Finders and Keepers

An aerial view of a hilly, rural, green countryside
Jumana Manna, Foragers (video still), 2022, HD video.
Palestinian filmmaker Jumana Manna on freeing our food, from akkoub to za’tar

By Alicia Kennedy

Foraging has become undeniably fashionable in the last decade. Haute cuisine restaurants employ “professional foragers” to search for wild mushrooms, spring ramps, and truffles, then charge a pretty penny to feature their findings in tasting menu experiences. Rene Redzepi, chef at the Copenhagen restaurant Noma (of overworked intern notoriety) became famous for serving foraged ingredients; in 2017, he launched an app called VILD MAP to teach others the practice of seeking out wild foods. 

While the Western world has been reconsidering and re-contextualizing foraging as an act of bourgeois ecological stewardship, there’s a reason it had to be resurrected: Foraging has often been criminalized in ways that cut off marginalized groups from their own ancestral knowledge. In “Food Law Gone Wild: The Law of Foraging,” in the Fordham Urban Law Journal, Baylen J. Linnekin writes that “the history of early American anti-foraging laws reveals that supporters of restricting foraging rights typically grounded their efforts in racism, classism, colonialism, imperialism, or some combination of these odious practices and beliefs,” noting specific policies that targeted Indigenous, Black, and rural Americans. His article also chronicles recent incidents of people being fined for picking dandelion greens in a park in Chicago or edible berries in Washington, D.C.  

“‘Akkoub and za’atar are banned because Arabs like them very much.”

Social media has fostered a democratization of foraging information, perhaps best represented by Alexis Nikole Nelson, known as @blackforager, who was honored with a James Beard Award for her efforts to teach people safe foraging techniques, recipes for wild foods, and educate on the history of racist anti-foraging laws. 

A group of people gather on the street and look at fresh herbs
Jumana Manna, Foragers (video still), 2022, HD video.

Still, as Jumana Manna’s 2022 film Foragers makes clear, wild foods remain a source of tension between the marginalized and the state. The Palestinian artist and filmmaker uses documentary and reenactment to chronicle the ways in which Israel has criminalized traditional Palestinian foraging practices, and turned once freely available plants into commodified crops. “Food is political” is a common refrain among the United States’ liberal food media, though rarely does anyone explain the politics at hand. Manna, in these films, makes it the entire subject. Scenes of a Palestinian grandmother cutting ‘akkoub — a thistly plant reminiscent of an artichoke — to cook for her family are juxtaposed with Israeli authorities attempting to punish foragers thought to trade in the plant. They are regarded as dealers of contraband. Whose food is political, and who makes that decision? Manna’s focused look at ‘akkoub and the herb za’atar — both of which grow freely throughout the Middle East, thriving in rocky hills — highlights the frustrations Palestinians must endure to obtain foods central to their cuisine, livelihood, and health. Through these plants, the film shows how the Israeli state has extended its restrictions on the movement of Palestinian bodies to include even the most basic and essential freedoms of choosing what to eat and how to obtain it.

Foragers screened earlier this year at MoMA P.S. 1 in Queens as part of a solo exhibition of Manna’s work, along with her 2018 film Wild Relatives and her ongoing series of ceramic sculptures — “anthropomorphic interpretations and abstractions of khabyas, a key feature of rural Levantine architecture” for grain storage. Foragers contrasts the lush and visibly generous green terrain of Golan Heights, the Galilee, and Jerusalem with gray rooms where, in scripted scenes, Palestinians are questioned on their foraging activities. “I am part of nature,” says a man accused of foraging za’atar over an image of a faceless woman click-clacking on a keyboard, the contrast between the outside world and this persecution made clear. Such contrast is the main aesthetic notion of the film: A bounty of gathered herbs, cleaned and laid out on a table ready to be cooked versus the sterility of a supermarket; the verdant hills where ‘akkoub grows wild against the orderly rows of cultivated plants at a farm. 

A bounty of gathered herbs, cleaned and laid out on a table ready to be cooked versus the sterility of a supermarket.

In one of the most revealing scenes in Foragers, Manna talks to someone who’s growing ‘akkoub commercially. He is visibly uncomfortable, explaining that the plant is being cultivated both for profit and because this keeps it from going extinct in nature — a claim one actor in the film had previously called a lie during an interrogation. Yet the man speaks in circles, saying that it is also necessary to grow the plant on farms to avoid fines for foraging. “Why does ‘akkoub cultivation work for Jews but not Arabs?” Manna asks. The man offers some answers about climate and expensive land insurance before stating the truth: “‘Akkoub and za’atar are banned because Arabs like them very much.” 

They are punished for this enjoyment, and the scripted scenes depict venom and hostility toward these laws; those arrested mention their grandparents, who would come home with long stalks of za’atar, and their children at home who eat ‘akkoub every day. “You’re a thorn in my gut, and you say you’re trying to help?” says Samir, an elderly man who refuses to justify a ban that tries to keep him from eating off the land. “This law is shit.” He is given a fine of 6,000 shekels (equivalent to U.S. $1,656.30) after getting caught with 20 kilograms of foraged plants.

A man hunts in the grass in the dark with a flashlight
Jumana Manna, Foragers (video still), 2022, HD video.

Manna has noted in interviews how European viewers tend to see the inclusion of food in art as a gesture toward togetherness (and I’d say the same applies to many Americans). Yet she resists any sentimental reading of her artistic focus on food, telling the website The Common Table, “I think food, like music, is sometimes misused to celebrate something that’s not there on the ground, politically speaking. For instance, if a conservative German goes to eat a meal o beans on Sonnenallee in Berlin, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they welcome Arabs in Germany. It might just be because the meal is cheap, tastes good and happens to be near where they live.” The reality is that how we eat can be both banal and significant, and from seed to plate, the global movement of foodstuffs is almost always a reflection of hard or soft power.

The other film playing at MoMA P.S. 1, Wild Relatives, also reflects upon the power structures inherent in how food and populations move. (It is available on the streaming service; Foragers isn’t yet online, but it will be on view this summer in Ohio when Manna’s show moves to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus.) Shot as a much more straightforward documentary, Wild Relatives chronicles the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in 2015, in order for ICARDA — the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas — to obtain seeds to duplicate its own seed vault in Lebanon, where the organization has sought refuge from war in Syria. 

A close up of hands with gloves, use tweezers to pick herbs
​​Jumana Manna, Wild Relatives (video still), 2018, HD video.

From seed to plate, the global movement of foodstuffs is a reflection of hard or soft power.

The Svalbard vault holds 1,194,244 seed samples from almost every country in the world, with room to spare for millions more. It has been called a “doomsday” vault, an assurance that the world will be able to rebuild its biodiversity should a disaster strike. Watching Wild Relatives, one has to surmise that for Syrians, doomsday has already arrived. But Manna’s film also invites one to ask: For whom are Syria’s seeds being saved?

ICARDA’s emphasis on heat and drought-resistant seeds has only become more relevant as climate change brings such conditions to climates that were once more temperate. NPR reported at the start of 2023, “a wheat seed collected in Iran and then stored and saved from the war in Syria has allowed scientists in the U.S. to develop new wheat varieties resistant to the Hessian fly, a pest that causes tens of millions of dollars in damage to American crops every year.” A doomsday for some; a boon for others. But why is it so easy to accept that an arctic island in Norway is considered the safest place to safeguard the world’s future?

Both of Manna’s films elucidate the utter strangeness and absurdity of food as commodity, as something that can be both owned and outlawed. Where once seeds were passed between farmers, the Green Revolution — which Wild Relatives refers to as “farming without farmers” — created conditions wherein farmers had to buy seeds every year  to produce “high-yield” varieties of crops such as rice, corn, and wheat. This also homogenized and removed cultural considerations from farming in regions including India, Africa, and the Middle East (and indeed, among small farmers in the U.S.). “The old crops that our grandparents grew are unknown to the younger generation,” a farmer says in Wild Relatives. Just as Palestinian foragers now have to buy cultivated herbs, it’s easy to imagine younger farmers in a few years being marketed  patented versions of seeds their ancestors collected. 

A priest and a man in a red coat stand on a large wooden structure
​​Jumana Manna, Wild Relatives (video still), 2018, HD video.

To sell what was free, to use what the earth brings forth as a means of control, punishment, and corporate ownership. As foraging becomes fashion and seeds meant to ensure our survival become a source of profit,  Manna’s work makes plain the farce, showing how although food issues are often thought of as frivolous, they are actually bound up in survival, movement,
and autonomy. 

Alicia Kennedy is a writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her forthcoming book is titled No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating.