ZARQA, Jordan – Most historians believe that soap originated in the Levant, eventually traveling to Europe either via the Romans or during the Crusades. Two cities in the region are famed above all others for the production of soap: Aleppo, Syria, and Nablus, Palestine.
With the two countries in the midst of occupation and war, their soap-making tradition is near extinct. The fate of Aleppo’s soap factories is unclear, and only two factories remain in Nablus.
But in Jordan, home to many Syrians and Palestinians fleeing crisis, refugee women are reclaiming the art of soap making.
Najwa has been making soap since 2013. Hailing from Daraa, Syria, she introduces herself as a mother of two, and prefers to go by Umm Mahmoud, after her first-born son, Mahmoud. Six years after the Syrian revolution began in her hometown, she now lives in Zarqa, northeast of the Jordanian capital Amman, where she makes soap with her best friend, Wafaa, and two other Syrian women.
“Before the war, we were living a normal life. We had a car, a house, a good life. We were happy,” she says. Then, in the first year of the revolution, on December 27, 2011 – a date etched into her memory like a scar – police shot her son dead in the street.
Umm Mahmoud says her son never participated in protests against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. There were no protests on the day Mahmoud went out with his friends – no one else was in the streets. He was only 16 – an ordinary boy whose manner of death, captured on video, has become painfully ordinary in Syria.
Umm Mahmoud’s husband was later arrested for inquiring into Mahmoud’s death. His four months in prison left him with injuries that still make it difficult for him to find work.
In 2013, the family left Syria and moved to Jordan, but living in the capital, named the most expensive in the Arab world in the Worldwide Cost of Living Report 2017, eventually became untenable. So they moved to Zarqa, an industrial city, with the promise of work.
Umm Mahmoud’s husband lasted four months at a job there before his illnesses became too severe, forcing him into a six-month stay in the hospital for a lung infection. Umm Mahmoud, who had been a housewife back in Syria, was thrust to the head of the family, and started working out of her home as a cook.
Then she found the Life Center, a hub of support and comfort for Syrian women in Zarqa, providing medical assistance, vocational classes, and Arabic and English classes.
Making soap at the Life Center was Umm Mahmoud’s idea, having picked it up from a fellow Syrian when she was living in Amman. With the backing of the center, Umm Mahmoud and her friends turned their soap making into a small enterprise. The Life Center provides the ingredients and gives the soap-maker 50 percent of the retail price of the soap upfront, with the remaining profits going to the running of the center.
They use the traditional Nabulsi recipe, mixing together locally sourced olive oil, water and a sodium compound. Though the soap is traditionally unscented, the women add various ingredients that they say boast health benefits. Sage and turmeric to help remove dead skin, nigella seeds to battle against blackheads, and cinnamon to tighten the skin around the eyes and tackle excess oil.
The women earn around 100 Jordanian dinar (approximately $141) per month from selling the soap to visitors at the center, as well as at local bazaars and stores in Amman. Though this income is small, below Jordan’s minimum wage of 190 dinar (approximately $267), Umm Mahmoud earns an additional wage through teaching soap making. She is now able to fully support her family.
Just north of Amman, in the city of Jerash, another group of refugee women is finding peace through making soap. The Palestinian women living in the so-called Gaza camp named their soap Sitti – “my grandmother” – in honor of the women who taught them the craft. An enterprise run by the NGO Hopes for Women in Education, Sitti Soap has become a source of independence and camaraderie for Iman, Umm Abed and their friends.
Though they were born in Jordan, like many Palestinian refugees in the country, the women of Gaza camp don’t have Jordanian citizenship. Palestinians from the Gaza Strip fled to Jordan in 1967 and settled in the camp, where they only have two-year temporary passports. These passports are expensive to renew and limit their ability to travel, work and have access to the same healthcare and education rights as Jordanians.
Unlike the other women working at Sitti, Iman studied childhood development and education at university through a scholarship provided by provided by Hopes for Women in Education. But she was unable to find a job in her field. “In the beginning, I didn’t really like working with soap because it isn’t my speciality. After a while… I started to like it more.”
No longer dependent on her father for money, Iman has become a main provider in her family. The women of Sitti Soap make between 150-250 dinar (approximately $212-$353) a month producing the soap, which is sold online, at a boutique in Amman and in custom-made orders for weddings.
Working “enhances your self-confidence,” Iman says. “You feel that you are providing something by working for the family.”
In both Zarqa and the Gaza camp, the women say making soap gives them more than an income – it also gives them the opportunity to come together as friends, co-workers and counselors.
“We’re happy as well because if any other woman comes here and needs help, we can help them too, and train them,” Umm Mahmoud says.
“I miss being the mother of the family, my house, before my son was martyred. Syria was beautiful,” she says. But making soap has at least given her a reason to keep going, despite her loss. “It gave me an existence.”