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Volume 45, Number 3May/June 1994

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Cross-Cultural Trader

Written and photographed by George Baramki Azar

Growing up among Lebanese fruit peddlers in Gary, Indiana, can actually be a good preparation for life exploring American-Indian agriculture in the desert Southwest. Ask ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan.

"Because the Lebanese have played such a key role all around the world as cross-cultural traders, I think I had an intuitive sense of how to deal with people of a different culture—not in a paternalistic or dominating way, but simply offering the best from my own culture. My Lebanese family sensitized me to the possibilities of rich interaction with other cultures in ways that I don't think you could get from a dozen anthropology courses."

Nabhan's deep interest in ethnicity, his background in ethnobotany—the study of the relationship between plants and cultures—and his lyrical writing style have made him one of America's leading naturalists and most popular nature writers.

Recipient of a 1990 MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, Nabhan is writer-in-residence at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Tucson. In 1991, Sicily honored him with the Gaia Prize for his contributions to "a culture of the environment."

At 42, Nabhan is the author of eight books, including The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in Papago Indian Country; Enduring Seeds: Native American Agriculture and Wild Plant Conservation; Gathering the Desert; and Songbirds, Truffles and Wolves: An American Naturalist in Italy. His most recent work is The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places.

Critics have called his writing "elegant," "passionate," "thoughtful and humane." He combines the trained eye and careful observations of a scientist with a poet's heartfelt sensibility.

Nabhan is perhaps best known for investigating the crucial role of beans and other legumes in the diet of the Papago Indians of Arizona and northern Mexico, and for co-founding Native Seeds/SEARCH in 1983, a nonprofit organization set up to preserve ancient American crops. Native Seeds/SEARCH maintains a seed bank in Tucson with more than 1250 varieties of native crops and their wild relatives, and distributes seeds to farmers and gardeners through its annual Seedlisting.

"The lotus seed, symbol of cultural wisdom, is a wonderful metaphor for our work in seed preservation," Nabhan says. "Something ancient, buried in our past, can germinate and find a new context, and be useful—even vital—in the future, very remote from the conditions under which that cultural wisdom emerged."

Nabhan was born in Gary in 1952 to a Lebanese father and Irish mother, and raised in the Lebanese community of Lake Michigan's Indiana Dunes, near Chicago. Nabhan's family had immigrated from Zahleh after World War I.

"Growing up eating lots of lentils, fava beans and garbanzo dishes predisposed me to seeing the cultural wisdom of legumes as a staple food. The different lentil and garbanzo dishes in Lebanese cuisine are a really good example of creating variety in cuisine by how one prepares things." He chuckles: "Legumes as a dietary foundation doesn't have to mean eating pinto beans every day."

Photojournalist George Baramki Azar is author of Palestine, A Photographic Journey, published by University of California Press.

This article appeared on pages 30-31 of the May/June 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1994 images.