Vivien Sansour spent six years searching for watermelon seeds. These weren’t ordinary seeds, but ones that grow a succulent fruit once abundant in Jenin, a 4,000-year-old city referenced in the Bible as the Plain of Esdraelon. Seeds that, after decades of strife between the states of Israel and Palestine — the roughly 2,400 square miles of land divided into the West Bank and Gaza Strip — had nearly disappeared.
“The Jadu’I watermelon is an incredible source of life,” Sansour, a conservationist and documentarian raised in Beit Jala, a small town near Bethlehem, explains. “People described to me how they had hidden in the dense watermelon fields during the war — and later gave birth in those same fields.”
The vines offered up melons that fueled the local economy. Sweet, juicy fruits that — prior to the 1948 partition of Palestine and the establishment of Israel — were exported by the truckload to Syria and Turkey. The villagers Sansour interviewed for her research on rural agriculture called the melons “dinosaurs.” But, she says, they did so “with longing in their eyes.” This yearning became a catalyst: “I knew then that I wanted to be a person who could help people reconnect to disappearing foods — and to themselves, to an identity also in danger of being lost.”
The subsequent Israeli capture of areas that, before 1967, were designated as Palestinian land, coupled with the continued annexation of territories within the West Bank, has not only compromised crop diversity, but eroded residents’ ability to be self-sufficient. “This is the impact of political violence combined with changing seed sources.” Over time, Sansour explains, local farmers started depending on hybrid seeds from agrochemical companies rather than traditional ones. “Those same agribusinesses are drowning farms in chemical inputs that damage the soil and transforming farmers from producers who had autonomy and decision-making power into workers who don’t have any power over what they’re growing.”