In 2010 I was invited by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to participate in an International Artist's Symposium in Luxor, Egypt. Twenty-five artists from around the world gathered on the banks of the Nile, our studios looking across the majestic river to The Valley Of The Kings.
In two intensive weeks this culturally diverse group of artists each produced a body of work which was exhibited at the conclusion of the Symposium. We saw the ancient monuments, attended nightly artist presentations and visited each other's studios to critique our work, share artistic experiences and make life changing friendships.
I responded to the exotic surroundings by sourcing art materials from the local environment. I procured lengths of palm tree which were delivered to the doorstep of my studio on the Nile in a long, wooden boat. At sunset I would sit by the river's edge and carve soft slabs of limestone similar to that which was used to line the facades of the Pyramids. I incorporated mummy bandages and papyrus into my work and experimented with encaustic, an Ancient Egyptian medium which I made by melting together the raw beeswax and Dammar resin I'd bought from the local market.
To see more images of the work I created in Egypt at http://www.katherineboland.com/#!egypt/c1oai
Since the symposium I have returned to Egypt many times to pursue a relationship formed during that time.
Below is an excerpt from a book (entitled 'Into Light') that I have written about my experiences in Egypt.
‘Come with me’, he said masterfully and he shepherded me along the road until we reached an open fronted shop where a number of brown skinned men in long, pastel coloured gowns called 'galabeyas' stood in line. Behind the counter lengthy stalks of pale green sugar cane were being fed into a steel 'Brutalist' contraption from which gushed forth the fresh juice. He ordered two frothing glassfuls, the colour of newly unfurled bracken fronds and we stood outside in silence watching the bustling Egyptian world go by and sipping the delicious nectar in the warm ocher light.
Wandering back through the souq, we passed wicker baskets of dried saffron and hibiscus flowers, pumice stone, dates, deep yellow spice and vibrant indigo pigment. It was a treat to be away from prying eyes and spend some time together alone. Then suddenly we turned the corner and there with a backdrop of the Valley of the Kings, casually parked on the banks of the Nile as it has been for centuries sat, in all it's golden splendour, The Luxor Temple. Life and traffic going on all around it as if it was unaware that it’s one of the most spectacular structures on the planet. The evening call to prayer rang out simultaneously from the nearby mosques. A row of nodding horses shackled to glossy black enamelled carriages waited patiently in the square for the odd tourist who might require their services.
‘Would you like to take one of those back to the hotel?’ he asked.
'Could I die and go to Heaven too?’ I silently wondered.
As the horse clip-clopped its way along the Nile we chatted. I was curious to know about the status quo of relationships between men and women in Egypt. How does it work? How do people meet? Can you have sex before marriage? What’s the deal?
'According to Islam we cannot have sex before marriage. It is a sin’, he said.
‘Great’, I thought. ‘We’re both going to Hell in a hand basket’. But I didn’t believe in the existence of, as Australian comic and self confessed atheist, Paul McDermott, calls Him, the ‘Pretend, Weird, Beardy Guy In The Sky’, so with somewhat warped logic I figured it would be ok. For me at least.
‘About ninety percent of marriages in Egypt are ‘salon’ marriages’, he continued.
‘People do not generally marry for love. Couples are introduced to each other through family connections. Then their marriages are negotiated between their families in the reception room or ‘salon’ of the family home. In an Egyptian marriage the husband and wife know very well their rights and responsibilities so both parties benefit. But it is an arrangement often devoid of romantic love.
’What?’ I shrieked. ‘Are you kidding me?’ ‘So what about you? Will your family arrange your marriage?’
‘They know that this does not fit with me’, he said, a small frown creasing his brow. ‘I will find my own partner and marry for love’.
‘I will tell you something’, he announced and I leaned back to make myself comfortable against the padded leather upholstery. I knew him well enough by now to know I was in for the long haul.
'Nowadays, it is very difficult to get married in Egypt’, he began.
