Ilona Sābera – portfolio

blogging, journalism, semiotics, short stories

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A story of simplicity and fulfilment in Egypt’s South Sinai


There is a remote place in Egypt’s beautiful Sinai peninsula that seems an example of symbiotic co-existence of nature’s simplicity and human innovation. Not without a reason it is called Basata in Arabic meaning both – happiness and simplicity.

Mountains, desert and the Red Sea are surrounding a dozen of bamboo huts and clay chalets. It is claimed as one of the best beaches in the world. The water next to the coast in summer is as warm as in your bathtub. While swimming or snorkeling next to a coral rife with enjoy a company of colourful fish and when stepping out of the water, be careful not to touch a sand coloured crab who is escaping from you and burring himself a hole. Basata camp is an ecolodge – a place where owners and guests are taking care of natural resources, using solar energy and recycling waste.

It is a family enterprise and a community built on mutual respect and trust. Located between Nuweiba and Taba in South Sinai and being almost 500km from Cairo, getting there is an adventure itself so only the most committed and determined come. It is a place to reconnect with the nature and reflect.

Basata story starts 30 years ago when a young civil engineer from Cairo Sherif El Ghamrawy decided to break his daily routine and define the real priorities in life – nature, health, happiness and self-fulfillment.

“I got into this circle as everyone does– going to work in the morning and coming back in the evening. What had happened?” he asks himself in a TEDx talk. “When I was a student, I had big dreams and priorities. Where did they go?” He stopped for a moment to reflect: “My priorities are: to be happy, to have a good health, to live in a good environment and breath fresh air, to have success and in the end to have some money.”

Sherif acknowledged that as a beginner engineer he had some money and had started to gain some reputation. However, he was not happy and was suffering from Cairo’s pollution. He defied all the expectations of a prescribed successful engineering carrier Egypt and decided to start his own project in Sinai. At that time time where there was only one hotel on the whole Red Sea area. “I took a decision to emigrate from Egypt (Cairo) to Egypt,” he says.

Taking this decision was the easiest part, the real struggle had yet to begin. It took four years of bureaucratic ping-pong with local and national authorities to get the license and all the paperwork done. With a bit of luck, he managed to get the approval when the new government has just been installed. But that was not the last step. With the outset of the building works, he started receiving threats from the local Bedouin leaders. He was still considered an outsider, ‘a stranger from Cairo’ wanting to bring tourists without considering the local sensibilities. In the end he managed to get an agreement with them as well and now he is proudly wearing a traditional Bedouin gown while chatting with his guests at dinner time in Basata. He has a great sense of empathy and always finds a common language.


After a couple of years managing the camp, Sherif got married to a German women Maria Wuerfel who shared his dreams and priorities. The first four years of their married life, they lived in a bamboo hut on the beach, the last two of which – with their firstborn daughter. “They truly where the happiest years of my life,” says Sherif.

The first time I went to Basata I could not imagine such a place exists in an overcrowded, polluted and commercialized Egypt. But Sherif made me think of Egypt beyond Cairo and usual Red Sea tourist spots. I could feel the peace of Latvian forest there. Even Latvian Ambassador Iveta Šulca has visited Basata to discuss EU funding for Egypt’s development.


Each time we are getting back to the camp, I am driven to reconsider my own choices and priorities. What is my daily routine? What do I need for a general feeling of happiness and self-fulfillment? After years of searching for the meaning I am now looking for peace and a stable ground under my feet.

I want to be able to create and feel appreciated. I want to express and challenge myself and believes and convictions of others in a meaningful discussion. I am eager to fulfill my ambitions and dreams. I want my ‘work’ to be an integral part of my personality. I want a balance between routine, restriction and creativity.

I want to feel close to the nature, of course. I want to walk on the streets undisturbed and be able to find an escape to a forest when I wish and need it. I want to have a garden and eat healthy.

I have been looking for the right country and place to have it all and hope I have found it now in UK. While part of me will stay forever in Egypt and Latvia, I have to admit nothing happens without compromises.

On the cliffs surrounding Basata.

On the cliffs surrounding Basata.


