In the footsteps of Cleopatra

One of the final voyages my grandparents made before my grandfather passed away was Egypt. They brought back gifts for all their grandchildren. I was given a pyramid filled with gold sparkling dust, the pharaohs head afloat in the center. Every night, I would hold the pyramid in my palms, shake up the golden dust and watch it settle, then very gently place it underneath my pillow before resting my eyes. Growing up, we had no art in our house, except for a framed sheet of Papyrus in the middle of our living room. I always admired it but never questioned it.


When in 2017, Jesse invited me to create a photo story in Egypt, my being filled with excitement. It was a dream to dance in Cleopatra’s footprints. With a shaven head, I went to buy some eyeliner, not knowing I would soon make a pirouette into history.


From the moment I stepped off the plane, I found it hard to breath. The air was remarkably dry. My nose, lips, eyes, in fact all my senses were signaling the unhealthy environment. Staring out the dusted taxi window, prayers playing on the radio, I noticed the streets crowded with 90% of men. Almost all of them appeared to be carrying more than their physical weight. A stark imbalance was blowing through this land.

Jesse assured our hotel was located as close as possible to the pyramids. Our terrace was overlooking the entire plateau. If I would sit up straight in my bed I could see the peak of the central pyramid. After a short 5 minute rest, we felt inspired to go out and explore. Instead of the lush Nile, a sea of people was streaming through the desert now. It was quite the wrestle to get through the crowd, but when I suddenly looked up, the Sphinx stared right at me. I felt overwhelmed by its majesty. Not very long after, we were standing within the remnants of a ruin on the right side of the outermost pyramid. A feeling of ease penetrated me. And before I was aware, I was naked. Tiptoeing on the rocks, my fingers softly slid down the ruptured walls with the 3 pyramids filling my sight. My body entered a state off calm hyper consciousness, freeing my soul to travel back in time. I can not explain with words what I experienced in those moments, but it felt as if I had arrived back home. I was standing in the same desert, yet before my eyes I saw the white shimmering pyramids transform into crumbling ruins. I witnessed half-covered bodies dressed in white linnen dancing in the wind. As I blinked, everyone was clothed pitch-black.


For 5 continuous days during dawn and dusk, we photographed with the pyramids as our theatrical background. We then traversed to Ethiopia to live among the Surma tribe for two weeks. A strong switch of channel. Arriving in the Omo Valley, we were welcomed and surrounded by free uncorrupted souls amidst raw nature. To bathe in their rivers was another dream I was now living. However, our return to Egypt had always been approaching. We were bound to continue our story in Luxor. Even though, our bodies and minds weren’t entirely in the mood to walk on religious grounds again, we felt a deep sense of determination. 


Just like in Caïro, the temples were overflowing with tourists. While we thought Giza was overly secured, in the Karnak temple, there were about five guards for each pillar. We patiently waited in the furthest chamber until the quietness before closing time calmed the atmosphere. Soon enough dust was swooping up underneath my soles again. The insight that probably no one had ever danced naked in this temple since the Kingdom of the Goddesses, made me spin faster. As I wholeheartedly pivoted, a turbaned man was standing perplexed behind Jesse, holding my jumpsuit in one hand, his flip phone in the other. My surprised eyes made Jesse turn in an instant. With force he tore my clothes out of the man’s belonging. I hid behind the pillar. The turbaned man was committed to capture a photo for proof. This entire scene felt as if we had now entered a savage comic book. With opposing intentions, the turbaned man and I were circling around the pillar, for I do not know, how many turns. He stuck out his phone almost beyond the span of his arm as he kept yelling in anguish. While focused on hiding from his sight, I was coordinating with Jesse for the perfect moment to throw the dress in my direction. I caught it, jumped into it and in a split second we landed back in reality, where we now had to face the consequences of our actions.


By the time we reached the exit gate, 10 guards were shepherding us into the hands of the police. But before we arrived and they multiplied, Jesse emptied the card. Poof, no proof. Immediately Jesse was demanded to hand over the camera. They couldn’t figure out how to switch it on, so Jesse politely assisted them. ‘No images’. ‘Where are the photos?!’ they asked. We tell them we were just testing the light and that we didn’t take any photos yet. We also tell them I was wearing skin colored underwear and that I definitely was not naked. They wouldn’t believe us. They strip-searched Jesse and confiscated our phones. For the next 24 hours we were pulled around like dogs from one police station to the next. 

I supposed Egyptian prison would be different then in Belgium or any Westernized country but I had no idea what to expect. The first cell we faced was packed with at least 20 men, some laying passed out on the floor, some yelling and squeezing their bleeding hands through the rails. One man was shot in the head, he needed urgent care but had to stand with his face against the wall. Jesse kept whispering to me, ‘Marisa don’t look’ but there was no way I could not. Our interaction altered between states of disbelieve, to laughter, to anger, to pointing fingers at each other, to utter silence. It was a complete rollercoaster of emotions. Several moments we truly believed we were never going to see the light of day again. The language barrier made it incredibly complicated to grasp what was happening around us. None of the officers had a humane demeanor and I had to endure many inappropriate sexual energies. 


At the 6th police station we are given the conclusion we have to appear in court. There we would learn about the consequences, they said. Arriving at the courthouse, I thought to myself, this is our end. The building looked like a parking garage with no signs of an officially acclaimed building. We were guided upstairs where we had to wait in the dark for several hours. Until we are suddenly ordered to the office of the judge. For some miraculous reason and because the fact that there was no proof of actual public nudity, we are merely given a warning, ‘not to do something so shameful ever again’. We nodded simultaneously. The moment I pulled the hotel door in its lock behind my back, I fell into a crying collapse. I pulled myself up on the sink, stared in the mirror, barely believing I was still here. The next day I flew back to Belgium, Jesse stayed and visited one of the police stations to successfully receive a copy of our statements. And with special software he also retrieved all our images.

One year after this event I planned a free-diving trip with a friend in Dahab, Egypt. After passing passport control in Sharm El Sheikh, I was interrupted and interrogated. My entry was cancelled and I was rudely escorted on the next flight back to Belgium. I ended up spending 48 hours at the airport under extreme supervision.


This experience was the catalyst for my exploration deep into the history of nudity, arts and religion. Being blacklisted from a land you adore is disheartening but it was one of the most insightful learning journeys. To me, that is worth a sacrifice.

Tunisia - Photograph by Lehnert & Landrock (1915)

Photography by Jesse Walker
Sunglasses by ENKI

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