Palatal Geographies

"Za’atar, an herb in the oregano family, is a staple of the Palestinian diet. It is commonly believed that za’atar makes you smart and cures many ailments. In the wild, its aroma is so intense that to find it one can just follow the smell."

"Palatal Geographies," by Vivien Sansour 

Excerpted from "No Land Beyond," ...and other such stories, Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2019.
A journey through these ancient terrains is a culinary voyage into different forageable flavors. Through herbs ranging from nutty, tender Pistacia palaestina leaves to wild fennel and za’atar, hundreds of Palestinians, like most Indigenous people around the world, have developed long and intimate relationships with their landscape.
Today, organic and foraged foods are experiencing a renaissance in Western markets, and my own practice is similarly revered as “innovative.” Yet I stand humbled in front of an old chocolate tin. “I am looking for the heir-loom eggplant,” I say, in an attempt to entice Om Wisam to open her sacred container that has been emptied to serve as storage for all kinds of ancient seeds. I stare at her collection of zucchini, lettuce, beans, peas, and other heirloom crops that have been slowly disappearing from farmers’ hands. In that moment I understand that while the landscape of my ancestors has been deformed, ravished, reformed, and appropriated—much like those pomegranate and almond sprouts in Immwas—I have inherited a resilience that has called me to recreate Om Wisam’s Quality Street Mackintosh’s chocolate tin in a time of landscape transition.
The Jadu’l watermelon was the seed that sparked my practice of heirloom crop collection. Tens of farmers, elders, and community members I interviewed mentioned this watermelon when recounting personal stories. Some women said they gave birth in the watermelon fields; many men spoke about their fathers and grandfa-thers loading trucks of Jadu’l and taking it to Beirut and Damascus; a woman told me how they used to keep the giant melon under the beds to stay cool so they could eat it in the late autumn. The stories were endless, and the joy in the beaming faces of those talking about this beloved crop was contagious.

The image above is of the first sprouts of the Jadu’l seeds in 2016, when we celebrated the vitality of the long-lost crop and affirmed that there are indeed still those who want them—who still want, in essence, who we are!

All images by Vivien Sansour. Download the full pdf