Footloose and Fancy Free in Fayoum

IMG_0737.jpg

My time at the Fayoum Art Centre was one of my best trips this year. I have come away with memories and experiences I will forever cherish. I felt total contentment during my time there and it was difficult, to say the least, when I said goodbye.

Someone I met at the beginning of my travels rather annoyingly said to me ‘Oooh are you on your Eat, Pray, Luurve?’ (barf). Can a girl just travel without the aim being to find a man or for it to be a life changing experience? It’s these expectations that people have of you when you tell them you’re going to go travelling that you then project onto yourself. Those expectations are not easy to live up to.  I didn’t decide to go travelling to discover myself, (because, I know myself pretty well  - this was confirmed during the travels) I needed a bit of an escape, I wanted to grow as an artist and photographer… but suddenly I was trying to live up to this idea of ‘going travelling’ that I didn’t have for myself – and it kept stopping me from truly valuing my experiences.

I mentioned in my blog Canada; Photographing the Rocky Mountains, that I kept waiting to feel something profound, to feel a change in myself or grow and learn about who I am. Every now and then I’d feel like, I’m here, in this amazing place, but, I don’t feel on top of the world - why not!? What’s wrong with me! Why does it feel somehow anti –climactic at times? I was still waiting to feel….something. Thankfully, I learnt to accept that, it’s ok not to always be in awe, travel experiences don’t necessarily bring you all of that. Yes, they take you away from your everyday life and you learn how the rest of the world works – of course you meet wonderful people and see places that will have some kind of impact on you, but, it doesn’t necessarily create a series of life-changing moments, or at least not instantly, you don’t suddenly have an epiphany and feel like a new and better version of yourself – so just relax, and be in the moment.

Having accepted that it was ok not to have those profound moments, to be in amazing places but still feel the stresses of life weighing on me – I stopped expecting so much from the places I travelled to. Perhaps that is why, by the time I got to Fayoum, I had an incredible time - It’s nothing specific that I can put my finger on, but being in Fayoum made me feel ….something. A sense of security? A kind of gratitude? Just feeling happy and relaxed, not anticipating anything, not expecting anything from others, or more importantly, from myself. Just being. We can’t all feel like that all the time, but it was nice to live it for 3 weeks, it was like a fresh of breath air and it gave me a spring in my step, which I’m pleased to say, I still have!

Anna Abla with her gorgeous girls.

Anna Abla with her gorgeous girls.

IMG_0648.jpg

The environment is such a lovely one, I don’t think my descriptions of it will do it justice. It is more than just conducive to a creative learning environment. It is a place that just feels so good for the mind. I felt pretty instantly at home with people I’d just met. There is a community spirit that makes one feel comfortable in a place so far and different from home, so different from everyday comforts we are used to but somehow it is so uplifting and familiar. This comes from someone who is very attached to family and friends and home-life. I was only there for 3 weeks but I could easily have spent another month at least.

Let me try and paint a picture, sun, sand, family. No wait, scratch that, that sounds like an advert for a Thomas cook holiday! There is such a charm and so much character  to the Art Centre, I don’t feel I will find an adequate description. The sand coloured dome buildings that make up the centre, (which Mohammed Abla built, with his bare hands!), the turquoise windows, and the pink of bouganvillia trees, are simply idyllic – but not in a paradise on earth kind of way, in a very, life is simple and pure and a little rough around the edges, kind of way. The Abla family, who run the centre, bring such warmth to this place with their two gorgeous girls, loving grandparents, two cute puppies and a family of cats –it is all part of the love that this place seems to exude! Even the cats cuddle up with you and purr in a way that I’ve never experienced before!! Seriously!

The local village, Tunis, is primarily a pottery town. You’ll find pottery workshops and shops selling pottery up and down the streets of Tunis. The walls are adorned with street art and the locals are very welcoming. They are more than used to receiving coach-fulls of Egyptian tourists (this somehow doesn’t upset the serenity of the Fayoum Art Centre).

A charming doorway in Tunis Village

A charming doorway in Tunis Village

During the Winter Academy at Fayoum, there are a series of workshops that run over 6 weeks. Every week new participants arrive, some, like me, stay on for multiple courses. I found it amazing how quickly I became familiar and comfortable with everyone I met. I’m going to put it down to the delicious meal times (I know I said I wasn’t a massive foody – but oh my, so wholesome and yummy!). There is something so wonderful about a bunch of strangers having breakfast and dinner together. People from all corners of the Earth set the table, eat, share stories and clear up the table. Again I think of The Little Book of Lykke and how the author talks about people who live in community homes live happier lives. It is something out of an Olivio advert, but it’s real.

