Arts & Culture

Between Olive Trees and Horses: Nuweiba’s Unique Wilderness Therapy Centre

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Between Olive Trees and Horses: Nuweiba’s Unique Wilderness Therapy Centre

Photo courtesy of Samir Tal’at.

In October 2020, I moved to the Bedouin town of Dahab in South Sinai. A couple of weeks later, I found myself in Nuweiba, where I visited a peculiar Wilderness Therapy Centre under construction. Back then, it was a vast empty land, with olive trees struggling to survive the dry desert environment and a single hut next to a sole acacia tree.

Photo by Veronica Merlo.

Now, that place looks different, with thriving olive trees, growing palm trees, various plants, as well as three huts; the workers’ houses, a stable, two arenas, in addition to horses, camels, goats and dogs. he entire land is charged with a peaceful and revitalizing energy.

Manifestly, the current environment reflects the owner’s strenuous work and the positive vibes that every person who came to help has left.

From hiking in the desert to building the center: Abdussalam’s evolving journey
Behind the essence of this unique project in the Southern Sinai Peninsula is Belal Abdussalam, the land’s owner.

Originally from Alexandria, Belal has lived in Dahab since 2016. Coming to Sinai in need of a break from his hectic work life and in recovery after the painful loss of his child, Belal immediately established a profound connection to the land.

“I felt there was something attracting me to the desert to always come back. You know, the [feeling of belonging],”Abdussalam says.

While walking in the immense desert, sometimes alone, other times with either local Bedouins or travellers, Belal would increasingly reconnect with himself, growing immense self-awareness. He would write questions, insights, and words on his notebook every time he felt there was something worth noting down.

In the meantime, he developed a deep knowledge of the area, the local Bedouin culture, traditions, and language. After six months of intense exploration across Sinai, it was with little hesitation that Belal decided to settle in Dahab and dedicate his life to share what he had experienced. His journey of recovery had just started, and with it, his project Insights Seekers.

 

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Drawing from the lessons learnt during his time in the desert, Belal designed trekking, rock-climbing, and horseback riding expeditions in the wilderness to be an alternative for those who seek healing and self-discovery. Insights Seekers’ outdoor activities are meant to foster a favourable environment for purposeful growth.

After five years leading successful expeditions, where foreigners, Egyptians and members of the local Bedouin community have repeatedly come together in the wilderness to share incredibly life-changing experiences, a sudden opportunity presented itself to Belal.

At the beginning of 2020, at his return from the Umrah, the minor Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, his dream of founding a Wilderness Therapy Centre in the Sinai mountains became feasible when a land as large as eight feddans became available for sale in the neighbouring town of Nuweiba. Belal took the risk and bought it.

His intention was clear: to found a physical home for the Insights Seekers’ community, offering a safe retreat for people seeking the best versions of themselves through communicating with nature, outdoors activities and, most importantly, being in the company of animals with incredible healing powers: horses.

Wilderness therapy and equine therapy

Based on Insights Seekers’ founding mission, which is to accompany those seeking the best versions of themselves, Belal envisioned to grow, from that deserted land, a Wilderness Therapy Centre.

While the term wilderness therapy could be confusing as it includes a variety of definitions related to interpersonal self-improvement in the wilderness, listening to Belal’s specific perception of the term brings clarity to the topic. In his view, outdoor activities in the wilderness constitute the perfect alternative for healing, as they enable people to find the much-needed time and space to reconnect with themselves, in harmony with the surrounding environment.

The passionate testimonials from people joining Insights Seekers’ expeditions cannot but confirm what research has long strived to prove. Contact with nature represents one of the most powerful tools to stimulate people to engage in a journey of self-discovery, inspiring the quest for a meaningful and joyful life.

For this reason, Belal has envisioned his Wilderness Therapy Centre in the quiet town of Nuweiba, away from urban distractions. Protected by a chain of majestic, dark-coloured mountains and outlooking a vast, calm blue sea, his chosen piece of land would host various activities designed to promote healing and self-discovery.

Remarkably, horses would be the protagonists of Insights Seekers’ mission. Having experienced firsthand the extraordinary healing powers of horses, Belal developed a deep knowledge of the interaction between humans and horses through specialized courses, readings and constant training.


