The second you enter the house of the Sufi artist Rana Chalabi you immediately feel at peace. Her abode is an apartment that is situated in a quiet side street in Maadi. I was asked to take off my shoes by the door and change into flip flops, and there in white flip flops I entered a comfortable room that resembles her paintings; spacious and serene with a lot of empty space. The hallway had a small fountain with a soothing sound, which immediately makes you feel like lying on the cushion and phasing out.
“We looked at 26 houses before we chose that one,” Chalabi said “When I first entered I knew it was the house I want to live in. Its energy was peaceful.” She feels that when choosing the right house is not based on logic.
From Syrian and Lebanese origins, Chalabi came to Egypt 29 years ago to live for year. She’s still living here till this day. “My Egyptian friends are like my family,” she said “there is human warmth that is missing in the West.” Then she recalled her very first memories of Egypt. “It’s funny that I came to Cairo when I was thirteen and I thought- that’s a beautiful place I’d like to come back- of course, there were only two cars in the street back then,” she said laughing.
It is strange to think of a Sufi artist stuck in Cairo’s traffic and staying in composure or at peace, but Chalabi believes that one can. “Feeling Zen is a state of mind,” she said “one can be in this state of mind anywhere.” To deal with traffic Chalabi sings at the top of her lungs.
Music plays a big part in Chalabi’s life. She listens to music while drawing and recently she took up singing. “I have a very bad voice,” she laughed “but I still enjoy it.” She likes new-age music, fusion mixed with Asian and Western music. She also loves classical music and describes Bach’s music as mystical.
“Drawing is my life. All my life I used to draw,” she said “When I draw, I feel like a vessel. What I create comes from within,” she added, “when I look at a painting I wonder how I did it, and I can never re-create a painting.” When she’s in her trance-like states she sometimes doesn’t even hear when people call her. “To create is to tap into something that’s not yours,” she said. Chalabi believes that art can’t be forced and during the phases when the muses are not speaking to her, she spends her time reading or doodling.
“I can paint anywhere,” she said, “when we first moved in here I used to paint in the corner of the dining room.” However, she would like to have a huge studio with huge walls, to enable her to paint big murals and do some sculpting.
Now she’s auditing for a course at the AUC to learn etching, which is engraving on a piece of metal. “I don’t know what I’ll do with it, but I like to discover new means for expression,” she said adding that she likes using mixed media like printing with oil. She feels that this gives her liberation. “There’s no limit to what one can do,” she said.
Her influences vary, but she admires Japanese art. “It’s minimalist. It has pure lines and a lot of negative space. It is highly evolved,” she said. One of the artists she also admires is Matisse.
Another big influence, on her life views, is Sheikh Mohamed Nazim. As her husband was looking for a spiritual guide, she got to know him. “I loved him as a person,” she said, “he is a real human being, self-less and in service to humanity.” Of the famous Sufi leaders, she likes the teachings of Ibn Arabi. “Stories of the Sufi masters are very inspiring,” she said.
She also does homeopathy. “I never liked pharmaceutical drugs,” she said and I wanted to find a gentler cure to ailments. Her belief in homeopathy strengthened when her son got very ill. They didn’t know if he had cancer or tuberculosis. When he got treated by a Greek homeopathy doctor called George Vithoulkas she had a revelation. Now she’s been doing it for 12 years without charging people.
Though many might be skeptical of her beliefs, she is well set in her ways. Choosing a way of life and a religion is for her like choosing a house. “When you’re in the right one you know it,” she said.