Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library is Saving Palestine’s Agricultural Heritage

Forgotten Fruits

With its hills, green valleys and ancient UNESCO World Heritage terraces, the village of Battir could be one of the world’s oldest cradles of agriculture. What better place for ‘seed librarian’ Vivien Sansour to collect, protect, and distribute Palestinian heirloom seeds.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Samar Hazboun

Contrary to most of its literary counterparts, the Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library (PHSL) is not housed in a monumental multi-storey building. This library, dedicated to cataloguing and preserving native seeds, has taken up residence on the top floor of the century-old house it shares with the Dar Abu Hassan Guesthouse.

Stepping inside, a sense of cosiness envelops you instantly. With its tile floor and mismatched array of wooden chairs, small tables and benches, the library feels almost like someone’s personal abode. Adorning the green-painted walls are shelves with pots of seeds and a small collection of educational books. The pots bear the name of the seed varieties, and sometimes the person who brought them. Most of the seeds came from local farmers and elders, whose memories of traditional foods inspired the library’s process of seed identification, location and preservation. A few worn brooms hang in one corner, adding to the fairy-tale atmosphere of the room.

 

 

“The library serves as a sanctuary where visitors can draw inspiration from the rebellious nature of seeds”
A Quest for Long-Lost Seeds

It was in 2014 that Palestinian writer and photographer Vivien Sansour embarked on her remarkable journey to establish a library for seeds in the village of Battir, a place of great historical and agricultural significance, included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Like the seeds she now collects and distributes, encouraging visitors to take them home and cultivate them, Vivien’s story and that of her unique initiative have found their way across borders. Featured in international agricultural publications, news media, art blogs and online magazines, they chronicle the origin of the library; it all started in 2010 with the search for a single seed.

Hearing stories from local farmers and families about Jadu’I, a once abundant but now assumed to be extinct watermelon variety, Vivien curiosity was aroused. Refusing to believe that it was lost, she decided to try and find its seeds.

During her quest she discovered other native seeds that were thought to have been long lost, and the idea for the Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library was born, dedicated to ‘finding and preserving ancient seed varieties and traditional farming practices.’

With great determination, Vivien tries not only to reclaim these ancient seeds and their stories, but also to put them back into the hands of people, wanting as many growers and farmers as possible using the seeds.

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The Rebellious Nature of Seeds

The library quickly developed into an interactive venture that merges art and agriculture, as Vivien explains: 'The primary goal is to encourage dialogue between individuals, allowing them to exchange seeds and knowledge, while exploring the compelling stories behind food and agriculture, and finding and unravelling the stories that may have been suppressed. Waiting for the opportunity,’ she says with a smile on her face, “to sprout and flourish like a seed.’

She adds that the library serves as a sanctuary where visitors can draw inspiration from the rebellious nature of seeds, symbolic figures that cross boundaries and defy the violence that pervades the landscape, describing them as symbols that become champions of resilience and solidarity in embracing life and presence.

Inside the library, Vivien's innovative approach becomes apparent as she skillfully uses different media, such as images, sketches, films, soil, seeds, and plants, to bring ancient cultural stories to life in a contemporary context. This way, she tirelessly promotes the conservation of biodiversity, recognizing its importance as both a cultural and political statement.

A Battiri local extends a friendly welcome, underlining Vivian's partnership with both the local and global community of farmers and seed advocates who now support her efforts. It feels as if you have entered the realm of the secrets of the Palestinian territory, where you not only learn about the past, but also glimpse future possibilities through enlightening lectures and the handing out of seed-filled envelopes to take home.

 

“Vivien tries not only to reclaim these ancient seeds and their stories, but also to put them back into the hands of people”
Labour of love

It was not until 2016 that she finally found a few Jadu’l seeds in a farmer’s tool drawer, and planted them. From the new crop, Vivien and her team made new seeds and have since been planting and sharing them.

Standing on the library’s balcony, an awe-inspiring sight of the village and its surroundings unfolds before your eyes. ‘It took years of arduous toil and relentless research, coupled with numerous negotiations and persuasions with farmers to delve into their ancestral knowledge, including its forgotten fragments,’ Vivien reflects, her gaze fixed on the panoramic view of Battir.

What started as a personal quest has grown into one of national and international (agri)cultural importance: the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, a vital platform dedicated to rediscovering and reintroducing endangered crop varieties while collecting stories that affirm communities' rightful ownership of seeds.

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The Palestine Heirloom Seed Library

Battir Old Village For the guesthouse: Dar Abu Hassan Guest House facebook.com/Battir.GuestHouse

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ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER

Samar Hazboun is a multi-award winning Palestinian freelance documentary photographer from Bethlehem. She holds a Master’s degree in photojournalism from the University of Westminster, a BA in international relations and a degree in photo and video therapy. Samar's accolades include winning the Khalil Al-Sakakini award for her project ‘Hush’, which explores gender-based violence in Palestine. The essence of her photography style captures the human condition and raw emotions, an approach she uses...

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