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The Lost Watermelon of Jenin

The Lost Watermelon of Jenin

Jenin is a city located in the northern West Bank where Palestinian farmers used to grow the ba'al succulent watermelon known as Jadu'I.  Under the occupation, the Jadu'I was nearly lost. But today, a new generation of agriculturalists are trying to revive it.

Jenin map

For generations, the ba’al crops have sustained Palestinian agriculture despite the extreme weather in the region. Though often called rainfed, these crops planted at the very end of the rainy season, grow using the moisture retained in the soil during the winter season. The word ba’al originates from the Canaanite Deity, Ba'al, the god of fertility and destruction, worshipped for rain in years of drought. Today this prayer is taken recourse to in Islam as salat al istisqa'– the rain prayer – seeking rain from Allah during times of drought.

Baal with Thunderbolt, c. 15th – 13th century BC, on display at the Louvre. Credit: Mbzt, used under CC BY 3.0
Baal with Thunderbolt, c. 15th – 13th century BC, on display at the Louvre. Credit: Mbzt, used under CC BY 3.0

Given the major role that agriculture plays in the Palestinian economy, it has been Israel’s specific target to suppress the uprising, through various means. During the first Intifada (1987 – 1993), farmers growing olives — the most important crop in the West Bank — were prohibited from harvesting and some 184,257 trees cultivated by Palestinian farmers were uprooted. Occupation forces destroyed more trees during the second Intifada, a process that has continued in recent years. In 2015, dozens of olive trees were uprooted in Wadi Ahmed to complete the separation wall and fully encircle Bethlehem and the surrounding villages.

Staples such as za’atar plants have been confiscated at checkpoints to “protect” the ecological health of wild za’atar. The declaration of thyme as a protected plant by the Israeli authorities resulted in the prohibition of a traditional practice of collecting thyme in the wild.

Another casualty is Jadu’I, the ba’al succulent watermelon, which used to be widely grown in the Palestinian city of Jenin in the northern West Bank. Farmers and agronomists today can only reminisce about how big the Jadu’I watermelon grew, and how desired it was in the region — transported in trucks to Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

The once famous Jadu’I watermelon has disappeared and been replaced by hybrid varieties bought from Israeli seed companies. According to Vivien Sansour, a Palestinian agriculturalist, “Known for its disease resistance and adaptation to the microclimate, Jadu’I watermelon fields were symbolic of Palestinian farmers’ lived experiences: Palestinian women gave birth in the melon fields; many sought refuge in the fields during the war; and many more remember the times when the watermelons were stored under beds to eat during the winter. This watermelon has stayed carved in peoples’ memories until this day. There is no one from Jenin who would not have a story to share from their parents or their own experience of a once loved and enjoyed melon that shaped much of the culture at some point.”

Palestinian agriculturalist, Vivien Sansour, in her garden. Credit: Ayed Arafah

Palestinian agriculturalist, Vivien Sansour, in her garden. Credit: Ayed Arafah

Vivien Sansour

For the last few years, Sansour has been working to collect seed varieties used for generations by Palestinian farmers with the aim of preserving them.

“Multiple aggressive attempts and policies to practically eliminate Palestinian farmers have been underway since the Israeli occupation, with the effort to modernize through the introduction of new seeds and practices that undermine the farmers’ independence. While Israel promoted itself around the world as the country that made the desert bloom, Palestinian farmers lost their native seeds as well as large portions of their productive lands.

Ba'al crops are even more relevant today because within this practice, which is based on traditional knowledge and practices, farmers are fully independent of agri-business and other dominating forces. These seeds are ecological and are critical for survival in the face of climate change as well as political dominance. They carry in their DNA our heritage and our ability to achieve autonomy over our food source and our lives.”

Jadu'I watermelon seeds. Photo: Vivien Sansour
Jadu'I watermelon seeds. Photo: Vivien Sansour

Samer Jarrar of the Canaan Center for Organic Research and Extension (CORE) works with farmers faced with the loss of their land behind the wall and restricted access to water. Samer laments over the Israeli occupation, which not only usurped Palestinian land but also contributed to the demise of native crops like the Jadu’I watermelon.

“The cultivation of the watermelon was a cultural event. The men built tents, celebrated together and protected the crops, as they spent nights in their fields. During the Intifada in 1987, the Israeli army was everywhere. The city of Jenin was locked down under curfew for 40 days, accompanied by the disconnection of electricity, water, and food supply. With all exports closed, local markets were impacted. Men could not be in their fields at night. This along with the promotion of heavy use of chemicals along with the hybrid varieties, Jenin’s famous watermelon became susceptible to the epidemic of soil borne fungal disease. The watermelon was lost.”

Jadu'I watermelon seeds. Credit: Vivien Sansour

Jadu'I watermelon seeds. Credit: Vivien Sansour

But There Is Hope

But there is hope.

Sansour reports having found a few of Jadu’I seeds in 2016 and planted them. “We have also made seeds from the new crop and will be planting and sharing them this upcoming summer,” she shares excitedly.

“In Arabic the generous ones are referred to as ahl Al thra — the people of the soil. The language has other references to the soil as our mother; but the most telling is the word for plant and seed — Zareea' — is the same word used for children. I contemplate linguistically powerful yet disappearing words, as I explore the source of medicine for my community that has been suffering from the wounds of oppression and self-sabotage for decades. I leaf through the remnants of human history where soil and seed were as sacred as one’s body, and its extension represented in its offspring.  Like many other women around the world, I believe that through our land and heirloom seeds, we can restore our communities as we regenerate our spirit, our language, and culture. This is the essence of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library.”

Sprouting Jadu’I watermelon. Photo: Vivien Sansour
Sprouting Jadu’I watermelon. Credit: Vivien Sansour

& in Palestine,
where it is a crime to wave
the flag of Palestine in Palestine,
watermelon halves are raised
against Israeli troops
for the red, black, white, green
of Palestine. Forever,

I love you your color hemmed
by rind.

Aracelis Girmay, Ode to Watermelon