Writer and Activist Vivien Sansour on Food, Farming, Heritage and Healing
‘We are being poisoned because we have been severed from who we are’
‘We are being poisoned because we have been severed from who we are’
Vivien Sansour is the founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library (2014) and the Travelling Kitchen (2018), initiatives she launched in order to ‘eat our history rather than store it away as a relic of the past’. I met with her at the Delfina Foundation in London, where she has been doing a residency as part of their ‘Politics of Food’ programme and where she has used ‘images, sketches, film, seeds and soil to tell old stories with a contemporary twist’.
Jennifer Higgie Where did you grow up?
Vivien Sansour In Beit Jala, a small town near Bethlehem in Palestine. It was so diverse, so lush and abundant. I don’t remember ever buying fruit because we grew our own, lots of apricots and almonds.
JH What was your favourite food?
VS Green almonds; we ate them with salt. People sold them on the street but, as kids, we were always attacking somebody’s tree for them, and getting shouted at. But I also like almonds in their middle stage, when they’re kind of between a nut and a fruit.
JH Do you know, I had no idea about the different stages of almonds. I’ve only ever eaten them from a packet.
VS You’d love our heirloom almonds. They require no irrigation and have a very buttery, nutty taste that’s quite intense. When I eat supermarket almonds that have been irrigated, they don’t taste as nice.
JH So, you grew up loving nature …
VS I learned so much from those almond and apricot orchards through touch and taste, and about the soil they needed to flourish. I didn’t realize how much they meant to me until my family emigrated to the US.
JH How old were you?
VS About ten.
JH Where did you go?
VS To a small town in North Carolina. Later, I lived in Los Angeles.
JH How did becoming an immigrant affect you?
VS You learn about who you are when you’re extracted from where you’re from. I really longed for the smells and sensations of Palestine. Where we lived in North Carolina, there was so much land and yet very little food that was locally produced. Cucumbers from the supermarket were expensive and tasteless.
JH When did you return to Palestine?
VS When I was studying for my Masters in anthropology. It was on the stories and aspirations of women of the generation of the Intifada: the Palestinian uprising of 1987. I was trying to understand myself – a woman who had left Palestine – and what my life might have been like had I stayed.
JH What did you do your degree in?
VS Theatre, Arts and Political Science.
JH What made you shift to anthropology?
VS Because political science didn’t answer my questions around culture. Anthropology allowed me to look at things from different perspectives and to understand the world’s immense diversity. The greatest liberation of my life has been to learn that there’s no single means of understanding our planet, that there’s not one way of being acceptable or beautiful or intellectual. And the same applies to working with plants, because there’s always a new one to discover. When I first went to Colombia, for example, I saw things I’d never seen in my life. And, in the US, I was amazed by the colours in Native American corn. I like to put one on the table in my library because, when people come in, they always pick it up and ask me if I painted it. Plants create opportunities to talk about cultural diversity and biodiversity and the fact that life is so magical.
JH Would you say there’s one right way to farm?
VS No, there are many. But I do think that the use of chemicals and genetically modified seeds in farming is violent. In fact, agriculture itself is violent, in the sense that its origins align with the beginning of human anxiety; that we lost faith in nature’s ability to provide for us and we wanted to control it – which is our problem everywhere, all the time. Even though I work in agriculture, I still struggle with this. Agriculture has settled people, but it has also displaced many of them.
JH What are your thoughts on different foods going in and out of fashion?
VS Food can be so sexy and fun and, of course, everyone’s posting pictures about it on social media. But I feel there’s a void in what’s being reported: about how the beautiful food we post on Instagram is often grown at the expense of people who have had to change their methods of food production in order to satisfy the health trend of the moment. Veganism, for example, is quite complex. I totally understand the appeal of not wanting to kill animals; it’s a beautiful sentiment. But it vilifies those who don’t have many options; often vegans don’t consider the environmental impact of producing so much corn and soy in order to make vegan products. For example, a lot of people visit me from Europe and the US in order to learn about food and agriculture, which is fantastic. But, occasionally, they take a kind of moral high ground. If a farmer hospitably offers them their last chicken, these visitors will often say no; personally, I’d rather eat a chicken that’s been roaming freely around a village than consume highly processed soya beans that have travelled thousands of kilometres.
JH What we choose to eat obviously has political ramifications.
VS When we talk about food we should also talk about inequality. There are people who don’t have access to land or whose lands have been taken away from them. In Chiapas in Mexico, for example, I was working with farmers whose river had been sold by the government to a private company and who were denied access to it.
