Twilight Zone / The tahini trail
The seeds come from Ethiopia, the millstones are imported from Denmark and Syria, the jars are from the neighbor. The sesame paste produced in the West Bank's forbidden city is a hit in Tel Aviv supermarkets.
It started at my supermarket in Ramat Aviv. Suddenly huge wooden pallets piled with raw tahini (known in Hebrew as tahina) appeared in the store. The packaging was old-fashioned, the labels tattered, the graphic design uninspired, the Hebrew riddled with errors. But the taste was marvelous. The telephone number listed on the underside of the plastic jar piqued my curiosity. The dove of peace is not dead, nor even bleeding. More and more jars with doves on them have appeared on the shelves of the supermarket. There is Dove Symbol tahini from Nablus, Peace Dove tahini from Mishor Adumim (a Jewish industrial area in the West Bank), and the tahini I discovered, which the supermarket poster calls Dove Tahini, also from Nablus.
But this week we discovered that the dove-like bird on the blue label is not a dove at all, but a karawan, or sand partridge. Karawan Tahini is my house recommendation; I always take some to my good friend Imad Saba, who is in exile in Holland. This item, probably just about the last Palestinian product sold in Israel - and made in the West Bank's most confined city - has become a hit. It's the New Middle East, and we are hot on its trail.
Balata Street, the main road connecting the Balata refugee camp with the Askar refugee camp, was busy this week. The regular traffic was backed up because of street-corner checkpoints manned by armed Palestinian police, who deployed in the city two weeks ago and work until midnight. After that the Israel Defense Forces invades the city. Last week an effort was finally launched to clear away the heaps of rubble, the remnants of the huge, now decimated Muqata - one of the last scars of the IDF's Operation Defensive Shield in the spring of 2002, whose scars are also healing.
There is no sign at the entrance to the plant: We followed the pungent smells. There are two floors - a basement and a ground floor - each 600 square meters in area, with seven employees, 13 at the height of the season, with steam boilers and millstones. Welcome to Karawan Tahini. This is a fourth-generation sesame enterprise, in a Dickensian setting: a few workers in ragged dress are stirring, mixing, pouring and packaging amid swirling steam saturated with the aroma of tahini. Workers in the plant make an average of NIS 50 a day. Politicians and purveyors of the occupation need not apply.
A graduate of the department of industry and management at Leeds Metropolitan University in England, Ala Tamam speaks an English that is not only fluent, but has a distinctive British accent - rather at odds with his proletarian appearance and the antiquated plant he manages with his brother, Anan, who speaks Hebrew. Ala, 33, is now also learning Hebrew, from a private teacher who comes to the plant. More than anything he misses his beloved village, Pontefract, in northern England, which he calls "my second homeland."
"Cheers," he says, sipping a glass of juice. In Leeds he ate tahini from Spain and Lebanon, but it didn't have the taste that he loves.
On the computer screen in the tiny office is Shooky's English-language hummus blog, with its slogan, "Eat hummus. Give chickpeas a chance" (http://humus101.com - only one "m," in Hebrew). Susan from Canada, Carmen from Belgium, Courtney from the United States, Shooky from Israel and Ala from Palestine, among others, are involved in correspondence about the secrets of tahini. Not a word about politics. Shooky invites Ala to try hummus in Tel Aviv; Ala promises to bring him a jar of tahini. He likes a hummus place in Givatayim, where he eats breakfast on his frequent trips to Israel.
On the wall are photographs of the family dead: Uncle Masoud, who was murdered by a Palestinian using a screwdriver in a fight in 2005, and Uncle Said, who died of cancer after 25 years in an Israeli prison. A 12-year-old female cousin was killed by Israeli soldiers' fire in 1989 while standing on the porch of her home. Alongside the dead, a certificate of merit - the Israeli Quality Award for 2003, stating: "This certificate is issued to the company for its contribution to promoting the economy, science and society in Israel."
Anan is worried about how to renew the plant's kosher certificate, which expired at the time the first intifada broke out, in late 1987. He called the office of the Chief Rabbinate and was told, "Don't even think about coming to us; we are located in a government building and they won't let you in." Everything used to be a lot simpler: You went to the Civil Administration in the West Bank community of Beit El, paid a fee and got the certificate. But now? Well, the sesame they import from Ethiopia via Hamama Brothers in Israel is strictly kosher, but how can they get the mashgiah (supervisor of kosher products) to come here?
"Isn't it enough that the sesame seeds are kosher?" Anan asks naively. "After all, we use the same seeds as all the kosher plants in Israel." He has friends in the Karnei Shomron settlement, he says, who have tried to help, but unsuccessfully. "I want our clients to be satisfied. I want the best kosher certificate, but I can't get it. We still have a photocopy of the old one."
