The Journey of Consciousness

The Egyptian community of Sekem fosters biodynamic growth in the desert

BEFORE I VISITED SEKEM, the flourishing intentional community in the Egyptian desert, I’d never heard of the concept of paid time for personal growth—horizon-expanding activities with an emphasis on creativity. I asked the head of farming operations how this worked for a shepherd I had seen that morning tending a herd of sheep. “He comes for painting lessons twice a week,” she said.

At Sekem, the cultural life is as important as oxygen and food; workshops get employees acting, singing, and dancing, allowing them to grow, often in ways they never expected. And there are other surprises. This oasislike place with forty-foot palm trees, fields of sorghum, and pink bougainvillea cascading over garden walls in what once had been a barren and dusty desert is the home of several thriving businesses, a net-zero village, a center for innovation in organic agriculture, a destination for people who want to see how society might evolve in the future, a source of community development for surrounding villages, and a school for employees’ children. Perhaps most important, Sekem serves as a starting point for what one of its leaders calls a “journey of consciousness.”

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This journey began in 1977 with Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish, then a research director of a pharmaceutical company in Austria. Returning to his native Egypt, he paused at a spot in the desert northeast of Cairo, and there he experienced a vision. He describes what he saw in his mind’s eye:

In the midst of sand and desert I see myself standing at a well drawing water. Carefully I plant trees, herbs and flowers and wet their roots with the precious drops. The cool well water attracts human beings and animals to refresh and quicken themselves. Trees give shade, the land turns green, fragrant flowers bloom, insects, birds, and butterflies show their devotion to God, the creator, as if they were citing the first Sura of the Koran.

In Sekem: A Sustainable Community in the Egyptian Desert, his book about how this vision developed, Dr. Abouleish explains the name. The word sekem dates back to ancient Egypt, when it was used to connote the sun: not the physical sun itself, but the life-giving force that comes from it. It’s a fitting name for a vision that everyone—from the neighboring Bedouin to Cairo professionals and most of his own family—said was crazy. He was crazy to try making a farming community at a desert site that offered nothing but sand and rocks. At times, he relied solely on his faith in Islam, another life-giving force, for the stamina to keep his vision alive.

First came a well, a hundred meters down into the Nile aquifer. Then leveling the ground for fields. Then a composting operation to add organic matter and soil fertility, and eventually crops of medicinal herbs and teas that could be exported to Europe. What began as one building and a small workroom with women putting spoonfuls of tea into individual tea bags has now grown into a community of two thousand people, with five major businesses, a school, a mosque, a polyclinic, a hotel, dining facilities, and extensive farming operations. Beyond that, Heliopolis University, started by Sekem in the outskirts of Cairo, provides a higher education channel preparing young people for leadership with a particular focus on organic agriculture, community development, and natural pharmaceuticals. The buildings are decorated with art by community members, and the grounds are verdant with plantings and gardens. At the clinic, all rooms open onto a courtyard with flowering shrubs. A friendly cat patrols the area. An air of civility and respect prevails. 

Several people I encountered at Sekem, reflecting on its origins, quoted Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible, until it is done.”

At Sekem, the cultural life is as important as oxygen and food.

To get skeptical farmers to buy into his plan to green the desert and farm without chemicals, Dr. Abouleish had to use his formidable gifts of persuasion. Although not a farmer himself, he brought a scientist’s understanding of the potential that compost offered. He was able to quote from memory verses of sacred writings. “We are not only called upon by Allah to care for the earth,” he told them, “but also to heal what has been destroyed.” Strong chemicals, he argued, destroyed the microlife of the soil, thereby preventing crops from being truly nourishing, or what the Koran terms tajeb, meaning “wholesome.” 

Abouleish even won adherents to biodynamic farming, an approach that goes several steps beyond organic and includes the inner development of the farmer. “This way of farming,” he writes, “depends on an alert consciousness which is able to think in a preventative and in an interrelated way.” Allah made mankind responsible for the earth, for plants, and animals. Quoting Sura 33:72 from the Koran, he notes that Allah originally intended to give this responsibility to heaven and to the mountains, but they refused. Now humankind must take up that responsibility.

When Dr. Abouleish died in 2017, his son Helmy and the staff threw themselves into developing an ambitious plan for the next forty years. This includes, for example, conversion of the entire nation from conventional to organic or biodynamic agriculture. And fewer than seven years in, they have already had success in this direction. Egyptian long staple cotton is generally considered impossible to grow without massive application of pesticides, but after considerable research, the agriculturalists at Sekem discovered a pesticide-free method of crop cultivation that met the demanding criteria of the Global Organic Textile Standard. With its massive composting operation, Sekem takes palm fronds and other organic waste that otherwise would be burned, chops it up, mixes in cow manure, and treats it with compost starter to make a soil amendment that can turn arid desert soil into a fertile medium for crops strong enough to thrive in the hot, dry conditions. No need for chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The yield is not as high, but profitability is maintained by eliminating the need for expensive chemicals, as well as the premium price commanded by certified organic cotton. Sekem contracts with delta farmers, gins the cotton, makes cloth, and processes it into clothing and soft toys, especially for babies. In the U.S., these sell as the brand Under the Nile.

