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How a Man's Love for Thyme Changed the Herb's Prosperity in Lebanon

13 July, 2017
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 Mohammad Ali Neimeh, better known as Abu Kassem, is a man in love with a wild herb.

“I never knew what adoration meant until I discovered thyme,” says Abu Kassem in a recently released short documentary by filmmaker Nay Aoun titled “For the Love of Thyme”.

“I knew love,” he continues, speaking of his devotion to his wife. But with thyme, a key component of the za'atar family, Abu Kassem “discovered the difference between adoration and love”.

The 6-minute long film features a story of passion between Abu Kassem and the wild herb that grows rampantly across the Levant. Abu Kassem’s bond with nature is the film’s sole focus as it depicts his relationship with thyme and how he cultivated the wild herb under the threat of war. 

“I came across Abu Kassem by reading a tourist’s blog post who had visited South Lebanon and discovered Abu Kassem’s zaatar farm,” Aoun told BECAUSE. “I enjoyed reading about the relationship Abu Kassem had developed with za’atar, and felt I needed to explore his story further and get to know him. It was a spontaneous calling.” 

Aoun has developed a passion for developing short films inspired by non-fictional characters in Lebanon. She was inspired by her late grandmother, Nelly, who passed away in November. “She was the most wonderful lady, and she meant a lot to me and my family. Shortly after her passing, I decided to make a short film from her village Qsaibeh in Mount Lebanon as a dedication to her. That was my first film on Lebanese culture and heritage.” 

“Keeping it in the family: 100 Years of Dibs Kharroub” is about a family that has been making Dibs Kharroub (Carob Molasses) for over 100 years. “I spent a couple of hours for a few days with this family, and felt very moved by their kindness, love for their village and their dedication to their craft, but it also made me sad to think that these traditions might die if they are not passed on to the next generations,” Aoun explained.

After her short film received positive feedback online, Aoun decided that she wanted to continue meeting inspiring people from across Lebanon and tell their stories, which led her to Abu Kassem.

“I just let the story unfold through our conversations together and spending time with him,” she said of Abu Kassem. “He is an incredible man who planted a wild seed; it grew and blossomed because of his commitment and dedication to the relationship between him and the land, because of his love and his respect for nature.”

For the majority of his life in South Lebanon, Abu Kassem worked in construction. But when work slowed down in the summer months, he sold wild thyme he collected from the fields. But his world changed when war came knocking at the door.

“In 2000, we became a frontline region with Israel,” he explains in the film. “When we went to collect thyme from the fields, we were exposed to sniping and shelling by the Israelis. With no jobs this was the only extra income we had, and it was provided to us by God. The occupation denied us this income.”

Abu Kassem goes on to talk about the difficulty of life in South Lebanon, amid civil strife and conflict. Despite the hardship he and his family faced, Abu Kassem became inspired by the wild herb as it provided hope. Because it protected him from destitution, he sought to protect it in return. Abu Kassem wanted to create a thyme nursey in order to safeguard the herb’s ability to grow, shielding it from Israeli gunfire and mounting construction projects.  

“Lands are being subjected to other attacks: an invasion of construction, asphalt and concrete are eroding the earth,” he explains. “If today our government does not start protecting thyme the land in 2020 will have no wild thyme at all. There is no protection.”

However, Abu Kassem’s idea to cultivate thyme was met with laughter and criticism. “[People] would say ‘What are you talking about? Thyme only grows naturally in the wild’. So, I would say: ‘Okay, thyme grows in the wild, but why not evolve the idea’.”

Unwilling to give up on his idea, he pushed forward, and soon he was able to discover thyme’s secrets. “I kept monitoring the seeds two to three times a day. Like a baby waiting for his mother to come home and breastfeed him. When I saw the seeds that I planted sprout up and I had a thyme plant, I cannot describe my joy. No one knew that a wild plant like thyme could be planted in a nursery.”

“The thyme plant is a tradition in Lebanon’s history,” says Abu Kassem. “We started with one plant 20 years ago, and now we have over 1.2 million plants.”

For Aoun, “For the Love of Thyme” carries a message of possibility and teaches that one should dream the impossible. “An important message of his is our relationship to nature. Abu Kassem is playing his part, creating positive ripples,” she contined.

By conquering the wild, Abu Kassem was able to change how thyme is grown in Lebanon, and show that anything is possible.

Abu Kassem is clearly smitten by thyme, and the film captures the wonder of his relationship with the earth. “I discover something new from thyme every day. It talks to me and I understand its language. When I pass by a thyme plant and sit next to it, from its movement in the wind I understand what she is telling me.”

“I’ve been socializing with thyme for twenty years,” he said. “It gave a lot. I can’t begin to tell you how much.”

Watch the full documentary below, and take a look at Aoun's other short films by visiting her Vimeo page.

Tags Lebanon thyme Environment documentary