Excerpt from Banana by Dan Koeppel, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World

by Dan Koeppel

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  • First Published:
    Jan 2008, 304 pages
    Jan 2009, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Paul Hughes

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Print Excerpt

Linnaeus's family designation for banana, Musa, derives from mauz, the Arabic word for the fruit. This makes sense, since the Koran also situates the banana in the sacred garden. There, Eden's forbidden tree is called the talh, an archaic Arabic word that scholars usually translate as "tree of paradise" (or sometimes even more directly as "banana tree"). The Islamic sacred text describes the tree as one whose "fruits piled one above another, in long extended shade…whose season is not limited, and [whose] supply will not be cut off." Sure enough, that description matches the concentric rings of banana bunches and the plant's multigenerational life span.

But let's swing back to the Judeo-Christian Bible, for a moment. In the Western story of Eden, Adam and Eve are said to react to their nakedness by covering themselves with "fig leaves." Fig greenery might cover the essentials, barely. Banana leaves are actually used to make clothing (as well as rope, bedding, and umbrellas) in many parts of the world, even today. In this case, the word for the Edenic fruit isn't mistranslated, just misunderstood: Bananas have been called figs throughout history. Alexander the Great, after sampling the fruit in India, described it as such, as did Spanish explorers in the New World. The clincher comes from ancient Hebrew. In that language, the language of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament, including Genesis), notes Levin, a word for the forbidden fruit translates directly: It is called the "fig of Eve."

AS THEY IMAGINED EDEN, the authors of the Bible would have, most likely, drawn from the landscape around them. And what was around them? Over the centuries, there have been dozens of attempts to scientifically locate the "genuine" Eden. Some have been exercises in theological speculation (like the Mormon notion that Eden sat somewhere near St. Louis). Others try to match landmarks in the text with real geological features. In Genesis, for example, four rivers—the Tigris, Euphrates, Pison, and Gihon—are said to have bounded the paradise. The first two still exist today, flowing through Iraq and Iran. The other pair are mysteries. In the early 1980s, however, archaeologist Juris Zarins used satellite imagery to locate vestiges of two long-vanished waterways. By calculating variations in climate and terrain, Zarins concluded that the four rivers did intersect in what was once lush valley, now submerged offshore in the Persian Gulf.

A Middle Eastern Eden could have been hospitable to bananas, and the people living there almost certainly would have been familiar with the fruit. Even today, the region is a growth center for the fruit, which is farmed in Jordan, Egypt, Oman, and Israel. Those same areas are not terribly friendly to the apple, which grows there today in limited quantities, and with the assistance of modern agriculture.

Finally, it's interesting to note that mankind's true condemnation to a life of struggle doesn't begin when Adam and Eve are cast out of biblical Eden but afterward, in the story of Cain and Abel. The brothers work diligently and, from the abundance around them, make offerings to God: Abel makes an animal sacrifice and Cain fruit. Cain's tribute displeases God, and, angered, Cain kills his younger brother. As punishment, God condemns Cain to "till the ground," which will "no longer yield to you its strength." Just like farmers today, in the Holy Land and across the world, Cain was forced to struggle with weather, drought, pests, and blight. In that struggle, the first human communities sought out crops that were easiest to grow: roots (like taro, yam, and cassava) and fruit—like bananas.

Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Banana by Dan Koeppel. Copyright © Dan Koeppel, 2008.

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