What is this “journey of consciousness” that informs what Sekem has become—a dramatically successful intentional community based on Islamic principles? It begins with Dr. Abouleish’s desire to promote holistic, sustainable development as an alternative to the corporate-minded visions of Western ideals. And it rests on his conviction that social change depends on the inner life of the individual. As early as his student days in Austria, Abouliesh set himself on a path of energetic self-change, studying the ninety-nine names of Allah and picking the qualities he wanted to develop in himself: the Compassionate, the Forgiving One, and so on. “Every time I was meditating on one of these ideals,” he writes, “I would find myself in a situation where I could practice them.” When he encountered difficulties, which were manifold as he established a viable community in a harsh environment, he treated each one not as a personal assault, but as “a chance to practice self-development,” an offshoot of a Koranic value—that humans are capable of being better tomorrow than they are today. 

About 90 percent of the community is Muslim. At the side of a dusty plaza near the school’s complex sits Sekem’s own mosque, a simple building with windows shaped like a crescent moon and sun above the entrance. At four in the morning, loudspeakers call the faithful to prayer. The community observes Islamic holy days. But there is also a small minority of Coptic Christians, and an indication of the relationship between the two groups manifests at the school, where Muslim children bring flowers to the Coptic chapel for Sundays and Coptic children clean the mosque to prepare for Sabbath on Fridays. 

Sekem’s Islamic values take several forms. One of the five pillars of Islam is the duty to give zakat, or alms, and the Sekem community, together with Heliopolis University, brings considerable resources to bear on this, as well as a related form of voluntary giving called sadaqah. The polyclinic and health facilities are open not just to employees, but also to residents of surrounding villages, serving more than twenty-five hundred patients each month. A community development initiative based at the university reaches out to the thirteen villages in the area, offering resources to local schools where it is not unusual to have fifty students in a class and not enough furniture to go around. The university has also set up football fields, brought in coaches, and established teams, providing opportunities to teach social and emotional skills like teamwork and effective communication, which appear to be leading to improved school attendance rates. 

Quoting Sura 33:72 from the Koran, he notes that Allah originally intended to give this responsibility to heaven and to the mountains, but they refused. Now humankind must take up that responsibility.

I walk down an unpaved street lined by towering Australian pines, where forty years ago there was nothing but bare desert, and head to a cafeteria for employees, where I sit at a long table, along with management, workers, and other visitors. Over a simple but hearty lunch, I ask about the origins of the community’s ideals. I’m told that the founder credits his time in Austria with enriching his Muslim consciousness. For example, each morning at the different operations, groups of employees convene in circles to join hands and recite in Arabic the morning verse, whose words, while very much in the spirit of Islam, are actually of European origin: 

[Find] purpose in living,

Right in our doing,

Peace in our feeling,

Light in our thinking. 

. . . trust the working of God

. . . in the width of the world,

In the depth of the soul.

Until Dr. Abouleish instituted traditions like this, it would have been unthinkable for women and men, management and workers, to hold hands in public, yet he was able to make this a daily practice with the explicit intent of conveying equality and a sense of solidarity. In the early days, when a circle broke up, the founder made a point of shaking the hand of every employee and wishing them well. At the same time, he would look each person in the eye as an affirmation of that person’s individuality and to have, as he put it, a window to their soul.

Employees are encouraged to become versatile and explore other jobs. When I visited the school, I met Tamar, a man who had been a senior accountant for Sekem. Dr. Abouleish, recognizing in him a person who was kind, patient, good with kids, and skilled with his hands, encouraged him to consider becoming a teacher. This was such a radical change that it took a while for him to see the wisdom in it. Now Tamar takes immense pleasure in teaching wood carving and ceramics in the school. 

The Koran is said to have originally been addressed to three different constituencies, people at three different levels of development. There was no implication that one level was better than another, any more than a teen is better than a young child. Some live mainly in their senses and apprehend the world in a sentient way. They hold fast to family and tribe, and are less communicative and more emotional. Then there are those some apprehend the world in a primarily intellectual manner. They can live in ideas, but their belonging is still self-referential. Finally, some maintain a sensitivity to the interconnectedness of all beings. They assume the responsibility to heal what is broken. This path of inner development informs Sekem’s Core Program: to allow employees at all levels to nourish their confidence, creativity, and capacities so that they are able to gradually assume more and more responsibilities and to help their community and the world. 

There is a perception among Sekem leadership that we stand at the threshold of a new age. Along with thought leaders on other continents, like Bernard-Henri Lévy, Otto Scharmer, and Ken Wilber, they perceive an imperative for societies to change from a nationalist orientation to consider the whole environment in an integral way. As Helmy Abouleish states in his Vision 2057 report, “We see ourselves as a driver for the transformation that we need in our society. . . . We want to continue our journey . . . always staying connected to the core of our DNA: consciousness development.”

Early one morning, I step out from the guesthouse where I am staying and soon come to a palm tree with clusters of dates far up in the fronds. Farther along, I see a field of calendula, a sea of orange blooms that will be harvested to make tinctures and skin creams; farther still, a field of eggplant, melons, peppers of different colors, various other vegetables, all grown without chemicals. It’s not exactly the Garden of Eden, but it is a garden, a remarkable testament to what one person in one lifetime was able to set in motion.

Read more from Orion‘s Spring 2024 issue Rites of Nature here.

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Christopher Nye, poet and nature preserve manager, is at work on a book imagining a post-apocalyptic future in which sweeping change in all sectors is possible.