Preserving Palestinian Culture, One Seed at a Time

Last weekend, Vivien Sansour, founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, was on a quick stopover in New York City, from her home in Beit Jala, a small town in the West Bank, on her way to New Haven, Connecticut, a small city on the East Coast. Later in the week, she’d give a talk at the newly opened Palestine Museum US, about her mission to preserve and propagate the nearly extinct varietals of Palestinian farmers. She’d be telling the story of wheats like the Handsome Dark One; legendary watermelons like the J’adii; khyar abyad, white cucumbers of immense flavor; and Baladi tomatoes, a type known for its resiliency. Not only do the seeds need saving but so too do the farmers, whose land has been stolen, water diverted, and selves deracinated. But she was in New York and hungry, and so we ended up in Bay Ridge, at Tanoreen, one of New York City’s few Palestinian restaurants and its best by far.

Tanoreen’s owner, Rawia Bishara, was born in Nazareth and followed her husband to the United States in 1973. In 1998, after raising two children, she opened the place with only ten seats. Bishara is an elegant and regal woman who runs the now-expanded restaurant with her daughter, Jumana Bishara. As with many Palestinians, a gentle sadness envelopes her like mist as she moves about the dining room. It is the sadness of a woman far from home, the melancholy of the dispossessed, and it diffuses her radiant smile, which glows rather than shines.

Those who know what’s what order from Tanoreen’s ever-changing menu of daily specials. That’s where we find the makdous peppers, the hybrid of Rawia’s family’s recipes and the pepper proclivities of her Latino chefs. Bright poblano and jalapeño peppers are roasted and stuffed with a traditional mixture of walnuts, red pepper, and spicy harissa. That’s where we find molokhia, a type of Egyptian mallow once eaten by kings. Falafel and hummus are on the menu, too. Though delicious, they’re 101 shit, the chicken tenders of the Levant.

Jalapeño and poblano makdous peppers (left) and kibbie balls at TanoreenCOURTESY KYLE BOOKS / PHOTOS BY CON POULOS

The menu is a manifesto for the full personhood of Palestinians. “I hated how we were looked at and how we as Palestinians were perceived,” Bishara explained. “It is so wrong and there was no way to fix it but one to one. They have to see that we are not what they think we are.” What comes out of the kitchen is Palestinian home cooking — endless variants of rice and lamb, found formed into kibbie balls and stuffed into eggplants and peppers; nakanek, a homemade lamb sausage studded with pine nuts; hummus plain and hummus with beets — and that can’t help but lead the eater to contemplate the Palestinian homes with Palestinian mothers in Palestinian kitchens or, in the case of Bishara, Palestinian fathers, too. “My father always used to help my mother,” she says, on one of her table-side visits, “but he’d close the kitchen door so no one could see.”

This project of humanization has worked, within limits. “People still sometimes come in and ask my mom where she’s from,” explains Jumana Bishara, who earned a master’s degree in Middle East studies from the American University in Cairo before joining the family business a decade ago. “She says, ‘Palestine,’ and they say Palestine doesn’t exist. Well, they’re here, and they’re eating food from somewhere.”  

Jumana Bishara and Rawia Bishara of TanoreenCOURTESY KYLE BOOKS / PHOTOS BY CON POULOS

Negation of the land takes a more concrete form in the work of Sansour. From her childhood, Sansour remembers the ancient terraces that turned the hills of Beit Jala into green carpets. (In fact, Beit Jala means “green carpet” in Aramaic.) “When I miss home,” she says, “I miss the sound of a rock hitting the shell of an almond,” she tells me. Sansour is a pretty woman with nut-brown eyes and olive skin wearing a white linen shirt with bright flowers embroidered on them. On the day I met her, she wore a pair of earrings from which dangled the ancient protective hamsa symbol and a hamsa necklace, and her wrists were heavy with hamsa bracelets that jingled as she pointed at one of Tanoreen’s excellent wines, a Hamdani Jandali blend from the Cremisan valley in the West Bank. “The whole area is now being confiscated,” she said, matter-of-factly. “The whole winery has been confiscated. It’s gone.”

