Izhiman’s – the car is decorated with the company’s logo, based on advertising from that era showing a turban-wearing waiter – à la Cairo’s legendary El Fishawy coffee house in the Khan al-Khalili – serving, of course, coffee. (photo from Izhiman’s)
When the Izhiman family opened its coffee roasting and grinding business in 1921 on Suq Khan a-Zeit (Beit Habad Street), 100 metres inside the Old City’s Damascus Gate, Sir Herbert Samuel had recently arrived as Great Britain’s first high commissioner for Palestine, and Egyptian chanteuse Umm Kulthum was just beginning her illustrious career. Over the last century, the Middle East has changed beyond recognition but Izhiman’s flavourful qahwa – blended from high-quality Arabica beans – has remained a staple for Jerusalem’s coffee aficionados. And, at NIS 48 ($19 Cdn) per kilogram, the cardamom-flavoured finely ground secret mix – which includes Brazilian, Colombian, Guatemalan, Costa Rican and Tanzanian beans – is a bargain.
From that first roaster and grinding shop in the Old City, Izhiman’s has grown to a chain of six stores, with a presence in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem. Besides its signature blend of Arab/Turkish coffee, the Izhiman family-operated chain sells tea, nuts, spices, condiments, chocolate and henna from Thailand, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere. Many of the imports are cheaper than their Israeli counterparts.
“I manage three stores,” said Mazen Izhiman, 63, who started working at the Old City branch in 1976. “My son Mahmoud is the operations manager.”
Mazen points to the various historic photos decorating his shop. One shows an antique car bearing Mandate Palestine licence plate 5111. The vehicle is decorated with the company’s logo, based on advertising from that era showing a turban-wearing waiter – à la Cairo’s legendary El Fishawy coffee house in the Khan al-Khalili – serving, of course, coffee.
Interviewed at the company’s office in Atarot Industrial Park, not far from the now-decommissioned Qalandia Airport, Mahmoud (Mamu) Izhiman, 32, explains the roaster was moved there from Abu Dis in 2014 because of transportation problems in reaching the West Bank suburb. Originally, the roaster was located on Suq Khan a-Zeit, across from the shop that his father manages today. A century ago, the beans were ground by hand, he noted. A few grams of coffee wrapped in a cone made from newspaper were sold in single-serving portions.
While the Izhiman family came to Jerusalem from the Hijaz eight centuries ago, during the time of Saladin to fight the Crusaders, the details of the founding of the business have been lost, said Mahmoud, who studied political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before deciding that the coffee business was more satisfying to him than the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire.
Even the given name of the company’s founder a century ago is in dispute, he said. The family business began splitting apart in 1948, when one brother fled to Amman, Jordan, where he opened a coffee roaster of the same name. Another split occurred in 1994, and a further one in 2008, which resulted in a 2014 lawsuit in the Jerusalem District Court for copyright infringement. Notwithstanding the favourable ruling, family members continue to operate unauthorized Izhiman’s branches across the West Bank and Dubai. Indeed, the website izhiman.com is used by the unlicensed stores, said Mahmoud.
Joining the family business, Mahmoud apprenticed at a 2013 course in Izmir, Turkey, offered by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, and then earned a coffee science certificate from Nouva Simonelli in Ancona, Italy.
“I was the first one in the Middle East to study with the SCAA,” he said.
That expertise led him to experiment roasting different blends, seeking a taste that he calls “balanced and aromatic” with “no acidic bitter aftertaste.” The exact blend is “top secret,” he said.
Having relocated the roaster from Abu Dis, Mahmoud bought an $80,000 machine capable of roasting a 120-kilogram batch of coffee beans in 20 minutes. In 2018, he upgraded to a $110,000, fully automated, 240-kilogram-capacity, Turkish-manufactured roaster with a built-in fire extinguisher. To preserve trade secrets, Mahmoud asked me not to take photos of the roasting machine, which he custom designed. The plant also boasts a high-tech, Chinese-made grinding and filling machine that injects nitrogen into each package before it is sealed to prevent oxidation. Mahmoud’s brother, Abdullah, is the production manager at the Atarot facility.
How much java does Izhiman’s sell? Mahmoud hesitates before answering: “Enough to call us a major coffee factory. We have a presence in every supermarket and grocery in East Jerusalem.”
But Izhiman’s success isn’t limited to providing a caffeine fix for the Arab half of the city. In December, the company opened its first outlet in Jewish Jerusalem. Mahmoud calls the four-square-metre kiosk at the First Station a “pilot.” It sells “macchiato, lokum [pistachio, hazelnut, rose and pomegranate-flavoured Turkish delight], everything,” he enthused. “If you’re afraid to come to the Old City, I’m coming to you.”
As well, Izhiman’s sister company, Coffee Zone, will soon be launching a line of espresso capsules, he added.
Delicious coffee is one of the flavours of co-existence, Mahmoud believes.
With peace on the horizon, foodies may want to visit the Izhiman’s booth at the Gulfood 2021 expo taking place Feb. 21-25 at the Dubai World Trade Centre. Inshallah.
Gil Zohar is a writer and tour guide in Jerusalem.