In Pastoral Israeli Arab Village, a Cheesemaker Hones His Craft

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Rounds of Camembert at the Al-Karam Farm.
Rounds of Camembert at the Al-Karam Farm.Credit: Dan Peretz
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Seven in the morning at the Al-Karam Farm in the village of Ar’ara. The morning milking, which began two hours earlier, has just finished, and Shakib Mar’i is adding a cheese-making enzyme to a tub of pure white sheep’s milk (“When I was a kid, my uncle used to make cheese for the family out in the field. He would boil the milk over a bonfire, add a few drops of fig resin – the enzyme in the old days – and wait for it to curdle into cheese”). Shakib seems to wear a near-perpetual smile, no matter how many hours he’s been working, day or night. There’s no mistaking Shakib’s sense of contentment. “I love my work,” he happily admits, having turned the land of his fathers, where olives and grapes were once grown, into a sheep farm with a small dairy at the heart of it. “It’s hard work, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can’t take a vacation from the animals. But I love it.”

On the day of our visit, Mar’i, along with two women workers from the village, is making Camembert and Gouda-style cheeses. They slice the fresh curd, put it into molds and press it to drain off the excess liquid. “When we started, about six years ago, we were mostly making the basic traditional things – yogurt, labaneh, jibni. But now we’re gradually increasing our flock and expanding the selection of cheeses and other products. My youngest son eats rounds of Camembert as if they were apples.”

Mar’i, 37, was born and raised in Ar’ara. The land he inherited lies on the edge of the large village, high on the Amir mountain ridge. From the table set up overlooking the wadi you can see the village houses and densely populated neighboring villages dotting the steep hilltops. Over the years, in part due to the traditional inheritance laws, the agricultural area was divided up among various members of the family. “Of the large area where my grandfather once grew wheat and seasonal vegetables, in addition to olives and grapes, just seven and a half dunams are left,” says Mar’i. “The dairy was built on four and a half dunams that I share with two other cousins, Iyad and Mustafa.”

Wrapping a freshly made Gouda round. Credit: Dan Peretz

The milk used in the daily cheese production comes fresh from the herd each morning. “We use a mixture of goat’s milk and sheep’s milk – except in cheeses like pecorino or caprino, in which we only use sheep’s milk, and all the milk is ours. The only time we buy milk from Tnuva is during the month of Ramadan, when there’s a big demand for jibni, the cheese used in knafeh, and our milk isn’t enough.” The herd is fed on seeds and alfalfa, and does not go out to pasture, despite the wild Mediterranean vegetation that surrounds the farm.

“If the sheep and goats went out to pasture, the milk output would be reduced by half,” sighs Mar’i. “I couldn’t manage that financially. As it is, the cheeses that I make, because they contain only milk and not milk powder or vegetable fat, are already a third more expensive than ‘similar’ products on the supermarket shelf. There is wonderful pasture here, but unless somebody comes and tells me for certain, ‘I will buy free-range cheeses that are more expensive,’ I can’t shift the herd to natural grazing. In Italy and France it’s a tradition that no one questions. People buy traditional cheeses, made by cheese-making families that go back generations, made from the milk of a herd that grazes naturally. But here we don’t have that kind of culture yet. Who would buy cheeses from me at such prices?”

Soon the farm will also have a small shop selling the dairy’s products, but even now people come every day to buy the thick, dense yogurt; the excellent labaneh, perfectly balanced between sweet and tart and with a rich, creamy texture; and the jibni. Of all the aged cheeses, the Camembert stands out, even though – in keeping with local taste – it is sold a bit too young, not allowed to ripen to the kind of flavor a long-aged cheese should have). For now, the farm’s products can also be found at one shop in the central part of the country (Havat Naomi in Givatayim), and in Wadi Ara they can be found in a number of shops and supermarkets.

Workers at the Al-Karam Farm prepare rounds of Camembert cheese.Credit: Dan Peretz

Arab-Jewish tourism

We went to the Al-Karam Farm on a tour organized by the Shared Tourism Program (Drachim Shluvot), an association of four regional tourism operators that have joined together to promote Arab-Jewish tourism and give greater exposure to less well-known tourist and cultural attractions. Al-Akawi Hummus in Kafr Kara is another stop on the monthly tour offered by the Wadi Ara-based group.

Yusef Mahmoud Baballah (“The name was originally Awad, but the story goes that one of the elders of the family, who was an imam, used to walk about the fields constantly. When asked where he was going, he would reply, to Baballah, and the name stuck”) now lives in Ein Ibrahim and is the owner of the hummus restaurant in Kafr Kara, but he grew up in old Acre. “My mother was born in Poland, to a religious Jewish family, and she made aliya with her mother, father and sisters in 1936. Most of the extended family later perished in the Holocaust. They came to Neve Tzedek in Tel Aviv, where her father was a cantor in the synagogue. My father also came from a religious family, but a religious Muslim family, and his father was the imam of a village near Acre whose inhabitants fled in ’48.

Al-Akawi Hummus in Kafr Kara.Credit: Dan Peretz

“In ’49, my mother was drafted into the army and stationed at the command headquarters in Rosh Hanikra. She and four of her women comrades were ambushed and taken prisoner by the Lebanese Army. She spent two years in Lebanon, where she also learned to speak Arabic. For six months of that time she was in prison and after that she was in a convent in Jounieh. During her time in the convent, which is famous for the nuns’ expertise in traditional handicrafts, she became friendly with a family that was originally from Acre. When she returned to Israel as part of a prisoner exchange, she had a hard time adjusting, and eventually left home and made her way to Acre. She converted to Islam – the family ostracized her and sat shiva for her – and married a man from the family she had met in Lebanon. And after he died a short time later, she married my father. My older sister was born in ’58 and I was born two years later.”

Baballah recalls a childhood of coexistence in the alleyways of Acre’s Old City, something that sounds far from the current reality. His fascinating family story is interrupted numerous times by phone calls – many of them from the nearby army base, where soldiers are requesting hummus delivered to the gate.

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