Vitality from the Egyptian Sun

Anthroposophy in the Desert

Almost twenty years ago, Ibrahim Abouleish Sekem established a farm near Cairo in order to bring the anthroposophical teachings of Rudolf Steiner to the Egyptians. Today, the biodynamic farm is a thriving enterprise. Stefanie Gsell paid a visit to Sekem

photo: Sekem
Participation in reading lessons is mandatory for Sekem workers; in return, they are provided for after retirement

​​The employee bus approaches the gates of Sekem, the realm of Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish. The 170-acre biodynamic farm is situated 45 km northeast of Cairo, in the Egyptian desert. After the friendly Egyptian bookkeeper sitting next to me explains that I’m a German journalist and that Yvonne is expecting me, the security forces let us pass.

Yvonne Floride, in her mid-40s, tall, slim and serious-looking, postpones the welcome banter "for a minute," since otherwise we’ll miss the School Circle. Just like all the workers in the Sekem factories, the 300 or so schoolchildren from kindergarten to high school age gather every morning with their teachers in the small Sekem schoolyard to say morning prayers and salute the flag.

The pupils come from farming families or are children of the 2000 Sekem employees who live near the farm. We stand in three concentric circles, and some of the pupils and teachers report on what they are learning at the moment. The curriculum prescribed by the Egyptian Ministry of Education is observed to the letter, with subjects such as eurhythmics, fine arts and German added as supplements.

Anthroposophy and Islam

During his graduate studies in pharmacology in Graz, Dr. Abouleish came to appreciate the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, and in 1977 he founded Sekem to bring the principles of anthroposophy, which also include biodynamic agriculture, back to his countrymen. While Yvonne gives me a tour of the production units on the farm, I try to learn something about the (in)compatibility of anthroposophy and Islam. Doesn’t an anthroposophic approach meet with vehement resistance on the part of Egyptian Muslims?

photo: AP
One can only think properly in German, says Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish

​​Yvonne seems to know this question well. Without answering directly, she explains what is important to Dr. Abouleish and his followers: his wife Gudrun, his son Helmy, Helmy’s wife Constanze and the on average 20 European co-workers who live on the farm. They are interested in economic success achieved without detriment to either the environment or the workers. On the contrary, profits are there to be reinvested in the development of human and natural resources.

Yvonne and her husband left Germany and came to the Egyptian desert with their two small children almost 20 years ago, because they found their former life unfulfilling. Upon arriving in Sekem, they immediately had the feeling that fate had brought them here. Yvonne loves the Egyptians’ lightness of being and the way they live for the present and "search for closeness to others."

Ever since she arrived here, the trained social educator has been in charge of keeping the business on its feet. Her primary task, among many, is to maintain the farm’s excellent image.

Yvonne finds that Sekem proves just how beautiful this country can be. She views this as her mission: to make as many people as possible see the country through her eyes. It's mostly the Europeans who have to become more flexible. One has to work with the existing structures here in order to effect change.

Impressive performance

Sometimes she finds it difficult to remain patient when she sees that, once again, the brightly colored paint has been brushed outside the edge of the window frame and onto the wall. The "Doctor," as his co-workers call Mr. Abouleish, places high value on German thoroughness.

photo: Sekem
Sekem produces for both the Egyptian and international markets

​​What Sekem has been able to accomplish thus far is very impressive. The business units all bear ancient Egyptian names, as does the entire initiative – Sekem means "vitality from the sun." The equipment and hygiene of the production facilities meet Western standards, with all work processes in the hands of cheerful and highly efficient personnel.

The Hator unit sells fresh fruit and vegetables. Atos manufactures and sells of phytopharmaceuticals. Isis, founded already back in 1984 to market herbal teas, today sells other products as well, such as cooking oils and dried fruits.

"Isis" is also the name of the three shops that sell Sekem products in Cairo. Gradually, demand is on the rise in Egypt for natural foods, although most income still comes from exports. In 2003, the Sekem initiative achieved sales of 55 million Egyptian pounds, around 8 million Euros.

Compulsory workshops

For the most part, the herbs and foodstuffs distributed by Sekem are grown on 400 Egyptian partner farms. These are supervised by the Sekem cooperative known as Libra, which educates interested farmers in the principles of biodynamic agriculture and helps manage their operations once they switch over to the new methods.

Employees receive standard Egyptian wages for their work. During working hours, workers take time out to do eurhythmic gymnastic exercises, while learning to read in special classes as well as participating in cultural events and creative workshops is compulsory. Sekem also makes provisions for the workers’ retirement years.

Walking past the amphitheater, which seats 2000 and is used for theater productions and general assemblies, we come to the education center, a project initiated by former chancellor Helmut Kohl and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Young Egyptians receive training here in six fields: trade, textiles, carpentry, agricultural technology, electrical engineering and mechanics.

Yvonne stresses the fact that in Sekem the emphasis is on the "networking" of all activities. We visit the textiles class, which is also responsible for sewing the work clothes for Sekem’s staff and is currently busy making raccoon puppets that will be offered as part of the new Conytex collection.

Philosophy and religion

Now, the time has come to meet Sekem’s founder. Yvonne waits with me in his large, light-filled study room full of German books. Yvonne explains her boss’s conviction that one can only really think clearly in German.

Finally, a diminutive Egyptian man with sparkling eyes enters the room, his sprightliness belying his almost 70 years and the heart attack he has survived. Dr. Abouleish tells me that he became familiar with anthroposophy from reading Rudolf Steiner’s book "The Philosophy of Freedom," a difficult work which he rereads frequently, each time gleaning new insights. Anthroposophy is by no means irreconcilable with his faith. After all, one is philosophy and the other, religion.

On the contrary, he only really came to understand Islam after discovering anthroposophy; much of what the Koran contains coincides with Steiner’s view of the world. But this alone is not the main thing for Dr. Abouleish: what counts is to take these well-founded ideas and to make something out of them! Whoever thinks that the Muslims in Sekem are being led astray from right belief, is welcome to speak with the workers and see for himself that the opposite is true. With this strategy, the Doctor has never failed to prove his point.

Love for Egypt, admiration for Europe

His love for his Egyptian fatherland on the one hand and his admiration for European efficiency and accuracy on the other – has he always been able to integrate these two sides of himself, or does he sometimes feel torn? Dr. Abouleish smiles knowingly. The Egyptian and European inside him neither battle each other, nor do they shake hands in reconciliation. Out of the two, something new has emerged, as he demonstrates by stretching his arms wide. "Sekem," says Yvonne.

Time is short, so we proceed in a cream-colored Mercedes S-Class to the Thursday general school assembly. It starts off with a beautiful and moving Koran recitation from the Ibrahim Sura, followed by a gypsy dance by Wilhelm Topp, performed by the Sekem strings and flute ensemble – accompanied by the Muslim music teacher on the triangle.

Then questions are asked, for example, on the problem of unemployment or the advantages of ecological farming. Dr. Abouleish chooses a few questions and answers them. At the end, he shakes hands with each one of the pupils, greeting them by name. Ibrahim Abouleish knows the name of each and every pupil and worker at Sekem!

Stefanie Gsell

© 2005

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