Planet Siwa

from : Rm.14, Palms Hotel, Siwa.

We knew something special awaited us in Siwa when our bus from Alexandria made an unexpected bathroom pit stop on Tattooine, Luke Skywalker's home planet.

The men all filed off the bus and dispersed into the desert. The land was so flat and sun ravaged that the horizon circled miles and miles away under the huge washed out dome of the sky. In all that distance there was not a single thing to break the monotony but the puny ribbon of asphalt stretching in either direction and the handful of squatting bearded men, hitching up their skirts and splashing bottled water on their nether regions. These left handed ablutions are so much a part of the culture that one never shakes or eats food with the left hand in the Arab world. The women stayed on the bus, though by women I mean Julie for more than anywhere else in Egypt (and this is saying a lot) the desert is a man's world. My guidebook asserts that even female donkeys are forbidden in Siwa.

This very conservative Muslim community far out in the western desert, just 50km from the Libyan border, is distinct in language and ethnicity from the rest of Egypt. It has a strong independent streak and holds strictly to it's traditions. Married women are cloistered in the home and those that must venture out cover themselves completely in dark robes and veils, hiding even their smoky eyes behind a black gauzy veil. These anonymous beings are a heavy presence that you seem to feel before you see, somewhat intimidating like deadly ninjas on the loose. It is a wonder then that the man 'wears the pants' in this society for he actually wears the Galabia, a traditional light cotton gown not unlike you might imagine old fashioned sleeping attire to be. In contrast to the women the men aren't threatening at all, for the Galabia rates on the warlike-dress scale somewhere just above the grass skirt but a little below the muumuu.

Apart from the religious conservatism, Siwa is slowly modernizing. The donkey carts must now occasionally make way for cars on the streets. The traditional mud brick town was abandoned in the first few decades of this century after heavy rains made the structures too dangerous for habitation. They have been left behind by the forbears of the brick and mortar homes that are spreading across the oasis floor. Many walls in the old fortress town, or Shali, have already collapsed but wandering around in the eerie deserted area, one can still quite easily imagine how the inhabitants would have lived. It is no further a leap of the imagination for anyone who has had an illustrated book on the life of Jesus or attended Sunday school to realize this is exactly how Christ would have lived. The labyrinthine alleys, close quarters and dusty narrow lanes look just as communities everywhere would have looked 2000 years ago. Or you can just watch a Star Wars film.

From the vantage point of a lookout tower in this old part of town, one can look past the date tree plantations of the oasis to the great sand sea that stretches for 400km south of Siwa. A deadly swathe of country devoid of water, vegetation or landmark. When the Persians ruled this land, King Cambyses sent 50 000 fighting men from present day Luxor to Siwa charged with destroying the Oracle of Amun, a spiritual entity whose power was so esteemed that it was one of the first places Alexander the Great came to pay respects after conquering Egypt. Those 50 000 are still featured on milk cartons today, swallowed up in the great sand sea and never seen since. Looking at the dunes rolling to the horizon I thought of them. Were they buried in a sandstorm, crushed under a collapsing wall of sand or sucked to a spluttering death in quicksand? They were more likely taken by the less dramatic and more painful death from the inexorable evaporation of all bodily fluids that leaves any living creature a desiccated husk. There are so many ways the desert can kill you, it is hard to be sure of anything but that you should avoid it at all costs. So I hopped on my bicycle and peddled for the dunes encroaching city limits as fast as my legs would take me.

The giant hills of sand, though an inordinately beautiful representation of what a desert is supposed to look like, are a frightening thing to be amongst. They feel quite solid underfoot but your mind won't let you forget that this is, after all is said and done, just a big pile of sand. Though they haven't moved much since at least Caesar's time, standing on them in a high wind one is immediately aware of their mercurial nature. One type of sand (for the local peoples must surely have distinguished amongst the varieties) is talcum powder fine and when the melasin, or fifty day wind, blows through in April-May, it makes the tiny jetstreams you see when the aerodynamics of a car are being demonstrated. It is disorienting to the eye. It latches onto a sweaty face and turns it to sandpaper. Worst of all, the grit is so fine that when so forcefully driven it enters the very pores. Hours later and miles from the dunes, a good sweat will leave the parts that were exposed re-gritted like a snowy road. The sand also has high salinity that must come from the springs of the nearby oasis. It a welcome wonder that the towns' large donkey population isn't following me down the street like the giant salt lick I am. Satisfied that the desert could indeed kill me or, at the very least make me uncomfortable enough to wish it would, I turned my wheels back in the direction of town.

We visited the ruins of the oracle's temple and stopped to paddle our feet in the aquamarine Cleopatra's bath - a cool spring that gently bubbles and supports a colony of particularly stinky weed. We inspected the date palms and tasted their fruit. We had a delicious meal of Shakshouka. We looked far and wide for anything to do and soon realized that oasis life is all about just living life. In slow motion.

To close out our busy day in Siwa we hired a donkey cart to take us out to Fatnis Island, a popular area for watching the sunset, but we immediately regretted it. The donkey cart that is. The sunset was fair enough but the amount of whipping that went into getting us there made us feel very guilty. The driver whipping the donkey that is. At one point we reached the turnoff for where the driver-donkey team lived, which was on the way. Thinking perhaps that the days work was done the poor thing tried to turn and head for its home and so received such a flogging that Julie and I blanched pale as chalk. We've never seen a donkey dish out that kind of a beating before.

~ Nigel


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