Next time you’re cursing the traffic on your commute, or things that are getting in the way of you achieving something you’ve set your heart on, or a bully at work… think of Nawal Slemiah, the woman who built up a thriving handicraft business and community organisation against all the odds in Israeli occupied Hebron.
Last night, the diminutive Palestinian woman stood beside the lectern in Lady Margaret Hall College, Oxford (she would not have been visible behind it), and – without slides or notes – she spoke for 45 riveting minutes about how she built up Women in Hebron, from nothing in the divided city.
She described her first trip to Hebron from her village – a trip that would take 15 minutes if not for the roadblocks. She’d been surprised to learn that a woman she met earlier lived in the Palestinian part of the city (which had been divided by occupying Israeli forces in 1995). She didn’t know anyone lived in the ghost town anymore.
So she decided to go there and try her luck at selling her traditional embroidery – that her mother had taught her how to make. Her university education had been interrupted, and she had no other form of income. She described standing outside the mosque holding out a few pieces of her work.
A man approached her and said “Instead of standing there looking like you are begging, come with me and I’ll give you a shop to sell from”. Nawal didn’t hesitate. She followed the stranger and her trust paid off. He was trying to encourage people to come back to the Palestinian part of Hebron and repopulate the deserted shops.
Years of determination, hard work, courage and intricately, beautifully embroidered pieces later and Nawal was sitting in her shop with a group of women – some widowed, some whose husbands had been incarcerated – who could now make a living selling their handicrafts, mainly to the foreign visitors who come to bear witness to the occupation.
Nawal described how she and her friends were talking and laughing, when an Israeli soldier came in and demanded to know what she was laughing about. Nawal was furious and stood up to him. “Don’t you know that I can just arrest you? Or kill you?” he said. She refused to back down and eventually he left. Standing up to bullies often pays off. After years of similar incidents, the shop is now largely left in peace.
But Nawal and her family and neighbours still live in a country characterized by conflict. Her nine year old daughter is terrified of the guns and Nawal is glad that she hasn’t got used to them. And it is against this background that she and 150 other women produce their beautiful wares and have set up a community centre where they can meet and support each other.
The Women in Hebron website says “Our work is based on the idea that developing Palestinian handicrafts is more than just an income-generating project. It is in of itself an act of community-strengthening, of honoring the role of women in our society, and a means to show sumud – steadfastness – in the face of the occupation of Palestine and the harm it has done to the people of Hebron”.
Nawal’s story reminded us that business is so much more than profit generation; business is about exchanging ideas and goodwill as much as about exchanging goods and money. It’s about building community rather than building empires. Every business is a form of community – a community of suppliers, traders, and customers.
Nawal proudly tells us that Women in Hebron is now a World Fair Trade Organisation certified producer. She has high hopes to sell more of their products in shops in the UK and elsewhere. And I know by now that if Nawal puts her mind to something – it will happen. This woman really can do anything.