Jordanians get a taste of history in their daily bread

Courtesy of Zikra Initiative
A Jordanian woman takes part in the harvest of wheat grown in western Amman, Jordan, through the Al Barakeh wheat project in the summer of 2021.

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For millennia, Jordan has been home to a high-quality, hard durum wheat. This is because in this arid country, home to a rich soil, wheat crops get just enough water to grow, leading to a sturdier, durable wheat with a richer, more concentrated taste.

But the rolling windswept hillsides of golden wheat that once extended from central Amman south and westward to the horizon only two decades ago have been replaced by a sea of white concrete apartment buildings and industrial complexes. Lost too, say activists trying to bring back the crop, is a culture of cooperation and self-sufficiency.

Why We Wrote This

Jordan’s “wheat is a blessing” initiative seeks to revive cultivation of a hearty ancient wheat. At stake are food security, self-sufficiency, and appreciation for a fast-disappearing pastoral culture.

Now the original whole-wheat bread is back on the market, thanks to Al Barakeh wheat, or the “wheat is a blessing” project of Jordanian activists Lama Khateeb and Rabee Zureikat.

“To us, this is about more than reviving local wheat,” says Ms. Khateeb. “This is about regaining our independence as a society. It is a political issue as much as a food sustainability issue.”

Deema Salah, whose family owns the Qabalan Bakery chain, is one of the converts to the cause. “I was convinced of the importance of showing people: This is local wheat, this is from our ground, this is part of our heritage.”

As soon as the staff plopped the loaves on the shelves, the line formed.

A woman nervously made a beeline to the shelves and snatched two bags as if they were about to run away. Another woman grabbed an armful.

“Do you still have that local wheat I keep hearing about?” an older man anxiously yelled across the counter. “I came across the city just to try it!”

Why We Wrote This

Jordan’s “wheat is a blessing” initiative seeks to revive cultivation of a hearty ancient wheat. At stake are food security, self-sufficiency, and appreciation for a fast-disappearing pastoral culture.

Moments later, he walked out of the Qabalan Bakery with 8 pounds of doughy bounty.

In Amman, the hype is real.

After a decadeslong absence, in a land that fed empires and where archaeologists have discovered the oldest bread loaf in history, the original whole-wheat bread is back on the market.

It is a harvest of heritage years in the making.

The reintroduction of the original, whole-wheat Jordanian bread this past month is part of Al Barakeh wheat, or the “wheat is a blessing” project. It’s an effort by Jordanian activists Lama Khateeb and Rabee Zureikat to generate a renewed interest in, and save, Jordan’s wheat farms – educating Jordanians on the importance of the thousands-year-old crop along the way.

Taylor Luck
Lama Khateeb of the Zikra Initiative inspects flour produced through the Al Barakeh wheat project at a mill in Madaba, central Jordan, Sept. 22, 2021.

Society’s priorities

The pair started the project through their Zikra Initiative three years ago after watching the disappearance of local farming, self-sufficiency, and the local baladi wheat – and of the pastoral culture that has long been the core of Jordanian society.

“We got a sense that the society is accelerating with the priorities completely in the wrong order,” says Ms. Khateeb. “What’s the point of deluxe apartment buildings or giant shopping malls if you can’t even feed yourself?”

It is by many measures both a cultural and culinary loss.

For millennia, Jordan has been home to a high-quality, hard durum wheat – the type that is today prized in Italy for pasta.

This is because in this arid country, home to a rich soil, wheat crops get just enough water to grow, leading to a sturdier, durable wheat with a richer, more concentrated taste.

The discovery of these weather conditions led the Romans to convert much of modern-day Jordan and the Levant – stretching through western Syria and Lebanon – into the breadbasket for their empire 2,000 years ago.

This area continued to be a key wheat producer under the Byzantines, later the Umayyads, and finally the Ottomans.

Taylor Luck
Farmer Salah Ghananeem cups a handful of durum wheat kernels destined to become "baladi" Jordanian wheat bread at a grain processing plant in Madaba, central Jordan, Sept. 22, 2021.

From exporter to importer

But due to 20th-century agricultural policies and rapid urbanization, modern Jordan has gone from a net exporter to an importer of the vast majority of its wheat. To fill its annual needs, 1.2 million tons come from abroad. Only 20,000 tons are grown locally. 

With the government using subsidized foreign wheat and white flour to set low bread prices, many wheat farmers either sold off lands to developers or switched to better-earning fruits and vegetables.

Since the few small farmers who produce wheat mainly sell their crops to the government for strategic food storage, Jordanian wheat had become impossible to find on the local market.

The rolling windswept hillsides of golden wheat that once extended from central Amman south and westward to the horizon only two decades ago have been replaced by a sea of white concrete apartment buildings, industrial complexes, and an Ikea.

