Seeds of diplomacy

IN mid-February I mailed some tomato seeds to a friend and colleague, Dr. Tom Greer, who is spending one year as a visiting professor of American literature at Zhenzhou University, in the Henan Province of China. Realizing that he would not be able to plant the seeds and see them come to fruition, I asked Tom to hand them out to as many people as possible. Last November I mailed him some turnip seeds and suggested that he plant them in flower pots so that memories of home, corn bread, fall, and pumpkins would, perhaps, make the Thanksgiving and Christmas less lonesome away from family and friends.

My interest in plants, whether they be potted plants, flowers, trees, fruit trees, or vegetables, comes from the example set for me by my mother. As the only Palestinian Arab family in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Upper Bakaa, a suburb of pre-1967 Israeli Jerusalem, we faced a certain amount of social and religious ostracism.

In 1950 the neighborhood was an amalgamation of newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Russia, Lithuania, Yugoslavia, Poland, Germany, Romania, Morocco, and Iraq. My sister, brothers, and I soon became fluent in Hebrew. As for my mother, whose interaction with Jewish people was occasional, she and a few Jewish neighbors began to communicate in a pidginized form of Hebrew which was the result of blending Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish, German, Russian, and other words. Plants deserve the credit for breaking down the barriers between us and our Jewish neighbors.

Mother's love for plants was diverse. Irises, lilac, rose, and jasmine bushes, gladioluses, and numerous other flowers decorated the front yard. The large front veranda was filled with an assortment of potted houseplants, including African violets, elephant ears, and ferns. I remember how as children we and our Jewish friends would hide among the shelves and stacks of pots pretending we were fighting prehistoric animals in a jungle. Almond, pomegranate, pear, and cherry trees accented the side and backyards, while grapevines draped the railings and bowered the windows. And for a few years we planted a vegetable garden.

Early spring saw the Serock, Vanik, Lichtman, and numerous other neighborhood housewives attempting to discuss their plants and planting techniques. Frequently acting as translators, my twin brother and I would fill in on some detail or another. Rootings, clippings, seeds, and whole plants were handed out by my mother. Instructions on pruning, watering, planting, and fertilizing plants were frequently exchanged; and when words failed, gestures and demonstrations took over.

I shall never forget April 9, 1959, and our Jewish neighbors' outpouring of goodwill and good wishes to us. Because of the political and social climate, the family had to move from Jerusalem to Beirut. All of Mother's flower pots were given to the numerous Jewish friends, friends who cried at our departure and hoped we would remain.

Many years later and many miles away from Jerusalem, I began to tinker with plants while I was attending graduate school in Texas. Tomato, squash, cucumber, radish, and onion plants became a diversion from the hours of reading and writing, and a supplemental source of food for a newlywed couple trying to make it on a meager teaching assistantship's salary.

Having established permanent roots in Arkadelphia, Ark., in the early 1970s, I began to emulate my mother's good example. I have involved my two sons in the planting and tending of trees, ornamental bushes, and the now large family garden.

Out of this hobby emerged a tradition that began in 1984. While discussing the differences between British and American pronunciation and usage in a college-level linguistics class, I cited tomato and potato as examples.

One of my Japanese students commented that American tomatoes were tasteless. Since I consider tomatoes to be my best-growing vegetable, I promptly corrected her; had she tried the Arkansas Pink tomato or its cousin the Arkansas Bradley tomato? I shall never forget the reaction on her face when, at the next class, I gave her a packet of tomato seeds developed in Arkansas.

``I know that these will not help the trade deficit between the United States and Japan, but I hope that these seeds will help plant an even greater understanding between our two cultures,'' I said ceremoniously.

In December of that year I received a Christmas card accompanied by a note and a photograph. Keiko and her grandfather were standing in the foreground, each holding bright pinkish-red tomatoes. In the background were a few scrawny-looking tomato plants. Apparently the plants were not acclimated to the Japanese environment. Even so, a new level of understanding was established, and what began as a response to a student's remark has become an annual spring ritual in my introduction to linguistics class.

Two years ago I handed seeds out to students from France, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Japan, and Iowa. Nor is this sharing restricted to students; an elderly fellow traveler on a flight from Montreal to his hometown of Chicago received a similar packet.

In concluding my letter to Tom, I mentioned my hope for better understanding between nations through ambassadors such as he. And I firmly believe that instead of shipping jet fighters, bombs, and guns to the underdeveloped world, we should be sending tractors, seeds, and fertilizer.

As my American-born wife and I travel to Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip on a fact-finding trip this year, I shall carry the Arkansas-developed tomato seed with me to share with the farmers and kibbutzim we will meet. I consider myself fortunate to have a mother who instilled such values in her children. Can anyone doubt that the Bradley tomato seed is a tool of diplomacy superior to the Bradley tank?

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