An Israeli-Druze grandmother entrepreneur Jamila Hiar, 76, from the Druze village of Peki'in—known affectionately as "Grandma Gamila"—is an Israeli phenom.
She has created a wonderful business producing natural soaps made from olive oil and medical herbs, along with a great example of women’s empowerment and intercultural coexistence.
The soaps have become popular for their medicinal properties. Hiar is also the first Druze woman to build her own factory, where she employs hundreds of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druze workers. Her business brings in $50 million in profits and exports to 40 countries.
Hiar, a widow, is also mother to five children, grandmother to 15, and great-grandmother to five. She is proud to be the first Druze mother, whose daughter went to college and received a driver's license.
Gamila takes pride in how Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze women can coexist in Israel. "They all work together under the same slogan—only women can give birth to peace," Hiar said.
In 2006, on Israeli Independence Day, Hiar was honored by her country to light the Torch at the main Independence Day celebration for her efforts to develop the Galilee.
The soaps are popular about the glitterati in Israel and around the world. Some famous fans are Israeli supermodel Bar Rafaeli, pop sensations Justin Timberlake and Rihanna, and top actress Angelina Jolie, according to Fuad Hiar, Jamila‘s eldest son, who runs the company and lives in a nearby village.
Jamila is an iconic grandmother figure, inheritor of her family’s ancient “soap wisdom”, recreating recipes from her grandfathers, and herbs from their gardens around her Galilee village of Peki’in.
For more than 40 years now, Gamila has been making and selling soap – concocted into small bars worth their weight in gold – at about $35 each. Called Gamila’s Secret, about 100,000 of them are shipped every month to 23 countries around the world.
The secrets aren’t in the choice of oils Gamila publicizes widely: Olive, almond, avocado and lavender. They are in the 15 secret herbs and plant extracts native to the Galilee that give the soap its special restorative properties.
She is also known for her support of women’s employment in her traditional society. Today, other than two of her sons, the soap factory in the Tefen Industrial Park employs only women – from the Druze, Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.
But the family wasn’t always busy shipping out thousands of soap bars each month. In the beginning says Fuad (52), who has turned Gamila Secret into an international brand, they used to give the soap away.
While in the army, at a cadet’s college in Haifa, Fuad would bring samples to his army
mates to try it. The soaps, he boasts, were not tested on animals but on his army buddies!
“It’s really 40 years of development,” says Fuad, himself a path breaker in his community. The first Druze to graduate from the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa’s Carmel mountains, he went on to serve in one of the IDF’s most prestigious army units as an officer in the Golani Brigade, where he stayed for seven years.
With no artificial colors or fragrances involved, the soaps are gentle enough for babies, and boast restorative qualities that fight aging and skin diseases like eczema. Because they contain no animal derivatives, the soap is also perfect for vegans, and those looking for kosher and halal products.
The high cost per bar is because the soap is produced with edible oils. Over the past few years she has developed a face oil and cream. “It’s something good, without chemicals. All natural with no preservatives,” says Gamila with satisfaction.
Her best marketing tactic is the product itself and the one slogan she continues to use to promote the soap: “Try it and your skin will smile.”
The Hiars like to tell stories of the people their soaps have cured – such as a Swiss woman who underwent an operation, and two or three years later, the incision had still not healed. "The hospital in Switzerland sent her to the Dead Sea to try to recover," relates Fuad. "Before she went to the Dead Sea, she visited a Tel Aviv lawyer who represents an Australian group that wants to buy the soap. The man melted Jamila's soap in a microwave, spread it on the incision and bandaged it. After five days, it had healed completely. Every such story excites us anew and gives us strength."