Getting away from it all in Egypt's writers' colony

A two-hour drive from the Egyptian capital, the tiny village of Tunis has over the past few decades become the preferred getaway for Cairo's writers, intellectuals and artists. MENASSAT paid a visit to the ecovillage within Tunis, Zad Al-Mosafer, where a former journalist is planning to open a research center dedicated to Egyptian literature.
One of the rooms at Zad Al-Mosafer, Tunis' own eco-village. © Lina Wardani

TUNIS, Egypt, October 16, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The road to the tiny farming village of Tunis is an exciting – and painful one.

But it is the only road to get to Zad al-Mosafer, the mud and brick "eco-village" that has become the preferred getaway for a group of Egyptian writers, artists and intellectuals looking to escape the fast-paced lifestyle and the urban sprawl of Cairo.

Zad al-Mosafer's manager, Abdu Goubeer, is all too familiar with the potholes and unpaved roads that characterize the bumpy two hour ride from Cairo, as well as the herds of goats, donkeys and cows for whom the struggling travelers are the only form of amusement.

Zad al-Mosafer started out as Goubeer's personal country home eight years ago, and ended up being both his home and his life's project. It was the lack of space to put up his many visiting friends from Cairo that eventually led to the ecovillage project.

"They used to come to my house here every weekend. We grew tired of it after a while, washing dishes and not having enough space. So they suggested I'd build extra rooms for them in my garden and they would chip in for the lodging. I thought it was a great idea," Goubeer told MENASSAT.

Soon, he had built the four first rooms of what would become one of Egypt's first eco-villages.

Writers' colony

A village consisting of around 350 houses and a mere 4,000 inhabitants according to Goubeer’s estimations, Tunis has been a hot spot for Egyptian writers, painters and artists for several decades. Foreigners have also bought land and settled in the village.

Zad Al-Mosafer's founder and caretaker Abdu Goubeer (r) and a view of Ahmed and Ikram Abu Zeit's pottery studio - the couple have been in the village for the past 15 years. © Lina Wardani

The foreign presence in Tunis is betrayed by the many signs in English and French advertising pottery and artist studios along the main road in the village.

Tunis even has it own pottery school for locals, an institution established and run by Swiss-born Evelyn who was one of the first artists to settle in the village back in the 1970s, at a time when there was still no electricity or phone service in the area.

Since then, artists, writers, journalists and intellectuals from Egypt and elsewhere have bought land and built their own mud and brick houses in Tunis.

Some of the earlycomers include pottery makers Ahmed Abu Zeit and his wife Ikram, who have been a Tunis fixture for fifteen years.

"This place has everything. The weather is nice, the desert is close and the lake is beautiful. For me, this is the best place in Egypt," Ahmed Abu Zeit explained with a smile while he polished a piece of painted pottery.

Lake Qarun, the third largest lake in Egypt, stretches some 50 kilometers across and runs adjacent to the village.

Research center

As the sun set over Tunis on the night of MENASSAT's visit, Goubeer announced he was going to sleep at 9 pm. For the ex-writer and journalist, the hours between five and ten in the morning are the only time he can work on his new project: the establishment of a research center on Egyptian novelists in Tunis.

"I used to write in cultural magazines for a long time so I ended up with a large amount of information on Egyptian novelists and their work. Instead of throwing it away, I came up with the idea of making the upstairs part of the main building here at Zad al-Mosafer into a research center on the topic.:

The center, Goubeer said, will be gered mainly to students doing research on Egyptian novelists; Zad al-Mosafer will provide lodging and food.

"I want it to become a kind of scholarship program. The students can come here, eat, sleep, and study the documents. Once we have gathered all the material – which includes manuscripts, interviews with authors and court documents – we will announce our opening. I hope it will happen within six months."

So what do the local villagers think about the large number of artists and foreigners settling in their hometown?

Goubeer believes the overall impact has been a positive one.

"It has really helped decrease unemployment here. Over 700 men and women from the village are employed by the artist community, ranging in age between 19 and 60," he said.

28-year old Omar Farouk, a Tunis native, went off to study in Cairo and then came back to his home village. He now works as a receptionist at Zad al-Mosafer.

"What I like most here is that you meet people from all kinds of places. The community has definitely affected the village, especially in terms of work. Almost everyone I know here is employed. It was very different twenty years ago," Farouk said.

Another factor the artist community has had an impact on, said Goubeer, are the political views.

Once considered a stronghold for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Goubeer says th villaged shunned the Islamic movement's representatives during the last elections.

"When they came here, they were simply pushed away from the village. I really believe you can change people through art and social activities. I believe we have succeeded here."

Alexandra Sandels is blogging from Egypt on Menassat's Arab Media Community.