In the first installment in a three-part series on Palestinian organic farming, Mazen Jerbawi dreams of a West Bank food culture where his organic, farm-sourced cheese and ice cream are the norm, not the exception.
By Yuval Ben-Ami | Sep.06, 2012

We are standing amidst a series of villages outside the West Bank city of Jenin. In the nearest one, Umm al-Tut (“the mother of strawberry”), the traditional Palestinian country lifestyle still holds, and it includes small-scale farming. Many families here own a handful of goats and several fruit trees, and they make their own olive oil, bread and jams.

“In the villages, many people eat organic food,” farmer and entrepreneur Mazen Jerbawi tells us. “They simply don’t know that it’s organic”.

Regardless of this apparent idyll, urban Palestinians eat differently than villagers, with “baladi” (fresh off the farm) products less and less common in markets and Israeli crops taking their place. Meanwhile, larger-scale agriculture in the West Bank is becoming exceedingly dependent on the use of artificial pesticides and herbicides. Jerbawi, who grew up in Jenin, sees a need to bring an organic attitude to his native land.

He points to an olive grove by the side of the road leading from Jenin to his farm. It is entirely free of weeds. “There’s a lazy farmer,” he says.

Jerbawi, though, is the opposite of lazy. He is an entrepreneur and a visionary. He studied law in Beirut, then economics at Georgetown. An American citizen, he returned to Jenin in the hopeful 90s, but then left again, only to return a decade later, following the great destruction suffered by his city during the second Intifada. “I wanted to do something different here,” he says.

That something turned out to be farming – a different kind of farming. Without any formal training in the field, Jerbawi put his other occupations on hold and became a pioneer of organic agriculture in the West Bank.

Tragedy struck Jerbawi a little over a year ago when his wife and child died in a car crash. He is currently picking up the pieces and moving forward, crop by crop and acre by acre.

His farm measures 61 acres, and from his land and the animals on it he ekes out enough dairy to supply Palestinian cheese all across the West Bank. In the coming year he will produce three new kinds of cheese, including pecorino.

Gelato in Jenin

Jerbawi is even using his Palestinian farm’s products to create Italian ice cream. Having studied the craft at the famed Carpeggiani firm, near Bologna, he brought his education back home and built two local ice cream parlors, simply and elegantly named Gelato. One is in Jenin, the other in Ramallah. Both offer a rare delight: organic ice cream made from fresh ingredients sourced from a single farm.
Two Italian friends who accompany me to the Jenin shop raved over the products.

We first taste the pistachio ice cream – the flavor ice cream connoisseurs tend to use when feeling out a vendor. It is top class. Jerbawi then serves up a scoop of an “Arabic” flavor, crafted with rosewater and various regional nuts.

“In Italy they teach you the basics,” he says, “but also that you should be creative, put your own personality and imagination into it.”

New machinery for enhancing ice cream production recently arrived from Italy. His olive oil is also drawing raves, with Jerbawi’s latest batch of olive oil boasting only 0.23% acidity, ranking it among extra-extra-extra virgin.

Jerbawi’s farm overlooks the mountains of Nazareth, which lay across the separation barrier and are inaccessible to those who live here. Jerbawi does not bring up his own political views. He does, however criticize those who dole out foreign aid for failing to support initiatives like his.

“A lot of money gets thrown out on flashy useless things,” he says. “All I need is a technical consultant for the ice cream production. I will pay his stay here, his flight, everything, but it would be wonderful if the Italian government would help me pay his fee. After all, bringing gelato here is spreading Italian culture worldwide, isn’t it?”

Change doesn’t come easy, however, especially in a region steeped in its traditions. Jerbawi is bringing contemporary European culinary ideas to a region where the local and the traditional are revered. Can he be criticized as trying to globalize Palestine’s olive groves?

“I’m not trying to bring McDonalds here,” Jerbawi explains. “I’m bringing health, and health is essential for a productive society.” The public, he admits, is not yet used to such concepts as organic farming, but that is not a reason to give up.

“You have to follow a dream,” Jerbawi says. “Create your own system and be patient with people.”