycles:

We were not sure how the Yaktin would grow in the Northeast with more water and a shorter season. After a freak frost that we thought had killed most of the transplants, the Yaktin showed its incredible tenacity and strength. So much for starting out small! The Yaktin has become a sea of velvet leaves, delicate lace-like flowers, and 20-30 foot vines criss-crossing the gardens and trellising. The fruits are edible at about the size of a zucchini, but the seeds won’t be ready until the gourds are much larger and dry on the vine. We’re hoping Vivien will be able to come lead the seed harvest, but that’s not possible until the pandemic has receded. If Vivien is unable to come, we’ll work together digitally to make sure the seeds are harvested correctly. All of the seed collected will be rematriated to Vivien Sansour for her to determine the best way to share the seeds with her community.

The Palestine Heirloom Seed Library in the Media:

Aljazeera: The Seed Queen of Palestine

Frieze: Writer and Activist Vivien Sansour on Food, Farming, Heritage and Healing

VICE: The Woman Refusing to Let Palestine’s Farming Roots Die

The Village Voice: Preserving Palestinian Culture, One Seed at a Time

The Dark Mountain Project: Seeds of Ba’al

Aljazeera English: First Seed Library Sprouts In Palestine

Magazine: Seeds of resistance: The woman fighting occupation with agriculture