Growing Figs in a Place of War

In the second installment in a three-part series on Palestinian organic farming, Palestinian artist and filmmaker Mazen Saadeh takes on a new project organic farming in the cross hairs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Drive a mere 15 minutes south of Jerusalem, and you will enter another world.

The separation fence runs over the hills, trailing the northern outskirts of Bethlehem. Soon it will swallow whole the village of Wallajeh. Roads in these parts are segregated, and at a former military checkpoint now outsourced to a civilian company, workers profile cars to make sure all the passengers are Hebrew speakers.

But within this other world, known as the southern West Bank, there is yet another, smaller world. It is a tiny organic farm called Hosh Jasmin, which was renovated and reopened only this year by Palestinian Mazen Saadeh and his Canadian girlfriend Aidan.

Saadeh is an accomplished artist and a modest farmer. His little plot of land, which sits on terraced slopes not far from Bethlehem, spans a mere 36 dunams (nine acres). Its soil yields figs, almonds, corn, eggplants and pistachios, most of which Saadeh and Aidan enjoy.

But the farm doubles as a campground, and the bounty is often shared with visiting campers, who rent out tents, mats and sleeping bags and stay on the grounds.

Hosh Jasmin's most important crop is not a plant. It is an opportunity – in a place where each scrap of soil and inch of earth is so contentious – to communion with the landscape.

"We want to make people part of nature, not just to offer them organic food from a stall at a farmer's market,” says Saadeh.

Saadeh says he is from Beit Makhsir, west of Jerusalem. Beit Makhsir was demolished in the 1948 war that led to Israel's independence, and he and his family ended up in Jordan, where he grew up. It was there, in the Hashemite Kingdom, that he realized he had a spark for politics. Long-haired and spirited, he was a friend of the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, whose large-scale photos adorn the farm's small central structure. He returned to his homeland in 1994.

Saadeh has a law degree, has published two novels and is an accomplished sculptor. But he is perhaps best know for his short films, especially the documentary, "My Friend, My Enemy," which traces the lives of three Israeli girls and three Palestinian girls after they attend a peace camp in the United States.

In this hostile terrain, it's easy to reflect on the fate of human beings. Saadeh says that he was inspired to create his farm as a haven, a place where a person can escape the world and all of its troubles.

"We are interested in what is happening in the world," Saadeh explains. "But the world is ignorant and the world is tough. There is so much talk of Iran, religious upheaval, war, the occupation. Very soon things will change, and we decided to find a place where we would be safe."

Ironically, the terrible quagmire of local politics – and its stick cousin, zoning regulations – is part of the reason the farm can exist. The urban enclave of Beit Jalla sits just above the ridge, but being part of Area C, where Israel strictly forbids any Palestinian construction, its growth is permanently stunted. It juts up against the hills, only a handful of yards from the farm's green terraces.

The farmhouse was built in 1944, long before such restrictions were imposed. The following year, a swimming pool was dug on the slopes. The family that previously lived there moved abroad and left the property in 1984, and Saadeh began renting it several months ago. He and Aidanrenovated the entire space, planted new crops and established an oasis of tranquility and Palestinian culture in the center of one of the world's most contentious zones.

On the farm, they serve traditional Palestinian food to guests. The menu reflects that of Hosh Al-Alleyah, Saadeh's three-year-old restaurant in Birzeit, north of Ramallah.

"The farm's products are 100 percent organic," Saadeh says. "But the food we serve isn't because some of the onion and garlic come from the market." Those market-bought aromatics, however, help keep the other foods all-natural. Saadeh soaks them overnight, and then sprays the highly-fragrant water on his crops as an organic pesticide.

On a breezy late-summer evening, Aidan rocks back and forth on one of the hammocks, reflecting on the pleasure and peace of the space. Even in this quiet moment, though, the region's tensions are palpable.

A settlement looms on a nearby hill. A road restricted to Israeli vehicles emerges from a nearby tunnel, dug directly beneath the roots of Saadeh's trees.

Could this place, in all its simplicity, truly serve as a haven from the clamor that surrounds it? Could it really be a bastion of safety in the conflict, already so hot, finally boils over?

That answer remains to be seen. For now, water chugs out of a hose and into the terrace's modest swimming pool, and hammocks sway before the sunset in a perfect, peaceful breeze.