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Ibrahim El-Salahi Pain Relief at The Saatchi Gallery, London

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Above, a blindfolded camel powers a traditional sesame oil press on the outskirts of Khartoum. Below, screenshot of the silky froth of recently pressed sesame oil from the brief video dedicated to this ancient craft, embedded and annotated in this post). Sesame oil produced in this way is known as Simsim al-Walad and is prized throughout Sudan and beyond for its purity, taste, nutritional and medicinal qualities.

Journeying along ancient trade routes from India to Mesopotamia more than two millennia ago, sesame was to become integral to life in the Islamic world, where sesame oil was initially used for lighting lamps and accepted as payment of zakat. (The Power and Delight of Sesame Seeds).

“Once the donkey eats all the sesame/ What is there left for us to draw our lamp-oil?” Rumi, as quoted in Sesame:The genus Sesamum, edited by Dorothea Bedigian

You are welcome to reproduce any of my photos of the sesame press, referencing this blog.

Above, the seed pod and flowers of the sesame plant. The “Open Sesame” of Antoine’ Galland’s Les mille et une nuits, has numerous etymologies. Some believe it refers to the sesame plant and invokes the unlocking of treasures – as the sesame seed pod bursts open on maturity to reveal its oil-rich seeds, while others claim Talmudic or Babylonian origins. The title,“Sesame and Lilies”, of Ruskin’s series of lectures on Victorian education and conduct, is said to refer to the treasures of knowledge and wisdom conserved in books and libraries.

The Camel and the Sesame Seed; Ustez Adam Hussain and his Sesame Oil Press

Setting the Scene

Queen of Oilseeds yet Orphan Crop Al-Walad Sesame Oil

Queen of Oilseeds yet Orphan Crop”

Left, sesame seed pods (photo, Wikicommons). Often described as a “survivor crop”, sesame is drought-resilient, requiring substantially less water than both cotton and sorghum and can be grown by subsistence farmers on semi-desert terrain. Grown in the “clay plains of central and eastern Sudan”, planting takes place mid-July, with a harvest season of 85 days. In 2015, Sudan was second largest exporter of sesame seeds, after India. Most Sudanese sesame is grown in North Kordofan and Gedarif.

In her essay, Paradox of Sesame: Queen of Oilseeds yet Orphan Crop, Bedigian reminds us of the harsh truth that despite its lucrative nutritional and industrial uses, sesame remains the crop of “the world’s exploited, forgotten ignored and rejected”.

Research on sesame lacks funding support worldwide…The danger is that with habitat loss and genetic erosion, out-migration from rural areas to urban, adoption of “new crops” and meteoric modernization, subsistence cultivators and their agricultural practices are rapidly disappearing”. (Sesame: The genus Sesamum, p 25).

Sudan has managed to sustain its sesame seed export industry despite famine, civil war, secession, and trade sanctions. It’s an impressive story of resilience and adaptability to unfavorable weather conditions, but the country’s yields have remained well below the global average, and are only a fraction of the Sub-Saharan average.”

……..”there are craftsmen who are specialized in cutting the wood and shaping the tools that are used in the industry…..He said the mahogany comes from southern areas of the country….., the poles and the trunk of the mahogany trees last between 5 to 6 months after which they have to be replaced with new ones”.

The Story of the Blindfolded Camel

Simsim al-Walad; Al-Walad Sesame Oil

Right, the central pestle of the press, known as the “walad” or child “of the huge trunk which contains the sesame seeds”. Zeyt al-Walad – the umbrella term for sesame oil produced in this way – “is light and yellow in color. It has no sour taste and can stay intact for over two years without change or alternation in taste. It differs from the oil produced in factories, as it is lighter and free of any impurities. The factory oil is usually greenish and contains impurities because of the leaves that are sometimes ground with the seeds, giving it a sour taste and is quickly perishable. The oil is used to treat chest infection, coughing, sneezing, joint pains as well as orthopedic pain, and malaria when consumed and anointed on the infected part.” See the video below for more on zeyt al-walad.

The Story of the Blindfolded Camel

Below, sesame oil pressing in AL-Burgeig, Northern Province in the mid 1980s.

