Helena Ameisen comes from a culturally and linguistically diverse background. She emigrated with her family from Poland to Australia at the tender age of five. She has won literature prizes for poetry and writing since secondary school.
Formerly a speech pathologist in human communication disorders and specialising in voice, she also worked in community theatre, film, television and did voice-over work for SBS and the ABC and presented film and theatre reviews on 2SER FM radio.
She has diligently diarised her travels to exotic destinations since her first solo trip to South East Asia in the early seventies.
On a yearlong trip abroad in 1981 she met her future husband and married life took her to Egypt for eighteen years from 1985 – 2003. Her poetry was published in the Language of Memory, a part of the Under a Quicksilver Moon series whilst living in Egypt. Upon her husband’s untimely death, she returned to Australia with her two children.
After resettling in Sydney, she completed the Unlocking Creativity and First Draft courses at the Writers’ Studio to begin her memoir and later joined a writers’ group (Write On!) at the NSW Writers’ Centre.
In 2013, she won a one-year mentorship from the ASA. She published a short story with That Authors Collective (TAC) in First Press and a short story ‘Conch in St Kitts’ was published in the paperback anthology ‘With Gusto,’ with members of the ‘Write On!’ group. The past year she has been attending a writers group at the Sydney School of Arts and Humanities and has completed Volume 1 of her memoir. She has presented her work at Balmain Institute and a reading, interview and Q&A at Woollahra Library, plus talks at women’s and writers groups and book clubs around Sydney.
She is currently completing her Volume 2 of her memoir about her tumultuous love affair and life in Egypt as a western woman of Jewish, Polish-Russian heritage married to a Muslim man seventeen years her senior. It focuses on cross-cultural differences and similarities experienced in her day to day life and the challenges of interfaith relationships. Focusing on what unites people rather than what divides them, it is a message of hope and testimony to the fact that religious, social and cultural obstacles can be overcome. With mutual love, tolerance and understanding, peaceful coexistence is possible.
Synopsis of the Reading, Interview by Robin Evans Dinh and Q&A at Woollahra Library -16 July 2017.
In July 2017, Helena gave a talk at the Woollahra Library in Double Bay about the background to her memoir “Maktoub – It is Written.” (Working title.)
It entailed a brief reading followed by a series of questions from an interviewer which elicited a broad sweep of experiences, insights and changing attitudes during her 18 years spent in Egypt, against a shifting political and religious backdrop covering Sadat’s assassination, the Gulf War, the Muslim Brotherhood and rise of fundamentalism, terrorist attacks in Luxor, Cairo and resorts in the Red Sea on the Sinai peninsula culminating in the destruction of the World Trade Towers on Sept 11 in 2001.
Questions such as ‘Did your experience in Egypt challenge assumptions you held previously about life? If so, in what way?’ opened a discussion about restrictions on freedom, especially for women including dress code, professional opportunities, communication and interactions with the opposite sex, personal and professional friendships, social etiquette, attitudes towards western women and how to navigate these and other situations in response to ‘What surprised you, where the opposite applied?’
‘What kind of challenges did you face and how did you deal with these?’ covered cruelty to animals and children, specifically children with special needs; the stigma of disability, lack of education and sheer ignorance about general health and safety leading to anecdotes about bottle-feeding cola to a 6 month old baby and driving with infants on their laps.
The mystifying terrain of time, the cost of things…how much to pay, how hard to bargain and how much to tip were never-ending realms of surprise and frustration that an intrepid foreigner had to wade through on a daily basis.
‘What would you like others to appreciate and understand about Egypt?’ … touched on the engaging, hospitable nature of the people and illuminated the paradoxical nature of this land of contrast and contradiction. Where there was cruelty, there were stories of enormous generosity from those with the least to give. It covered the fatalist attitude of ‘Insha Allah’ – if God wills’ and where personal responsibility sits; and the concept of ‘Al Humdullileh’ … ‘thanks be to God’ with humility and gratitude for one’s blessings; being grateful for whatever one has because it could always be worse. It could all be taken away from you in the blink of an eye or the sound of a word.
At the end of the interview, the talk was thrown open to the floor for Q & A which touched on many topics including Islamophobia, what happens when a muslim man takes more than one wife, how to negotiate bringing up children with two faiths, how open or closed one must be to retain respect and for personal security and questions about the future of Egypt …will it become a regime like Iran?
Helena plans many more talks of a similar nature once her memoir is published.