The endangered white cucumbers of Battir

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Nothing challenges us humans more than nationalistic pride. Bigotry, imperialism, war, and all manner of human destruction inevitably sprout from its soil.

This thought came to my mind as I read the latest public ruminations of a certain Israeli acquaintance of mine, a Chicago expatriate — a rabbi, no less — currently residing in a West Bank settlement and author of a column in the Jerusalem Post.

Being on Rabbi Dovid Ben-Meir’s email list (willingly), I was informed thus:

“This post relates to the contrast between the richness of Jewish history in the Land of Israel — because there IS a history — and the empty Palestine Museum, because there is NO real ‘Palestinian’ people, as a people with a national identity. Be well!”

The good rabbi’s post was referring to a museum that has apparently been established somewhere in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. “Not so long ago,” Ben-Meir writes, “the Palestine Museum opened with some fanfare in what seems to be an impressive building. However – there are no exhibits. That may be temporary, but it’s certainly symbolic: an empty museum for a people without national authenticity or history to exhibit, that didn’t exist until the 20th century, when artificially created as a political and propaganda tool against Israel.”

Having just returned from Palestine, Rabbi Dovid’s words cut me to the quick. Of course there is a “real” Palestinian people with a national identity, I wrote to my friend in an email! (We Americans tend to consider just about anyone a friend, even those with ideas diametrically opposed to our own, provided we’ve walked around and had a drink together).

Denying Palestinian culture is more than just preposterous, I continued. It’s racist and hateful. I had traveled up and down Palestine and had met Palestinians; learned about their culture and heritage. I had seen, heard and experienced it, including the tradition of greeting a complete stranger with a cold drink on a hot day, served up in a fluted glass, on a handsome metal tray (an experience I can describe in detail).

There are many ways to celebrate one’s own culture and heritage without demeaning someone else’s, I added, in a moralizing tone. That’s what peace-building is all about.

Rabbi Dovid wasn’t convinced. There are Arabs who live in the Land of Israel, he scoffed. They may have certain family or tribal customs, foods, etc. But as there never was a ‘Palestine’ or Palestinian ‘nation’ other than the one Jews have founded, then there is no such thing as Palestinian ‘culture’.

A day trip from the Palestinian town of Beit Jala to nearby Battir in the company of an anthropologist named Vivien Sansour demolishes Rabbi Dovid’s argument. Listen to our trip here:

On a wonderful June morning, Vivien and I drove to Battir from Bethlehem sister city Beit Jala. Before leaving town, Vivien pulled over to the side of the street to buy a bagful of Palestinian heirloom apricots from a street vendor — juicy, misshapen fruits with a back story. They had been grown on a nearby parcel of land squeezed between a handful of Jewish settlements. Growing rare varieties of fruit on fragmented land, with restricted water access, is a big challenge for Palestinian farmers.

Their apricots are all the more prized. Because the traditional (as opposed to Israeli industrial) apricot season lasts only a couple of weeks, Arab people have coined a term for the ephemeral; for the kind of phenomenon that can barely be counted on, because it’s so brief: fil mishmish. ‘In the time of the apricot season’. In English we’d say ‘When pigs fly’.

Vivien Sansour with apricots, photo by David Kattenburg
Vivien Sansour with apricots, photo by David Kattenburg

Palestinian language and tradition are filled with agricultural references like this, Vivien told me, as we drove to Battir, eating our apricots, carefully stashing their pits in a little pocket on the dashboard, because Vivien has a passion for seeds.

These and other heirloom seed varieties collected from elder farmers would soon be part of a seed library in Battir – the first of its kind in Palestine – set up with the support of the Ramallah-based A.M. Qattan Foundation (the library officially launched on June 4).

Although Beit Jala and Battir are just a few miles apart, our drive took about a half hour. Israel’s Apartheid Wall surrounds Beit Jala on three sides, and the road leading to Battir meanders more than the glistening, black-topped highway Jewish settlers use to move back and forth between their tidy homes and Jerusalem; or between Jerusalem and occupied Hebron.

As we drove, Vivien pointed out the “ocean of grapes and apricots and pears” exemplifying Palestinian agricultural diversity, cut sharply short by the ugly Israeli wall separating Bethlehem from its surrounding villages. Through a little tunnel we raced, beneath a road only Jewish settlers are allowed to drive on. “So we become truly the Invisibles, who are like cockroaches underneath the roads that they drive,” Vivien remarked, irritably.

Finally, Vivien and I arrived in Battir. Gazing down on the valley below, I feasted my eyes on one of the world’s most astonishing sights: an amphitheater of ancient stone terraces draped in a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, herbs and trees — including olive trees reputed to be over a thousand years old.

The engine of all this biodiversity? A very special microclimate, for sure. Also – returning to my debate with rabbi Dovid – a source of pure spring water that Battir’s eight extended families have cooperatively managed for generations. Battir’s diverse gardens and cooperative irrigation system earned it World Heritage status from UNESCO back in 2014. (the ‘C’ standing for “Culture”).

“Endangered” status, no less. Israel has been itching to run its Separation Wall across Battir valley for years, a move that would surely destroy it. Battir’s UNESCO status has put Israel’s plans on hold – for the time being.

Vivien, a U.S.-educated anthropologist, took me down into Battir valley. Nothing is more fascinating than tumbling water. At the valley’s lip, water rushes through a rock crevice, into a small cavern where laughing kids bathe. Out the other end the water spouts, offering solace on a hot day, then down into a “Roman Pool” – a swimming pool when it’s full – that empties into a series of enchanting stone channels coated in green algae.

Battir’s eight extended families have devised a system for sharing all this wonderful spring water, each staking out a day to irrigate their plots. But – as explained by Wisam Owaineh, coordinator of Battir’s Landscape Ecomuseum (in the longer audio story below) – watering plants every eight days won’t do. So, families fine-tune cooperative irrigation on the fly.

Cooperation pays off. Battir’s ancient stone terraces are covered in a dazzling variety of plant species: mulberry, loquat, pomegranate, orange, lemon, fig, apricot, olive, almond, wild sumac and caper, eggplant, mint, chard, zucchini, tomatoes, watermelon, pumpkin … to mention just a few. Vivien took me to her own garden, where an exceptionally rare variety of white cucumber flourishes. “Don’t step on it,” she warned!

Battir, photograph by David Kattenburg
Battir, photograph by David Kattenburg

Gazing up from Vivien’s plot, beyond a set of tracks where a Jerusalem-Tel Aviv express train occasionally races (a train Battiris once loaded their esteemed eggplants and other produce on, but that doesn’t stop in Battir anymore), on a hillside where villagers used to grow crops, splotchy stands of alien pine now grow, bearing witness to the agri-culture Zionism has brought to the Land of Israel. Seeds from those pines blow in the wind. Uprooting pines that take root on the flanks of splendidly diverse Battir valley is a punishable offense under Israeli law.

Staring up at Israel’s barren hillside, at a scar of a road winding upwards, Vivien pointed out what she said was a police van. Without a pair of powerful binoculars, it was hard to know for sure. The Israelis say they’re worried about the security of their train. No one has ever attacked it, Vivien and Wisam told me. According to Wisam, there are no police in Battir – neither Palestinian nor Israeli. Battir has a long culture of looking after its needs and keeping the peace, says Wisam.


Vivien and I drove back to Beit Jala. A week later, on June 3, I returned to Battir for the opening of the village’s heirloom seed library. I stayed at the Abu Hassan Guest House (named after the notable who saved Battir from destruction by Zionist militias in 1948), a few doors down from the Landscape Ecomuseum. My room was spacious, attractive and WiFi-equipped, with a terrific view of Battir valley. Travelers interested in exploring Battir and its hiking trails need go no further in search of accommodation.