Kosher or not, most of what they make is earmarked for Israel. There are about 30 tahini plants in the West Bank, 22 of them in Nablus, small family operations; two of them, Dove and Karawan, are aimed at the Israeli market. From an output of 1,000 kilograms of tahini a day during the first years of production, the Karawan plant now turns out 3,000 to 4,000 kilos daily - and the market, they say, is still not sated. Seventy percent of what they produce is sold directly in Israel, 20 percent in Tul Karm and Qalqilyah, and from there it makes its way to the Israeli market - both Jewish and Arab. Only 10 percent is intended for local consumption.
Exporting abroad remains a dream for the present. "Keep your fingers crossed for us," Ala smiles. He lives with his family above the plant. He shows off the photographs of his children proudly on his mobile. His daughter, Dima, enters the office, a fair-haired, blue-eyed girl who has just come back from school. Her father melts at the sight of her and gives her a big hug.
Ala and Anan's father, Samir, established the plant in 1981, in neighboring Anabta. Then they moved to the Nablus casbah before ending up here, on Balata Street. The Tamam family has been making tahini for four generations. The extended family now has five tahini plants, each branch of the family and its own plant, each plant and its own market. Karawan is known in Israel.
The cardboard boxes come from a factory in Caesarea, the plastic jars from a cousin in Nablus. One millstone is made of granite and comes from Denmark, the others are ancient, heavy pieces from Syria. The salt used in peeling the sesame seeds originates in the Dead Sea.
There is "royal" tahini, Ala says, and regular tahini. The royal type is made using millstones, a slow, ponderous process, so there is also a locally made machine to complete the work. They mix the two types, so their tahini is semi- regal. The production process lasts eight hours. The secret lies in the quality of the sesame, the way it is peeled and roasted, and above all in the millstones. The tahini must not be bleached under any circumstances, as some factories do sometimes. And most important is the grinding of the seeds. The Tamam family also produces black tahini, made of fennel, which has a peculiar taste, but that's another story.
"Tahini is a very traditional business," Ala says. "It can only be a traditional business. With modern mass production you will not get the same result, so we are being careful not to grow too fast. Everything has to be done by hand."
The family has always aimed for the Israeli market. "You can sell for higher prices there, and you have large hummus plants and the market is stable," Ala notes. "And precisely in the darkest times - the first and second intifadas - things went very well for us. We were able to survive when smaller plants did not."
Most of the Nablus-based tahini plants are in the casbah, where IDF incursions and curfews are the order of the day, so the Tamams have had something of an advantage.
"Even during Operation Defensive Shield we succeeded in producing and marketing," Ala says. "It was a challenge. The market demanded tahini. Israelis love hummus and tahini, which are special products, and we managed to market our produce. Most Israelis get used to one brand and stick to it. We get two-three calls every day from Israelis, thanking us."
Thanks or not, the tahini has to pass through at least two checkpoints on its way to Israel: one that dominates Nablus, the other being the Taibeh checkpoint next to Tul Karm, at the entrance to Israel. You will not hear a word of criticism or complaint from the Tamams. Their tahini passes through the checkpoints quickly and has never been held up for more than a few hours.
The family has never considered advertising, because "Dad always told us that a good product is its own best advertisement, and we are acting according to his approach. As long as it is tasty, it will sell." They also have no intention of changing the packaging design. Marketing experts from a network of natural-food stores in Israel, in which they are known, told them not to change anything. The Tamams have never come under pressure to stop their commercial dealings with Israel.
Their grandfather's sister, a Christian, had three sons: One spent a quarter of a century in an Israeli prison, the second served in the Israel Police, the third was an officer in the Jordanian air force. Once a week Ala goes to Israel, encountering no special difficulties, he reports. Among other place, he visits my supermarket in Ramat Aviv.
The sacks of white sesame are piled in a corner of the ground floor. There is sesame from Ethiopia, imported by the Hamama brothers, who have been friends of the family for 40 years. And there are also a few bags of a special import by Ala, who once visited Burkina Faso in West Africa, where he found excellent sesame and, he says, people you couldn't trust and couldn't do business with.
The brothers open a package of halva, a byproduct here, which has come straight from the production room. "You won't eat this anywhere in the world. Halva stays hot for only 15 minutes after it is made," Ala says. We polished off half a kilo of the melt-in-the-mouth delicacy.
Does he feel the effects of the occupation at all? "A great deal, in the heart. Even if I do not feel it physically, there is mental pressure. You can work and hope for the best, but sometimes, when you hear the news, you don't feel like going on. That is what is driving me to keep talking to the Israelis - clients, consumers and suppliers - via the Internet, by phone or personally. Then I feel that we are all human beings and there are no differences between us.
"Sometimes I feel sorry that what existed until 1987 is no longer possible," Ala continues. "Since then, we have met with very few Israelis. My father has not seen the Hamama family for 10 years. To know someone for 40 years and not see him for 10 is hard. It's not only business, it's also friendship beyond business."
Ala then immediately adds that he has never been a victim of hostility or racism in Israel. He does not support any Palestinian political party or movement - a stance that he adopted in Britain: When Tony Blair was first elected, and Ala was a student in Leeds, only 33 percent of the electorate went to the polls. "Keep the politics and leave me with my tahini," he says.