Spanning five decades and as many continents, Hippy Days, Arabian Nights is a funny, moving and compelling story of a woman whose extraordinary life will never be summarised by the words ‘could have’, ‘might have’, or ‘should have’. Whether it’s following her dreams pursuing what she believes in, or chasing matters of the heart, from the outset Australian artist Katherine Boland has grabbed life by the throat and jumped in feet first.
Part One: Hippy Days
One woman’s experience of life in a hippy community that sprang up in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales as part of the counterculture movement––an overlooked and relatively untapped period in Australian modern history. In 1976, Katherine and her boyfriend John, like many idealistic young students of the time, abandon their university studies and leave Melbourne to pursue a sustainable and independent life in the bush. Their earnest quest for a Utopian life in harmony with nature is both hilarious and serious: John finds himself reviving their dying goat with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the back of a ute while on the way to the vet; and, under the stars, alone in the bush, a pregnant and groaning Katherine goes into labour to the accompaniment of New Year’s Eve fireworks and the sympathetic mooing of a neighbour’s cow.
However, as Katherine reveals, even the strongest woman is vulnerable and the noblest of dreams can perish, observing as she does that in many families ‘peace, harmony and mung beans’ can founder on the back of drug addiction with its many consequences including family violence and child neglect.
It’s an extraordinary adventure: gruelling and wonderful in equal measure as she faces physical and economic hardship; and the perils of the intense Australian seasons, while negotiating the limits of a self-sustaining existence. A pioneer of a kind, her journey is fulfilling and sometimes dangerous. Katherine survives floods, fires and drought, but in the face of adversity, she remains optimistic and resolute.
When, as a result of a fatal bushfire, her marriage collapses and she abruptly leaves the bush and the life she loves, Katherine is forced to begin again. Back in the city, endeavouring to express and expunge the grief and anger that threaten to overwhelm her, she makes art, returning to the passion that had once led her to art school in the seventies. Katherine becomes a successful artist, exploring themes of fire and impermanence, using fire itself to make her artwork. She undertakes studio residencies in New York, Italy and France and travels the world.
Part Two: Arabian Nights
Prior to the Egyptian revolution in 2010, Katherine receives an invitation from the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to participate in an International Artists’ Symposium. And so begins her next fateful and totally unplanned foray into the unknown: falling head over heels in love (or is it lust!) for an Egyptian journalist 27 years her junior – at first sight. Her ideas and preconceptions about Islam and the Middle East are challenged as her relationship evolves and deepens over the next 6 years. Katherine repeatedly returns to Cairo to see her lover until the political situation in Egypt becomes so volatile that they are forced to meet elsewhere––in London, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.
Faced with the tyranny of distance, her lover’s jealous inclinations, cultural and religious chasms and an uncooperative Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Katherine and her lover’s feelings are tested to the maximum. Will Gamal’s family’s extreme opposition to their son’s relationship, her dilemma over the age gap, her transient existence and the devastating impact of the Global Financial Crisis on her art career be her undoing?
Drawing on her experiences in Egypt, Katherine provides an ‘up close and personal’ account of contemporary life in Egypt and the country’s trajectory since the revolution. Her intimate depiction of an Egyptian family and the fresh, unschooled perspective on this culture is at once engrossing and informative.