Igniting the Population Bomb

Who ever thought statistics could be interesting? One of the most delicious comparisons between Egypt and Australia is our populations. Cairo is home to 20 million people (give or take a few million), roughly the same size as the entire population of Australia.

According to my mate Wiki, we are only less crowded than a handful of countries including Namibia, Mongolia and Western Sahara. In comparison, Cairo alone has 31,000 people per square kilometer. That’s dense, man.

This week, Australia had a day of navel gazing on our national holiday, (can you guess what it’s called?) Australia Day: a day of barbeques, sausages and light beer. The ads in between the tennis – the Australian Open has been on the past two weeks – were of close-up shots of sizzling snags (that’s slang for ‘sausages’, for all you non Aussies) and the main news story was of the population forecasts for Australian to the year 2050.

Apparently, if we keep having babies at the current rate, open up our borders to all comers and relax our citizenship and refugee laws, our population could leap from the current level of 22 million to a whopping 35 million in just 40 years. Forecasts say Sydney and Melbourne, both hovering around the 3.5 million mark, would double to 7 million each.

Me? I’m a bit selfish. I like the line from the former politician Bob Carr, who asked: what’s wrong with having open spaces, clean empty beaches and easy access to nature? Why do we have to become a built-up nation like most of the world? That’s what makes us unique. And given my government-issued showerhead already runs at a miserable trickle thanks to our already tight water restrictions, and despite Queensland being flooded yet again, God only knows where the water for all those 35 million daily showers is going to come from…

Anyone for desert?

Deep in North Africa’s vast Western Desert lies remote Siwa Oasis, its fortress, fossils and freshwater springs irresistible magnets.
  • Desert dune driving.Adrère Amellal natural spring.Adrère Amellal interior

The view from the window is of waves of creamy sand folding over each other as far as the eye can see, broken only by a flurry of green date palms and shell-pink lakes that marks Egypt’s Siwa Oasis. It’s ironic, that in the midst of the vast Western Desert stretching the length of Egypt, from the Mediterranean south to Sudan, the Adrère Amellal eco-lodge is one of Egypt’s “greenest” hotels. Set 50km from the Egypt-Libya border, on the cusp of the Great Sand Sea, the lodge was built by hand, grows its own organic food and, when the sun goes down, is lit only by open fires and kerosene lamps – there’s no electricity out in the desert. Instead, guests such as the Prince of Wales relish the silence, watch the sun rise over the desert or salt lakes and swim in the cool springs.

An eight-hour drive west from Cairo, Siwa is not exactly on the way to anywhere. It’s a last outpost, a green refuge in a sea of stony desert plains and restless dunes that morph and roll on the whim of the wind.

In Shali, the oasis’ main town, the taxis are carettas – donkey-drawn carts – women are cloaked from head to foot, the bank is made of mudbrick and the centre of the town is a decrepit 900-year-old fortress. The fortress suffered during a rare deluge of rain in the 1920s, which dissolved the mudbrick that is now crumbling back into the earth. Siwa is far from the touts and package tours of the Nile. Until just a couple of decades ago there was no sealed road to the oasis. The nearest major city, Marsa Matruh on Egypt’s north coast, was a five-day camel trek when Westerners first “discovered” Siwa in 1792.

Here in the desert, the midday siesta is religiously and sensibly observed. In the shade, sitting on hand-woven cushions and drinking sweetened lemon juice, a local breaks the silence. “There could be a third world war and you wouldn’t know about it here in Siwa,” he says. We all nod silently and resume our positions, leaning back against the ancient walls of kershef, the traditional brick made of salt, sand and clay.

Siwa did hit the headlines recently with claims of human footprints up to three million years old. There was life before such adventurers: the marine fossils littering the nearby sands are relics of an ancient sea that filled this basin some 50 million years ago. Travellers have long been lured here by the 230 freshwater springs that bubble up from the hot sand, converting the desert into palm gardens and olive groves. Flamingos and other long-limbed waterfowl linger in shallow lakes coloured a delicate pink from the salt that lies beneath the surface, while pools have such evocative names as Cleopatra’s Pool – in defiance of any evidence the Egyptian queen actually bathed here.