Waking up in a bamboo hut on the beach

Waking up in a bamboo hut on the beach

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Latvian artists’ performances focus on disputable urban developments in Riga

While central part of Rīga, the capital of Latvia, is a renown tourist attraction with its Medieval Old Town and the largest number of Art Nouveau buildings in Northern Europe, Rīga’s suburbs are not so tidy. Only few bus stops out of downtown and cityscape becomes more confusing – post-soviet industrial legacy blending with new commercial ‘developments’, some of which causing ecological and financial disasters. For example, to provide a new building for the State Revenue Service (Valsts ieņēmumu dienests), the former government of Latvia signed a corrupt deal with private property developers and is now paying 532 thousand euros of taxpayers money in monthly rent (6,4 millions per year). And yet the same institution is asking citizens not to avoid taxes? This can happen only in Latvia.

Latvian performance artists this year decided to bring into spotlight places in Rīga which have seen many alterations during the course of history and recently are facing the inevitable consequences of profit-driven ‘development’ where just governance or sustainable and healthy environment is not a priority. In five performances called “The last picnic” (Pēdējais pikniks) starting in early spring and ending late autumn, organised by sculptor Gundega Evelone and friends, artists called participants for the last outdoor meal in various unusual places before they are completely converted for commercial of residential purpose.

I had a chance to take part and produce couple of videos from ‘the 3rd last picnic that took place between Mežaparks and Čiekurkalns districts in Rīga this July.

Photo credit: Ilona Sābera

Buildings in the background appearing in the middle of nowhere like mushrooms in the forest, the one on the right is the State Revenue Service still spending millions for taxpayers money in rent. Photo credit: Ilona Sābera.


Photo credit: Ilona Sābera

In this photo, taken from the opposite side, there are the old and the new building (blue) of TEC-1, the first heath power-plant in Latvia. The old part built in fifties is now a legacy of large scale industrialization taking place across the Soviet Union. Photo credit: Ilona Sābera.


In the first performance, Marta Elīna Martinsone is reading poetry by the famous Latvian Facebook cat Tors Traktors about a very emotional and sarcastic pet.


In the second performance, Gundega Evelone is telling a story about the sad face of a seagull with detached wing that was dying for three days alone in a harbor. The artist asked participants to make a viking burial boats to remember the heroic seagull.


Latvian proverb says: “Don’t cut the branch you are sitting on,” meaning do not damage the useful resources, such as the environment. In the third performance Alise Šaburova falls off the tree as she was sawing the branch she was sitting on. Alise falls into a swamp that was created unintentionally by engineers wanting to dry the surrounding land by closing a rill into the underground water pipes. But the rill violently broke out creating a wild sewerage swamp.


Video and photo materials from all five ‘Last picnics’ are displayed at National Library of Latvia in a retrospective exhibition organised by Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art and dedicated to one of the first Latvian multimedia artists late Hārdijs Lediņš. The exhibition, opened to public a couple of weeks ago, is available till 30th December.

Last picnics are buried in this symbolic 'summer coffin.' Photo credit: Didzis Grodzs.

Last picnics are buried in this symbolic ‘summer coffin.’ Photo credit: Didzis Grodzs.


Erased time

If one my previous reflection on political and social developments in Egypt followed Cairokee rhythm of music and lyrics, the soundtrack of this post will be Dalida. She an Italian Egyptian singer from 60-ties and 70-ties, longing for Egypt and the beauty of Alexandria.

Have you ever experienced a feeling when a certain period of time is erased from memory? When you return to a place that was once part of your well known routine and then all of a sudden the whole year spent away is shift-deleted? Continue reading


How to fit in a different country? Communicate, get over disappointment and reinvent identity.

SONY DSCWhen Margarita from Happy Abroad, a website giving tips on living in a different country, asked me to write about Egypt, I could not decide where to start. After three years in the country and a marriage to an Egyptian, am I the right person to give general advice? Can I still retrieve the feeling when I first came here without any work, study or personal commitments? I must admit the more time passes, the more my eyes and mind get accustomed and it takes effort to remember what impressed or amazed me before. While the first year was the hardest, it was also the most intense experience. I want to focus in this post on internal struggles I had to overcome to fit in a new place, taking into account that each experience is deeply personal. I want to talk about psychological states and social factors I had to consider to live in balance and peace in Egypt. Continue reading

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Constant defence mode: being a woman on Egyptian streets

If in my previous post I wrote about difficulties I face as a foreigner in Egypt, now I want to try to express a woman might feel. Even if sexual harassment in public places has been a permanent occurrence, especially in the last three years, a recent event has led to a harsh debate. A 19 years old Egyptian woman was sexually assaulted by a mob in Tahrir square during mass celebrations marking the inauguration of the new president. A completely naked and bleeding she was caught on video surrounded by dozens of men attacking and a helpless police officer. Continue reading


Changing place and people – a solution or an escape?