Therefore, the Equine-assisted therapy represents a cornerstone of this wilderness retreat program.
Belal knew that challenges would come in the way of his ambitious project yet he was undeterred.

Consistency and faith: overcoming challenges on the way

Out of nothing, Belal has been able to literally grow life, as there are now plants, animals and people animating that once deserted space.

To arrive at this result, he endured a long strenuous journey that began in March 2020. Belal has been driving back and forth between Dahab and Nuweiba every Thursday and Sunday, in normal times, and every day of the week, when necessary.

“I almost gave up when I saw [my] well-being destroyed. Yet, something inside me was telling me to go on,” says Belal.

The difficulties encountered while building a well to bring running water to the land have constituted one of the major critical points of the process. After three failed attempts, the well now runs at a depth of 25 meters.

Equally challenging was transporting the animals to the farm, which wasn’t an easy task. Nevertheless, Belal was able to coordinate between the different people needed and to use the only available means at his disposal to make this happen.

The horse stable, built in an extraordinarily quick time by the workers, currently hosts five horses: Zain, Tamim, Nidal, Bahr and Ward, who are all trained in two large arenas. The camels, Baraka and Hosn, peacefully enjoy the shade of an acacia tree whereas goats are left at large, living in the company of the dogs that inhabit the land.

Belal’s hard work, coupled with his commitment and strong faith, were necessary elements to achieve concrete results. The participation of over 50 volunteers has also proven instrumental to the process.

Collecting stones and exchanging insights: volunteers’ precious contribution

“Build your architecture from what is beneath your feet,” renowned Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy (1900-1989) often said. Inspired by this principle, Belal looked beneath his feet to find the material he would use to build: stones.

Collecting stones has therefore become a principal activity for volunteers coming to the farm. Thanks to the volunteers’ precious help, workers could build the present toilet, kitchen, houses, stables and additional constructions.

Through this apparently insignificant task, volunteers have found an amount of surprising benefits.

“It was great to do physical work on the farm. I felt my body reactivated and my mind cleared up,” says Mohammad Sobh, one of the volunteers who participated in the project.

Working with the volunteers myself, I have felt the enriching value of this experience. Notably, collecting stones has reminded us of core human principles, such as humility and patience.

Equally, it allowed us to feel a strong connection to the earth, by bowing down, digging the ground, and picking up the stones. It was also a very satisfying activity because we could see the fruit of our labor at the end of the day in the form of piles of gathered stones. Last but not least, it created unity, as strong bonds flourished between people sharing time and effort in that natural environment.

From dream to reality

“This picture was in my dreams. You reconnect on a deeper level with horses when it is with their consent,” Belal wrote in an Instagram post dated February 26 [2021], less than a year after the project was initiated.

In this case, purity of intention, fervent passion and strenuous commitment paved the way for a successful journey. Despite evident challenges, Belal has ceaselessly pursued his goals, surrounded by a solid support system and guided by a strong faith.

Positively, a large number of people will benefit from his work, finding healing, relief and inspiration from the simple magnificence and power of nature.
“This place represents hope. Out of nothing, we grew life,” says Belal.

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Born in Italy, Veronica completed her university studies in France, at SciencesPo Paris. She arrived in Egypt in 2017 to study Arabic. She has ever since desired to build a life there, driven by a desire to learn deeper Arabic and to explore the internal variety of that country. While completing her Master degree in Paris, she continued travelling to Egypt, for short visits and for a journalism internship. Veronica started sharing her experience, through her journalistic work, a conference in her hometown, and, particularly, through social media platforms. Her Instagram and Facebook pages “almuhit_theocean” constitute the main tools that she uses on a daily basis to expose the beauty of what she has the chance to experience. There, she combines pictures from the everyday life in Egypt with Arabic and Egyptian expressions. After graduation, she moved to Sinai. During the process of writing a book on her first experience in Egypt, she has reaffirmed her passion to deepen her knowledge of Arabic and Egypt and then share it. She enthusiastically continues travelling around the country, expanding her Arabic vocabulary, participating in local projects, reporting on conferences in Cairo, developing her network in Egypt, and learning new practices such as the art of Arabic Calligraphy. Thus, Veronica is committed to dedicate her life to share what she has learned in Egypt, in an attempt to offer an alternative image of the country from the one presented in the media, while promoting intercultural and interreligious exchange.

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