The oasis was a stopover on the trade routes along which camel trains ferried spices and slaves across North Africa into Europe and the Arabian Gulf. The mudbrick villages are scattered between the palm gardens and chalky ridges pocked with hand-hewn catacombs where Roman bones have rested since Ptolemaic times, 300 years before Christ.

It was at this time that Alexander the Great visited Siwa’s legendary Oracle of Amun. In 331BC the conqueror consulted the oracle’s wisdom and declared himself the son of the god Amun before embarking on his successful Egyptian campaigns. Even today, the temple ruins seem to echo with a million questions whispered into the walls by those before and after Alexander, seeking truth and clarity.

While there have been villages clustered around the oracle’s hilltop location since Paleolithic times, Shali Town was settled by Berber tribes in the 13th century and is now home to about 10,000 Siwans and Egyptians. Autonomous and isolated for centuries, Siwans speak their own, originally unwritten language, Amazigh, its roots shared with the Berber tribes of Libya, Morocco and Algeria. They dress, think and act differently from their Egyptian counterparts, and exist in a culture far from being a museum exhibit, despite the encroachment of the outside world.

“I am Siwi first, Egyptian second,” says my young guide, Gomma, urging his donkey along the dirt path leading to the beauty spot of Fatnis Island, to drink tea and watch the sun set over the saltwater lake. The joys of Siwa are simple.

However, in a scene that’s being played out the world over, Siwa’s young men are far more interested in cheap Chinese motorbikes than contrary little donkeys. The times are also changing for Siwan women. Married women once never left their homes without being draped in a blue-and-white cloth from head to toe, with a black gauze scarf obscuring their faces. Now, the black robes of the Nile Delta are fashionable amongst unmarried girls and a handful of these fiercely protected women work in a co-op set up by the Egyptian entrepreneur and Adrère Amellal eco-lodge owner Dr Mounir Neamatalla. The women’s traditional embroidery and weaving skills are sold in Fair Trade agreements on the streets of Europe and the US, and their jewellery is being reproduced for the tourist market, keeping the designs alive. While they’re happy to chat openly to other women, the girls veil their faces when photographed, all the time their hands, tipped with henna-painted fingernails, working instinctively.

Thanks to its isolation – and being declared a protected area by the Egyptian Government – the oasis has escaped much chemical pollution. Eco-entrepreneurs are capitalising on the pure landscape, balancing business with environmental sustainability as they grow certified organic olives, herbs and dates, and establish ecologically sustainable farming techniques within the Siwan agricultural economy.

For travellers, their efforts at Siwa’s preservation are immediately obvious: this is no Disney desert, you don’t get here by accident, but by design. At night, the oasis is quiet as only a desert town can be quiet, without heavy trucks and souped-up cars. The sand sea on the town’s outskirts seems to suck the very sound from the air, unlike Cairo’s ever-present grumbling. Here, the only sounds are the crackling of the beeswax candles and the occasional night-bird until dawn breaks with the crowing of cocks, the raucous complaint of a donkey and the muzzein’s call to prayer.

Adrère Amellal
On the edge of a lake, right in the middle of the desert, with no electricity – this eco-lodge is about as remote as it gets. The 40 rooms are built from rock and clay, water for the pool comes from a natural spring. Food is organically grown and each evening guests are treated to a Bedouin-style candlelight dinner amid the dunes.

Shali Lodge
Built into the walls of the Shali fortress with energy-saving kershef design, this lodge promotes indigenous handmade crafts, local food and warm Siwan hospitality.

Shali Project
+20 4 6921 0100.
Kilims, embroidery and jewellery are for sale at the House of Siwa Museum, Shali.
Somewhere Different
Off Market Square, Siwa.
+20 4 6921 0111.
Traditional and modern Siwan jewellery, adventure tours and accommodation.
Siwa Creations
17 Ahmed Heshmat Street, Zamalek.
+20 2 2737 3014.
Traditional Siwan handicrafts in Cairo.

Tour Operators
Icon Holidays
1300 853 953.
Bespoke trips to Siwa Oasis.
Abercrombie & Kent
1300 851 800.
Tailor-made educational trips to Siwa Oasis.
Intrepid Travel
1300 364 512.
Includes Siwa on its overland adventure from Libya.

Source Qantas The Australian Way February 2010

Things I don’t miss about Egypt

In response to the last post, here’s my list of things I don’t miss about Egypt, now I’m back in Australia.

1. Pollution. The smell of the eucalyptus and pine trees in the night air of the Mornington peninsula is olafactorial poetry.

2. Egyptian beds. Think unrolled futons, Egyptian beds are vast, but hard as rocks, and that includes the wood-like bolsters that masquerade as pillows but are actually an invention by the country’s chiropractors to drum up business.

3. Noise. The noise, the noise. Instead of taxi horns, second-hand goods buyers and brush shellers, it’s the sound of the sea and the rustle of wind in the trees.

4. Incessant tipping. Finally, I got the hang of tipping in Egypt when my luggage was hopelessly overweight, when LE5 ($1) ensured its position on the plane on the flight home. But the rest of the time? I was always too slow, tipping not enough, too much or just fumbling badly with change. Hello Australia and minimum wage, where tipping is for good service, not for survival.

5. Salt & sugar. So I haven’t got to the three-sugars-in-tea scenario, I’m noticing Australia’s lack of salt and sugar. This, my Egyptian friends, is a good thing. 

6. My old friends and family. Now, I don’t have to miss my old friends, as most of them are here (the family has, of course, skipped the country). 

Things I miss about Egypt

Hi all, in case you didn’t realise, I’m back in Australia, just in time for Australia Day (a celebration of barbecues, lamb chops and lite beer). Here’s what I miss about Egypt. I will balance it with a second entry, so don’t worry about bias:

1. My souk (market). Perfect red tomatoes for 20c/kilo while the Australian equivalent comes in at $5/kilo.

2. Learning a new word a day. However, on the upside, I can understand everything everyone says here in Australia. But understanding it all has its downsides – do I WANT to know about Sharon’s speeding fine? Or Brian’s argument with a builder? Occasionally, ignorance is bliss.

3. Modesty. I have gone from seeing women in abayyas (long robes) to septuagenarians in hot pants. It’s a tough move.

4. Umm Aya. My cleaning lady who walks through my apartment like a queen on tour, before scrubbing it to gleamworthy. See, here she is in the blue scarf.

5. Speeding. Having spent a day stuck behind brand new 4WDs who insist on doing 40km/hour in a 70km zone, I miss Egypt’s cavalier attitude toward speed limits. A 50km/hour zone in Cairo? Where? Let me a take a picture.

6. Cairo’s architecture. It ranges from 4000 year old pyramids to the fabulous 1900s Moorish fantasies of Roxy (snapped above).

7. My new friends. Last, but not least. I miss you all.

Spire of spite: Cairo Tower

Today, we went to the Cairo Tower for breakfast. We took the lift to the 25th floor, to the top of the 187-foot tower. The city coughed and spat way down below: the Great Pyramid of Cheops is 50m lower.

Cairo would be the last to call itself an early riser, and Saturday mornings are still the time to catch a quick lie-in for many people (though interestingly, the unfortunate kids who go to government schools have to go to school SIX DAYS A WEEK), so there were just six of us on the platform at 11am. No great loss, it was heavily clouded with a grey cloud we reckon was a mix of fog and pollution cloaking the Nile and making the city shrink. I like this photo because, amazingly, you can see a glimpse of blue sky. Which just goes to show what hangs over Cairo. Breathe deeply, people.

A photographer approached us brandishing a camera cheaper than mine, so we waived him away. But he told us within 20 minutes, it should clear. Twenty minutes later and Cairo was but a concept. The river was barely visible and it wasn’t until we’d struggled through the shaky SkyGarden menu that the cloud lifted and suddenly three little triangles appeared on the horizon, and the Pyramids did a quick nod, before pulling the curtain again.

According to Wiki, the Great Pyramid held the record as world’s highest building until 1311, before being bounced by England’s Lincoln church.

