A determined forager


Zahia Sawad

Forager, Hussniyya

interview and photos by Veronica Yudkevich

Zahia lives in the Bedouin village Hussniyya. During the months of winter and spring she forages edible wild plants, teaches how to cook them in the field and at her home.

When did you start foraging?

When I was 5 years old, with my mother and grandmother.

Do you forage for medicinal purposes as well?

Sometimes. I think all plants have remedial properties.

Do you pass your knowledge to your children?

Yes, they come with me whenever I go on a foraging trip. I want them to learn everything I know about the plants and eat them as well. Every year we wait for the wild plants to come out after the rain imbuing us with new energies. Sometimes I even freeze fresh mallow, Palestine arum and fennel to use in the summer.

I go to the mountain above Hussniyya to pick arum; it’s hard work that takes hours.

Which plants grow near your home?

Mallow, chicory, fennel, Egyptian campion (smamiha), sometimes there is a bit of Palestine arum. I go to the mountain above Hussniyya to pick arum; it’s hard work that takes hours. For two weeks already I’m waiting for someone to come with me, because I’m scared to go alone to the mountain, but we can’t find time that suits all.

Some plants are protected, right?

Yes. Cyclamen, zaatar, wild asparagus...

What are your favorite greens?

I love arum; it’s poisonous but also very healthy. You have to learn how to cook arum – first take out its spine, chop and add salt, then rub thoroughly, rinse and squeeze out the liquids. It’s very itchy, so gloves are a must. But it’s so good, really worth the effort. After the first bite you forget all the hard work that was put into it. It's a medicinal plant as well that helps fight cancer. Chicory is also very tasty and fennel with lentils – I like them all. 

On my foraging trips I teach how to recognize the plants and how to cook them; we also cook together on an open fire. Before every trip I find out which plants grow in the area and bring along those that are missing. Groups also come to my house, pick plants and cook together, and I tell them about Bedouin women and our life in the village.


Do you have any tips for a foraging beginner?

Constantly try and pick. I didn’t learn what I know in a day. I made many mistakes, and had to ask my mother and grandmother. Till my mid teens I used to bring chicory mixed with goat food. Even after I got married, at 20, I still made mistakes. You have to taste, feel, and ask someone who knows the plants.

I’ll tell you something. I decided that I want to learn to speak English. I don’t have time to go to a teacher, so I found English lessons on YouTube, and I listen to it while doing house work. Even if I learn two words in half an hour, that’s OK. I repeat the lesson every day until I remember one word and then another. Same thing with the plants.

That’s how you've learnt to play the piano?

I began with a teacher from Maale Zviya, but now we can’t find the time. I watch piano lessons on YouTube.

What kind of music do you prefer?

I like the songs of Abdel Halim Hafez, an Egyptian singer. I sing them, but can’t play so well yet. I think it will take me a lot of time to learn. But every little thing we learn is good.


I'd like to learn Arabic.

You can. Look at me, for a week I’ve been repeating the same English lesson. Sometimes I ask myself what do I need it for, but it’s important to be able to say even a few words. I won’t quit. I wish next year when you come I’ll speak English and you’ll speak Arabic. I always tell the children [in Maale Zviya?]: “Guys, you have to learn to speak Arabic because you live in the midst of Arabic villages – Arraba, Sakhnin, Deir Hanna, Mghar, Rameh… When you go to get groceries or anything else, you could say – ‘marhaba, ana bidi…’ (hello, I want…)” – it’s  great.

Now it seems impossible that I didn’t know a word in Hebrew. If you really want to learn, you have to use every opportunity to speak. Don’t be shy. It’s ok to make mistakes; it shows that you’re making an effort, and someone will correct you. No mistakes no learning – that’s what we say. Any new experience is interesting and a chance to learn from each other. It took me a long time to understand those things – to learn, not to be shy, to share my feelings.