Journey to the Holy Land – Day 12

November 4, 2010

I had a very exciting morning today—while you were all snug in your beds sleeping!  I went to the Aseela Women’s Cooperative (refer to my October 30 posting) to gather information about the organization, find out how and why it was started, and to observe the process they use in making the olive oil skincare products.

Rania accompanied me and after we climbed to the 5th floor of the building, we were ready for a cup of Turkish coffee and a rest which was graciously provided by Wafa Khatib, Co-founder and Operations Manager.  She explained the history of the organization and how she became involved.

By profession she is a nurse and for seven years she worked in a hospital in Jerusalem.  Then, in 1992, it became very difficult for Palestinians to cross the border from the West Bank into Jerusalem to work and so she had to leave that job.  She stayed home in Bethlehem for one year without employment and then decided to do something positive for herself and other women like her who had no means of income.

Wafa met Shirabe Yamada while they were both doing volunteer work at t he Ibda Cultural Center.  Together they came up with the idea of forming a women’s cooperative and producing skincare products made from olive oil.  They found eleven other women who were interested in investing a small amount of money to get the ball rolling, and off they went.  You know, you can’t stop a group of women when they set their minds to getting something done.  They are a force not to be reckoned with!

They visited various businesses that were producing different types of olive oil soap to observe their practices.  Then, they went home and decided that they could produce a better product by using a different process. 

Through much trial and error, they eventually designed a machine in which they could mix the cold-pressed olive oil, water and caustic soda and then heat it to a point where the olive oil and water mixture would rise to the top, leaving the caustic soda at the bottom.  They then skim the top product and begin the process of turning it into soap by pouring it into a large square mold, allowing it to sit to harden, and then cutting it into bars and shaving off any imperfections. 

The ladies not only designed the machine for heating, they also designed a mechanism to cut the soap evenly by using two pieces of wood with heavy fish line cord tied between the pieces of wood at equal intervals.  This allows them to move the large piece of soap through this cutting apparatus to form identical sizes of the product.

Chamomile and Thyme are two herbs that are added to some of the soaps while other products just have the natural scent of the olive oil.  No matter which product you use your skin will look and feel smooth and radiant. 

Some of the challenges the women faced when starting the cooperative were getting the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Commerce to approve and stamp the registration papers.  Since this process seemed to be taking longer than the women were willing to wait (can’t hold at bay a group of women with a good idea), they began to produce and sell the product.  Eventually, when the two approval bodies realized what they were doing, they stamped the papers.

The advantages of forming a cooperative are that they do not pay any taxes on the sale of their products, and the profits are turned back to the women who founded the cooperative.  The disadvantage is that it is difficult to export their product because they are not registered as a ‘company’ that pays taxes!  Still they have found ways to ship their products to certain countries and they do so under the Fair Trade Emblem of the Fair Trade Development Center of Bethlehem University and Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

Because Palestinians who do not have either working papers or a permit to enter Jerusalem are not permitted to cross the border, Aseela cannot personally bring their products to sell in Jerusalem, particularly at the Sunbula Annual Holiday Bazaar.  The purpose of the bazaar is to provide an additional opportunity for charitable organizations and self-help groups to market their goods and to support their members in this time of economic uncertainty.  However, Sunbula has connections with the many women-run businesses in Palestine and brings those products to Jerusalem to sell in the Bazaar and in its store. 

Wafa said that her dream is to one day bring the business to a store front on Star Street instead of the building where it is now located.  She hopes to see Star Street redeveloped into a thriving economic ‘avenue’ some day.

At 4 p.m. I left Bethlehem with a driver who was hired to take me to Birzeit which, as the crow flies, is about 30 km from Bethlehem.  Unfortunately, they did not ask the crow how he was going to fly and so did not build the roads in an easy-to-traverse manner.  It is a much longer trip if it has to be made driving only on Palestinian roads.  The trip is much shorter if it can be driven on some Israeli roads but Palestinians are forbidden to drive there.  We not only got into rush hour traffic in Ayzariyah which slowed us to a crawl for at least 30 minutes but also had the disadvantage of driving at the beginning of the weekend (Thursday) for most Palestinians.  In addition, there are often Israeli checkpoints that slow traffic down for long periods of time.  Ordinarily, we would have driven through Ramallah which is the shortest route to Birzeit but when we reached the point of turning, the traffic was so congested that my driver took an alternate route.  We arrived in Birzeit at 6 p.m.  I’m not even going to go into the driving habits of many Palestinians other than to say “one hand on the wheel and one hand on the horn!”  There are no traffic lights or stop signs, there are a few round-abouts, and the rule everywhere else is “if you want to reach your destination, GO!”

I was able to attend the annual Maftoul Festival which was being held in the courtyard of the church where I am staying.  This is an event that attracts Muslims and Christians alike who live very well together in this community.  In English, maftoul would mean couscous and anyone who wishes to participate in the culinary event is invited to prepare a dish using maftoul.  Famous chefs from the local area as well as Bethlehem and Ramallah judge the entries and name three winners who receive 1000 shekels for 1st prize, 750 for 2nd place and 500 for 3rd place.  The entertainment for the evening was a local singer who has recorded many of the old Palestinian songs.  After the judging, we all shared in the wonderful fare.

Exhausted from my long day, I retired at 10 p.m.

Published in: on November 6, 2010 at 9:45 am  Leave a Comment  

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