Meet Aziz Khatib and Tala Hammash — the young enterprising husband-wife duo behind the UAE-based brand Jenin gaining a reputation for bringing high quality Palestinian products to the UAE market.
The ‘star of the show’ is their olive oil — unfiltered, single-origin, cold-pressed — from hand-picked olives from their family’s groves in Jenin. They also produce za’atar, sumac, sage, freekeh and olives.
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“The product could not be fresher or more ‘farm to table’ than ours. When you’re buying from Jenin you are directly buying from the farmer,” explains Tala about what distinguishes Jenin from other brands.
The brand name signifies the location of the farms and where both Aziz and Tala’s families are from, but it also evokes the ‘Jenin spirit’ of resilience, steadfastness and resistance, as explained by Tala. Jenin is a city in the West Bank that is surrounded by Israeli settlements, mostly deemed illegal under international law. The soil in Jenin is fertile offering a distinctive flavour profile to the produce: mainly olives, tobacco and watermelon. The people are proud of being Palestinian, feel a strong sense of connection to the land and are very protective of it.
A talent management consultant and a project manager respectively, Aziz and Tala are running Jenin as a passion project. One day they hope to grow it enough to be their full-time business.
While Aziz’s family has been importing olive oil and other products from their farms and selling to customers in the UAE for over 30 years, it was mainly a side business selling to other Palestinian families. In recent years, Aziz wanted to apply his skills from the corporate sector to the family business and develop it into a brand reaching a broader customer base. Jenin was, thus, born in October 2020.
Since its launch, the business has grown organically. According to Aziz, “At first I was just selling to my friends, then friends of friends, and then it was a domino effect. Through referrals, we got invited to farmers’ markets and events; and from there we started doing gift baskets and corporate gifting. Now even a Michelin-starred restaurant in Dubai is using our products in innovative ways in their menu.”
Tala adds, “We’ve built a little community around the brand over time and it brings us great joy to share our products with people and help them understand what the products are. In fact, we have not spent anything on marketing. The business has been growing purely by word-of-mouth and we’re proud of that because it speaks to the quality of the products.”
According to Aziz and Tala, more and more people in the UAE are interested in discovering good quality ingredients, whether it is Italian cheese or great coffee, and want to understand their provenance. Tala says, “We (Palestinians) also have really amazing products and we are on a mission to help people understand them, know how to use them, and really cherish them”.
Jenin runs guided culinary experiences during events where people can try the products and ask questions, for example: what sumac is, how za’atar is made or how to cook freekeh.
Tala explains, “We get people to try the olive oil, help them understand what to look for, differentiate between different olive oils, distinguish the flavour notes — the land, the soil it comes from impacts the flavour, the level of acidity and the colour. The soil in Jenin is very distinct and lends a particular bold flavour to the oil.”
Due to the strong flavour, olive oil is great for light cooking and for drizzling over salads and even over good quality vanilla ice cream. “Another great pairing is to dip dates in our olive oil and when we get people to try them at the markets, we get the most amazing reactions!”
Olives are harvested in October and November in Palestine. The majority of the harvest is pressed in the West Bank around the town of Jenin where most of the olive oil presses are located.
Aziz explains that olive harvest mainly happens after the first rainfall in October which washes away the dust and dirt from the olives. For a week or two, the entire extended family drops everything and comes together to collect the olives and harvest the land. Families also hire extra help, as needed. Straight after picking, within two to three hours, the olives are sent to an olive press where the oil, the liquid gold, is extracted. From that point, within 10 to 15 days, the oil is shipped to the UAE.
For the co-founders, it is important to use the brand as a way of raising awareness about Palestine. “Here in the UAE, we have people from all over the world and through the brand they get to learn about Palestine,” says Aziz. “It is important for us to represent our food, culture and traditions. People resist in their own ways and one way of doing it is by preserving our heritage. By participating in markets and events, we reach people who might not know much about Palestine and as they try our products, they come to love them and want to know more about the farms and what’s happening in Palestine. With each passing year, it is getting harder and harder for Palestinian farmers to continue farming their lands.”
The olive tree, of course, is a very important symbol of Palestinian roots and attachment to the land. An olive tree continues to bear fruit for over a thousand years, making it a fitting symbol of Palestinian resistance and resilience. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish famously said, “If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears”.
Tala adds, “The world is celebrating Palestinian culture and resistance more and more. Everyone is now thinking critically of how they can support Palestine, its cause and Palestinian businesses. Despite the pain we are seeing and experiencing everyday, there is a massive awakening happening.”
“From last year we started streamlining our operations, focused on our customer database, and launched the gift baskets and corporate gifts,” says Tala. “We got invited to more events, including private events. Our B2C (business to customer) side has grown significantly. We now want to grow the B2B (business to business) side more, focus on marketing and launch an e-commerce website.”
As more people become aware of the power of their spending, they are choosing to support local, sustainable and socially-responsible businesses, and that is great news for a business like Jenin.
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