02/01/2013 06:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Baking Bread With Social Entrepreneurs: Zikra in the Jordan River Valley

If you want to listen to a funny story about tomatoes and group of hungry hippos, Ernesto Sirolli tells a great one. It's about his days working in an Italian NGO in Zambia and how, after investing a lot of money and hard work in a tomato farm, a group of hippos appeared and ruined everything. The story is as colorful as its teller, but the moral is sobering: if you really want to help people, you have to just shut up and listen.
For some of you, the idea of sitting quiet and listening to another human being may seem natural. In some ways, you're doing that right now. But for other people, especially those with a lot to say, it can be nearly impossible. That's why the business of helping people, now fashionably termed "social entrepreneurship," is one of the toughest in the world. Now before you respond to that, please wait -- I'm not finished talking yet.
During my time in Jordan I've met a lot of patient and compassionate people. Two of them are Rabee and Lama, the team behind the Zikra Initiative. Allow me to set the scene: Jordan, a country with an economy that is highly dependent on agriculture, is also quite resource poor (read: water). The tension between farmer and farmland, between producer and product, is a source of a long list of depressing social issues. I won't list them here because Zikra, as an organization targeting those issues, is quite good at explaining them (check their story).
Luckily for Jordan, Rabee and Lama are what we call "good listeners." In fact their work in Ghor Al Mazra'a, one of Jordan's officially designated poverty pockets, is a product of six years of listening. When a farmer told them that he makes $1 a day growing tomatoes, they listened. When a village woman told them she couldn't afford the electricity needed to power her charity-sponsored housing, they listened. But soon that listening turned into something else.
It soon became apparent that the village life they had learned to view as "poor" and "desperate" was anything but. Farmers had engineered rain collection systems to help irrigate their land more sustainably. Women learned to use every part of the land's produce, down to the olive pit (which are dyed and used to make rosaries). And local culinary traditions were alive and well, with seasonings sourced from sun-drenched valleys filled with herbs and nearby salt flats along the rim of the Dead Sea.
All of a sudden life seemed like one epic farce: while urbanites invested in eco-friendly technologies and paid top dollar for chic recycled homeware and gourmet sea salt, village life chugged along doing nearly the same thing. Except without the hybrid Lexus.
It was a discovery they wanted to share. And so Zikra was born, a sort of cultural exchange tourism venture (though the label far belies the experience) that brings together people from both worlds and attempts to make a lasting impression (the word zikra in Arabic means memory). As an added bonus, the revenues from the trips go to the local farmers and tradesmen and women, helping boost their income from the basic $1 a day.
My experience in Ghor al Mazra'a, though comprising a list of activities that included tomato picking and listening to a reed flute musician, was defined wholly by one thing: shrak.
Shrak is a type of flatbread made of water, flour, and salt and cooked on a round dome-like saj stove. It's often eaten warm, dipped into labaneh and olive oil or wrapped up with meats and cheeses and eaten like a burrito. You have to try it. Once you're introduced to shrak it becomes a part of your daily routine and may take on the starring role in nighttime refrigerator raids. Just don't be surprised if your attempt to reheat the paper-thin bread on an open flame stove results in an event that wakes up your entire household. And don't try, after they've woken up, to explain why the bread tastes better heated on a gas-powered stove than in the toaster. They won't understand.
My one-day baking apprenticeship in Al Ghor took place under the tutelage of Umm Asad, who stretched and flipped the sacred dough with such deft turn of hand I was actually intimidated. It didn't help that, when it was finally my turn to give it a go, she took one look at me, laughed, and said, "Are you sure you know how to work dough? You seem spoiled."
While I prefer not to comment on the level of success I achieved in what followed, I did eventually produce something that resembled shrak: thin, puffy, crackly and hot. We tore off large chunks from the sheets of bread and dunked them into galleyat bandora, a tomato stew made with onion, olive oil, and green chilis. The closest thing I can compare it to is a chunky Italian marina.
As the evening came to a close and Lama and Rabee said goodbye to their friends and business partners from the village, I took one last look at the tomato farm. I wonder how many hippos it would take to eat every last one of them, and how it would feel to discover that they had. Luckily, barring some sort of freak hippo invasion, this farm in Jordan will never have to face that. But they'll have other challenges along the way. Let's just hope that someone will be there to listen.


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For more of Sarah's writing, visit her website.