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.

No comments: