Sunday, March 23, 2008

Siwa Oasis

This weekend marks two important religious holidays: the Western Easter and Al-Mawled al-Nabawi, or the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammed. As a result, AUC had a four day weekend, and I took advantage by traveling to one of Egypt’s most remote and culturally unique locations, Siwa Oasis.

One of the five major oasis of Egypt’s Western Desert, Siwa is located less than 50 miles from the Libyan border. The trip requires two bus rides totaling about 10 hours. I left Wednesday night from the Cairo bus station with Alysa, my travel companion from Jordan last semester. I had difficultly finding people interested in going since most students take advantage of longer breaks to visit sites such as Luxor, Jordan, or Istanbul. Alysa and I left Cairo at 12:15am, connected in the Mediterranean port city of Marsa Matruh, and arrived in Siwa at about 10:30am on Thursday morning.

My first reaction was one of intrigue. The small, dusty town reminded more of a sleepy west Texas setting from a John Wayne classic. The streets were sparse compared to the mayhem of Cairo, and the tourist presence is relatively minimal. The streets are lined with vegetable and stands, olive and date shops, a splattering of rickety hotels, and mom-and-pop restaurants offering a menu of traditional desert dishes including couscous, something I have never seen before in Egypt.

Life in Siwa simple. The inhabitants are not the Bedouin peoples that occupy most of Egypt’s desert lands but are simply classified as Siwans. In addition to Arabic, they speak a dialect of the Berber language of north Africa. They are Muslim. They have their own music, their own dance, their own styles of clothing, art, and handicrafts. The Siwans are a people like no other in Egypt.

After arriving in Siwa, Alysa and I checked into a cheap hotel, ate lunch at one of the popular local joints, and rented bicycles for the day. Fortunately the weather was not too hot, and we spent the afternoon riding through the olive and fig groves that cover the oasis. About 2 miles out of town is the remains of a famous oracle once visited by Alexander the Great. Another mile down the road brought us to the remains of an old Pharaonic temple featuring the familiar hieroglyphics more common along the banks of the Nile. Then we made our way to a natural spring known as Cleopatra’s Bath. While I didn’t swim because I didn’t have a suit with me, many locals and tourists alike enjoy the cool, clean water bubbling up from the deep natural wells that bring life to the oasis. Alysa and I grabbed a soda at the café next to the spring and spent a couple of hours just relaxing on the second-story patio, napping, and listening to reggae covers of Pink Floyd songs. I later found out the music was from an album called “The Dub Side of the Moon,” and I highly recommend it. Nothing is more perfect for sitting in the shade on a hot, dry afternoon.

By late afternoon, Alysa and I were ready to return to the town. We biked back through the winding dirt roads lined with date palms while enjoying the views of the Siwan village. Before returning our bikes however, we stopped at one of the oddest architectural structures I’ve ever seen. Known as the Shali, this complex of buildings stands on a high rocky hill overlooking the town. Once inhabited, the buildings have now decayed into ruin and evoke a haunting, twisted, desolate image as if a collaboration between Dali and Gaudi.

After climbing around the Shali ruins for a half hour, we returned to the hotel for a quick shower and a change of clothes. Refreshed, we went out to dinner at Abdu’s Restaurant and sipped tea at a couple of the coffee houses in town. We wanted to take a half-day desert tour the next day, but we had a really hard time finding someone who was willing to take us at the price we wanted. Being peak tour season, most of the guides were already taken, and we had trouble getting our schedules to match up. We arranged a tour with a local guide only to have him notify us an hour later that the price had gone up an additional 100 pounds. We said no, and after an hour or so we ended up booking a trip out to one of the local desert camps for breakfast.

So the next day, we woke up early and walked 5 minutes to the center of town in order to meet our guide at 8. He wasn’t there, so we waited until 8:30. And then until 9:00. Still no guide. Finally he showed up, and it took an additional 20 or so minutes before he was ready to go. While we were frustrated with the guide, we did enjoy sitting outside and people watching as the town came alive on this Friday morning.

Our guide drove us out a desert camp in front of some massive sand dunes, and he prepared us a breakfast of flat bread, fuul (flava beans), boiled eggs, fruit, coffee, and tea. The meal was actually quite good despite its simplicity, and I ate more than my fair share. Sitting outside in the shade of our tent, Alysa and I relaxed as cool breezes swept across the desert. We chatted with our guide for a long time in English and listend to the story of his life and how he founded this camp several years ago. After about two hours in the desert, we drove to another spring outside of Siwa and relaxed by the water until two o’clock. The weather was perfect for sipping a Coke and reading a good book.

Finally, our guide picked us up and drove us back to Siwa where we caught a bus back to Cairo. While the trip was only a couple of days, I was ready to leave. There isn’t much to do in Siwa, and its main attraction is a relaxing atmosphere. It’s one more thing to check off my list. The bus back to Marsa Matuh was horrible. The bus was infested with cockroaches and the AC didn’t work properly, so the ride was a little too warm for comfort. I was glad to arrive in Marsa Matruh and switch buses to Cairo. Fortunately, this ride was clean, comfortable, and ahead of schedule, a rarity in this part of the world.

The one thing that struck me the most during my trip was the extremely conservative culture, especially in regards to women. Many of the women we saw were completely covered without even a slit for their eyes. How they could see anything, I don’t know, but both Alysa and I were appalled by the faceless bodies moving through town. While I am understanding of cultural and religious traditions, the way in which these women were covered was difficult to justify. I am very used to seeing head scarves every day in Cairo, and I even see some of the niqaabs that cover women’s faces except for the eyes, but the Siwans go a step further. There are no eyes. Gloves cover the hands, a long robe hides the body and head, and a single piece of black cloth covers the entire face. The women reminded me more of death eater from Harry Potter than of human beings. As a Westerner, it’s difficult to look at these women and not be angered. To me, it is a sign of oppression, patriarchy, and social injustice. These women have no public identity, no personal expression, and no voice in their lives. And for me, this crosses the line between cultural relativism and universal human rights.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Exploring the Western Desert with Mark and Colleen

Egypt is the land of the Pyramids, the great tombs of the Pharaohs, and an abundance of some of the world’s most treasured possessions of the ancient world. Tourists flock to this county every year to see wonders of the Egyptian civilization born out of the waters of the Nile. But there is another part of Egypt that is less well known, and it is found far from the banks of the world’s longest river, buried deep in the sands of the Sahara. I am talking about the oases of the Western Desert. There are five major oases, but the most traveled to is the Bahariya Oasis. Not only is it the closest to Cairo, but it is in close proximity to both the stunning White and Black Deserts. When Mark and Colleen visited me from California, I journeyed with them out to Bahariya for a weekend of sightseeing and camping.

The beauty of the deserts surrounding the oasis cannot be underestimated. The Black and White Deserts are just that. Unique geological characteristics created a landscape covered in either hard, smooth, black stones or a soft, chalk-like rock which serves as a canvas for the wind’s artistic impulses.

We left Cairo early Friday morning for the desert and arrived in Bahariya around noon. We had a simple lunch of chicken, rice, soup, and bread before touring the oasis by jeep. The contrast between fertile land and desert is dramatic. Natural hot and cold springs feed the land, and a lake lies still between rolling dunes. After exploring the surrounding area for a few hours, we headed back to the hotel for dinner and tea before going to bed.

Saturday we left at 10am for the Black and White. But first we stopped at a giant sand dune stretching out into the barren, rocky terrain like a long finger. We climbed all the way to the top before running down. The weather was perfect, not too hot, not too cold, so we could enjoy the sunny day without the inconvenience of a lot of heat. We then moved on to the beautiful lookout points in the black and white deserts. We stopped at “Chrystal Mountain” and collected quartz stones in a variety of colors. Finally we made our way to the natural sculptures of the White Desert, each one taking on a special form. Like clouds, the shapes were left to one’s imagination. Perhaps a bird, or maybe a rabbit. By the time we were finished snapping photos, the sun was preparing to set.

Our guide Sabri parked the jeep next to one of the white outcroppings and set up camp. The tent was simple: two pieces of cloth and poles forming a two-sided shelter. The roof was nothing but the endless expanse of the universe and millions of stars that glimmered in the clear desert sky. The view was stunning. Living in Cairo, I’m lucky to see five stars in one night. Out here, I didn’t even know where to begin.

Our dinner consisted of a delicious vegetable stew with rice and chicken. I had all I could possibly eat, which was nice. Then we sat around the campfire while Sabri made us cup after cup of different types of tea—“Bedouin whisky” he called it. Some had mint, some did not, but it all was loaded with one magic ingredient: heaps and heaps of sugar. Sabri didn’t speak much English, so I used my colloquial Arabic skills as best I could. It was challenging, but I enjoyed the practice. We talked until the fired died down to embers, and we laid down under the stars, protected from the cool desert night be a sleeping bags and blankets.

Sunday morning we woke up with the sun and ate our breakfast. Simple food again (bread, jam, and cheese), but such is the life of the Bedouin. We packed our belongings and drove two hours back to Bahariya where we showered and changed and boarded our minibus back to Cairo, another four hours through desert highway.

I’ve been many places in Egypt, but I must say that the Western Desert was one of my favorite. Escaping Cairo is refreshing. It’s difficult to understand unless you’ve been here, and now Mark and Colleen understand how stressful and tense life can be in this city. There’s something to be said for the freedom of open air and the serenity of the universe.
All of my pictures are available at:

Friday, March 7, 2008

(Almost) Exact Change

Imagine you go to the store. You buy a loaf of bread, a dozen eggs, a bottle of wine, and a pound of bananas. The cashier rings up your total. You owe $25.56. You hand the cashier forty dollars, and you are given 14.44 in change. You are happy, and you leave the store with your items and go about your day.

Now let’s replay the situation in Egypt. You go to the store. You buy a loaf of bread, a dozen eggs, a can of non-alcoholic beer, and a kilo of bananas. You owe LE 25.56. You hand the cashier forty Egyptian pounds, and you are given 14.25 in change. You are happy, and you leave the store with your items and go about your day.

Let’s analyze the scenarios. OK, so what you buy isn’t important. The importance is the change. In Egypt, there is a serious problem in that there is no denomination for 1 piaster (1/100th of a pound, equal to our penny). That means it is impossible to pay for anything with less than a 10 piaster coin or bill, and even those are rare. Usually the only thing at your disposal is a 25 piaster bill. Everything gets rounded in the favor of the store. Little by little, transaction by transaction, the store accumulates extra profit while the customer loses a small amount of change. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but replay this situation millions of times and you get a problem. The Egyptian economy has no means of accurately measuring itself.

I see this problem played out elsewhere. This semester, I’m working as the treasury of STAR, and when I get a receipt, I record it in our ledger. The only problem is that some of the receipts are in numbers other than multiples of 10 or 25. If I get a receipt for 25.56, we actually didn’t pay out that amount of money. We probably payed 25.75. So as I try to balance the books, I realize that what is on paper and what is in the bank account is not the same. There is a difference of 19 piasters. The store has an extra 19 piasters, and we have 19 piasters less.

For our organization, this isn’t that big of a deal. We lose a few piasters here and there. But what are the consequences for the economy as a whole? To me, the change issue indicates a major shortcoming of the Egyptian central bank. I’m no economist, but it seems to me that sound economies require accurate transactions, and this is not possible in Egypt.

Next time you go to the store, be happy to get your pennies. Hold them and keep them and know that although seemingly worthless, these little brown coins can go a long way.