In Bethlehem, my birthday (officially ), has started with a flourish of Arab hospitality. Having insisted over email that I phone him should I encounter any problem at all in Palestine, Mazin Qumsiyeh of the Palestine Museum of Natural History came with his wife Jessie and their American volunteer Deb to my Franciscan pilgrim house, and treated me to dinner in the colourful foyer restaurant. It was almost far too kind. Mazin, a Christian Arab from Bethlehem, is a world-renowned scientist and indefatigable human rights activist whose blog promotes an uncompromising but radically refreshing ‘pluralist solution to the simmering conflict in the Land of Canaan’. Jessie, a former accountant whom he met in America, is the co-founder of the museum and its parent organisation The Palestine Institute of Biodiversity. Deb’s a permaculturist, artist and political activist. Scanning the menu, and looking around at well-heeled Italian and Japanese tourists, I had the sinking feeling that I was dragging the leadership of the Palestinian Green revolution into horrendous complicity with industrial agriculture and international apathy to the occupation. Mazin though, sensed my discomfort and waved it aside, commenting, ‘Nearly everything we do damages the world in some way – so order what you like.’ [This is not accurate, she asked about the menu being Israeli and I explained about us being in a captive market- MQ]
I did, and soon we were talking permaculture, GM crops, Lebanon, mutual friends – Jewish ex-Israelis who’d insisted I meet Mazin – and finally Arabic. From Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone, the late journalist’s account of rebuilding his ancestral home in Lebanon, I had learned that beit – as in Beit Lehem and its neighbourhoods Beit Jala and Beit Sahour – means ‘house’, and by extension ‘family’ and ‘village’. The word also refers to a line of poetry in the Arabic and Urdu form the ghazal and, I reflected, like the Italian stanza –meaning ‘room’ – gives a reassuring sense of a poem as a dwelling place. Mazin reached for a paper table mat and drew the letter bā, with its curved walls and single dot: “The centuries have turned it upside down, but it looks like a house, see?”
It did. And I felt as though I was being made welcome inside it.
Funded privately by Mazin and Jessie’s initial sizable investment, The Palestine Museum of Natural History Museum uses land and buildings from Bethlehem University, where Mazin is a professor. The main sandstone building contains an office/library, a conference/research room, and a large space that will eventually host the Museum’s full collections. Here, Environmental Biology MA student Elias proudly showed me trays of butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers, and his personal speciality – raptor pellets, from which he has recently reconstructed the hedgehogs eaten by a pair of Eagle Owls nesting near Wadi Mahour, Beit Jala. Keen to deploy my limited Arabic, I asked about the hudhud, or hoopoe, a quaint, colourful bird prominent in the Islamic and Judeo-Christian myths I’d researched for my last novel. Elias was more taken with the iridescent Palestine sunbird, the country’s national symbol. Then, past a large map of the ethnically cleansed villages of 1948, he pulled out a drawer in which, limp as if sleeping, lay a giant kingfisher, a porcupine, a fruit bat Elias had killed and skinned, and a barn owl corpse he – no doubt noting my growing look of alarm – assured me had been found on the road. Moving on to the reptile, amphibian and biogenetics section he casually pointed out a jam jar containing a human foetus: there is more than a whiff of the Victorian cabinet of curiosities about the Museum. You won’t smell formaldehyde though in its preserved frog jars – a heavily proscribed substance due to its potentially explosive qualities, formaldehyde is rarely approved for import into the West Bank and what the Israelis do allow through is saved for human tissue samples: the Museum uses alcohol for its specimens. As Elias agreed, you ask a simple question in Palestine and the answer is likely as not to expose the impact of the occupation.
Doubling as a showroom for the Palestine Institute of Biodiversity, the collections hall also houses a research display, including Mazin’s landmark book Mammals of the Holy Land, and papers on genotoxicity and declining biodiversity. The research dimensions of the Institute are manifold: visiting scholars learn not only how the occupation damages the land, but curtails Palestinian scholarship. In this context Mazin, also the author of Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment, talks to guests about the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. It was immediately clear that the Museum was no pet project or dusty archive; rather, I was seeing the living embryo of a highly effective international campaigning organisation.