After studying anthropology at East Carolina University and working with farmers in Uruguay, Sansour was shocked when she returned home in 2013 after years away. “All I saw was concrete, concrete, concrete. Terraces of concrete.” Gone were the beloved apricots and almond trees. The groves were replaced by a dense swarm of apartments built to accommodate the Palestinians herded off their land by the Occupation. This small ghetto was now surrounded by a ring of Israeli settlements that held the high ground of the valley, looming like an invading army. The farmers with whom Sansour had grown up had largely become day laborers at nearby Israeli-owned industrial agriculture operations. The Seed Library started with a search for the purple carrot.

Green abu samra wheat field in the village of Nus Ijbail, West BankVIVIEN SANSOUR

“When I was growing up,” explains Sansour, as a plate of raw kibbie arrives, the minced lamb like a pink shag carpet under a sprig of mint and mounds of diced onion, “my mother would stuff these purple carrots with lamb and rice and serve it in a tamarind sauce. But when I returned, I couldn’t find the carrots anywhere.” Eventually Sansour found one old farmer who was hiding a crate of them in his trunk. “I felt like I was doing a drug deal,” she says. The farmer agreed to sell her two carrots, which she promptly planted in her family’s house, on one of the only remaining green carpets in Beit Jala. The seed of resistance had been planted.“

Stripping people’s ability to have food production was the last stronghold that would bring down the community,” says Sansour. “With each crop came a tradition, a practice, a story of who you are. So with each crop lost, it’s not just biodiversity but cultural diversity that’s lost as well.” The Heirloom Seed Library is animated by the same spirit of Slow Food in Italy and of community gardens in New York and, to some bougie-extent, of the farm-to-table movement around the country. It’s the idea that no one can be truly free if he does not have food sovereignty. So Sansour began crisscrossing the West Bank, tracking down seeds kept in the junk drawers of old farmers, and carefully coaxing them back to life.

Artasi bean from the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library in Beit JalaVIVIEN SANSOUR

She hunted these varietals like Alan Lomax did the Delta blues and, like the blues, these seeds were themselves the fruit of suffering and imagination, and like the blues they are divine and life-affirming. “Farmers are between artists and scientists,” Sansour tells me. “That these varieties exist at all are thanks to generations of Palestinian farmers who never stopped experimenting, never gave up on the land.” Wheats like the Handsome Dark One were bred over generations and generations. Yet it is this very humanity, this very human connection to the land, that the Israeli occupiers are obsessed with uprooting, whether by ringing the settlements with pine trees, which render the soil unarable, or with walls and fences, barring Palestinians from their ancestral villages. The anti-colonial struggle is both one of land and one of hearts. “We are told we are shit all the time,” says Sansour. “We have to be like the West to be of any value. But when you realize your grandmother and great-grandmothers developed this wheat and it is because of your grandmother and great-grandmother that the world eats cookies and cake, it’s a big shift. You begin to think maybe I’m not shit to begin with, and that is the true resistance.”

Just then, Rawia Bishara arrives behind a caravan of striped bass, festooned with potatoes in a tomato sauce; a small plate of startlingly bright pickled vegetables; and a trio of baby squash into whose hollowed-out bodies are stuffed almonds and lamb. Great plumes of steam arise from the fish and from the squash as we cut their tender skin open. Usually simply a vessel for stuffing, these squash are unusually squash-like. They are not just a carrier but carry value themselves. The secret, Rawia says, is that these crops are grown by a Palestinian farmer in Pennsylvania according to the ancient practice of Ba’al. Ba’al agriculture, offers Sansour as Bishara looks on, is named after the Canaanite diety of fertility and destruction we know as Beelzebub, and is a farming technique in which crops grow with no man-made irrigation. Before irrigation, Ba’al was once a necessity, and now, with water in the West Bank being diverted to the settlements, it a necessity once again. But the result of this technique is vastly more flavorful, a vegetable that has had to fight to survive and through its struggle has found a way to thrive. “The idea you dare to try something in the desert is itself fucking revolutionary,” says Sansour. And the fact that you can try something like it at Tanoreen brings the revolution, the resistance, and at least a small measure of victory to Brooklyn.