Photography

I first attended a photography workshop. It was about pinhole photography, tracing photography right back to its roots. The Art Centre doesn’t yet have a dark room, but that didn’t stop us from creating one right there in the middle of the desert! We made pinhole cameras and created some photograms, (interesting to learn how fundamentally basic it is to take photo). I learnt about the process of developing photos, something I’ve always thought was a very cool thing to do, but didn’t ever think I’d experiment with it - let alone make and use a pinhole camera! I must admit, I wasn’t mad about the pinhole thing – I really rather enjoy the control I have over my digital camera, but I very much valued the experience of using the pinhole and understanding how it works, and more so, developing the photos in a dark room.

For me this week was about exploring the place and getting to know the little gems around Tunis. The lake was absolutely stunning. We decided to take a boat ride across the lake to get to the desert. It was an extremely foggy day, and one of the most serene and peaceful experiences of my life. To be in the boat in the middle of this lake, nothing visible in the distance but mist…just felt like I was a million miles away from anywhere and it is definitely a place I will visualise myself in whenever I need a moment of calm.

Qarun Lake on a misty day.

Qarun Lake on a misty day.

Sculpting

Making beautiful intricate little paper mache birds.

Making beautiful intricate little paper mache birds.

For the second week I participated in a sculpting workshop with Georgina Sleap. It was so wonderful to get stuck in and work with my hands. To experiment with and experience working in different mediums and materials and working to create a 3D object. So different to painting and photography. I’ve never thought of myself as much of a perfectionist but there was something so therapeutic about smoothing out the clay or the paper mache model. I learnt so much and on a much wider scale than I would have anticipated. I learnt how to steam bend wood, and some very fine joinery skills thank you very much. Georgina was incredible at pushing her students, I am grateful to her for steering me away from my primary school teacher instinct to use a glue gun and teaching me to value and have pride in what I create!

Painting

I spent my final week in Fayoum doing a painting workshop with John O’Carroll. Day one was getting into the ‘Zen’ mode that is required for painting. We learnt about the ritual of making enzo circles. I must admit, I was so nervous and really afraid of painting a circle in front of people, but, as I’ve mentioned before, one of the most special things about Fayoum is people get to know each other quite quickly and there is a comfort that comes between strangers almost immediately at the first meal together. So, the first circle felt a little bit like ‘getting to know you’…but really quite intimately because it’s an activity that feels quite personal. By the second enzo circle I’d loosened up a little.  Phew. It really set the tone for the week.

We went out into the desert and sketched the landscape, this was a new experience for me, I learnt a lot about abstraction and just looking at form and shapes in the landscape – we later translated these into paintings using large brushes and rolls of paper. Again, something completely new to me – painting on such a large scale and from a sketch. I found it really quite addictive! It will definitely inspire and inform my next few paintings, and a new approach to my work.

In some ways, which workshop one decides to do at Fayoum doesn’t really matter. For me it was the experience of being there, learning different disciplines, meeting people from all over the world with one common interest. I became really quite attached to the place in such a short amount of time and leaving was very difficult.

Ibrahim Abla, who runs the centre, has managed to create an international creative hub there in the pretty remote village, it is a very special thing indeed and I feel lucky to have been a part of it.

 

Horse Riding

IMG_6132.jpg

I decided to take some horse riding lessons while I was in Egypt (you can find contact details for the ranch below). This experience is not linked with the art centre, but it was a huge part of my experience in Egypt and had a big impact on me.

As I mentioned in my blog ‘Jordan, A Road Trip’; last year I had a small riding accident where I came off my horse, and although I got straight back on in that lesson, I didn’t go back. The horse spooked, because it was snowy and windy (rolling my eyes!) and I lost control and kind of jumped off, thinking a controlled jump would be better than a fall! I attempted to get back on in the desert in Jordan but was so beside myself I had to get straight off the horse. I came away feeling very disappointment in myself.

When I met Mohammed, who I was renting an apartment from, I told him what had happened and asked him if he could help me overcome my fear. He so earnestly responded ‘ I love this, I love working with people like this, I will make your scare go away’. His enthusiasm to help instantly drew me to him and I was ready to put my trust in him. And rightly so! Within 2 weeks he had me carefree and cantering along the beach! He would make me chase him on my horse (just in trot!) and try to high five him to get me to stop fixating on the horse and just be on it. One day there was due to be a sand storm, it was pretty windy, so I called him, this is how the conversation went.