The Museum grounds, then, are its green womb. Owned by the church, the land was preserved from development by being used as the university’s dump site. The two adjacent fields are still home to farmers and wild dogs, but a school, shops and houses now overlook the plots, while across the valley, a stark reminder of what the Museum is up against, a white stone settlement marches down the crest of the next hill. Israel, Mazin informed me, has annexed 87% of the land around Bethlehem. This, of course, makes taking full ecological responsibility for the land that is left to the Palestinians nearly impossible, but even more important. Mazin and Jessie’s first priority was water management: having constructed a rain water collecting pool and pipe line, they built greenhouses, removed asbestos from the roof of a shed intended for a bird rehabilitation and aquaponics centre, where fish will produce nitrogen for fertiliser. They also planted chickpeas and plum trees, created a clay oven, established a compost heap, and a vermiculture farm: an enamel bathtub filled with worms, creating compost beneath a palm-fronded lid. Jessie also introduced me to the Hugelkultur bed – a German innovation in which buried wood enriches the soil – and told me of plans to encourage long-stay volunteers by opening a cafeteria, covering the old cistern with a grape trellis and converting three containers into bedrooms. Deb has been painting images of lynx and kingfishers on the doors. On the other side of the main building, a rocky slope hosts wildflowers, bee hives, fruit and nut trees, two species of endangered orchid and the now rare Star of Bethlehem, which was nearly driven to extinction in the area by the local practise of pressing it in glass to sell to tourists. The olive trees on the site, ignored for decades, are now increasing their yield annually. It’s a peaceful oasis – except for the conflict. Tear gas regularly rolls down the hill, and while studies have yet to be done on the environmental effects of the chemical, one bee hive swarmed after a wave of it, and a pine tree used in a recent piece of public art in Bethlehem, in which a Christmas tree was hung with gas canisters, died within a week. Mazin winced as he told me this story: he had tried to insist that the artist wash the canisters thoroughly, but somehow the message did not get through.
It is early days though, for the Institute’s environmental activism. Financially, things should improve: the honey and vegetables and herbs grown on the site can be sold, while the Museum is now beginning to apply for grants that will support educational projects. In my too brief visit as a volunteer, I was only too pleased to spend my birthday helping Jessie and Deb draft a proposal for a project that would teach children from local Middle Schools, including two in the Bethlehem refugee camps, about recycling and composting. After collecting plastic water bottles to use as planters, the students will build ‘green walls’ in which to grow food. It is hard to imagine a better symbolic riposte to the Apartheid Wall, that illegal brutality that makes a mockery of the so-called ‘green line’ of Palestine’s 1967 borders.
After a warm farewell to the Museum, and an evening in Ramallah, I arrived at Marda permaculture farm, where my feverish diary keeping has given way to a run of early nights. Owned by Murad Al Kuffash, the farm is a smallholding in the village of Marda, which lies downhill from the sprawl of Ariel, the fourth largest settlement in the West Bank. Notorious for founding a university on stolen land, Ariel, built on arable hilltops the village used to use for winter crops, is surrounded by a barbed wire fence that has also separated farmers from long swathes of their olive groves and cut villagers off cut from the nearest town – what was once a five minute drive to the hospital, now takes forty minutes. Crowning its abuse of the Marda, Ariel periodically flushes its raw sewage out down the hills, cascading floods of faeces diluted with rainwater that erode the soil, pollute the streams, pool in the streets and foul the foundations of homes. Seeing Murad’s photos of this vile assault, I could only think that, while the Palestinians may have lost their land, the Israeli settlers are losing their souls. Things have otherwise been quiet with the Ariel settlers, Murad says, but in Palestine violence is never very far away. I got a lift here from a friend of his, who pointed out the spot at a checkpoint where a young Palestinian woman was shot and killed during the on-going cycle of attacks.
A bedouin in cyberspace, a villager at home
Professor and (volunteer) Director
Palestine Museum of Natural History
Palestine Institute of Biodiversity and Sustainability
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