Permaculture in Palestine


Happy to be in Palestine!

Happy to be in Palestine!

I’m shamefully behind on this blog, and my only real excuse is that I haven’t been just idling away my time watching old episodes of ER from the nineties, I’ve been writing.  A rewrite of the screenplay for The Fifth Sacred Thing—that took a big chunk of the summer!  And then I’ve finished a second draft of the sequel.  Don’t get too excited—there’s still a third and possibly fourth or fifth to come, but definitely Progress Has Been Made!

And a few other things—like putting together our new IndieGoGo campaign for Diversity Scholarships for our Earth Activist Training!  Check it out  and please share it with all your friends and social networks.  We need your help to bring the skills and tools of permaculture to the communities who most need them—and to do that, we’ve got to train people who come from those communities.

And speaking of Earth Activist Training, I taught two of them back-to-back,  one in Vermont, one in Palestine.  I’ve been wanting to blog about them both but I’ll settle this morning for uploading some of the pictures and experiences from Palestine.  Because tomorrow I’m off to Cuba for the International Permaculture Convergence and after that I’ll have a whole new set of adventures to blog about, I’m sure.


Our course!

Our course!

Teaching permaculture in Palestine has been a long-time dream of mine, and a few years ago I was scheduled to teach at the Marda Permaculture Farm with its founder, Murad Al-Khufash.  But on that trip, the Israelis, who control all the borders into Palestine, would not let me in because of my history of working with the International Solidarity Movement, which supports nonviolent resistance against the Occupation.

But two years ago, after the International Permaculture Convergence in Jordan, I did get in.  So I was hopeful (‘confident’ would be an overstatement) that I could get in again.  Jillian Hovey, an experienced permaculture teacher who works internationally, agreed to co-teach with me, and I was happy to know that someone was available who could anchor the course if I didn’t get across.

I left Jericho, Vermont and flew a convoluted route into Amman, came across the border from Jordan the next day and spent six hours sitting and waiting—just a little taste of what Palestinians go through all the time—but I had brought a very good book and eventually I got in!  Another bus ride to Jericho—making me one of probably very few people who have travelled directly from Jericho to Jericho, and a long taxi through the dry and stony hills of Judea, and I arrived in Marda.

Marda is a sweet village nestled in the arms of terraced olive groves and looking out over the valley to villages high in the hills beyond.  Ancient olives with thick, twisted trunks, centuries old, march along the stone-buttressed terraces, mile after mile of human-sculpted landscape.  It has one main street, a couple of shops, a mosque, and many solid, substantial houses built of stone or stone-faced concrete.  Young boys kick soccer balls down the street, old men sit and talk, women in long coats and headscarves walk gracefully erect, arm in arm, and everyone seems to know everyone else.  It seems prosperous, peaceful, timeless.

Stones, terraces, Ariel, Doad

But Marda lies just below Ariel, the fourth largest Israeli settlement, a gated community of more than 18,000 people.  You can hike uphill to the razor-wire topped fences that close off the area where Murad herded goats as a boy and played soccer.  From the village, you can ignore its presence—until you look up.  Then there it is, a line drawn on the skyline.

The course is held in a white house on the far end of the main street.  Like a lot of Palestinian houses, it’s all white concrete walls and synthetic stone floors, very clean and polished.  There’s a kitchen and a small living room area for eating and relaxing, a big bedroom for the women and another for the men, and a small room that Jillian and I share.  The classes are held on the roof, where they’ve set up a tent to shade us from the sun.


Jillian Hovey and students.

Jillian Hovey and students.

We have a small course of seven women and five men—two internationals and the rest are Palestinian.   Tobias who has been working with Jillian at Tamera Ecovillage in Portugal, grew up in Scotland.  The Palestinians are all young professionals.  We have agricultural engineers, two architects, a public health administrator, a nutritionist, and one of the organizers of the Slow Food movement in Palestine.  They are all very bright, knowledgeable, warm and friendly, and willing to help.  Murad’s wife cooks us a fantastic lunch every day, but the students prepare breakfast and a light dinner and share cleaning chores—both the women and the men!

I’m a bit worried, the first day, as to how our students will take to my teaching style, which involves a lot of games, jokes, sing-alongs, and the odd trance.  Our Earth Activist Trainings are rooted in earth-based spirituality, and I generally weave a lot of grounding and awareness techniques not to mention songs, drumming and a few guided visualizations into the mystical heart of soil fungi.  Murad is a devout Muslim, as are some of our students.  Among the women, only one wears the hijab, the head-scarf, but the some of the men are scrupulous in observing the daily prayer-times and the Friday visit to the mosque.

But I start by teaching some basic grounding and awareness techniques, and send everyone out to observe the nature around us for a short time.  And I’m pleased to discover how open everyone is to the exercise, and the depth and beauty of their observations.  So each morning I send them out to observe some new aspect of the natural world:  patterns, water flows, energy exchanges, etc.   And by a few days into,the course, we’ve translated  the “Earth my body” chant into Arabic!

"Earth My Body" in Arabic

“Earth My Body” in Arabic


Building an A-frame to find contour.

Building an A-frame to find contour.

In the afternoon, we walk down through the village to the permaculture demonstration farm Murad has established.  Again, I’m a bit worried about our engineers.  They speak the least English of any of our crew, so it’s hard for me to check in with them directly.  The farm has an abundance of young fruit trees, herbs and medicinal plants growing in profusion, but we’re between seasons for most vegetables and the summer beds are looking a little ragged.  Two of engineers, Ahmed and Hisham, make a beeline for one pomegranate that has some spots on the leaves.  They nod their heads and make knowing comments.

