Olfet Agrama, Egyptian-born “Renaissance Woman” Known for Her Painting and Sculpture, Adds Novel-writing to Her Resume

by Anne Holmes on April 8, 2015

Olfet  AgramaA warm, international welcome to Olfet Agrama, who is, as far as we know, NABBW’s first Egyptian-born member.

Though she lives an international lifestyle now, Olfet was born in Cairo, Egypt and grew up during the 1950s, a time when the country was at a cultural and political crossroads.

Traditionally the Muslim women of Egypt – just as they were elsewhere – were raised in a very cloistered manner, trained to be subservient, second class citizens, governed by a strict religious ethic and male dominated society. The goal: to prepare for a life dictated to them first by their fathers and later by their husbands.

But just as happened in other parts of the world, right after the Second World War, cultural changes began to brew in Egypt. It was a time of military revolution and cultural upheaval. As a result, Olfet  was able to attend a private school, where she was exposed to girls who led more emancipated lives.  Scrambling to enjoy these freedoms herself, she eventually earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Ein Shams in Cairo.

Next, she broke with tradition by teaching English literature and grammar at the University of Cairo. And when she was 24 years old, she came to the U.S. and received a master’s degree in English Literature from the University of California.

Olfet_ Henna-Cairo These days, Olfet also enjoys playing the piano, reading, painting and sculpting. Some of her favorite artists are the Fauves: Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Raol Dufy and Georges Braque. Like the Fauves, she paints nature and people in her own bright palette, which reflects an optimistic view of the world.

After taking art courses in Los Angeles, Spain and France she has had single and group exhibitions showcased internationally in cities including Paris, Madrid, Nagasaki, Japan and Los Angeles, California. (A few of her paintings are reproduced here.)

Later, Agrama became CEO of Intersound, a dubbing and post production studio in Los Angeles where she still sits on the board of directors at Harmony Gold, a television production and distribution company.

Most recently, this pioneering woman has tackled a new creative medium, novel writing. And since all authors are advised to write about what they know, Olfet’s first book, “At the Crossroad,” is loosely based on the people she knew growing up, and the experiences they lived, during that volatile transitional period of the 1950s and 60s. She’s currently working on a second novel.

We heartily recommend At the Crossroad. It is a book that provides you with a realistic front row seat to a time when the young Egyptians were attempting to straddle two cultures. The question they needed to answer being: will they rebel against their parents or submit to tradition?  An eternal question, that many other authors, in other evolving cultures have also addressed.

Using four characters, friends who each have slightly different backgrounds, Agrama skillfully depicts a range of emotions – from  loneliness to elation, from confusion to fulfillment, from humiliation to hope,  she tells their revolutionary Egyptian story.

Meanwhile, we caught up with Olfet during one of her recent trips to the United States, and asked her our favorite NABBW blog questions. Here’s what we learned:

Using one paragraph, tell us a bit about yourself?

Olfet_one more paintingI was born in Cairo Egypt to a conservative family. I got married very young and went to college after my marriage. I immigrated with my husband and two children to the USA at age 24. I earned a Master’s degree in English literature from UCLA.

My life was nomadic. I lived in Lebanon for four years, Italy for eight years, London for one year and Spain for too many years. Now I divide my time between Paris and Los Angeles.

Tell us about your family

I have two brothers living in Cairo and numerous cousins, nieces and nephews. I have two children and five grandchildren all living in Los Angeles. We have a private family business – film production and distribution.

What is your favorite childhood memory that is reminiscent of growing up in the 50s, 60s and 70s?

My favorite early memory is the celebration of the Moslem feast. We all went to our grandparent’s home and each received a silver coin worth about a dime. We then went out into the street and bought candy and watched the itinerant puppet show.

What qualities do you have that speak of our generation of women?

I think I share with today’s women the fact that I raised a family while pursuing my education and having a career. It was not common in Egypt while I was growing up.

What inspires you?

The women who fought for women’s rights in Egypt. They succeeded in gaining the right to vote and just as important lifting the veil off women’s faces.

What brings you the most pleasure in midlife?

My children and grandchildren bring me pleasure.

Do you have any interesting hobbies?Olfet Crossroad

Other than being a writer, I enjoy playing the piano, reading, painting and sculpting. I like the Fauves and I paint nature and people in my own palette. My paintings reflect an optimistic view of the world. I have had single and group exhibitions of my artwork in galleries in the U.S., Far East and Europe.

Do you have a favorite book or movie? If so, tell us why it’s your favorite.

It is difficult to say which is my favourite book. In Arabic I love Naguib Mahfouz and I also love the Bronte Sisters. Wuthering Heights was my favorite book as an adolescent. I also like Balzac for his down to earth, realistic portrayal of the human comedy.

Do you travel and if so, who are your favorite travel partners and where do you like to go?

I travel a great deal. I like to go to exotic places like Africa for a safari; Iceland and Greenland for the whales, hot geysers springing from the earth and the Inuit culture. Europe is always a cultural experience. It feeds my passion for the art . I enjoy ancient cities like Rome and Athens.

My favorite trip of all is up the Nile to Luxor and Aswan. Nothing equals the magnificence of the ancient Egyptian monuments nor the full moon reflected on the Nile.

Do you practice preventive medicine?

I exercise three times a week and I watch my diet. I take vitamins and supplements. I don’t smoke and rarely drink alcoholic drinks.

What do you stress about?

Everything, I try to do too much and feel frustrated when I don’t accomplish what I start.

Is it important for you to retain your youthful looks, and if so, to what degree are you willing to go?

Maintaining a youthful look is a losing battle but I would do anything to preserve it — surgical operations, creams, diets, massages anything that promises a miracle-though I don’t believe in miracles.

Olfet_ Bedouin-WomanHave you re-invented yourself, and if so, how?

  • I went to college in a society that looked down and feared education for women.
  • I followed my husband to the New World at the cost of losing the comfort of a secure home and the loss of family and friends.
  • I changed my career to work in the movie business after studying for years to get a Ph.D in literature.

Do you plan to retire?

I am semi-retired from the business world but I am very involved in writing and painting. There is no question of retiring.

Are you doing anything to GO Green?

I don’t drink water from plastic bottles. I have two bags in my car for grocery shopping. I drive a hybrid car that reduces emissions. I recycle paper and cans. I eat organic food.

Can you pinpoint major turning points in your life that led to your life’s work/play at midlife?

The first turning point was marrying for love against tradition and custom. Then it was going to a University after getting married. The third was immigrating to the United States and adapting to a different culture. The fourth turning point was I rejected all religions as such.

Olfet_Fatma's-HandsDo you still have unfulfilled dreams?

I would like to write more and better books and paint more and better pictures.

How do you make a difference in the lives of others, your community. your world?

I support organizations that help women to gain their rights and their dignity.
I support human rights organizations. I support Arab American organizations that promote the Arab culture and seek to improve the image of Arabs in the USA.

Who has had the biggest influence on your life and why?

First and foremost it was my husband, who pushed me to be independent and encouraged me in whatever endeavor I started.

Also, I’ve been influenced by the brave Egyptian women who, at the turn of the century, fought for women’s rights and for their freedom from archaic customs.

If you were to have a personal mission statement, what would it be?

I would like to live life to the fullest. I’d like to inspire my children to be better than I am. I’d like to leave behind lasting memories in the form of literature and art, and to contribute to a better understanding among people of diverse origins and beliefs.


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