“Hi Mohammed, I’m not going to come riding today”
“Ok, no problem.”
“It’s because its windy so I’m a bit scared”
“No. If you scare then you come, if no time then it’s ok, but if you scare, you come”
“No you don’t understand, when I fell off it was because the horse spooked because of the wind!”
“I’ll see you at 4 o’clock”
“….ok”

I’m so pleased I went. Those Egyptian horses don’t spook over anything! I love it. They are almost like wild horses - Mohammed lets them out to be free down by the lake. They come home when they’re ready, and if they don’t, he goes and collects them. How wonderful is that? That’s why they’re so great – they won’t gallop off because they’re always caged in, which is a story I’ve heard a million times, or spook because a bit of wind is blowing. One time when I explained I was scared that the horse would take advantage of my lack of experience, sensing my fear, and gallop off - he made me let go of the reigns, (which would be a big no no in England!) nothing, the horse was perfectly well behaved!

My first lesson with him I was so scared he had to tie our horses together, by the end of that half hour, I was in control and trotting back to the ranch. Amazing. It was really strange though, how I’d have this great lesson, but when I returned the following day, I was scared again. I’d go away and then psyche myself out. It’d take a whole lot of convincing myself to go back again, to the point where I kept questioning why on earth I’m doing this to myself. Then one day, for whatever reason I felt really emotional and just started crying right there on the horse. Mohammed, was, well confused at first, but so lovely. Naturally he thought it was because I was scared. But it wasn’t that. I genuinely didn’t know why I was sitting on a horse crying in front of this stranger! He just took me on a really long slow ride along the beach, said it broke his heart to see me cry so he’d let me ride back to the art centre. This gave us more riding time, which meant I had time to calm down, get myself together and that lesson I suddenly felt I had learnt to trust myself to take control of the horse and I trotted for the longest I had ever trotted, round corners and up hills and felt completely and utterly at ease. He didn’t have to go that extra mile, literally, he did it out of the goodness of his heart, it was sheer generosity and I cannot thank him enough.

The beauty of riding there was also this flexibility with time. Never in a million years would that happen at a riding school in England. When times up, times up. However shit your lesson went, tough, go home feeling crap about it, there’s no overcoming that until the next half hour lesson that’ll break the bank! Everyday thereafter we played it by ear, some days I’d say I just wanted half an hour but it was going so well, we’d always end up taking longer. If he felt the fear began consuming me again, he’d take me a longer route around the village, just give me more time to get over it. And always end a lesson in a good place.

I realised what was happening was that I was putting an awful lot of pressure on myself to do things and push myself out of my comfort zones. I wasn’t satisfied giving up the riding, being ok with being scared of it – I didn’t want to accept that, it felt like I was failing (this is one new thing I’ve learnt about myself while travelling, I expect too much from myself at times). I had exhausted myself with this rollercoaster in my head of “you’re too scared to ride, just leave it…but you want to ride, such a chicken, get over yourself and do it!” He reassured me that I was doing fine, that it was ok that I was scared, that he was happy to ride that wave with me and that I was a good rider and it’d all fall into place and feel natural soon. I had a bit of a breakthrough that day and …man, what a feeling, to have this burden you place on yourself melt away like that.

When you have an experience like that in life, where you achieve something you never thought you could, when you take control of something that you feel you have no control over, it is a feeling of such freedom. It’s a good reference point for the next time I doubt myself or feel burdened by a thought, and I will, I’m only human (…learning to be ok with just being human, haha). Too often we accept circumstances we aren’t happy with simply because we doubt that we are able to cope with the change of them. Sometimes we only break out of situations or states of mind, when the pain of staying in them is worse than the pain you think you’ll experience if you make a change.

Anyway, that’s nothing to do with art or photography, but maybe it’s to do with travelling – trying new things, breaking barriers we put on ourselves and our abilities, it’s always easier to do that when you are not in the routine of everyday life. When you come away from what is familiar and comfortable, you realise what you are capable of, and usually, that’s more than we give ourselves credit for.  

My last night was spent having an impromptu disco in the desert. We decided it’d be nice to have a fire for the last evening, one thing lead to another and we ended up hooking up the speakers and dancing the night away. I very, very rarely ‘let my hair down’, so to speak, but man, it was a full moon, there was a fire, sand beneath my feet – what a lovely way to end my stay. It was seriously late, I hadn’t packed a thing and I had an early morning riding lesson booked in, but I just couldn’t tear myself away from the music, something took over, and I’m glad I didn’t!

Saying goodbye to the lake, and my daily riding experience, the wonderful Mohamed Salah and my beautiful horse Fayruz was very emotional. I imagine riding on Fayruz along the beach, feeling the wind on my face will be my ‘good place’ whenever I close my eyes and want to escape reality for a moment. I will most definitely be back in Fayoum, it’s a shame I can’t handle the heat or else I’d be over the summer!

All photographs from this blog are taken by me. To see more photographs from Egypt visit my photography page.

Details for Horse Riding in Fayoum:
Mohamed Saleh 0020 100 209 4774