Lost too, say the activists, is a culture of cooperation, sharing, and self-sufficiency tied to harvests, fraying Jordan’s social bonds.

Yet where there is soil, wheat can still thrive. Which is why Ms. Khateeb and Mr. Zureikat approached landowners in Amman and elsewhere last year to convert their unused lots into wheat fields.

They invited Jordanians to learn from veteran wheat growers and participate in the planting and harvest. Businessmen and women, students, and schoolchildren reenact a part of their ancestors’ daily life, learning the motion and songs of the harvest.

Courtesy of Zikra Initiative
Amman’s modern towers loom beyond a wheat field planted by the Al Barakeh wheat project, which seeks to revitalize the market for an ancient local wheat and build food security in Jordan, in the summer of 2021.

Jordanians of a certain age kiss bread that has fallen to the ground and press it to their forehead as if asking for divine forgiveness for being careless with a key life source – a ritual some trace back to the Roman period.

And it is taboo to throw away even stale bread in the kingdom. Instead, it is placed in plastic bags and tied to the edges of trash bins for entrepreneurial Jordanians and sheepherders to collect, dry, and reuse as animal feed.

In a country that relies on foreign aid, the activists say, producing local bread through a project completely funded by the Jordanian people themselves is symbolically important.

“To us, this is about more than reviving local wheat,” says Ms. Khateeb. “This is about regaining our independence as a society. It is a political issue as much as a food sustainability issue.”

Old knowledge

But when they asked local bakers to make a full, 100% local whole-wheat bread, Ms. Khateeb and Mr. Zureikat initially were told “it can’t be done.”

Jordanian wheat is simply too hard, too difficult to make bread with, bakers said. They insisted it had to be blended, in a mix that’s at least half white flour.

“People have become so disconnected from their roots, they no longer know how to cook or bake like their parents or grandparents did a generation ago,” says Mr. Zureikat. “They don’t know how to use what’s on their own land.”

Taylor Luck
Whole-wheat Jordanian bread, made using local wheat, fresh from the oven at the Qabalan Bakery in southwest Amman, Jordan, Sept. 22, 2021.

Instead, the pair learned from village elders, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers who still knew how to make whole-wheat baladi bread, kneading and pounding it into the traditional crepe-thin shrak, the heavy loaflike taboon, and the more modern pita.

The secret recipe? Simplicity.

“It’s just wheat, water, salt, yeast. Everywhere you go in Jordan it is the same recipe. It’s the wheat that makes all the difference,” Mr. Zuriekat says.

And the taste: rich, smooth, with a slightly earthy undertone – fluffy but filling.

Taking the plunge

Deema Salah is one of the converts.

She took part in an Amman harvest. She also happens to be a manager of one of the largest family-owned bakery chains in Jordan. The chain and Zikra decided to team together to mass produce the first 100% whole-wheat Jordanian bread.

“To be honest, it was a big risk for us as a business,” says Ms. Salah as she watches the midday rush for baladi bread.

Her family’s Qabalan Bakery sold white-and-whole-wheat mixtures, but never full Jordanian wheat. With the higher cost of unsubsidized local wheat, it priced five discs of pita bread for $1, the same price as a 2.2-pound bag of all-white-flour pita.

“I was convinced of the importance of showing people: This is local wheat, this is from our ground, this is part of our heritage, this is what our ancestors ate for generations.”

Taylor Luck
Wheat farmer Salah Ghananeem holds up wheat kernels at a mill in Madaba, central Jordan, on Sept. 22, 2021.

After selling out its first batches within hours, Qabalan has ramped up its production to 2,000 bags of baladi bread a day.

Many Jordanians say they are switching to local wheat despite the increased cost.

“We always ate white bread at home, but decided to try this because it’s local,” says Mohammed Rashid. “We can taste the difference; we aren’t turning back.”

Keeping up with demand

The two activists now are crisscrossing the kingdom to process wheat to keep up with demand, working with 18 small farmers and buying up their wheat at prices 25% to 50% higher than government rates.

Not only is the surge in demand keeping these farmers in business, but 13.5% of the proceeds goes back to directly support Jordanian farmers.

It has been welcome relief for Salah Ghananeem.

On his 9-acre farm in central Jordan, he grows wheat that he normally sells to the government.

“The government lowballs us on prices for grains and wheat; only large farms receive agricultural assistance,” Mr. Ghananeem says as he watches sacks of his golden wheat kernels – destined to become baladi bread – pour into a concrete mill near Madaba, central Jordan.

“But if we can sell all our wheat directly to the people, and there is a demand, that is a godsend. It would help us keep our farmlands alive for the next generation.

“When it comes from your own land, it’s not just bread,” he says, scooping up a handful of kernels. “It is a blessing.”

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