I am first and last—and of this I hope every Syrian citizen and every Arab outside of Syria will take cognizance—a peasant and the son of a peasant. To lie amidst the spikes of grain or on the threshing floor is, in my eyes, worth all the palaces in this world.
—Hafez al-Assad, March 8, 1980
In the third millennium BC, Ebla was a kingdom spanning all of northern Syria. It functioned as a major trading center in the Fertile Crescent, and it was of equal importance to other nearby civilizations such as the Egyptian and Mesopotamian. In the 1970s, archeologists excavated baked-clay tablets from the area. Their inscriptions enabled a better understanding of the Sumerian language and the political organization of the ancient Levant. The tablets also revealed that no fewer than seventeen varieties of wheat were being cultivated in the surrounding villages, enough to feed eighteen million people. Ebla was situated about fifty-five kilometers southwest of present-day Aleppo, a city that in 2012 became the site of a key battle in the Syrian revolution. That battle came to an end four years later as the result of a suffocating siege inflicted upon rebel forces by the Assad regime, which used brutal methods, including forced starvation.
Some decades earlier, around the same time as archeologists were dusting off the tablets and learning about Ebla’s biodiversity, Hafez al-Assad was modernizing his country’s peasant system, which he considered backwards. He sought to increase production and self-sustainability with a focus on wheat and cotton, placing them under a state monopoly. In the process, the dictator brought rural populations under his control, as entire villages were flooded when dams were built to increase irrigation capabilities, peasants were contracted to farm and given quotas for their yields, and technological innovations replaced traditional agricultural methods.
The late filmmaker Omar Amiralay documented the effects of such modernization in The Chickens, his forty-minute, black-and-white documentary from 1977. Amiralay shot the film in Sadad, a village south of Homs, where rainfall is scarce and agriculture had always been secondary to textile work. Incentivized by the state, villagers cleared out their weaving looms to make room for chicken coops. They financed their investment with money borrowed from better-off neighbors, or small loans from the government. Amiralay’s sensitivity to the plight of farmers is brought forth in brief conversations with them. “I raised chickens because I saw everyone raising chickens,” one farmer tells him, while another explains: “A partner always feels his partner’s hopes and pains,” a claim the filmmaker follows with the sound of clucking chickens, overlaid with mass chanting: “Syria! Syria! Syria!” But Syria’s agrarian sector did not always embody this partnership. With sudden overproduction in the poultry industry and a plague affecting chickens, the farmers who had bet everything on their coops were quickly forced into bankruptcy.
Such policies of economic liberalization introduced a whole new set of struggles for Syria’s farmers, while also bettering their living standards in various respects.  This determination to upscale and modernize agriculture while making the previously self-sustaining peasant classes subservient to the regime in power was, in fact, very much in line with the global trend of the time, as I have come to learn. In the mid-twentieth century, a strategy to end hunger in the world through the widespread dissemination of high-yielding seeds, irrigation techniques, and chemicals was launched, and it would quickly become the standard for global agriculture across geopolitical divides. This new standard, coined “The Green Revolution,” expedited the transformation of vast parts of the world from traditional agrarian societies to market-oriented, state-coordinated commodity producers. In the Cold War era, American leaders and philanthropists such as the Rockefellers, the Ford Foundation, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) believed that left-leaning sympathies were more likely to spread where there was poverty. Developing a profit-based model for agriculture in the Third World would therefore be an effective antidote to communism. While it did increase yields for some farmers and certain crops, the Green Revolution also pushed millions of agricultural producers into unemployment, and caused unprecedented environmental damage and erosion of biodiversity.
Assad understood the potential of this approach to agriculture for his nation’s economy. In 1977, he offered 948 hectares of land in Tel Hadya, south of Aleppo, to ICARDA, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas. ICARDA was part of a worldwide network of agricultural research centers called the CGIAR, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, funded by the very same entities that had first ignited the Green Revolution. ICARDA was initially established in Lebanon in 1976, but with the spread of the civil war that had erupted just a year earlier, it relocated its headquarters to Tel Hadya. Now, almost forty years later and with the rise of the Syrian revolution, history has reversed, and ICARDA has evacuated its headquarters and moved back to Lebanon. It brought along some of its staff, livestock, and equipment, but was unable to move its gene bank. Soon enough, ICARDA began duplicating the contents of the abandoned bank: Over 140,000 accessions of seed samples from small farmers and the wild, in terrains as far apart as Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Ethiopia.
