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Donia Fares

«Did you feel offended?»

Donia Fares is an Egyptian artist who is spending her summer in an artist residency in Lucerne. Her arrival in Switzerland was not easy – for various reasons. One woman’s question in a museum in Vienna particularly got her reflecting – about herself, the issues surrounding her figure as a veiled, Arab woman, and how the Western world views Others.

During my first weeks in Switzerland, I faced a cultural shock, but I quickly managed it. Except one thing: The way how people questioned everything related to how I live as an Egyptian woman and artist.

I contacted an Egyptian artist and good friend of mine who has stayed in many residencies around Europe and also in Switzerland. I told her about my feelings and asked if she had any tips to deal with them. She advised me to not take anything personal and to travel to Austria or Germany, especially Vienna or Berlin. «What is happening to you in Switzerland is a normal but sensitive thing as a veiled Muslim woman coming from the Middle East. Vienna and Berlin are very beautiful cities and so are the people», she said.

As she advised, I decided to travel to Austria. As my Swiss collogues had recommended, I asked an Austrian friend to write a letter for me, in which he explained the reason for my trip from Switzerland to Austria, and also mentioned the cities I would visit; «In case someone in the train has a bad day». My friend described my trip as artistic researchand professional activity. He even was so kind to invite me to stay in his old flat for lower costs.

In the train, as I sat in the midst of everyone – but I was not one of them – the inspector came, then the policemen asked for my passport. I gave it to them. «Reason for travel?», I told them. «Do you have any kind of proof?» I took out my German written papers. After minutes they gave it back to me without a word and went further.

First, I arrived in Linz. The city where my friend lives. Then I went to Vienna.

My friend decided to help me to find a place in Vienna as well, he contacted his brother to ask him to host me in his small flat. I got into the building, went up to the fifth floor, apartment No. 49, which had a black sign with white writing saying: «SPACE INVADERS AGAINST RACISM».

In Vienna I visited several museums. First the classic ones; afterwards the museums of modern art. On my last day, I decided to visit one of the biggest ones. I began the tour with the main collection and afterwards went to one of the temporary exhibitions. I found one that seemed interesting to me: A contemporary Austrian artist described by the museum as «(…) one of the most outstanding painters of our time. She was born into an artistic family, has studied in Vienna and London, and conceived the sets for theatre plays and opera, from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden to the Salzburg Festival. ». I had high expectations.

I moved around between the exhibition halls until I reached one with large paintings. In there were wooden benches to sit down while looking at the artwork. I was sitting in between two women. I was obviously different and felt this way too. To me it seemed that the paintings were about the issue of illegal immigration. Among them, there was a painting of two girls, one holding a hammer and the other one a knife; to defend their right to travel and themselves if someone decided to attack them. I was embarrassed; is that is how the Western people portrayed the Arabs‘ attempts to seek refuge in Europe? I started crying but quickly remembered my friends’ advice: «Remember to enjoy every second, Donia.»

I decided to move to another painting and suddenly one of the visitors decided to stop me. She started speaking in German to me. I apologized and asked her to speak in English. She repeated her question: «Did you feel offended by those paintings?» «Excuse me?» She continued: «I ask because I think the artworks’ statements are really offensive to any refugee in Europe, that’s why I wanted to ask you, because I’m thinking of complaining to the museum about it…» I interrupted her: «Actually, the offending thing here is your question! ». But no, I didn’t. I wanted to say it, but I backed off. I waited, then I said, «I don’t know. I’m not a refugee, I am just visiting Austria and my main stay is in Switzerland. But if you think those statements are offensive, then maybe they are». She replied, «Yes, they are. I will write to the museum and ask them to change them». I wished her a good day and she did too.

I moved towards another painting with annoyance; maybe because I didn’t expect such a situation happening to me, even in a museum. But it wasn’t just about her, it was also about me. Why did I start defending myself? Insisting that I am not a refugee? Why did I try to explain to her that I’m something «different» than that? Why did I feel offended?

I turned my face to see her again. She was standing around a group of people talking very seriously while they were moving their hands back and forth between me and the artworks.

I finished my tour and walked out of the museum to the train station.