An unconventional Beduin entrepreneur

Meet Miriam Abu-Raki'ek, who defied Beduin tradition by refusing to marry, then established a cosmetics company based on tribal knowledge of desert herbs

September 25, 2007 06:30
beduin women 88 224

beduin women 88 224. (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)


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In creating her "Daughter of the Desert" cosmetic firm, Miriam Abu-Raki'ek, a Beduin woman from Tel Sheva, didn't intentionally follow the footsteps of Jewish cosmetician Helena Rubinstein - but their lives have interesting parallels. Known for decades as "the first lady of beauty," Krakow-born Rubinstein (1870-1965) emigrated to Australia in 1888 with no resources other than 12 jars of skin cream she'd concocted out of herbs, almonds and the extract of an evergreen tree. The oldest of eight girls, Rubinstein rejected a suitor in favor of starting her own cosmetics firm. Just 18 when she arrived in Australia, she was quick to see how harsh outback conditions were on women's skin, and began selling her home-made creams and lotions to neighbors. By 1891, she'd repaid a $1,500 loan and opened a small salon in Melbourne. In the beginning, she did everything herself - she painted the salon walls, mopped the floors, kept the books and designed her own logo, all in addition to demonstrating and selling the products herself. Helena Rubinstein made history. When she passed away at age 94, she was one of the world's wealthiest women. In starting her business, 'Miriam,' as Abu-Raki'ek, 35, prefers to be called, did everything Rubinstein did, except she goes even further: She personally goes into the Negev to grow and gather most of the herbs she needs for her "Daughter of the Desert" line. Her cosmetic formulas originated with her grandmother. "My grandmother, Watfa, was actually quite a famous healer in her day," says Abu-Raki'ek. "I didn't know about her reputation until I discovered some articles written about her on the Internet. My uncle started a business using camel milk to make soaps, and my grandmother worked too, making herb creams and lotions. My uncle eventually quit the business, but I started, and continued making the soap. I've been collecting my grandmother's recipes from my aunts and uncles, and anyone who remembers. She passed away three years ago, and I'm sorry I didn't have a chance to ask her more questions. It's very sad - as our elders pass away, we're losing so much wisdom and knowledge." Like Rubinstein, Abu-Raki'ek comes from a large family. "My father is married to two women - my mother has 13 children, I'm the second oldest. His other wife has five children. All of this really came about because my father used to raise and trade horses. In the course of business, our family became friends with a woman from England, and ultimately I was able to go to England to study. I lived near Manchester for three years, studied marketing, and received my certificate." To describe Abu-Raki'ek's life as a single woman entrepreneur as "untraditional" would be an understatement. "It's been very difficult with my family," she says, acknowledging the pain on all sides. "Even before I went to England, I had to deal with the issue of marriage. My father was very good, in that he funded my studies. But when I came home, he insisted that I marry, and I didn't want to do that. I refused. Since I couldn't do what he wanted, to me that meant I couldn't take money from him, either. I still live with my parents, but right after England I started working to be able to pay for whatever I needed. I did all kinds of work - translating, selling Avon products, working in people's homes. But all the while, the pressure on me to marry was increasing. All I could do was say, 'I'm here. I'm standing on my own. I can't do what you want me to do, but I won't ask you for money, either.'" It wasn't just marriage that was at issue, but rather an arranged marriage. "It wasn't any particular man I objected to, it's that my father wants me to marry within the family, within our tribe. I don't want an arranged marriage. We had terrible disagreements, but the way I saw it, I'd gone to England. I'd studied. I had my education. I wanted to start my own business - and I wanted to pick my own husband, too. But my family was very opposed. I can't even tell you how opposed." The stalemate resulted in her basically blanking out 10 years of her life. "It was a horrible time, very difficult. I stayed home most of the time, inside my parents' house at Tel Sheva. In the beginning I couldn't do anything, but as the years passed, I gradually began to develop myself, to learn what was really important to me, and what I wanted. Now, I thank God for that time. Some people need just a year to find themselves, but for me, it took much longer." As time passed, Abu-Raki'ek's goals became more concrete. "I knew I wanted my own business, to make my own money. But it wasn't just that. I also wanted to do something that would help others - and it had to be something that would benefit the environment. I thought a lot about the Beduin, watching everything that was going on around me. Everything about our culture is being lost - we used to eat only natural foods, but now we eat junk food. And what's happening? Today Beduin have even more problems with diabetes and high blood pressure than other Israelis. All of this concerned me, not just because it affected Beduin, but everyone. We aren't thinking. We're all losing the good health we once had." Tel Sheva's government-recognized Beduin village lies five kilometers northeast of Beersheba with the Negev just out the door. "I spent a lot of time thinking about all these things, looking to my roots, walking in the desert. At the same time, I was also exploring on the Internet, learning everything I could about natural, organic things. Then the community center (matnas) in Tel Sheva offered a course in public relations, and after that I really got started. I took my knowledge - everything I'd learned in the years of quiet - and began working within our own traditions, making organic cosmetics, my own products. I started with the cream my mother used. Her directions to make it were vague - 'you take this and some of that' - so I started there, and made up a cream. I tested it on myself, adjusted it, and kept records of everything. About three years ago, I began asking friends and relatives to try some of my preparations. I noted everything they said they liked, and all the things they didn't like. I'm constantly working with the formulas, improving them. None of my preparations are completely original. They're all based on our traditional knowledge, but refined by me as I made them my own. I wanted products that all kinds of women would like." Of course the potions don't begin as creams or lotions. They begin in the desert. "I wanted completely organic plants for my cosmetics," Abu-Raki'ek says, "so I had to be careful. I went out into the desert and found a good clean place to gather what I needed. The organic authorities came to check, approved it, and I began. I'd go out every morning at 5 a.m. and start collecting. It took a very long time to gather everything I needed, but every day I'd pick, and bring it back to my store. My brother allowed me to use a building he'd used as a garage. I cleaned it out, painted, furnished it, and now I use the back rooms for work and storage, and the front room for sales and classes. Now I have a farm, too, a place where I grow exactly what I need. Through the Ministry of Tourism, I'm able to invite groups of people on tours of the herb farm, showing them the organic garden with plants only from the Negev - beautiful herbs you'll never see anywhere else. People come to tour, drink tea, hear my story and learn about my products, too." As with any start-up, finances were an issue. "I haven't taken anything from the Beduin," she says. "That wouldn't be right. But I did receive a small business grant from the government, which was enough to pay for a few basics. I bought supplies, furnished the store, and finally bought a large commercial mixer so I can blend 50 kilos of my camel's milk soap at one time. Before that, I used a kitchen blender. It took a very long time." "Daughter of the Desert" products - soap, creams, lotions and oils for the face, body and feet - are attracting attention, both locally and across the country, and are sold primarily in health food stores. In Tel Sheva, it's very popular. "I have a long list of Beduin women who want to work with me. Right now, two of my sisters and two neighbors work regularly, and as the business grows, I'll bring in other women from my list." "Daughter of the Desert" is an all-Beduin, all-women enterprise. "That's another part of my dream - to help other Beduin women do what I'm doing. For me, it was very difficult. I'm single but I built the business, even though I still live with my parents. For most unmarried Beduin women, if they want to do something, it's not allowed. They aren't permitted to go out. So I'm pledged to these women. I promised them: We can do this. We can get this business going. I want to make opportunities for them, too. It won't be as hard for them as it was for me." Dealing with governmental authorities forced another change. "For the soaps, the Ministry of Health didn't require anything more than what I had. They came, saw my place was clean, and that was all. But to make the creams, there was a lot of government regulation. Now that my products are selling, I have the creams made for me by a lab in Holon. I give them my formulas, and they are responsible for complying with all government requirements." And marketing? "I've done that myself. I designed my own logo. I started by just going into health food stores and saying, 'Hello, my name is Miriam,' and going on from there. I can't tell you how frightening that was." What makes Miriam Abu-Raki'ek different? "Among the Beduin, I'm different because I think of marriage in a different way than other women do. I was able to stand up to my parents and say I wasn't going to get married. That was the difference. But it's not easy. Sometimes things happen, I've had a bad day, I'm lonely, I'm broke. I have no one. I don't feel strong, but I know that I have to be strong. There's a powerful connection between me and my God, and I rely on that. I know I could solve this problem by getting married - but for me, a family must be based on love. There has to be love and feeling, or it won't be right for the children." Today, having achieved considerable success, she says her parents have come to terms with her decision. "They've sort of given up," she says, laughing. "I know my mother loves me, and wants only the best for me. And my father remembers those 10 years, when my life was so bad. He seems to have decided that if this makes me happy, he's ready to give me a little room." Abu-Raki'ek says that carrying on Beduin traditions is essential to her success. "When it's 5 a.m. and I have to get up to go into the desert to pick, I'm completely human. I'd rather stay in bed. But rising early is part of our tradition - look at Abraham. He was up early, too. Whenever I work very hard at something, I see all the generations of hands that worked hard, too. My dream is so big - if I am strong, I know I can make it happen."

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