Could you imagine yourself feeling right at home even though you are very much away from your home sweet home especially during a global pandemic? We may be in isolation but we are never alone even when you find yourself being away from your family and friends and your home country. French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin a woman of extraordinary cultural prescience cannily states this in her diary on Vacation and the Art of Presence: How to Truly Unplug and Reconnect with Your Senses. “As you swim, you are washed of all the excrescences of so-called civilization, which includes the incapacity to be happy under any circumstances.”
Well, this has been the current reality of Louis Barthélemy since the beginning of March. Barthélemy is a French artist, textile designer and illustrator who has worked with major brands such as Dior, Florentine leather house Salvatore Ferragamo, and currently with the Egyptian National Museum just to name a few. Barthélemy arrived in Egypt in the beginning of March, from Morocco for a work-related project. Although, born in Lyon, France and raised in London, Barthélemy also call Morocco home hence living between Paris and Marrakech. Within a few days of arriving in Cairo, both Egypt and Morocco decided to close their borders due to covid-19. With that news, he decided to make use of his time by indulging in his favorite activities while at the same time exploring and experiencing Egypt on a whole new level.
It can no doubt be a gamut of mixed emotions of melancholy, acute nostalgia and the desire to explore, unplug, learn new things all wrapped into one. However, we are very much impressed with his perspective and how he has been using this time and moment to not only experience Egypt but also to connect more with the local culture and collaborate with local artisans for a more sustainable initiative and impact. We ask Barthélemy few questions concerning how he’s spending this time being away from home sweet home at the same time using this opportunity to explore the more quite part of Egypt.
How have you been spending your time during this global pandemic and lockdown?
I flew from Morocco where I am based to Cairo for work when both countries closed their borders not allowing me to return home. Instead of locking myself down in Cairo, I followed my intuition and escaped seven weeks ago to Siwa, an oasis in the Sahara near the Libyan border. Upon arrival I got in touch with a friend in Cairo who knows Siwa well and introduced me to local craftsmen who I have been working with since and developing objects of all sorts. Siwa Oasis is one of Egypt's most isolated settlements and extremely fertile supporting thousands of date palms and olive trees. The export of dates and olive oil provide the chief source of income, supplemented by basketry. Siwa’s ancient Egyptian name was Sekht-am, meaning “palm land.” It is said to be an eminent, auspicious pilgrimage site that Alexander the Great made a trip there from Alexandria in 331 B.C.
This Hellenistic bronze statuette, that be found at the Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin represents the deified ruler - Alexander the Great as Zeus Cut in the shape of the Macedonian mantle (chlamys), the aegis expresses the claim to divine status – particularly to a connection with Zeus – that Alexander propagated even within his lifetime. It is said that the supreme Greek god had appeared to Alexander as Zeus Ammon in the Egyptian oasis of Siwa in 331 BC, and had announced that Alexander was his son. Read more about this on the Google Arts and Culture App.
What are some activities you are taking advantage of that would not have been possible to get access to during normal travel season? I am not a sedentary person. Often on the go, I allow myself to take the time to contemplate and immerse myself fully in a foreign culture, hanging out with the locals and appreciating a slow pace of life.
What are some observations you have made between this time compare to the previous times when travel was normal? First, I don’t come across foreigners these days which accentuate the feeling of distance and isolation. As all touristic and historical sites are closed in Egypt due to current circumstances, I am witnessing a change in the dynamic of the local life here; more specifically, a return to communitarianism and rural activities. People who used to run tours in the desert for instance are now taking care of their garden or cultivating the family’s agricultural plot.
What are some activities you have engaged in so far? The deal agreed with my Cairene friend who introduced me to the local craftsmen upon arrival in Siwa is to develop objects and crafts for the future boutique of the Great Egyptian Museum in the capital where she will have an allocated space. A typical day starts by visiting the different workshops such as palm carpenter, limestone sculptor, potters, salt carver and embroiderers. In the afternoon I enjoy the surrounding myself in nature. I either go to the desert for a drive in the dunes with my local friends who I met here, or go for a hike in the mountain and enjoy the sunset from above, or a walk in the palm grove and share a tea with the farmers at the end of their long day of work, a swim in the salt lakes or a dip in the warm hot springs to shake off any anxiety.
What is your perspective on the mood and the environment compare to countless other trips you have taken? I don’t really compare countries when I travel. I try to understand and appreciate the place welcoming me. If I can compare this stay in Siwa with previous stays in Egypt, I would say it’s an introspective experience as I am spending a lot of time alone. With Ramadan starting today, it will be an extremely quiet month during the day. Craftsmen will not be working, the summer temperatures are rising, and I believe a lot of my time will be left to thinking, meditating and drawing, soaking myself into my work and the rhythm of the desert life.
Lastly, what’s your takeaway about the whole experience and your current state of mind? I am observing from a remote oasis where lockdown and restrictions are not imposed, how the world is dealing with the crisis of the pandemic with no great leaders and a lot of fear. Personally, I find myself blessed to be so isolated here and reflect on what my fundamental needs and aspirations in life are. I am discovering in Siwa a new underrated luxury which is sublimed, untouched and generous, slow paced and simple human connections that we often take for granted. This remote rural life is very attractive and makes me wonder if perhaps I might adopt it by splitting my time between here and a city like Cairo, allowing myself a fulfilling and eye-opening equilibrium.
A true global citizen and adventurer at heart exploring the world’s most diverse rich cultures and finding aesthetics in the works of local’s artisans and lesser known parts of the world.