The Bedouin Businesswoman Who Turned Her Tragedy Into Opportunity

After her son was diagnosed with a rare disorder, Jmalat Abu Musa established a now-thriving natural cosmetics firm out of her home. Today, she dreams of creating a workplace for mothers like herself

Jmalat Abu Musa with her 10-year-old son Abed al Rahman at the family home in Rahat, southern Israel, July 11, 2019.
Ilan Assayag

Her son was 7 months old when Jmalat Abu Musa sensed something was terribly wrong. She initially thought it was an ordinary virus, but when weeks went by and he wasn’t getting better, she took him to the doctor who ordered a series of tests. The results showed that Abed al Rahman, the youngest of her eight children, had a rare metabolic disorder. He would never be able to walk, talk or take care of himself, the doctor said.

Abu Musa reacted as any mother would under such circumstances: She locked herself in her room and cried.

At first, she couldn’t even bring herself to tell her husband and children. But while many women in her place might succumb to despair, she decided to turn tragedy into opportunity.

“Thanks to Abed al Rahman, I am a successful businesswoman today,” she tells Haaretz as she picks up her 10-year-old son and smothers him with kisses.

She is something of a rarity in Bedouin society: A woman who built her own business from scratch and is the main breadwinner in the family.

Abed al Rahman being held by one of his sisters at their home in the Bedouin city of Rahat, southern Israel, July 11, 2019.
Ilan Assayag

JMALAT, the eponymously named enterprise she founded and runs in Rahat — the largest Bedouin city in Israel — is essentially a visitor center geared toward travelers, both local and foreign, who are interested in Bedouin culture.

From the huge extension built onto her home, she sells natural cosmetics and treatments based on formulas passed down from her grandmother; she hosts authentic Bedouin-style meals (“I also do kosher and gluten-free”), including her especially popular end-of-day Ramadan feasts for groups of up to 300; she organizes culinary and traditional soap-making workshops; and she even provides outdoor tent accommodations for guests wanting to spend the night.

But the biggest draw for most visitors — as she is quick to note — is her own inspiring personal story, which she makes sure to share with every one of the dozens of groups that passes through each month.

Abu Musa, 41, was born in the nearby southern Israeli village of Hura, one of 28 children. Her father, a qadi, had two wives and she was the fifth of her mother’s 15 children.

In eighth grade, she dropped out of school to help her mother who, as she recounts, “had a very hard life, made all the more difficult by the other wife.” It was during those years that she learned from her grandmother how to make cosmetics and other treatments from plants, herbs and other elements found in nature.

She got married at 16 to Kayed, a local truck driver, but “never dreamed that I’d end up doing anything besides housework and raising kids.”

When she learned she was pregnant with her eighth child, Abu Musa recalls, she didn’t take the news well.

Jmalat Abu Musa outside her home in Rahat. "I want to open a little cosmetics factory right near my house that will employ mothers of special-needs children."
Ilan Assayag

“I told the doctor I didn’t want another baby,” she says. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night during that pregnancy with my heart racing. I just had a very bad feeling about it.”

But the birth was normal, and the baby appeared to be fine as well — that is, until he wasn’t. When Abu Musa finally gathered the courage to tell her husband that their child had a rare genetic disorder, he refused to believe her. A few days later, he was badly injured in an accident while driving a truck full of merchandise into the Gaza Strip. To this day, she is convinced “this accident was not an accident,” and that the terrible news about their son had affected his concentration while driving.

“I rushed to the hospital immediately, I took Kayed’s hand in mine and I said to him, ‘We are not the first family in the world to have a child with special needs,’” she recalls. “God doesn’t give such children to everyone — only to those who can take care of them. So if God gave us a child like this, He will help us, and everything will be fine.’”

Secret stash

Kayed never fully recovered from the accident and was forced to cut back on his work schedule. Since it was becoming increasingly difficult to feed and clothe eight children, Abu Musa decided she had better find some way to contribute to the family finances. “It suddenly dawned on me that I could make money by selling my grandmother’s natural cosmetics and treatments,” she explains.

To get started, and without even telling her husband, she took a loan of 700 shekels ($200) from her mother. “I used the money to buy ingredients to make the treatments, as well as jars in which to store them,” she relays. “I made all the products in my kitchen and began selling them to friends. Before I knew it, the 700 shekels had become 1,400, and the 1,400 shekels had become 2,800.”

Seeing how well it was going, Abu Musa began traveling around the country, selling her products in outdoor markets.

“I’d get up at 4 A.M., clean, cook, give Abed a bath, prepare him mashed food, leave my girls instructions for the day and travel north,” she says. “Often, I’d arrive at my destination, after having paid a driver to bring me there, and get a phone call that Abed was acting up and I needed to get home immediately. So even before making my first sale of the day I’d have to pack up and head back home.”

On the advice of Abed’s doctors, Abu Musa stopped traveling far from home, and for several years confined herself to the twice-weekly Be’er Sheva Bedouin market. However, a few years ago, that market shuttered, forcing her to devise a new plan of action. After giving it some thought she opted to open a business right in her home, so she could always be on hand for Abed. But that required building an extension, since the existing living space was not sufficient to accommodate the type of facility she envisioned.

Her husband was naturally skeptical about the plan, immediately questioning where the money would come from to finance the required construction.

“I opened a drawer where I had secretly been putting away money I had saved over the years from my cosmetics business,” she says. “I handed over to him an envelope with 38,000 shekels in cash and told him this was white money I’d collected for a black day.”

Taste test

Although it opened three years ago, JMALAT is still a work in progress. The floors are decorated in typical Bedouin style with colorful rugs and cushions, but the walls are pretty bare. “Next time you come, you’ll see that everything will be nicely decorated,” Abu Musa promises. “I had hoped to hang up stuff sooner, but my older son who was supposed to help is now studying abroad.”

She doesn’t yet have certification from the Israeli Health Ministry for her products, but Abu Musa says she has found a way of getting around that.

“When customers ask, I simply stick a spoon into one of my tester jars and taste it for them,” she says. “I tell them that if it doesn’t harm your stomach, it’s not going to harm your skin.”

Since almost all her advertising is done by word-of-mouth and her two daughters are the only help she has, the overhead costs of running the facility are quite low. That means Abu Musa is already starting to put aside money for her next venture. And what might that be?

“I want to open a little cosmetics factory right near my house that will employ mothers of special-needs children. The shifts will end at noon, rather than late in the day, so they have time to get home and be with their kids.

“That’s my dream,” she adds — “to create a workplace for mothers like me.”

Not everyone is thrilled with her success, however. One of Abu Musa’s very religious brothers was outraged that she would open a business requiring her to interact with men. Hoping to make peace between them, her father asked how much money she brings in a month. After she provided him with an estimate, he went to her brother and told him that if he wanted his sister to stop working, he’d have to hand over a similar sum to her each month.

“Since then, my brother hasn’t said a word to me,” she says.