I Know Who I Am


A Conversation With Vivien Sansour

By David Kattenburg

I met Vivien Sansour for the first time back in 2016, in her home town of Beit Jala, on the southern edge of Bethlehem, in Israeli-occupied Palestine.

An anthropologist by training, Vivien has turned to the promotion of food and the cultural sovereignty tied to growing one’s own and saving the seeds, as her life’s work.

Vivien Sansour absorbed in seed work

Vivien Sansour is a farmer, seed saver, cultural entrepreneur, facilitator and animator, human rights activist, artist, author and visionary.

She’s also peripatetic. Meeting up with with farmers from Palestine to Latin America, traveling through Europe and across the US, she’s been learning about the heirloom fruits, vegetables and flowers people hold dear, gathering their seeds, recipes and landed memories.

Vivien Sansour has become something of a celebrity. She’s been referred to as Palestine’s “Seed Queen.” This past January,  a very prominent promoter of naturally-focused farming and food production, Prince Charles, dropped in on Vivien to see what she was placing in the ground.

Vivien Sansour at home, planning a food forest

That first time Vivien and I connected, four years ago, she took me on a visit to one of the world’s most amazing spots — the Palestinian village of Battir, just to the east of Bethlehem — where she was helping to establish a Landscape Ecomuseum. Listen to the story that came out of that here.

Standing on the edge of little Battir, I feasted my eyes on one of the world’s most astonishing sights: an amphitheater of ancient stone terraces covered in a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, herbs and trees — including olive trees reputed to be over a thousand years old. Vivien took me down to the bottom of the valley to see some raised beds and how they get irrigated. Click on the play button on this pic.

Heirloom seed plots under irrigation. Click on play button.

The engine of all this biodiversity? A very special microclimate, for sure. Most critically, a source of pure spring water that Battir’s eight extended families have been cooperatively managing for generations. Click on the play button on this pic.

Battir valley, Israeli pine monoculture in the distance. Click on play button.

Battir’s diverse, cooperatively managed gardens earned it World Heritage status from UNESCO back in 2014. Endangered status, as it happens. For years, Israel has been wanting to run its Separation Wall across Battir valley, a move that would destroy it. Battir’s UNESCO status has put Israel’s plans on hold — for the time being.

Since that first visit back in 2016, I’ve dropped in on Vivien a bunch of times. In the summer of 2017, I joined in as she and a good friend broke ground on a ‘food forest ‘ in her back yard in Beit Jala, looking down on gorgeous Bethlehem.

In the summer of 2019, Vivien and I connected in Bethlehem, where she had just presented one of her projects to a local group of artists — a Traveling Kitchen Vivien takes on trips to villages up and down Palestine; something that can be assembled and disassembled, just like that — and where friend Mohammed was working on a new garden.

Later, I met up with Vivien in Battir, where an heirloom garden was underway beside Battir’s Ecomuseum. She took me on a walk to an agroecology plot she’s been developing, up a dirt road into Battir valley, in the shadow of Israeli occupation and apartheid.

That evening, Vivien and some neighborhood friends cooked up a barbecue. A true feast.

Vivien Sansour and Friends.

Read more about Vivien Sansour here and here and here and here, and listen to our conversation here:

All images by David Kattenburg