‘In the countryside it is easier. Life is simpler. Most people are poor and the man is not expected to provide an apartment or a dowry, so couples can marry when they are very young. But in the big cities the family of the future wife wants to ensure that their daughter is entering into a secure situation. A man must have a good job and enough money saved to pay the deposit for the apartment the couple will live in when they are married. He should also provide a dowry of jewelry and have money to pay for at least half of the furniture expenses and the cost of upgrading the infrastructure of the apartment if it is necessary. He needs to save about $80,000USD in order to get married. The average wage is about 3000EGP a month, about $500USD. The average rent for a working class Egyptian is about 1500EGP a month. Most young people live at home with their family because they cannot afford to pay rent and save for the marriage.
‘So it can take a very long time for a guy to save the money’, he continued. ’He will not start earning anything until after he finishes university by which time he is already in his twenties. If they meet at University and want to marry, a couple can be engaged for up to eight years or more before they can finally afford it. Unless of course they receive financial help from their family. My family is quite well off so they were able to buy me my own apartment. Plus, al hum du allah, I have a good income by Egyptian standards’, he said.
‘Some families agree to a marriage where the man does not have to pay a large dowry and the other expenses are shared’, he went on. ‘But I know guys in their forties who still can’t afford to marry and those that will never marry because of this situation. Their future wife would not wait for them and left them to find a better prospect. The woman is under pressure too because she needs to marry in a reasonable time frame in order to have a child. No man will want her if she gets too old.’
‘And during the time that they are saving to get married they don’t have sex?’ I asked, incredulous.
‘Not if they are following Islam correctly’, he replied.
‘Look, here is the thing’, he continued.
‘During President Sadat’s time, when everything was nationalized, the rents were fixed, like at 10 EGP a month. It was very cheap and no one could throw you out of your apartment for not paying the rent. It was not necessary for the man to provide accommodation for his wife. Couples could marry whenever they wanted, rent an apartment and be secure. But landlords and property investors agitated for new rent laws to be introduced so that rents could be raised to the current market value and everything changed’, he concluded.
I thought back to a conversation I’d had one day in the Cairo Downtown Hotel as I took a break from the relentless sight seeing. I was sitting in reception drinking cups of sugary mint tea, smoking Cleopatra cigarettes and chatting with Wahid the concierge and another young Egyptian guy about life in Egypt. They told me how unhappy the Egyptian people were and how angry they had become with their situation.
‘Are you married?’ I asked them. ‘Do you have kids?’
‘No’, they said in weary unison.
‘I work sixteen hours a day, seven days a week in this place but I do not make enough money to afford to marry’, Wahid said. ‘I do not think I will ever be able get married’. I noticed the dark circles under his eyes.
At the time, just weeks before the Egyptian Revolution, I didn’t understand the context in which they spoke or know anything about the dilemma they faced. I didn’t ask them to elaborate as I was reluctant to pry but I remember thinking that their remarks were strange. In Australia if you want to get married you just do it and muddle along. It doesn’t matter that you don’t have a lot of money. Welfare ghettos, where whole neighbourhoods are crammed with the unemployed and under privileged are testament to the powerful force of love and lust. It was only later that I learned the name Wahid can mean 'alone' or 'lonely' in Arabic.
‘So that explains why Egyptians your age are still virgins’, I said as the carriage picked up pace on the last stretch of the palm tree lined boulevard.
‘You can’t have sex before you get married. But you can’t get married until you can afford it. But you can never afford to get married. So you can’t ever have sex.’
‘That sucks’, I thought. Generations of young Egyptians are missing out on happiness and the best love making, child bearing years of their lives because of economic and religious constraints. And just imagine the sexual frustration! I’m surprised the whole Islamic world isn’t completely psychotic. No wonder the region is a hot bed of tension and the odd suicide bomber looses it. Perhaps the poor bastards have given up any hope of getting laid in this life and blow themselves up, figuring the only chance of scoring is with the seventy virgins in the Afterlife.
‘Did you ever read the book,’ Catch 22’ when you were studying English Literature at Uni?’ I asked.
But the carriage had drawn up to the entrance of the hotel and our pony ride was over.
to be continued.............