2. Folding Landscapes
Archives have recently served as muses for my artistic projects, nearly all of which have had something to do with characters and events that took place in the urban centers of the Levant. In my encounters with archives, I have noticed that they almost always address the subjects and materials of cities, a tendency that repeats itself in many contemporary artworks taking the archive, or the non-existing archive, as their topic. Artifacts pertaining to rural traditions, on the other hand, such as crafts, music, and other cultural forms, tend to be placed in ethnographic collections. In the norms of classical ethnography, the city has been synonymous with modernity, while the rural and the traditional have been synonymous with the primitive. Seen as being stuck in the past, these traditions require urgent preservation before being erased by Western industrialization and technological advances. The very terms “preservation” and “conservation” have understandably been tainted with ambiguity since the era of exploration by primarily European powers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Recording as it erases, colonial violence seems to make celebration indistinguishable from invalidation. These structural problems pertaining to nostalgia in the face of looming eradication extend to the archiving of both animate and inanimate objects of culture.
Realizing the extent of these binary constructions, I decided to shift my focus from urban imaginaries to the mythologies of the rural, and to look at how different actors have negotiated their position towards the changes brought upon the agricultural landscape by modernity. I tried to visualize how taxonomic approaches to nature have accelerated material and social changes to the life cycles of plants and their allies, small farmers.
My research led me to George Edward Post, one of the first botanists to collect and categorize the flora of the Middle East. After finishing his service as a Union chaplain in the American Civil War, Post boarded a ship to Tripoli, Syria (now Lebanon). It was 1863 and he was starting a new life as a missionary and doctor, spreading the word of God and modern science to the Levant. There, he picked up Arabic at an impressive rate, and decided soon after arriving in Tripoli to move to Beirut, where he cofounded the medical school at the Syrian Protestant College, now known as the American University of Beirut (AUB). In his free time—that is to say, between working as a surgeon, a dentist, and a teacher; pursuing archaeology; and translating books into Arabic—Post ventured outdoors, where he collected plants and stuck them on paper sheets.
Studying botany in Greater Syria was unlike exploring any other place, according to Post, “not only for the thrilling and important events of human history of which it has been the theatre, but for . . . its great diversity . . . and its remarkable fauna and flora.” In the eye of the biblical scholar, flora in the land of the Bible carried clues to a better understanding of the scriptures. Post assigned his students an exercise: Collect two hundred different plants and mount them as herbarium specimens. Post increased the students’ grades the farther from Beirut they went to collected their plants. And so, with the help of dozens of unnamed students, he was able to establish one of the region’s most extensive herbariums, under his name. Post’s herbarium was, and continues to be, used for scientific study, surveying, and documentation (with access to such an extensive physical archive, Post was also able to author an encyclopedia of plants, titled Flora of Syria, Palestine and Sinai). The herbarium—effectively a cabinet-sized pre–Sykes-Picot landscape and a morgue of well-preserved, intoxicatingly beautiful forms—remains intact. Today it is located down one of the corridors of the biology department at AUB.
Such a painstaking organization of the Levantine landscape is the predecessor of gene banks like the one ICARDA is in the process of duplicating between Syria and Lebanon. Like a herbarium, a gene bank, with its encyclopedic impulse, is a particularly modernist image; an exhaustive hard-drive administering what exists in the fields. Both constitute a continuum of centralizing power through collecting: The herbarium is biopower, anchored in history and colonial knowledge, while the seed bank’s biopower extends that history into the management of diversity and life. Totalizing bodies of knowledge production are optimized in one central access point: Google-like portals, which reorganize not just the world’s information while consolidating its points of access, but also, like all colonial spatial endeavors, redefines the relationship of center to periphery. In these search engines, information is made useful, put to work, and monetized.
Indeed, in the nineteenth century, when the Levantine landscape was elegantly but forcefully made to fit a two-dimensional format—convenient for the eye of a microscope or the annotations of a map—it was also folded to fit big business, a practice that had begun two centuries earlier to quench Europe’s national and trade ambitions. The studies of botany brought order to the “disorder” of plants and created systems that assisted the transfer of large amounts of flora and fauna from the four corners of the world to the European centers. With the history of this network of botanical gardens in mind, I could not help but read the agenda of the CGIAR system as an inheritor of that lineage, enacting the very logic and history of capitalism. That is, capitalism as a way of organizing nature, and with it, a racialized and disposable workforce.
Um Nabil, a mother of five, keeps a mouneh in a small room behind the kitchen, a storage of grains with barrels of lentils, burghul, chickpeas, as well as tomato sauce, pickles, dried fruits, and cheeses. She recalls that her father used to travel from Houran to Mount Lebanon by camel, to barter his harvest. Back then, the family would eat from their harvested grain, trade with neighbors near and far, and keep a small amount aside for sowing the next season. Today, she buys most of her ingredients from the market, produce from as far away as Argentina, and as close by as local farms. Abu Nabil, her husband, stopped farming three decades ago. He makes a living from selling pesticides now.
It is Friday afternoon. Um Nabil scoops two cups of burghul and three cups of lentils out of the barrels and begins to prepare the meal as she waits her for her sons Nabil and Majd to return from their military service. She knows her children won’t eat her food. “This is backwards peasant food,” they often tell her, “it doesn’t taste good anymore.” As expected, they arrive home and order pizza, while Um Nabil and Abu Nabil eat the mjadara. Later, Um Nabil asks her boys to go pick the grapes from their vineyard before the sun sets. But they don’t know where the land is and frankly don’t seem to care.
In Lebanon, I visited Post’s herbarium. I made trips to the Bekaa Valley and its Western mountain range, tracing back the paths of the plants that had been brought to Beirut. I searched for contemporary parallels to the herbarium, visited nature reserves and agricultural institutions, and spoke to farmers, like Um and Abu Nabil, to gain insights on the realities small landholders face in the area. When I made my first visit to ICARDA in the spring of 2016, in the village of Terbol in the Bekaa Valley, I was shown around the fields, labs, and a construction site, which, when finished, was to house the duplicate of the Aleppo gene bank.
I learned that ICARDA works primarily on the genetic improvement of crops. Through breeding, it releases new varieties of cereals and legumes such as barley, lentil, fava bean, wheat, and chickpea, which are meant to increase yield and theoretically help farmers improve their livelihoods. ICARDA has three main objectives: food security, poverty reduction, and combating climatic challenges. To achieve these goals, ICARDA—whose mandated region covers approximately one-third of the Earth, from Australia to North Africa and beyond—makes use of a wide genetic pool created by farmers’ selection and cultivation across hundreds of years, kept frozen in their gene bank. Within this rich pool, ICARDA crosses parents of different genotypes that would not cross under natural circumstances to create high yielding, disease resistant, drought tolerant seeds (these are not GMO seeds however). When the characteristics of these seeds are stabilized and made uniform, they are shipped to government institutions and companies around the world. While ICARDA releases a number of new varieties each year, governments only certify a limited amount, based on their climatic needs as well as their control and regulation requirements. Throughout the twentieth century, this systemic limitation of varieties, along with other factors, has caused an immense loss of biodiversity.
In fact, the very paradox of improved varieties such as the ones released by ICARDA is that their dissemination eliminates the traditional varieties of seeds (landraces) from which they were made. This contradiction is at the heart of the creation of seed banks, which came about with the realization that in order to continue breeding new varieties, samples of landraces and wild varieties had to be saved, before they became extinct.
Breeding can be extremely beneficial in its ability to speed up a selection process that farmers have done over millennia. The main problem, however, has been one of scale, making limited products to fit a globalized market rather than working in collaboration with farmers to develop a different variety for the microclimate of each area. In the hopes of making more money from higher yields, farmers have been giving up their landraces and acquiring modern varieties instead. This entangles them and their soil in a system of dependence on the state, companies who sell seeds, and the chemical inputs they require. Caught in a cycle where diverse landraces are replaced by comparably uniform modern varieties, farmers didn’t consider the dangers—including the health hazards—of the system they were buying into. They had few alternatives to make a living, anyway.
Today, many of the landraces frozen in ICARDA’s gene bank, at minus eighteen degrees Celsius, no longer exist in farmers’ fields. This system is in the double bind of being at once the protector and eliminator of biodiversity, an irony not lost on some of the employees. But their position is a common one, arguing that the game is over, that it’s too late to fix the system. The global food regime—dependent on fossil fuels, vicious corporate control (one can look at the case of Monsanto to understand the consequences), and massive amounts of overproduction and waste—will not go away. Within this reality, we do our best. But critics are less forgiving. They claim that centers of this sort have had a top-down approach to farmers. Historically, such approaches “not only served as a mechanism for encouraging capitalist development in the Third World countryside, they are also vehicles for the efficient extraction of plant genetic resources from the Third World and their transfer to Europe, North America, and Japan.” The main concern of the CGIAR “is to have these materials effortlessly declared public property so that its scientists can freely continue their work.” Despite these collections being in the public domain, it is institutions, not farmers, who make use of the seed banks, due to the bureaucratic procedures shrouding them.