JH In the evolution of your thinking around these issues, who has influenced you?
VS I would be absolutely nothing if it weren’t for the inspiring agronomist and educator John Sabella. He was born and raised in the US but is of Palestinian heritage and has worked with farmers all around the world. He gave a seminar on my MA programme about cheesemaking in Honduras. At the time, I was thinking about establishing a farm in Palestine and so I talked to him about it. I had just returned from there and was so torn by how wonderful things from my home had disappeared – the flavours, the ladies selling cheese on the street, the farmers who came to the city from the countryside. They couldn’t do that anymore because movement in Palestine is so restricted. So, I asked John about growing food in small spaces and he replied: ‘I started a farm in Uruguay; why don’t you go there and learn?’ I discovered that he was the co-founder of BIO-Uruguay, a sustainable agriculture research extension centre in the north of the country. So, I got a credit card, left university and went to Uruguay. I didn’t speak a word of Spanish or know anyone there. I’d never gone that far south in the Americas. I landed in Buenos Aires, took a boat to Montevideo and a bus to this remote village. I spent three months living in a small house by myself, on the top of the mountain, and learnt how to do everything naturally. You could say that journey was the seed for what came later.
JH What did you learn in Uruguay?
VS About the innovative ways that people who are greatly disadvantaged live in order to survive. In South America, it’s common for the men to leave to find work in the cities while their wives and children face hardship back home. BIO-Uruguay established a programme called Merenderos [Food Banks] that teaches women how to grow food in small spaces. Some of the women I met there have had the hardest lives you can imagine but they have so much faith in life; they moved me so much.
JH What did the trip inspire you to do next?
VS My time in Uruguay deepened my understanding that the struggle of people all over the world is the same: we all want to survive and to feel good. It inspired me to return to Palestine and to start my farm, but that didn’t happen right away. I guess some dreams take a long time. Because of the wall Israel was building, my family’s land had been confiscated. A lot of the people I work with now don’t have access to their land and it’s something I can empathize with.
JH What do you see as the solution?
VS We need to train ourselves to imagine what we want and use our lifeforce to create it. I want a living Palestine. I want the Palestine I grew up in, the Palestine of apricots and almonds and my grandmother’s rabbits. I don’t want a Palestine that’s checkpoints and concrete and KFCs. We’re the dumpster of the world’s neoliberal industries and practices, including industrial zones and fast foods. In the place of the olive groves I grew up with, we now have Popeye’s Fried Chicken and Domino’s Pizza. It makes me cry when I think about it. We are being poisoned because we have been severed from who we are. And I think that’s the true tragedy, the true victory of violence and colonization, when you convince someone that they’re not good enough.
JH How does your work with the Heritage Seed Library attempt to counter this situation?
VS I’m working with farmers to bring back seeds that have been threatened with extinction. We want to reintroduce them to the fields, to the market and to our kitchen tables. With each crop comes a cultural practice, and with the disappearance of a variety comes the loss of these practices. Our job is to revive them – not in order to go back to the past but in order to give old stories a contemporary relevance. This is important because within these narratives is the essence of who we are; we need to create conscious visions about who we want to be, both individually and in the world.
JH Why are these seeds facing extinction?
VS Because they have been replaced by hybrid seeds. From the late 1940s, there was a movement to modernize the Palestinian farm. Palestine is a centre for wheat diversity; we used to cultivate hundreds of varieties, but now we only cultivate two, and one of them is an Israeli variety that’s not a heritage variety. So, I’m always looking for the old seeds and, when I find them, we plant them with various farming communities.
JH How does the Travelling Kitchen expand on your work with the Heritage Seed Library?
VS My friend Ayed Arafah, who is an amazing artist, designed and built a small wooden kitchen for me; it can be dismantled and put in my car and then reassembled in villages in the West Bank. I set up the kitchen in the middle of a village and people come to talk to me about what I’m doing.
JH What do you discuss?
VS Biodiversity, cultural diversity, heritage and also, of course, we exchange new stories. We can’t go back to the past – that’s not what I’m interested in – but it’s important that we take matters into our own hands and define what our future’s going to look like. And that’s the power of story. Sometimes the conversation isn’t so smooth, because somebody might say: ‘It’s OK for us to spray crops,’ and then there’s an argument. But another conversation is: ‘Well, what did we used to grow and why do we not grow that anymore?’ A lot of the time, the Travelling Kitchen helps me to identify new seed varieties or old ones I’ve never come across. An old woman might tell me about a recipe she used to cook that I haven’t heard of before. And so, I will go to look for the ingredients.
JH What do you cook?
VS Whatever is being harvested. For example, I’m going to have an event with my Travelling Kitchen in Bethlehem; I’m going to cook sauces with the heirloom tomatoes that I planted just before I came to London.
JH Who comes to talk to you when you set up the kitchen?
VS Every time it’s different. In one of the villages recently, a group of 18 women or so came from a nearby town. It was beautiful; they started cooking and other people arrived and brought more bread and then someone else brought over some beans and then everyone ate together. Usually, these people don’t necessarily sit together at the same table, because there’s a divide between the urban and the rural. When the women went back to their town, they started to order vegetables from the farmers. One of them called me and said: ‘These women you brought here, they keep asking for more; I can’t keep up with the demand!’ Which is fantastic. It’s what we want, right?
JH So, the kitchen isn’t just about research?
VS No, it’s also about enjoyment! But not just the joy of tasting something yummy; it’s also about the joy of feeling safe, that you’re in a community, that it’s okay to laugh even if you have experienced tragedy. Recently, for example, I was travelling to a village; the journey usually takes an hour and a half; but because of two checkpoints, it took me three hours and I was turned away a few times. But, eventually, I got to the village, we set up the kitchen and had a party.
JH What’s your favourite recipe?
VS I love an old one made from green almonds with yoghurt. People had stopped making it, so I called my mother; she instructed me, and everyone seemed to like it. But my favourite recipe is a dish I make with green almonds, lamb broth and a salty yoghurt, which is traditionally Bedouin. It’s basically a green almond stew.
JH Recently, at Delfina Foundation, we celebrated the life of your friend Esiah Levy – the founder of SeedsShare, a London-based project to send free edible plant seeds to anyone who wanted them – with an evening of storytelling and a Jamaican feast cooked by you and Esiah’s father, John. You’ve also made a film dedicated to him [Zaree’a, 2019]. What did he mean to you?
VS I met Esiah to explore the possibility of creating a seed farm in Jamaica. We had more in common than I anticipated but he passed away soon after we met. I found myself drawn to finding a way to connect to something I didn’t understand. I asked myself questions such as ‘Why would I meet this person right before he died?’ and ‘What am I being called for?’ Seeds are what connected us and I knew that it would also be where my answers would lie. So, I started searching out the people who had planted Esiah’s seeds and spending time with them and, most importantly, with his family, particularly his mother, Odette, and his father, John. They all inspired me to a great extent. Because of Esiah, I have met people who are like angels. One guy, who would not reveal his name, came to a lecture I gave at Goldsmiths and handed me a drawing that read: ‘Thank you for saving the seeds.’ When I asked him where he was from, he replied: ‘Somewhere in the Caribbean.’ He then said that his name was not important because this was the only conversation we would ever have and that he was here to deliver a message. It was like a scene from a sci-fi film, but I am open to these things; I believe in other realms.
JH What is the focus of Zaree’a?
VS It was about trying to make sense of life’s transformations. In many ways, it was a journey in processing grief. We all walk around with pain and we all pretend it is not there. I wanted Esiah’s passing and his work to offer all of us the gift of daring to feel, so we can start to heal.
JH For the dinner at Delfina, you placed a postcard on every plate that included images and notes about Esiah’s life and the literal and symbolic power of seed exchange. One card expressed the idea that ‘seed exchange is a medium for sharing experiences, knowledge and stories’. Another declared: ‘The heart is an abyss of aspirations that are often quietly sprouting.’ At one point, people started reading them aloud. It was very moving.
VS Yes, many of us found ourselves connecting and soothing old pains, not just about Esiah but about the loss of land, the loss of home, the loss of safety, and the loss of our sense of community, which has left us feeling isolated in our suffering. The dinner for Esiah was an act of communal mourning and a celebration of a life that left us all feeling stronger and more open. I hope so anyway.
Vivien Sansour lives in Palestine. This year, she has undertaken a residency at Delfina Foundation, London, UK, as part of the ‘Politics of Food’ project. Her film Zaree’a (2019) was screened at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in June. Her show ‘Marj and Prairie’, which tackles issues of transforming landscapes, is included in the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial, USA, from 19 September until 5 January 2020.
Main image: Vivien Sansour, The Power of Sharing, 2019, a celebration of the life of Esiah Levy. Courtesy: the artist and Delfina Foundation, London; photograph: Dan Well