According to my fab Wallpaper guide, the tower was built by the then-president Nasser with money America had ‘donated’ to him to buy his support in the region. To snub his wanna-be benefactors, he threw the money at a completely meaningless structure and it earned amongst bitter Americans the sobriequet Nasser’s Prrrr(is this a family blog?)ick. Hey, I just read this: don’t shoot the messenger.

Obviously, the altitude got to us and we went all touristy: we stood on the revolving restaurant, compared similar towers from Kuala Lumpur, Toronto and Sydney, and chatted to a pharaoh on the viewing platform.

In a quick analysis of the hyrogliphcs that make up my name, offered by the slightly embarrassed pharoah, I travel a lot, am mysterious and sarcastic. Two out of three…

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Cairo Tower costs LE70 foriegners/ LE20 Egyptians. There is a LE30 minimum charge in the SkyGarden cafe, which has charming service, but flaccid cappuccinos and stodgy – but ENORMOUS club sandwiches – no, no oriental food here, ma’am. (Confusingly for Australians, Egyptians refer to their food as ‘oriental’. Yet not a beef’n’black bean in sight…)

The revolving restaurant opens at noon, and we reckon it’s just the place to pull up a table in the afternoon, fill it with mezze (samousek, kobeba, baba ganoug and if you’re so inclined, a few beers or a glass of wine) and watch the sun set over Cairo.

And there’s also a cute looking cafe, Villa Zamalek, at the foot of the tower, which serves shisha (untested, sorry). Because you’re not going into the tower, you don’t have to pay the admission fee.

Muslim-Christian violence rents Upper Egyptian town

The southern Egyptian town of Naga Hammadi will never be the same again. The past week has seen the town, 60km north of Luxor, turn into a battleground of sectarian violence that has shocked the nation when seven young Christian deacons were murdered in a drive-by shooting on the Coptic Christmas eve. Also killed was a Muslim church guard.

Three Muslim men have been arrested over the murders, which it is reported were in retaliation for the alleged rape of a 12-year-old Muslim girl by a Christian man, in November.

Eyewitness reports state that 10 Christian deacons and the Muslim man were gunned down outside Mar Yohana church on the eve of the Coptic Christmas, on 6 January, as they left the ceremony. Six died at the scene, the seventh later in hospital.

Violence has spread to other southern Egyptian cities which have seen houses and businesses being torched by rioting crowds, which police have counteracted with tear gas and rubber bullets fired into the crowds.

Commentators say there is more to this than meets the eye: the man  accused of the rape did not automatically receive the mandatory punishment, which, in Egypt, is death by hanging. Instead, his case was referred to a higher court, which opponents say is the government protecting its minority Christian population. It begs the question: is the government guilty of protection or could there be doubt the man is actually guilty?

Egypt has been home to Christians since the first century and approximately 10 percent of Egypt’s 83-million strong population is Coptic Christian.

NB: this page will be updated in the coming day.

Positions vacant: wanted, one military dictator

The discussion over who will suceed President Hosny Mubarak, now 81,  is reaching fever pitch, even in such far-flung corners as Australia. Take a look at this article appearing in today’s Sydney Morning Herald. For sure, the accompanying photo, a picture of Hosny with the Star of David on his forehead, and a pair of feet stepping on the photo, would never be published here in Egypt (this pic is one the many propaganda snaps across the country, where Hosny does his Blues Brothers impersonation).

Yes, the man who has singlehandedly kept Egypt’s black hair dye companies in business is getting his house in order.

Of course, rumours of Hosny’s ill-health have been running for years: he’s an old man. But with the blatant grooming of his son Gamal, the whole country is obsessed with the question: what will come of the elections, to be held next year?

The criteria for eligible candidates appears to be tightened by the day, as critics say Hosny’s men are erecting yet more and more barriers to exclude undesirable candidates (internationally respected scholars and diplomats, that sort of  nasty type), and posters of Gamal and his dad (aka “La Vache qui rit” or the Laughing Cow) have been popping up all over the countryside. Mind you, Gamal doesn’t endear himself when a soujourn up to his villa on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast means more roadside checks and police blocks than you can shake a passport at.