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The Camel and the Sesame Seed; Ustez Adam Hussain and his Sesame Oil Press

You can watch the short Sudanese Arabic video report here, followed by a detailed summary of the interview below. If you are interested in studying an Arabic text on this fascinating topic, you might enjoy the transcription and notes of a shorter, 4-minute report in

The Sesame Oil Press

Ustez Adam Hussain and his Sesame Oil Press; Summary of the Interview and Transcription

The softly spoken and modest Adam Hussain of the Thawrah district of Omdurman begins by explaining the six or seven elements key to the traditional pressing mechanism. There is the central a’Sarah beam/stick and the Hawaam framework that revolves around it, the mortar-like vessel bearing the sesame seeds, its pestle-like “walad” and the curved beam or “goos” above it. See more mechanical details in The Sesame Oil Press. Adam tells us that these traditional presses are a rare sight in the capital and Northern Province in general but common in North Kordofan and Gedarif. While electric motors could and indeed have replaced the camel, Adam insists on remaining loyal to this ancient technology, bringing it to the capital so that it can be seen in action by future generations and not just studied in books. The presenter comments that this is the first time he has seen a working wooden sesame press.

The residues of the pressed sesame seeds, known as ‘alaf. Adam explains, are sought after as fodder, especially for sheep and goats, both to fatten and to increase milk production.

Right, the pressing residues, known also as umbaaz, pulp)

Cool air is good for both the animal laboring the mill and the worker attending to it. It is also essential that the camel should start work at the small hours of the day, for an hour and a half, and then its eyes will be unfolded, to allow for a break, a siesta. Then it takes up its work for two rounds up to midday when it takes a longer break, as the sun cools down. It resumes the work for yet two rounds before sun set.” Hajj Hassan explains.

The Story of the Blindfolded Camel

Camels will eat anything and in the capital they are fed bean husks, sesame residues and red sorghum. In terms of the age, type and temperament of the ideal oil press camel, Adam explains that finding a camel which is young, biddable and obedient and not what the nomadic camel tribes class as “Jamal Sa’ab” – difficult – is key. Four and six-year old camels, strong and resilient enough to bear the work well, are best. As the camel puts on weight with the strenuous work, it is replaced after a time and fattened for sale, bringing extra benefit to Adam. Its younger, leaner substitute is then fattened and sold in its turn. The camels are blindfolded primarily so they remain calm, are not distracted by passing cars and people and walk straight – “when blindfolded, they think they are walking straight ahead and don’t get dizzy”. This way they can work up to six hours consecutively.

Depending on the quality of the press, its capacity and the amount of sesame seeds used, pressing can take as little as an hour, an hour and a quarter or an hour and a half for one and half to two kilos of seed. You can’t just use any sesame seed. Gadarif sesame, Adam claims, has little flavour when pressed for oil and is used more for tahini etc. Adam says it is no good for what he needs; it is the red Kordofani sesame which gives the best oil and has an excellent flavour.

Adam goes on to explain the term “zeyt al-walad”. While in general, it describes any traditionally produced sesame oil, not many know that it also refers to the very special oil produced at the end of the pressing. No more than a cupful is produced at a time and it is finer in flavour than the oil that came before it. Adam describes it as ressembling the pleasant-tasting burnt milk (laban muganan) served in breakfast tea. Customers who know about it can buy the pure zeyt al-walad but it is, of course, more expensive than the other oil produced. In response to the presenter’s surprise that water is added in the process, Adam explains that as in all things, a little water is necessary. A carefully controlled quantity of water is added during pressing to ensure the sesame seeds bind together but too much water will spoil the taste. In contrast to factory-pressed sesame oil, zeyt al-walad is free of preservatives, additives and only passes through wooden components. This gives it a different and unique taste and is ideal as a treatment for stomach ailments and massage.

Below, tea with laban muganan

The seeds are pressed in two layers; “the clean, light coloured upper one……and the lower layer producing the al-walad oil – cloudy, dark colour and with a strong flavour”. (Composition and Stability of Traditional Processes Sesame Oil, Mario, Idris, Osman)

Below, transcript of the video. I am indebted to Muna Zaki for this text and all her kindness and guidance in deciphering the interview.

This is a cultural post for

Women’s Education Partnership

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