Meanwhile, Sultan, one of our architects, tells the group he doesn’t think the farm design embodies harmony.  It is true that Murad has taken to heart the permaculture principle that waste is a resource, and old tires figure heavily in the design.  He uses them to fence out the wild pigs that roam at large around the village.  The Israeli authorities won’t allow the villagers to trap or shoot them, and they ravage the gardens and cause erosion problems—just as they do in the Cazadero hills where my own land lies.  But a combination of old tires and barbed wire keeps them out.


Filling earth bags for natural building.

Filling earth bags for natural building.

I tell the group what I see in at the farm—the diversity of trees and food plants, designed so that if one crop doesn’t do well others will fill in.  The many levels of planting, from the upper-story trees to the smaller bushes, the low annuals and perennials, the ground covers—a classic forest garden.  The way Murad has integrated chickens who clean the ground when he lets them forage and live in a naturally-built cob chicken house.  I sense they are looking at the garden with new eyes.

My drum is an instant success.  It’s a doumbek, the traditional Middle-Eastern drum, and while I don’t speak much Arabic I do speak drum.  The rhythms I have learned back in California come from here and are completely familiar to our students.  Duja snatches the drum and begins to play—then hands it over to Sultan.  While we’re doing the supper dishes, someone puts on some Palestinian music and Hisham and Ahmed begin to dance the dabka, the traditional folk dance.  Hisham is a big bear of a man with a shy smile and Ahmed is muscular and hefty and befits a farmer, but when they dance they are light on their feet and graceful.  The women get up and I follow Lina’s steps to learn the dabka myself while Duja switches the music to Palestinian hip-hop.  We’re all laughing and dancing—and that sets the pattern for most of our free time.

Lena at a historic building.

Lena at a historic building.


There are many highlights of our time.  Sahar, also an architect, works for an organization called Riwaq that preserves historic Palestinian buildings.  She takes us to visit one of their projects in Marda, a centuries-old Ottoman castle that actually belongs to Murad’s family.  Half of it is in ruins, half of it is now inhabited by families who throng out into the courtyard and press fresh-picked almonds into our hands.  We prowl around the old stones and climb up to the top floor where a beautiful, arched room hints of the artistry and luxury of the rulers.  Riwaq is working to shore up the crumbling walls and secure the structure while respecting its integrity.  After our visit, we are offered tea at Murad’s family home, another ancient building where his twin brother and family now live with his mother.  We drink tea and eat cookies on a high terrace with a long view over the valley and the olive groves.  As long as we don’t look behind us, where Ariel looms overhead, we can bask in the peace of the sunset and believe that everything is fine.

We also hold an open day, and people come from all over the West Bank to listen to us talk about permaculture and hear lectures from some of the local experts on everything from Green building to beekeeping.  There is a growing green movement in Palestine, which draws from their strong cultural connection to the land.  They’ve been tending the land for thousands of years, using many practices we now adapt in permaculture, including the idea of an agriculture primarily based on tree crops: olives, almonds, figs.

Ariel looms above...

Ariel looms above…

And we discuss how to do permaculture under Occupation, when so much of what you might want to do is prohibited, when someone else controls your water supplies—and takes 80 per cent of the water to supply the illegal settlements—as well as your markets, your freedom to move and travel, your freedom to simply live as your ancestors have always lived.  This trip is so different for me—I’m not confronting soldiers or challenging check points or standing in front of tanks.  Nothing is being blown up around me, and no one is firing bullets into the walls at night while kids do their homework, like in Gaza when I was there.  Everything seems so normal, so relaxed.

Just don’t look up!

Because it’s always there, the Occupation.  In the cracks in the walls, where during heavy rains Ariel releases floods of raw sewage down on the village.   Many of the settlements neglected to build sewage treatment plants, and simply dump their wastes down on Palestinian fields.  It’s there in the stories the guys tell as we drink tea in the evening, laughing and joking about the times they’ve been arrested for nothing, about beatings and jail cells and standing outside while the Israeli soldiers blow your house up.

It’s there on our day off, when I hop on a Settler bus to Tel Aviv to go and visit my Israeli friends, so aware that my students, these intelligent, educated, warm and wonderful new friends, can’t come with me and simply go to the beach.

But it is good to see my friends, old friends from many years and new ones like Barak ben Hanan, an Israeli permaculturalist who gives us a tour of some of his projects in Tel Aviv, from a community garden to a roof garden on a school for severely disabled children with a very impressive system that recaptures water from the air conditioning system and uses it to grow plants.

Barak ben Hanan

Barak ben Hanan


Good will exists between Israeli and Palestinian permaculturalists, but the Occupation stands in the way of their ability to cooperate and work on common projects.  It throws up physical and legal barriers, but more than that, it creates barriers in the mind.  Contrary to the myths, Palestinians and Israelis get along quite well as people, or so I’ve found, when they share a common purpose or interests.  But the Occupation is always there, looming like Ariel just above your line of focus, an ache in the neck you hardly notice because it’s become part of you, that restriction of motion from not looking up.

I’m grateful for my time in Palestine, for the opportunity to teach there and to learn far more!  I hope to go back again, many times, and to continue supporting all those who care for the earth, the people and the future of the land.  Thanks to Murad for his vision and years of hard work, to Murad’s family for providing wonderful food and practical help on so many levels, to Lena who administered the course and to Jillian who co-taught with me.  And thanks to all of you who have helped in our various fundraising campaigns that make this work possible.

Marda course pic copy

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