A group of American tourists was invited to attend a workshop on soap-making using essential oils and natural ingredients from Egypt at a five-star hotel in Cairo last week. It was presented by Zeinab Bint Osman, a Libyan woman who had fled the horrors of her war-torn country to settle in the Siwa Oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert.
Bint Osman developed the idea of producing natural handmade soap in Siwa, where she found all the natural ingredients she needed, including dates, camel fat, olive oil, the scorching desert sun, salt from the area’s petrified lakes, local sulphur-rich dust, shea butter and the rare aromatic plants that grow in Siwa.
“Looking on the bright side, the war has not been all bad. After all, it drove me to travel, to meet new people and to get to know different traditions,” Bint Osman said, explaining that these were the good sides of her new life.
She is a strong woman who is eager to learn and gain new experiences. However, she said that her own Libyan culture had also helped her to deal with foreigners and to make efforts to reach her goals. She often offers her services for free until she is recognised for the quality of her work and has the opportunity to earn from it instead.
Her father had worked in the oil industry in Libya, she said. “My father married four times, and one of his wives was an Egyptian woman. He loved life, cinema and travel. He also took his family with him wherever he went, so I got to visit many countries and became passionate about European theatre in particular,” she added.
The death of her father, and then also of her husband, and her daughter’s emigration to Canada before the present conflict erupted in Libya meant Bint Osman found herself “in a country where the Islamic State (IS) group, chaos, fear and death were just an inch away,” she said.
One of her hobbies is photography, but this took her to the edge of danger when her photographs revealed prominent figures in the smuggling trade. “I was a single woman, and I needed to keep what I had seen a secret. As a result, I decided to emigrate,” she said.
The first country she went to was Turkey, but she had little luck there. “The competition was fierce in the Turkish market, and I was not fluent in the Turkish language,” Bint Osman explained. However, before leaving Turkey, she learned soap-making, and in no time she realised she was passionate about it, since for her it is “a mixture of cooking, medicine, the arts, and perfumes.”
She was soon making milk soap, olive oil soap, green tea soap and lemon-scented soap. She found herself excelling in flower soap and the kind of black soap used in Turkish baths. “Something about the mixture of natural ‘essences’ and ‘black’ was reminiscent of my life at the time,” she said.
She bought all the equipment she needed to make soap and went to Tunisia to start her life anew. However, she felt she was not welcome there. “I felt like an alien. I failed to make a success of my business in Tunisia,” she said. It was then that she heard about Fayoum in Egypt, seeing in it an opportunity to sell her handmade soap to the large number of tourists who frequent its resorts.
Unfortunately, Fayoum was not what she had hoped for, and once again her business failed. “My neighbours thought I was wealthy, and I always suspected them of having bad intentions towards me. One day they knocked on my door really loudly, and I called the police because I was sure they meant me harm. I safely relocated with all my equipment to a new place,” she said.
However, this incident, frightening as it was, made her more adamant than ever to stay in Egypt as she sensed that the police was a strong force that could protect her. It was then that she decided to go to Siwa, itself close to the Libyan border.
“I had heard that life in Siwa was simple and that the people were kind. I also knew that there were many visitors and tourists there who might want to buy handmade soaps,” she said.
This time, Bint Osman finally made it, and she found a safe home, a kind community and a successful business in Siwa. “I finally found the light at the end of the tunnel in Siwa,” she said.
Her business grew in the oasis and on social-media platforms. She has got to meet people interested in essential oils and the materials she needed to make her soaps online, and lately she has received offers to give workshops on handmade soaps made of natural ingredients that can help to treat disease and rejuvenate the skin and hair, much like her latest workshop for American guests in Cairo.
Today, Bint Osman is a professional instructor as well as a soap-maker, giving presentations and workshops in English to a variety of different audiences. With every piece of soap she sells, she puts in the wrap an Egyptian blue eye, an originally Pharaonic symbol designed to ward off evil.
Natalie, a banker from Washington who attended the recent workshop, commented that “this is my second visit to Egypt, a place where I can forget about the rigid life in the US. I always meet kind people here who make me feel happy, safe, and relaxed.”
“I loved the workshop by Bint Osman, and maybe I will now make soap myself back home to remind me of my happy days in Egypt. Maybe next time I will also go to Siwa, where the dates, olives and other natural materials Bint Osman uses come from,” she concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly