Interview With A Female Entrepreneur In Hebron’s Casbah

If someone tells you that economic desperation and “occupation” lead to Palestinian terrorism, then tell them about Laila and her sister, Nawal. Their story, and other similar stories from around the world, show that resourceful people find ways to better their lives and suggest that you look elsewhere for your explanation of what causes terrorism on the part of the Arabs who now call themselves Palestinians.

Nawal started what became a women’s cooperative, currently providing a source of income for about 150 Arab families in the Hebron area.

I met up with Laila in the co-op store in the Casbah of Hebron. Smiling and chatty, she makes friends very easily. Her English is quite good, but not long ago, she did not speak it at all. Her story is the kind that makes you happy and makes you want to sit with her for hours. Apparently, foreign volunteers who spend time in Hebron agree with me, as two young Europeans who seem to know her well joined us in conversation.

Laila and Nawal are from Idna, a town southwest of Hebron, about 12 km as the crow flies, and about a twenty-minute drive.

Laila had been working in Jerusalem to support her family after her husband lost his job. Her sister was not lucky that way. In order not to let the family starve, Nawal gathered up some hand-embroidered products she had made and set them out on the sidewalk in front of the Moslem entrance to the Cave of the Patriarchs.

The police told her to move from there because she cannot sell on the street, and when she told the police officer why she was there, he told her to move to a place in the Casbah, to be where all the other shops were. Nawal set up a small table in front of a shop that had been closed. Laila explained:

After 2001, most people had left from here; the Casbah was empty. The people moved from here and they are not using the shops anymore.

Laila went on to tell me about how Nawal was a strange sight, at first, for the local people.

It was strange for people to see a woman in the streets. In the beginning she told me, “It is very hard for me. When I am sitting on the chair behind the table, people can give me bread or something. They thought I was a beggar on the street and they start to give to help me. And they would ask me: are you married? do you have a husband? where is your husband? are you divorced? Hundreds of questions. And I had to answer.”

Answering their questions allowed the local people to grow familiar with Nawal. People had to pass her table on the way to the mosque to pray and women who passed would ask her if she needed help and they would bring embroidered goods from their homes. In that way, they started the cooperative, with just a few women selling their products.

At one point, Laila lost her job in Jerusalem and Nawal invited her to join her in this new venture.

But I feel very scared at that time, scared to come to this area because I lived in a village and it’s a very big different situation there and here in Hebron . . . surrounded by problems and I didn’t want to put myself in danger or something like this. Then I tell her: “I’m sorry. I’m scared to come there to help you.” But she said that it’s work and you can help your family and your children. In the beginning I cannot speak English.

Laila wondered what she could do to help since she did not know any English and you have to talk with potential customers. She finally agreed to help keep the shop clean. But then, Nawal left her alone in the shop, saying she had to go somewhere and could Laila look after the shop:

saying she’d be gone for 2 hours or 3 hours, something like this. I was scared in the beginning. I feel shy to be with the shopkeepers here and I am the only female. I still remember how they were looking at me in the beginning. Still now, but now I don’t care! Really, I don’t care.

Nawal let Laila learn English and shop management by the sink-or-swim method. She knew her sister well enough to know that Laila would not sink.

Currently there are 150 women working in the cooperative; the workshop is situated in their hometown, Idna and women come from surrounding villages to work with them. Nawal takes care of the cooperative side of the business, leaving the Hebron shop in Laila’s capable hands.

The women get paid when their products are sold. Some work every day and others more infrequently. Sales are not only through the shop in Hebron, but also online. People in Europe and Qatar have purchased their handmade goods. Business is uneven and they have had difficulties paying all their expenses (rent, electricity, wifi, etc) since 2015. Their credit is good, however, and they manage. They also get support from foreign organizations.

I went back to asking Laila about her English and how she learned only by selling to customers.

My dream to be English teacher, but my father he forces me to marry – why? because he left us and wanted to finish from us and he forces me to marry.

She was 17 at that time.

Nawal and Laila can be proud of what they have created. I am holding their business card and it is made with heavy, quality paper and makes a good impression. In creating the Idna Cooperative, they have done what women in economically stressed areas have done for ages: make use of the skills they learned to make things for their homes and to wear, to produce marketable products for people from around the world who value authentic handicrafts from places they visit or wish they could visit.

They have a video on their website, a video that tells the story of their cooperative. At one point, they show a map made by embroidery on fabric. Here is a screenshot:

Women in Hebron - Israel map
Screenshot from video on Women in Hebron website.

You may notice that “Palestine” is not just the West Bank and Gaza, but includes all of the State of Israel as well. During our conversation, Laila declared that she never considered responding to the “occupation” by violent means.

After all, even if you kill one soldier, there are still 7 million more to contend with.

Finally, Laila mentioned that she has no objection to Israel declaring sovereignty over the entire region and she will willingly accept Israeli citizenship. I guess that is what the embroidered map means. (wink, wink)

This article was originally published on Israel Diaries.

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