In the loud and steamy Karawan family factory on the outskirts of the second-largest West Bank city, Nablus, sesame seeds imported from Ethiopia are passing through a tall machine from Aleppo. After an arduous eight-hour process of peeling, soaking, washing and roasting, the seeds reach an 80-year-old basalt grinding stone, which slowly pulverizes and churns them into a smooth, sandy-colored paste.
The paste, known as tahini or tehina in the Middle East, is a staple for many Israelis; it’s usually mixed with lemon and water, then smeared on sandwiches, doused on falafel or combined with chickpeas to make hummus.
Some call the nutty tehina paste the Israeli ketchup, but, among Israeli chefs, Nablus is known as the centuries-old king of tehina production, and many of them swear by Nabulsi producers.
Despite numerous barriers to entering the Israeli market, a few Palestinian businesspeople have capitalized on the Israeli penchant for the best and creamiest tehina, which has lasted through two intifadas and recurring violence, forming a vibrant multimillion shekel industry.
“Israelis don’t like tehina, they love it,” says 43-year-old Ala Tamam, whose family has run the Karawan factory since 1921.
Tamam, lanky and British-educated, is a fourth-generation tehina producer and manager of Karawan’s exports to Israel, comprising 95% of his family’s business.
Navigating along the West Bank’s main thoroughfare, Route 60, in his sport utility vehicle, Tamam was happy to show off his newly minted special entry permit that allows him nearly unfettered access to Israel and the ability to fly from Ben-Gurion Airport as he pleases, a luxury afforded to only some 3,000 Palestinians.
“I had to wait 10 years for this,” Tamam remarks with a smile, adding that the permit significantly eases his business transactions in Israel.
Along with Yonah, Al-Jamal and a couple of other brands from Nablus, Karawan is known as a “premium product” tehina, meaning that it’s meticulously produced in small batches, and decades of careful taste tests determine quality control.
Nablus tehina is not fully mainstream in Israel; it’s to be found not in large supermarket chains but in mom-and-pop stores and is slightly more expensive. But for Israeli chefs and those with discerning taste, there is no compromise.
“You know how they say Eskimos have 60 words for snow? That’s what it’s like with tehina,” remarks Ruthie Russo, an Israeli food writer who hosted a tehina taste-testing competition a few years ago. “I’m very sensitive.”
When Tamam crosses the Green Line, he can see his tehina dotting Tel Aviv’s famous Carmel Market, served in hummus restaurants and fine dining establishments, or in the cupboard of Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, the first Arab-Israeli winner of the MasterChef Israel television series.
Karawan produces around four tons of tehina daily and exports approximately NIS 12 million of the paste to Israel annually. Tamam is a major player in the premium tehina market in Israel, taking up a substantial portion of shelf space, but he is still a minor player in the overall market, which is dominated by a handful of commercial producers like the ubiquitous Achva and Baracke. Those two producers held around 60% of the NIS 150m. Israeli tehina market in 2016, according to a report by the market analysis firm StoreNext.
However, in recent years Nablus sales are being significantly challenged with two Israeli newcomers to the “premium product” category. There is Har Bracha, founded in 2002 by a small community of Samaritans who live on Mount Gerizim above Nablus.
The Samaritans, who have both Israeli and Palestinian citizenship, operate an Israeli company producing tehina prized for its smooth texture. Another competitor, Al Arz Tahini, has been around since 1992, but since being taken over by the late founder’s wife, Julie Zaher, the company has succeeded in producing high-quality tehina on a large scale, capturing 11.9% of the market in 2016.
“They caused major damage to the sale of Nablus tehina,” says Russo, “They have an advantage because they are very good – and they are in Israel.”
Tamam himself acknowledges that he felt concerned after tasting Har Bracha at an exhibition in Herzliya. “I thought, she is a good one,” Tamam says.
For Palestinian exporters, the Israeli tehina market is a gold mine; it’s much bigger than the West Bank market, and Israelis are always searching for the next and best brand.
“The Palestinian market is narrow, and there are many restrictions to exporting abroad,” says Yassin Dweikat, the Nablus Chamber of Commerce spokesman. “So the Israeli market is very important to us.”
The nature of the 1995 Paris Protocol, the economic annex of the Oslo II Accord, created a customs union between Israel and the Palestinian territories, making the movement of goods between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River easier. While the Nablus Chamber of Commerce does not keep statistics on tehina exports to Israel, it recorded the total international exports of Nablus’s 15 tehina factories at NIS 1m., 8.3% of Karawan’s export’s to Israel.
“It’s a necessity,” adds Dweikat. “We have a clear economic interest in exporting to Israel.”
But bridging the 50 kilometers from steamy Nablus factories to Israeli dinner tables in Tel Aviv is no simple task. For Palestinian tehina producers to reach the majority of Israeli consumers, they need a golden ticket – the elusive kosher certification.
Karawan had kosher certification before 1987, but it was revoked after the rabbis couldn’t access the factory during the First Intifada.
It got new certification only three years ago, and since then, Karawan has been expanding in Israel.