In the Australian article, a commentator states, ”The Mubarak family is not a dynasty. They are a father, a mother and two children.” In fact, a neighbour pointed out to me recently that he used to live just down the road from me in a decidedly unremarkable suburb (as opposed to the palace next door, which like most of Egypt’s palaces, is a lush affair that the public will never set foot in, even tho it lies unused, just a massive dust collector).

The other key point in the article is the $1.7 billion aid Egypt receives from the US every year, no doubt to placate and keep sedated the existing government. Who knows where the money goes? In my recent jaunt up on the north coast, I spotted numerous watchhouses where bored young conscripts perfect their 1000-yard stare, doing little but collecting water on donkeys and watching goats wander past. The watchhouses are ramshackle affairs covered in wire and tattered flags, not exactly awe or fear-inspiring.

For sure the money is not going to that side of the country, not even at the raw western border town of Sollum, which butts up against Libya. Hey, what about that steel wall being built between Egypt and Palestine, on the eastern front? Worth some questions…


The art of Egyptian bus travel

I was stuck on a bus travelling from the Mediterranean town of Marsa Matrouh back to Cairo, watching the nerdy, diminuitive, slapstick actor, Mohamed Henedy, who despite (or perhaps because of) appearing no more than five feet tall with a baby face, feels the need to shout his way through every movie. Napoleonic complex, if ever I saw one.  Having said that, he’s a prolific little bugger, his new movie, Prince of the Sea, is out now, and he has 12,600 fans on Facebook.

In the bus movie, he’s got thick glasses and a comb-over, and is teaching a few young boys a lesson for staring at his girl (who is inevitably tall and beautiful) and whips off his slippers to give them a good hiding.

He’s also making them slap their faces, which women do when they’re screaming with angst at, say, the death of a loved one; amply demonstrated in the following movie where the naughty Lebanese actress Haifa flashes her knickers and gets slapped around a lot: if you were looking for women’s rights in Egyptian cinema, you’d have to be looking hard.

Bus travel in Egypt is cheap – US$10 will get you across half the vast country, but it’s not necessarily fast, thanks to the revered tea stop. It’s a test of patience, however, I’m becoming Egyptian in at one aspect: stuffing my face with sugar at hourly intervals while on the road.

The chemically-enhanced taste of Twinkies sponge and fake cream (do you remember the ads for them in Archie magazines???) have worn out their welcome with me, and I never got into the hard stuff, the solid sugar hit of basbousa, but Egypt is a biscuit culture and I’m a culture vulture. When in Rome. Or Egypt, in this case. 

Of course, there must be tea at every break, even in the middle of the night in grim roadside cafes full of hard-faced microbus drivers, their vans piled twice their height with everything from sofas to antique wheelchairs and, in this one’s case, a wheelbarrow hanging off the front. 

Who knows how they manage to achieve such death-defying speeds: I heard that one hit a camel that was sleeping on the warm road on the stretch out to Siwa last week.

A budget tip for the Giza Pyramids

We were prancing around the Pyramids the other day (as you do) and went inside for a look: it’s been a year since I went inside the tombs, preferring to observe from a distance on horseback.

The entrance fee for foriegners is currently sitting at LE60 (about A$12) with a further LE120 (A$23.50) if you want to climb down into the burial chambers of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which winds 30 meters deep into the Giza plateau.

Otherwise, the slightly smaller Pyramid of Khafre is an option, in summer a claustrophobic sauna as you climb down wooden rungs on the sloping ground into the bowels of the earth.

So here’s my Egypt budget tip for the day (apart from masquerading as an Egyptian, with tickets for locals sitting at LE3): we visited the smaller pyramids behind Khufu, that of Queen Hetepheres (2551 – 2528BC) and, interestingly, that of her engineer.

The engineer knew what he was doing: while all the others are stripped of any sustained decoration, his works are a riot of carvings and colours not seen in the others I’ve visited. And it’s free, apart from the usual couple of pounds’ baksheesh to the guys out the front. Don’t worry, they’ll make sure they’re around when you come back out.

It’s a great way to get a quick Pharonic hit if you’re not going down to Luxor or Aswan, and you dozed off in the Egyptian Museum.

I’m on the road and have left my camera cable at home, but I’ll pop up a few pix when I’m back in a couple of days. Cheerio!