30 Jul 2019
Nuweiba, Egypt
Organic Food and Agriculture

“No matter what you do with your life, be passionate.” These words — uttered by US rockstar Jon Bon Jovi, no less — have inspired Mohammed Khaled and Gihan Zakaria in their quest to turn arid Egyptian wasteland into a sustainable oasis. In August 2016, the couple left Cairo and plunged their savings into creating Dar Jan, an organic farm and community art project outside Nuweiba.

Khaled cheerfully quotes an eclectic range of sages — from Bon Jovi to Thomas Jefferson to Kurt Vonnegut — all of whom extol the kind of hard work on display at Dar Jan. Within three years, Dar Jan is already selling organic herbs and local handicrafts, running workshops for children and adults, and drawing up ambitious plans for expansion. “Nothing is easy in life,” said Khaled, “but a life full of challenges is a rich one.”

This ethos of patience has held Khaled and Zakaria in good stead, given the enormity of their undertaking at Dar Jan. The couple toiled for a full 18 months before producing high-quality herbs. First, they needed to lay vital infrastructure like wells and irrigation channels, and then wait for their new plants to mature.

Today, Dar Jan sells a catalogue of organic dried herbs that includes lemongrass, lavender, rosemary, sweet marjoram and horsemint. The business also raises revenue through its handmade handicrafts of leather, wood and natural fabrics. “We are on the road to self-sustainability,” Khaled said.

Dar Jan is also developing a strong reputation as a venue for cultural collaboration. Artists are welcome to exchange skills, and Dar Jan runs monthly workshops for children who want to experience life closer to nature. By 2020, Khaled and Zakaria want to implement a knowledge sharing program between local Bedouins and visiting artists.

Unsurprisingly, the couple’s ambitious project throws up some obstacles. Dar Jan does not have any external funding sources yet, although it gladly accepts help from any volunteers who want to contribute their skills and labor. Financial support would accelerate Dar Jan’s long-term development plan, which envisages facilities for composting and grey water treatment, a sewing workshop, and a classroom for teaching Bedouin children.

Khaled also points out that Mother Nature herself can prove a considerable hurdle, especially in the arid surrounds of the Sinai. The harsh environment amplifies the perils of climate change, already the biggest threat to agriculture projects the world over. Dar Jan faces some unique natural foes too — not least the rogue camels who chewed through trees while Khaled and Zakaria were on a June holiday. 

Nevertheless, Khaled maintains a healthy focus on the gradual achievement of milestones — some big, some small. Just recently, Dar Jan celebrated eating its first high-quality guava crop, while also making its debut in the lucrative Cairo market. 

This positive, step-by-step approach comes as no surprise from Khaled, who chose his favorite moment with Dar Jan as follows: “Every time a seed sprouts and pushes the soil up to reach for sunlight — that moment is magical, every single time.”

 

Learn more about Dar Jan through Facebook.

Photos courtesy of Dar Jan

Since completing his MA in Middle Eastern Studies two years ago, David has worked as a freelance writer based in Cairo and Beirut.David Wood
Egyptians build organic farm and art space amidst harsh desert and hungry camels | The Switchers
Dar Jan Organic Food and Agriculture
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