Basil and Tents


A field: to seed, or not to seed

Volume 6, Issue 03
October 7, 2020

O basil farmer around our tents
Don’t grow basil I’m not staying. 1

This old Arabic poem depicts agony and separation in a vivid setting. In its constructed scenery, a dialectic struggle is rendered between permanence and transience embodied in the symbols of basil and tents. Nomads frequently relocate their homes, as their tents are of a transient nature. On the other hand, basil requires constant care and maintenance to grow, which is a representation of remaining in place, of being a resident, of being here. Agriculture demarcates a boundary in the field for its farmers, giving them a ground to claim and a home to reside in.

O basil farmer, you shouldn’t grow basil for nomads who shall leave.

A seed of basil needs moist soil and warm weather to grow. Its seedling starts to pierce through the soil surface after one to two weeks. The life of basil, as of all domesticated plants, must be attended to and cannot be compromised
with overwatering or underwatering, or by abandonment. It needs farmers or residents to care for it continually. As for nomads of the harsh and dry desert, they have to move in search of resources such as food and water. Their movement was fettered and confined within territories, whether marked or symbolic. Such movements demand temporary accommodations and moveable structures like tents. Post and textile structures are ready to be packed and relocated, as tents favor no permanence, yet a basil seed cannot handle this passing life.

O basil farmer, you can’t grow basil when you’re banished.

Basil grows in homes made out of stone and cement, solid homes with homeowners who identified their neighborhoods with street names and nearby shops. During Nakba in 1948, many Palestinians were displaced from their homeland and were forced to leave Palestine.2 They were dispossessed of their homes and lands; their basil lost its fresh minty scent and began to perish. Some of them took refuge in Jordan and Lebanon and found shelter in makeshift camps that lacked necessary infrastructure and visible urban form. Tents accommodated a large number of refugees in unforeseeable conditions, reimagining a new geography in exile. From tents to solid structures, camps grew into settlements over the decades as families started to grow and paint the desert with home memories. These settlements of homes made out of stone, cement, and corrugated metal, faced issues of poverty, unstable structures, floods, waste, and more. The lack of proper infrastructure had separated the camp from the rest of the urban fabric. The camp had redefined its form, materials, and organization over the years, and its tents were cemented as its transient nature began to vanish. Many Palestinian camps emerged in the last 70 years in various places, and they were given different names. However, the camp, regardless of its form and name, failed to shred one excruciating truth – it is still called a camp today.

O basil farmer, did you grow basil in refuge?

The recent refugee camps in Jordan, a result of the 2011 Syrian civil war that displaced more than six million Syrians, took an urban shape with some infrastructure and followed a masterplan. Refugees, residents, or homeowners transformed their tents into durable homes with prefabricated units. Homes are numbered, associated with a block, designated by a street name, and muraled with colorful landscapes. Some homeowners dedicated a small plot of land next to their home – as a garden – to grow olives, flowers, plants, fruits, and herbs. There are green patches found here and there between homes, patches reminiscent of the past, the familiar, and the homelike. These housing units are relatively well-serviced and connected to water and sewage systems, yet the ghost of camps returns to its identity.

O basil farmer, where did you go?

Refugee camps don’t carry a sense of temporality nor permanence but sing for hope to return home one day. As urban organisms drawn into the sand of vacancy, they grow and stretch notions of identity, memory, and resilience. They are plugged comfortably into a network of global trade to feed into cheap labor markets. Camps provide labor opportunities for factories, corporations, and free zones that are built in close proximity. Unplanned are the camps; planned are the consequences that are seeded, planted, and deeply rooted. Now, how to seed is not only important for the vitality of basil, but for the possibility of remaining for the harvest. Whether we like it or not, rain is inevitable, and we will reap what we didn’t sow.

  1. The poem is originally in Arabic, and this is my English translation. The source of the poem is still unknown, but it is speculated to have been written by the 10th-century Arab poet Abu Firas al-Hamadani. ↩︎
  2. The Palestinian exodus in 1948 is known as Nakba, which means catastrophe in Arabic. See Ahmad H. Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod, eds., Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). ↩︎

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Volume 6, Issue 03
October 7, 2020

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