Genetic resources taken from farming communities in the Global South often end up being claimed as intellectual property in the industrialized North. Bio-piracy is a rampant problem in agribusiness and the CGIAR is not exempt. In one such case, seeds taken for free from ICARDA were patented completely unchanged by Australian private companies, but ICARDA decided not to pursue the case. In fact, the organization does not bear responsibility if its seeds end up with companies that patent them for profit, nor does it have the capacity to monitor its germplasm flows. This passiveness and lack of monitoring are fundamental problems in the structural divide between scientific, ethical, and legal responsibilities.
An agricultural plot of land has been poured over with cement to serve as an informal refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley. The land belongs to a Lebanese farmer named Abu Nabil, whose four sons are also in the army. He can no longer sustain a dignified living from working his land, so he turned part of it into a refugee camp. With grain being imported from abroad at cheaper prices, and no government subsidies or protection, his yields barely covered input costs. Last year, the agricultural ministry refused to buy Abu Nabil’s harvest, because a shipment came from the Ukraine at a far lower price. The tents go for fifty to one-hundred dollars a month, depending on their size. With about seventy tents, Abu Nabil makes over sixty-thousand dollars a year. What small farmer makes that kind of money today? Abu Adnan, a Syrian tenant, lives here with his one remaining son and wife. His son had a twin brother, but he was killed right in front of them by one of the Assad regime’s barrel bombs. They have a small strip of herbs and vegetables right outside their tent, which the son waters daily. Before the revolution, Abu Adnan planted his fields with grains and vegetables. Under the rule of Bashar al-Assad, the government paid farmers one hundred liras for a kilogram of wheat, and then sold the same amount of wheat on the open market for four hundred liras: a 400 percent profit for the government. So when the bureaucrat would come by to collect the harvest for the government’s set price, Abu Adnan would pay a small bribe, keep his grain, and sell it for a slightly higher price on the black market. Even life as a sharecropper during feudal times was better than life under the Assad regime, he says.
In 2014, ICARDA walked back in its own footsteps: Having left war-torn Lebanon in 1977, it now had to leave war-torn Syria. In order to duplicate its gene bank, ICARDA withdrew backup copies, which it had been storing in the Global Seed Vault (GSV) located in Svalbard, an island under Norwegian custody, in the Arctic Circle. The first batch of ICARDA’s backup seeds was shipped to ICARDA’s facility in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and planted in the fields there. The newly harvested seeds were then divided into four: two batches remained in the newly inaugurated ICARDA gene bank in Lebanon, one went to a sister institution as a backup, and the fourth batch returned to Svalbard, for long-term storage. Often referred to as the “doomsday vault,” the GSV stores backups of many of the world’s seeds, implicitly presenting itself as a last-chance reboot should the earth be hit by a major catastrophe. As the first institution to withdraw deposits from Svalbard, ICARDA’s transaction captured the media’s imagination, triggering a flurry of stories on Aleppo as doomsday unfolding.
Sensationalist headlines such as “How Syrians Saved an Ancient Seedbank from Civil War” revolved around ambiguities shared by my own work, namely the manner in which a complex provenance gets reduced to false categories. But also how the categorization into scientific knowledge and the rescuing of cultural-heritage objects always seems to involve a certain amount of erasure, be it of a narrative and/or material nature. I started my latest film, Wild Relatives, which follows the matrix of relationships involved in the transaction of these seeds between Svalbard and Lebanon, with the following questions: What has been erased in this process, and in whose hands are these seeds today? What are the negotiations involved in placing so-called Syrian seeds in the public domain? I wanted to respond to the dark irony of such an important collection of seeds for humanity’s future being lodged in Aleppo, a city where weaponized starvation was being deployed.
I was also interested in motifs created by the extraction of different kinds of resources from the earth. In addition to being the largest storage facility for food-related seeds, Svalbard is also home to a number of shuttered, as well as operating coal mines. The place illustrates death and rebirth as a defining trait of the life-cycle of seeds, and what differentiates them from other resources extracted from the earth. Coal mining—the activity that first encouraged people to settle on the archipelago in the early twentieth century—is, in fact, constituted by millions of years of animal and plant life compressed underground. But while this resource can only be extracted and burnt once to produce energy, a single seed will multiply into grain, which can be sown again. A seed shipped overseas can provide the material base upon which a whole new sector of production can be established.
If plant genetic resources received as free goods from the Global South have generated untold billions of dollars for advanced capitalist nations, how do we begin to imagine the discounted contribution of small Third World farmers to world civilization and commerce? Through a dark exploitative force, the gift of these farmers has mutated into their own debt, the seeding of their offering re-emerged as a toxin to their soil. Reciprocity and exchange came to be misinterpreted as aid and guilt. And no matter where the imagination leads, restoration can never provide refuge to the scale of this debt.
Ahmad is a Syrian refugee, living in the Bekaa together with his wife and two kids. He speaks fondly of a civil movement that smuggles seeds to rebel-held, besieged areas in Syria, together with manuals instructing residents on how to cultivate without chemical inputs. Ahmad used to live not far from ICARDA’s station in Tel Hadya, Aleppo. Some of his family members worked there, and he himself has planted both ICARDA seeds and landraces. He doesn’t believe in the validity of their scientific work, arguing that their methods erode the soil and do not really benefit farmers but rather the state. Ahmad oversees an organic garden, which has the primary aim of multiplying old landraces from the region and abroad. These seeds are kept in a small clay-walled room, a seed library, with glass jars and paper bags. Anyone who wishes to farm organically can take seeds for free. He breeds worms, which give life to the soil, and makes natural pesticide out of garlic and nettle leaf. His dream is to return to Syria and open an agriculture school that will teach organic farming, based on seed sharing as well as total independence from the regime and all multi-national companies.
5. Making a Fuss
In keeping with international trends over the decades, ICARDA and its partner institutions in the CGIAR have made changes to their rhetoric, embracing and integrating concepts such as “environmentalism” and, more recently, “sustainability.” Nevertheless, they remain firmly grounded in technological determinism, seeking scientific solutions to structural inequalities. Today, the influence of the CGIAR is on the decline due to the increasing power of philanthropic giants like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, coupled with the majority of the seed market being in the hands of the world’s three largest agribusinesses: Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta. To ensure survival, this public not-for-profit system is developing partnerships with the private sector, adding representatives from Monsanto and Bill and Melinda Gates to their funding councils. But in effect, such organizations are the promoters of a second Green Revolution, repeating the failed promise to solve hunger and malnutrition for a soaring world population. A bottom-line approach to profit has clouded the biggest lesson of the past century—that the climate crisis, as well as hunger and malnutrition, cannot be confronted as a techno-bureaucratic problem alone. Noticeably absent is a more profound epistemological shift, wherein these technological tools are integrated into holistic sociohistorical factors.
Political economist Ali Kadri addresses these factors, which are the blind spots of neoliberal policies, writing that “[b]etween 1980 and 2010, around 70 million people left the countryside for the cities in the Arab World.” This exodus, inflicted partially by the Green Revolution and similar such reforms, has caused cultural and economic shifts in the landscapes of the Middle East. It has brought unemployment, making lives dispensable and leaving few alternatives for rural communities. In this process, a profound amount of traditional knowledge and social structure has been lost. Farmers have been pushed out of their fields, laid latent underground, only to re-emerge in cities as mushrooms and super weeds, at times dangerous, at times benign—and often life giving. Increasingly, a disregard for agrarian life and its historically deep knowledge-forms is breeding the amnesic offspring of family farmers. Mirroring the farmers’ amnesia is the spread of uniform crops, which have been forced to forget large parts of their genetic heritage.
The latest amplifications of biotechnology’s quest to control nature makes all the more pressing the necessity of regulation, and the need for a legal framework that can adapt to the dizzying speed of the advances and at the same time be able to enforce ethical norms around designer genetic sequences. Developments such as CRISPR, a gene-editing technology, can entirely re-engineer ecosystems by promoting the passing of certain genes from one generation to the next while eliminating others. In this editing process, a certain virus, bacteria, or species can be made extinct, or a desired trait can be spread across an entire population, radically altering the fundamentals of evolution.  Speculating on a future where seeds are virtual brings forth the specter of stock-broker–style bidding on seed banks and the digital libraries that are proliferating with them. And if we project that physical banks may be rendered obsolete and replaced with digital databases—genetic sequences as code—what then happens to the materiality of soil, of land? Is it just a matter of time before soil, too, becomes a virtual affair? Perhaps the folding of space which began with European explorations will eventually eliminate space altogether, for the efficiency of human communication and survival.
In the meantime, the landscape of the Middle East only gets weedier. As talks of doomsday remain as persistent as ever, it is worth keeping in mind that the pairing of the scientific and theological obsessions with doomsday, extermination, and extinction have only deepened crises. Rather than hedge on the “undo” command approach—destroy the world and hope to rebuild it with databases, manuals, museums—why not conceive of a world where life is habitable amid the present and future ruins. We can rather make a fuss as a way of “cultivating responsibility” as Donna Haraway puts it, in order “to be witnesses for the possibility of other ways of doing.” The fuss of resisting the convenience of “it’s too late anyway,” the fuss of living otherwise, of living outside cycles of erasure-preservation-erasure, of living with more gifts and less poison.