In his office set above Karawan’s second and newest factory in Hawara, just south of Nablus, Tamam takes a phone call in Hebrew.
“I’ll speak to you later,” he says, speaking with one of his Israeli distributors.
Tamam, who grew up in Nablus, has improved his Hebrew over the past several years, working with Israelis. He periodically meets with an Israeli rabbi in Hawara, who comes from the nearby settlement of Ariel to provide kashrut supervision of his factory. The rabbi is unable to visit the Nablus factory, because it’s located in Area A, where the IDF forbids the entry of Jewish Israelis; so he monitors that factory through video cameras.
Not all Israelis care about kosher certification, of course. Forty percent of Karawan’s customers are Arab Israelis, Tamam says; and others, like Tel Aviv chef Maoz Alonim, pay little deference to rabbinical authorities. “By Jewish law, things like coffee or sesame seeds don’t need certification; they are already kosher,” says Alonim, whose restaurant Habasta is known to feature Palestinian ingredients, including his favorite tehina, Yonah, alongside a $1,000 bottle of French wine.
Khaled Khatib, who until recently marketed Abu Ayesh, Nablus’s oldest tehina, says the factory faced a nearly insurmountable task in gaining kosher certification. Abu Ayesh first looked into the possibility of acquiring kosher certification two-and-a-half years ago. After consulting with a number of rabbis, the producer settled on working with a rabbi from Petah Tikva. “He consented to all the conditions, including installing cameras,” Khatib says, “But six months after he was granted a certificate, the rabbi informed him that he was not going to renew it.”
According to Khatib, the rabbi said he canceled the certification because he could not travel to Area A, which is under Palestinian Authority security and civil control. But the marketer does not buy the rabbi’s argument, because he says he obtained a special permit from the IDF for the rabbi to enter Palestinian-controlled Nablus. “I think this was not a security, but rather a political, decision,” says Khatib.
As of now, the last shipment of the Abu Ayesh tehina hit the shelves in November 2016 and will be refilled only in small, nonkosher shipments.
For Russo, the trials and tribulations of Abu Ayesh, which has been producing tehina since 1860, is a tragedy.
“It’s so good; I rarely add any lemon or salt,” she says, later adding, “Nablus may be the capital of tehina, but it’s not always easy to get tehina out of Nablus.”
As far as Jewish Israelis are concerned, Nablus’s status as the king of tehina production is prominent, but so, too, is its history of violence during the Second Intifada. Tamam, who vividly remembers that period, says the violence took a major toll on his family’s business.
“You open your eyes and there is a tank outside your factory; it’s scary,” he reluctantly recalls. “I don’t like to talk about it; why talk about bad things? It’s gone, so forget about it.”
Nablus, set in the heart of the northern West Bank, was one of the main operating grounds for Fatah’s Aksa Martyrs Brigades, where attacks were plotted against Israelis. In 2002, after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 30 people at a Passover Seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel commenced a massive military crackdown on Nablus and other population centers in the West Bank termed Operation Defensive Shield.
Tamam says that the restrictions in and around Nablus during the Second Intifada compelled him to move with his wife into an apartment built above his family’s factory.
“It was a chaotic time. So we had to live in the factory to keep the business running,” he says. “You think anyone would want to live above a factory?” Even the fact that Karawan tehina comes from Nablus is downplayed on the company’s packaging, which refers to the product as originating from Shomron (Samaria), the biblical Hebrew term for the northern West Bank. Tamam says that using the term “Shomron” was part of the agreement to receive a kashrut certification.
“Nablus has six or seven names throughout history; you can pick whatever one you want,” the businessman says. “In business, there is no politics; you take care of your business and leave the politics for the politicians.”
In some cases, Israeli tehina makers have taken advantage of the supply gap of Palestinian tehina during times of violence. Afif Tannus, founder of Prince Tahini, realized there was a shortage of tehina supplies from the West Bank during the First Intifada, according to a 2006 interview with TheMarker Magazine. Tannus traveled to Nablus in 1987 to learn techniques, buy equipment, and recruit workers from the area, which paved the way for him to open a factory in a northern Arab-Israeli town, Eilabun. Today, Tannus is the fourth-largest Israeli producer and maintains a 6.5% share of the market, according to StoreNext.
To stay competitive with his Israeli counterparts, Tamam recently opened an office in Kadima, in central Israel, and hired a full-time Israeli accountant, which he says has streamlined his relations with customers and eased business transactions.
“It was hard for me to argue in Hebrew with my customers,” Tamam says. “She knows how to speak to the Jewish Israelis, Israeli to Israeli,” he remarks. A coded number system enables Tamam’s Jewish accountant to communicate with his Palestinian accountant in Nablus, despite the language barrier.
Back in his office in Hawara, Tamam is proud of the loyal following Karawan has gained among Israelis, from hipsters in Tel Aviv to hummus shops in Rishon Lezion, but he hopes that his family’s nearly century-old techniques can make it out of Israel and into the United States and Europe.
“We are living in a really good time,” he says assertively. “We’re doing good business.”