Gamila Hiar in Peqiin: The field and the herbs were my secret garden.It was an incongruous sight. Among the business and military dignitaries who were honored by Israel as torchbearers marking the beginning of the country’s 58th Independence Day celebrations in May, was a Druze Arab great-grandmother dressed in festive traditional garb.
Gamila Hiar, 68, known widely as ‘Safta Gamila’ – Grandma Gamila — of Peqiin, a small village in the Upper Galilee stood alongside Israeli billionaire Stef Wertheimer, former Southern commander Major General Doron Almog and other notables chosen to usher in the holiday. With the ceremony’s theme “the development of the Negev and Galilee,” each torchbearer was honored for contributing in some way to the communities in northern and southern Israel.
Hiar, specifically, was honored for the example she set for her village and the country at large by establishing a hand-made soap industry that has developed into an international enterprise. Employing twenty-five Christian, Druze, Moslem and Jewish women in her soap factory, Gamila serves as a beacon to her neighbors and her country for actualizing her personal dream of decades, and at the same time has brought modern medicine, feminism and education to her community.
“I felt very proud. Very proud. And very honored to light the torch,” Gamila told ISRAEL21c after the event.
A slight woman dressed simply in a black cotton dress and black, knit stockings with a thin white head covering, Gamila’s stature, warm eyes and endearment-laden talk – “Come sit, Aayouni” (my eyes) – belie her impressive achievements.
Raised in Peqiin adjacent to Safed, Gamila says she was affected by the region’s spirituality. Recognized for hundreds of years as an area where Druze and Jews live peacefully together, Peqiin is notable for its place in Jewish history. The Zohar – the most important book of the Kabbalah – was written by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in an area cave where he hid during the 2nd century to avoid persecution by the Romans.
As a young girl, Gamila spent her days playing in the fields near her house and gathering flowers and herbs. During her youth, conventional doctors were an anomaly – ailments were treated with herbal remedies passed down through generations. “The field and the herbs were my secret garden,” she explains.
Gamila spent forty years gathering herbs, studying their properties and boiling olive oil in her home kitchen in an effort to find the balance between olive oil and healing herbs. Seven years ago she exacted the formula and today she runs a burgeoning soap business selling her goods within Israel and exporting Gamila Soap to high-end retailers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
“My product is unusual and it’s international – now it’s sold in 13 countries. Just last month I was in Portugal and Holland holding press conferences,” Gamila said. “Wherever I go, I always talk about Peqiin and the Galilee. That’s why I was chosen for Israel’s Independence Day, I think. Because through my work, hiring multi-ethnic women and believing in peace, I am doing something for the village and the country.”
Factories in Israel and Rotterdam collectively employ 60 workers and production that began in Gamila’s kitchen – she sold bars wrapped in newspaper – has expanded to a 30,000-unit-per week output over 3 years. The Rotterdam factory was opened as a means of marketing to countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia that otherwise boycott Israel.
“In Rotterdam we market ourselves as ‘Upper Galilee’ soaps,” eldest son Fuad told ISRAEL21c.
Three of Gamila’s five children have a hand in the enterprise – one son works as a chemist, another as marketing manager and Fuad, her eldest, as the company’s managing director. Fuad returned to Peqiin from Holland 5 years ago to help open a factory in Tefen and to oversee with the growing business.
In his late forties, Fuad describes childhood memories of his mother alternately working multi-shift, menial labor jobs picking oranges and cleaning offices and standing over a pot of boiling oil in the kitchen.
“When I was ten, I remember waking up in the morning and seeing her throwing oil in the kitchen. I never knew what she was doing but I knew that I wouldn’t get new shoes or a new outfit because she put her money towards buying expensive olive oils,” he relays.
A former Golani infantry major during Israel’s 1982 Lebanon War and the first Druze to graduate from an Israeli military boarding, Fuad explains why there is no conflict of interests for himself or his brothers in serving in Israel’s military, common among young Druze men.
“Druze belong to a secret sect and religion but we are loyal to Israel. We believe in reincarnation but we don’t believe in politics or borders. It’s a sort of combination of Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism. We are loyal to the place we are born, loyal to the land and hospitable people,” he explains.
According to historical reference, the Druze religion evolved from Islam in the 10th century and Druze adapted a taqiya or “dissimulation”- a practice whereby they conceal their true beliefs and outwardly accept the religious beliefs of those among whom they live even as they secretly retained their true convictions.
Gamila summarizes: “We believe that the apple tree in my garden is not mine. It’s from God. So when I die I’m supposed to not only to share with you but also to give you my prime apple as my guest.”
Her son adds as a caution, “but don’t interfere with my religion.”
Fuad says he is proud of his mother receiving such prestigious public recognition: “She is an example to the village of honor and peace. She advocates for peace between Jews, Moslems, Christians and Druze. Many years ago she was also the first example of feminism in our area. She brought a doctor to the village to speak with women about sex education and gynecology. And she brought math and English teachers. She believed in education,” Fuad says.
On principle, Gamila only employs women in her Peqiin factory.
“Women only, aside from my sons. I believe in advancing women’s causes,” she said.
Gamila says she believes in being instrumental in helping others because she believes in quid pro quo. “I encourage strong women, peace, coexistence and the idea of giving back. If you have something, then you need to help others with your good fortune. It’s a must,” she explains.
Where does she get the perseverance, motivation and inspiration? “It’s in my blood, Aayouni,” Gamila smiles affectionately. “It’s in my blood.”