Having settled in, Wisam Owaineh and I sat down for a talk on the balcony of the museum, perched on the edge of the valley. Financing the museum and guesthouse and attracting visitors has been an enormous challenge, Wisam told me. He and his colleagues want potential tourists to know how splendid it would be to hike between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, through Battir valley and its interweaving wadis. Easier said than done, given the architecture of Israel’s system of apartheid, but Wisam muses about it anyway.

The following morning, seed lovers from up and down the West Bank began arriving at the Landscape Ecomuseum, where Vivien Sansour’s heirloom seed library would now be housed. A group of teachers gathered around a table on the museum balcony, gathering seeds in bottles. With aid and support from the seed library’s sponsor, the Ramallah-based A.M. Qattan Foundation, these teachers have been introducing their students to heirloom seeds.

What do kids learn from seeds, I asked?

“They learn about how to belong to the Earth,” replied Osama Aujoaba, a teacher from Hebron. “That if I plant a plant or grow a plant, this is my plant. I will take care of it.”

“Most of them wanted to know more about the seeds from their grandfathers and grandmothers,” said a woman named Samar, in halting English. “Some of them make a connection,” she added, pausing to find the right words.

“Between present and past,” a mathematics teacher named Abeer Qunaibi interjected.

Later, I spoke with the Qattan Foundation’s Executive Director, Ziad Khalaf. Students are “entering into a dialogue, a conversation with their grandmothers and grandfathers,” Ziad told me. “And this is really creating a situation where the family fabric is being rejuvenated, and it gives so much pride and joy for the elders to share their stories and practices and know-how with the young ones.”

Speaking with Khalaf and these teachers, with Vivien, Wisam and others, it became clear that Battir’s heirloom seed library is much more than just a place where rare seeds can be deposited or withdrawn. Nor is the village’s Landscape Ecomuseum a museum like any other – the sort my Jewish settler friend, rabbi Dovid, would scoff at.

“It’s not a museum under a roof,” Wisam told me. “It’s a museum under the sky.”

For those compelled to dispute the absurd and racist notion that Palestinians don’t exist, that Palestinians have no history or culture, Battir’s immensely fertile valley, ecomuseum and heirloom seed library suggest an entirely different story: that Palestinians actually have a more powerful cultural connection to the land than the European Jews who arrived a hundred years ago — certainly more than the affluent American Jews or economic refugees from the former Soviet Union who’ve arrived since Israel’s 1967 conquest of the West Bank.

Although Zionists claim thousands of years of Jewish tradition, they’ve ended up defacing this gorgeous land with the ugliest manifestations of settler-colonialist culture: industrial farm fields, sprawling settlements, black-topped roads and concrete barriers.

For those who look forward, rather than behind, diverse Battir valley is more than just a static reminder that Palestinians have a cultural connection to their land. Saving and sharing seeds is a vehicle for their cultural and political empowerment. “We’re reweaving our community through this project,” says Vivien Sansour. “Returning back to loving ourselves. Returning back to knowing who we are. Returning back to healing ourselves and our community, wounded by so much brutality.”

And of course, seeds are the embodiment of opportunity and hope. Each tiny, seemingly insignificant speck of germplasm gives rise to a completely different plant. Vivien thinks they’re magical. “They are also carrying in their DNA our healing and our future.”


A version of this post appeared on Green Planet Monitor

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Thanks for this report.

Wow. How can arrogance grow so much in someone who would diminish these people and their land? Everyday on Twitter I see tweets asserting there is no Palestinian state or nation or country, etc. The accounts always appear to be American and/or Israeli.

Beautiful, and very moving.

Reading about Battir was especially meaningful to me. I will forward this to my children, who were given heirloom seeds by local farmers when we moved my grandfather’s old farm in Brittany. Growing those seeds tied my children to the land and the community far more powerfully than I ever could have imagined.

As for those goddamn pine tree seedlings. Stomp on ’em!

Uplifting article. Thank you very much. A story of life, of nature… Simplicity and truth remain in the mind far longer than fake and lying stories.