One day when the true story of the achievements of the twentieth century are written, alongside other innovators who have contributed to positive change in the world the name Ibrahim Abouleish will surely stand. Ibrahim Abouleish, born in Egypt and completing his university education in Austria, had a vision that he began to realize in 1977: to create an oasis in the middle of the desert where people of all nations and cultures could live and work. He called this initiative‑‑ this “miracle in the desert” ‑‑ SEKEM, a name which means “living power of the sun.”
In his highly readable book “SEKEM, A Sustainable Community in the Egyptian Desert”, first published in German in 2004, Ibrahim Abouleish takes us on a journey from his childhood in Cairo, to his years as a student in Graz, Austria, to the founding and development of SEKEM in the desert north‑east of Cairo. He truly stands as a man with his feet planted both in the West and in the Middle East. He was clearly immersed in European cultural and economic life; he married his Austrian wife Gudrun, who became his greatest helpmeet and life companion; and he encountered the work of Rudolf Steiner which led to his subsequent involvement with anthroposophy. On the other hand, his deeply held faith as a Muslim and his cultural ties with the Arabic world remained constants in his life. When he describes the feast of sacrifice in Islam we are reminded of the fact that Judaism as well as Christianity share with Islam a common origin in recognition of Abraham as the Father of these faiths. Resistance to temptation, keeping from falling into darkness with its resultant lack of consciousness, also plays a role and is expressed in Islam as the stoning of the devil, depicted in Christian iconography as the motif of Michael’s struggle with the dragon.
Today we often read about Islam in negative and sensationalistic terms and so it is enlightening to follow Ibrahim Abouleish in his exposition of the 99 names of Allah and other aspects of his religion that have guided him in his life’s work. We can gain some understanding of the highly moral quality of this man and of how he was formed by his religion, and we can appreciate how it helped him to achieve what stands today as a model for the future.
The fundamental picture of SEKEM, now in its 31st year, is expressed in this declaration: “We want to live social forms with one another through which human beings see a reflection of their worth, and in its development strive constantly toward a higher ideal.” It is through science, art and religion that the working together of economic, social and cultural activities is fructified. In this book the author gives a detailed account of how this can be achieved in practice.
Although in some ways the change that has taken place in Egypt might seem far removed from challenges and developments in Canada and other western countries, there are important points in the history and working of SEKEM that could be contemplated here to good advantage. The dedication, commitment, sacrifice and plain hard work that made the success of SEKEM possible is material that can be very inspiring, and it is not for nothing that this initiative has received worldwide recognition and has been the recipient of numerous awards including the Alternative Nobel Prize. This book should not be missed for many reasons, not the least of which is to familiarize readers with a genuinely remarkable man and his work.
SEKEM: A Sustainable Community in the Egyptian Desert, published by Floris Books. 240 pages with 120 colour photographs. SEKEM: Une communauté durable dans le désert égyptien, published by Editions aethera, 238 pages with colour illustrations.
- Ingrid Belenson, Manitoulin Island