The Last Sesame Growers

As the number of sesame farmers dwindles, the ones that remain are fueled by passion and are gifted with profound patience.

Abu Zaki bends down to his field of sesame plants, pulling up weeds that threaten to choke the delicate green plants. “A good farmer’s fields have no bermudagrass (yablit in Hebrew),” he proclaims, and points to a section of the field where weeds threaten the vegetable beds. He quotes local proverbs, “When someone laughs at the earth, it laughs back in his face. Those who give to the earth enjoy its bounty.” Abu Zaki, 84 is a tall and robust farmer, a fallah and the son of fellahin, was born in Kfar Manda, a venerable village on the edges of the Beit Netofa Valley in the Lower Galilee. The word fallah which derives from the word for “tiller of fields” in Arabic, is a key concept in traditional Palestinian culture. Abu Zaki inherited the land he cultivates from his forefathers. “I haven’t worked in an office a day in my life, only in the fields,” he declares proudly, “why should someone who owns land be a slave?”

Until the early twentieth-century, most denizens of the Beit Netofa Valley lived off of their land. Over the years, chiefly due to the ancient laws of inheritance that are still applied by present-day families with many children, large areas were split into hundreds of small plots that divided the landscape of the fertile valley. Although the villagers can no longer make a living from farming, they still cultivate the little plots for their families. During the winter they grow cabbage, beetroot, carrots and kohlrabi. In the summer – tomatoes, eggplants, several kinds of squash, and juicy watermelon that has warranted an almost legendary reputation for the local soil. In autumn, they harvest the olives from the trees planted beneath the hills and produce olive oil. During the springtime they prepare freekeh (toasted green wheat kernels) and grind the golden kernels into fresh flour.

In the afternoons when the villagers return from their daily work, the men, women and children go out to the family plots to relax under their own vines and fig trees. The ancient ties between farmers and their land are preserved here, as are distinctive types of vegetables and fruits, whose seeds are passed down from father to son and from one neighbor to his friend. Abu Zaki, who still owns a large amount of farmland, is one of the few who continue to earn a livelihood from large-scale agriculture. Some of the land in his possession was purchased for a few pounds during the British Mandate, and every year in the summer he and his family sow hundreds of acres of sesame.

Wild sesame originated on the African continent and the Indian subcontinent, but written and archaeological evidence proves that it was grown in the Middle East in the Biblical period, more than 5,000 years ago. The name “sesame” was bequeathed to the world by the ancient Egyptian language, one of the few words that survived in modern languages, and sesame oil is considered one of the most ancient oils that mankind produced from plants. For hundreds and thousands of years the region of the Land of Israel was a major center for producing sesame oil. During certain periods it was considered to be of a higher quality than olive oil or clarified butter; oils identified today more with the local kitchen. The oil that is found liberally in the kernels was the chief reason for growing sesame, but in the late Middle Ages Jewish and Arab texts refer to a foodstuff known as tahini, a paste produced by grinding sesame seeds.

Until the 1970s, local growers continued to supply the local demand for sesame. The Arab peasants were joined by farmers from the Jewish population. In the 1960s, tens of thousands of acres of sesame were grown in kibbutzim in the Jerusalem Hills region. Israeli researchers developed new varieties of sesame, hoping to adapt them to local conditions and modern agricultural requirements. Abu Zaki, who collected the sesame harvest produced by other farmers in the northern region, sold hundreds of tons of sesame to traders in Jaffa. But when sesame began to be imported to Israel, local farmers couldn’t compete with the low price of imported sesame. Today, India, Burma, Sudan, China, and Ethiopia are the nations supplying most of the world’s demand for sesame (five million tons a year). Local growers, lacking the large areas of land or great numbers of working hands, lost the competition, and over the past 40 years sesame has almost completely vanished from local fields.