I am tired of fighting with people around me. I had a childhood dream to escape to a deep forest and live with birds and goats around me. I could have easily become a crazy cat lady and live happily ever after. I have a friend, a Latvian woman who, while witnessing urban expansion of my hometown Ogre, still struggles to make a living owning a small flock of goats. Every time I meet her, she repeats: “I love to talk to my goats more than to people”.

I need silence around me, a deep silence of a Latvian sunrise over the wheat fields. Just in this kind of silence I can hear my thoughts. Probably it is Egyptian constant fear of silence and empty places that makes living here so hard for a newcomer.

I tried to recreate a glimpse of my childhood memories by taking care of a ‘green corner’ on my balcony where I can lay down on the ground, watch plants blossoming and read a book alone. I can stay like that for days without leaving my flat. Continue reading

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Becoming a “paper muslim” to get married in Egypt

‘You must be Muslim in your heart to get my blessing for your marriage’, her mother told me. As much as I hoped for her blessing I could not promise my heart to something I didn’t understand, I could only promise what I knew – that I would and do love Mariam with all my heart. I cannot lie to those I care about, not even if it’s what they want to hear. This is the story of James who had no choice except lying to the state in order to get social recognition of his love.

Religion and citizenship

In a country where religion, state institution and legislation are strictly bounded, private choices often are subject to a cautious verification process. When personal attitudes and beliefs are regulated by countless bureaucratic steps can they still serve their initial purpose? Stuck in the crowded corridors, piled up on the dusted desks, handwritten countless times by apathetic employees in the official registry books. This is how personal attitudes become institutionalised truths. In such circumstances rule exceptions may be impossible to obtain. Continue reading


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Ilona Sabera Saint Catherine

Esmu atjaunojusi blogu un rakstu šeit pēc gada pārtraukuma. Kādreiz mākslas skolā mēdzām jokot par atrofējušos roku, kurai zīmulis vairs neklausa. Šoreiz ceru, ka datortaustiņi spēs nodot pieredzēto.

Reizēm negribas runāt, bail pāršķelt ietērpjošo klusumu ar lieku vārdu. Bezrūpīgi noslēgties mikrokosmā, prom no ļaunās acs. Tikai kad tuvības trauslums ir nostiprināts, atpakaļceļš ved uz ārpasauli. Notikumi loģiski sekoja viens otram, kad pašpietiekami gozēties sociālo tīklu saulītē sāka likties muļķīgi. Tā vietā gribējās pilnībā izraut kontaktdakšu. Continue reading

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Getting out of your comfort zone

Sharing our stories

I am going to tell you my story that brought me here, because I believe that we can build a common European future just starting from a personal level. So to share Europe, first we must share our stories.

Discovering people and places

Latvia’s territory is bigger than Belgium, but we are just 2 million people. So after knowing everybody in my country, I decided that I need to travel. I wanted to expand my worldview and just followed opportunities. Soon I realized that far more important than seeing monuments in European capitals is exploring personalities and lifestyles of people living there. And thanks to a really wonderful people I met on my way, I got inspired to move on. Actually it started when I was 15 and I took part in European Commission’s Youth Exchange programme were I spent unforgettable 9 days in Lithuanian countryside with the best people I could imagine. It was quite tough, we had to take a shower in the nearest sauna and cooked our dinner on the fire, but still I met so nice and funny Italian group that inspired me to start learning Italian. And finally after 5 years I fulfilled my dream and went to Erasmus to Italy and latter I continued my masters studies there. Continue reading

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Searching for the meaning

Being a semiotician makes me wonder about the meaning which is revealed in our actions, practices, relations and texts. What creates the common sense and what are the social dynamics of meaning making process? What is the broader meaning of the logic of a culture? These are the questions which attracted me in semiotics, but even if I found some instruments to apply in this personal research, I still want to go deeper, learning other approaches and exploring additional answers to my inquiries. Continue reading