You’ve probably never heard of ‘akkoub – a thistly plant from the sunflower family that looks like the weeds every European gardener dreads.
Or how about za’atar – a kind of wild thyme that grows in abundance across well-drained, sunlit stretches of land in the Middle East?
Both are essential staples in the diet of Palestinians. And both are deemed under threat in the wild.
In Israel, that is a recipe for the sort of apartheid we usually know better through the tragic deaths of demonstrators (or news reporters) covering clashes in the Occupied Territories between Palestinians and the Israeli Defence Force.
Jumana Manna’s documentary Foragers is not directly political. It is the story of ordinary people tied to the land their fathers and forefathers lived on, farmed, and accustomed to gathering the healthy bounty that grows wild in the Middle East.
Za’atar is a key ingredient for herb breads eaten in every Palestinian home, and ‘akkoub is used in various fried and stewed dishes. Both are said to have excellent health-giving properties.
Israeli authorities claim that intensive foraging – particularly on areas declared national parks – threatens the sustainability of the wild plants. (It is, incidentally, a view supported by the Royal Botanical Society at London’s Kew Gardens, which has been investigating sustainability issues for traditional Middle Eastern wild crops.)
Since these wild herbs are barely eaten by Israelis, inevitably, those caught foraging – and forced to pay initial fines of around €200 – are Palestinians.
Both are essential staples in the diet of Palestinians.
Manna mixes archive footage of early moves by Israelis to develop commercially farmed ‘akkoub for sale to the Palestinian market, with fictionalised episodes showing locals puncturing the tires of park rangers to evade capture for foraging.
Gently political, the reconstructions of interrogations and court appearances by recalcitrant foragers lay bare the politics of food and sustenance in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.
There are appearances by members of the director’s family, and the wry humour that underpins the film is recognised in the fact that the dogs that accompany one forager are included in the credits.
The attachment of the foragers to nature, their land, and the fields on which their homes are built (often raw concrete constructions surrounded by the ruins of older, strong-built structures) are evident.
By mixing genuine documentary with fictionalised passages, Manna is able to convey the subtleties of a story that a more conventional approach would have struggled with.
Sour as ever
The restrictions Israeli authorities impose may have some scientific basis – but the fact that the response is only punitive and not constructive is instructive. ‘Akkoub can be commercially grown – but it requires the sort of intensive resources that only larger farms or kibbutz communities have. There is no suggestion of any organised support for Palestinians to grow their own beloved herbs.
The laws that protect the plants offend the people – a kind of ecological excuse for more persecution. The dishes the plants are used in are delicious, but the politics taste as sour as ever.
Just over an hour long, this is a slow-cooked dish that will appeal to those who wish to know more of life in the Middle East beneath the surface.