Sesame is an annual crop, with a life-cycle of three or four months. Every year in the summer, at the start of the fifth month, Abu Zaki and his family set out to the fields to excavate narrow and shallow seedbeds, where you can glimpse remnants from last winter’s rain. Then, they scatter millions of tiny sesame seeds, carefully preserved from the previous year’s harvest. In good years, when the gods of farmers answer their prayers, the seeds sprout a week to ten days later – young green leaves emerge from the soil which is now dry and cracking. In other years, when unexpected rains rush through the heavy earth beds after sowing, the family must repeat the sowing process, and battle the weeds that threaten to steal the vitality of the sensitive sesame plants. From the day that the seeds are successfully sown they will receive no more water apart from what the soil has retained. Like many crops grown in the valley, the sesame fields are not irrigated artificially. This traditional farming method is known in Hebrew as “ba’al” – deriving from the name of an ancient local god – and relies solely on rainfall.  

A month after sowing the sesame, Abu Zaki and his family members return to the fields, where their next task is to thin out the green rows. The miniature seeds, sown by farmers’ work-torn hands, have sprung up into densely packed plants – and to ensure that some of them will grow and develop properly, the majority must be uprooted. Performing the weeding works are Amina – the second wife of Abu Zaki, Umm Malek – one of his married sisters and Aisha – a sister who never married and stays close to her eldest brother’s household. With bent backs, the three women work for exhausting days, focusing solely on the sesame plants. At the end of their efforts, they leave behind hundreds of uprooted young plants and tidy regularly spaced beds. 

Two weeks later, the sesame plants burst into flower and eventually reach a height of 23 to 27 inches. The fields are awash with beautiful white blossoms, competing only with the nearby plots of sunflowers that are starting to tilt their golden heads towards the sun. A few days later the sesame flowers turn into green capsules. As soon as the capsules become loaded with seeds they turn almost yellow, warning that the harvest must begin. If you wait you could lose the entire crop – the sesame capsules open of their own accord, complying with a law ordained by nature. And the ease with which the ripe capsules burst open is immortalized in the fabled phrase: “open sesame” – the magic words that open the gates to Ali Baba’s cave with its treasure trove.

Members of the family pull out the sesame plants by the root and place them on polyethylene sheets to dry for two weeks. In the old days, the process took place on the threshing floor, where the wheat was separated from the chaff and the straw. Nowadays, the sheaves of sesame are left to dry in the field or in the yard of Abu Zaki’s home. Once the two weeks are over, most of the capsules have already opened, and a light shake encourages them to expel the seeds. Capsules that are more stubborn are hit gently with sticks and the sesame seeds are collected and sieved to remove any traces of earth and dirt. In good years the soil yields 50 to 60 kilograms per dunam – a meager harvest in comparison to most other agricultural crops. In bad years, the earth produces only thistles, and no sesame seeds are harvested at all. “That’s the fallah’s life,” says Abu Zaki acceptingly. “Every year the soil behaves differently, and adjacent plots sometimes yield completely different amounts.”

Tahini is the queen of the Middle Eastern kitchen and reigns supreme in the new Israeli kitchen. However, all the tahini produced in Israel today derives from imported sesame. The negligible amount of sesame grown by local farmers (usually from the unirrigated fields of a handful of residents in Arab regions, such as Abu Zaki) is low in oil and used chiefly in baking or making the za’atar mix.

The low amounts of yield per dunam (in India, the world’s largest sesame manufacturer, the ratio is 35 kg to dunam) and the ease with which the ripe capsules burst open, requiring manual labor, explain why sesame disappeared in the twentieth-century from the Land of Israel’s fields and why the crop transitioned from Western nations to less developed ones. “Picking by hand in Ethiopia, where they still use a scythe and sickle, leads to up to a 70% loss in yield,” says Dr. Zvi Peleg of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Plant Sciences and Genetics in Agriculture. “There isn’t a farmer in the world who can make a living from these tiny amounts. Growing sesame in the twenty-first century still requires extensive land and many working hands. It’s also why we know so little about the sesame plant, even though its consumption and price increase every year, consistently.” Like other researchers internationally, Peleg is trying to develop new species of sesame. In the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences affiliated with the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, he is growing and hybridizing different species with the aim of creating sesame that is rich in oil and iron, and can be harvested mechanically. Last summer alone, he grew over a hundred dunams of modern sesame species in Israel.

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