Erik Blome, Accomplished Sculptor, Chicago, U.S.A.
2012-2013 U.S. Fulbright Scholar, Helwan University, Cairo, Egypt
My Lesson from Egypt
Teaching in Egypt on a Fulbright grant changed my life. I wanted to find out about the origins of my sculpture art form and I wanted to know about the world in a broader more meaningful way.
I traveled from the United States to Egypt in 2012. The route I took to Cairo was indirect, stopping first in Athens to take in ancient sculpture that I had not yet seen. I visited the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis, walked on the glass floors of the Acropolis Museum over ancient ruins and took in the Archeology Museum at the port of Piraeus. Awed by Greece, my flight into Cairo took me over Alexandria, down the Nile and over the Pyramids. I could see rows of cement buildings in a sea of development and outside of that zone, green swathes of farmland along the Nile, with soccer fields and mosques. The sight of the Pyramids from above, with their long shadows cast across the desert, filled me with an excited mysterious wonder that can only be described as planetary. I had entered another world; even more ancient than the Greece I had just left. A sort of Promised Land of ancient art and structures.
When I arrived in Egypt, I knew no Arabic beyond the few common words like “Shukran” (thank you) and “aana la Afham” (I don’t understand) and the ubiquitous “Insha’Allah” (God be willing). I quickly enrolled in a course at the Fajr Center in Modern Standard Arabic; suffering through humiliations of mispronounced letters and sounds. I am proud to say that in the two years since I began my Fulbright journey I have now made my way through several basic Arabic courses and even earned a certificate in elementary Arabic at the University of Chicago. Mabrouk! I quickly discovered in Egypt and in Chicago back home that Arabic language is the key that lets us into the Arab world. I have made many new friends through these studies and grown to see the cultural nuances that demystify signs and customs.
I had been to Egypt before my Fulbright grant. But like most people, I didn’t stay long. My experience was more that of a site-seer than a traveler. In short two weeks visiting as a guest lecturer and visiting artist at the American University in Cairo in 2009, I had met many students and covered a lot of ground, but only enough to be dangerous in my belief that I knew something of Egypt. My first trip brought me several volunteers for an effort I had started years before in Ethiopia, teaching underprivileged kids living in orphanages art and other skills. Students from AUC joined our not-for-profit effort the following year and, as a group, we traveled. Artists from America, Ethiopia and Egypt traveled for teaching those, who have nothing, at Ethiopian orphanages in Addis Ababa and southern Ethiopia. We learned together that year that interconnectedness is more important than any other lesson in life. No matter what your faith or your country is, there is someone else who needs you to work together. This positive experience working with young idealistic Egyptian volunteers in Ethiopia was why I wanted to return to Egypt. I saw the dedication, creativity, energy and sense of social justice in Egyptian youth firsthand, even prior to the Revolution.
My semester long Fulbright grant would enable me to make more profound connections, like taking part in and carving massive red granite at the International Sculpture Symposium, having Nile perch prepared for me by my sculpture assistant’s mother in Aswan, building a bronze foundry at Helwan University and pouring bronze with my students. Even encouraging hesitant female students to pour 2300 degree Fahrenheit metal wearing leathers and lifting crucibles into flaming furnaces – something my female students in San Francisco took for granted, but which was thought at first to be solely the domain of the male students in Cairo. I bought copper from merchants outside of the Khan al Khalil, poured bronze with a foundryman in Alexandria, found pure tin in Gammaliya and learned the best place for steel mesh and valves. I scored a cheap source of butane delivered to our school on a donkey cart in the middle of the night. I ultimately learned more than I had to teach and felt hammered and shaped by Egypt.
In America, my students learn how to create something out of clay and pour bronze. In Egypt, students find and make clay and make do. Bronze alloy is created from melting together copper and tin, found scattered about in the far reaches of ever changing merchant markets. Foundry furnaces are literally scrapped together and butane is negotiated at wildly fluctuating prices. So, a bronze piece cast in Egypt is miraculous in simple pragmatic ways that are largely unseen in the finished product. Watching the flowing hot metal pouring from our buried furnace in the courtyard of Helwan University was like seeing a star formed in the universe, an unlikely event to watch and a rarity in context. People there told me, in their astonishment, that bronze had not been poured at art schools in Egypt since the 1950’s when the influence of the great Egyptian figure sculptor Mahmoud Mukhtar still held sway. The teachings of the French Academy brought to Egypt had mixed with the traditional Egyptian practices, due to the late nineteenth century reforms of Khedive Isma’il Pasha who wanted to bring knowledge from the west.
I have remained linked with many of my colleagues, students and friends from Egypt. Some of us have planned projects and trips together and many of us have gotten together for meals or outings long after our Fulbright experience.
Whenever people in the United States ask me about my time in Egypt with “What was THAT like?” or “Were you scared?” I feel lost again. I am like a stranger in a strange land; wondering how some people are able to move through life without experiencing other cultures and places. It reminds me of a neighbor who remarked: “What, you haven’t seen that before? I see it all the time…”, when I pointed out a mile high tower of hundreds of swirling migrating cranes in the sky above an Illinois field. A pertinent question, but it sort of misses the point of wonder and awe.
Like those Illinois cranes, we need to reach higher and find meaning beyond our common sightings of each other. Then we will realize that things like Fulbright grants are the seeds of change that make profound differences within us. The first step in changing the world, as any protestor in Tahrir Square knows, is changing one’s self.