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.

Stay
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.

Handicrafts
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.
www.somewheredifferent.com
Siwa Creations
17 Ahmed Heshmat Street, Zamalek.
+20 2 2737 3014.
Traditional Siwan handicrafts in Cairo.
www.siwa.com

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

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.

Sandboards, springs and the Schumacher of Siwa

It’s an obvious fact that once Cairenes are more than 15km past the outskirts of their town, they must tie a scarf on their heads.

Preferably a black-and-white checkered one, and then a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses, which seem to look good only on Arabs. Inevitably, we Caucasians end up looking like bad Tom Cruise wannabes or misguided PLO supporters.

So here’s the picture: 20 Cairenes attempting to sandboard the dunes of the Great Sand Sea, in far western Egypt. Thinking it would be a repeat of the last time I sandboarded – a terrifying face-first rocket down a dune I couldn’t see the bottom of – I opted out. For decorum’s sake, I gave it a hurl one last time, going down seated, but did a fairly spectacular face-plant and filled my ears with sand.

Soon everyone else who went up and down was mummified in a shell of sand glued together with sweat. Despite it being winter, this is still the Libyan Desert, friends, and that means warm days and cold nights in winter. Eyebrows disappeared beneath a layer of caramel sand, and the ever-prepared girls were giving the packets of hand wipes a good working out.

The sand came off in Bir Wahid, a hot water spring in the midst of the sand dunes. All the drivers converge there before sunset to hang out and chat, meaning the spring itself was full of bathers from all over the world, including a convoy of elderly Japanese. While I bobbed in the clean water, I chatted with a French woman, who, it turns out, was the sister-in-law of a lady I met at lunch in Mombasa, Kenya, a few months ago. The world is small and we are all but bit players.

Later that night, our Schumacher of Siwa, Nasr (that’s him here), would drive us out to a Siwi ‘party’ to hang out around the fire and watch the local boys doing their distinctive dance.

Nasr was, by this time, becoming addicted to the sound of our screams, and turned off his headlights to drop the 4WD down the dunes in the darkness.

Scream? We screamed in unison, in harmony and in mild terror. It was music to Nasr’s ears.

Visiting the Oracle

“Who goes to Siwa for three days?” a local asked me.

Well, me. And my 20 new friends. I could see the Siwan local’s point, though. Siwa is an oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert, just 50km from the Libyan border. To call the road journey there a slog is an understatement: it took us 12 hours with stops to cram chips and juice, tea and dodgy croissants at all-night road stops along the route that heads up toward Alexandria till you turn a sharp left and keep on driving another nine or 10 hours.

We left Cairo on the Thursday night before Eid Al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, which I wrote about two blogs ago. The holiest of prayers is on the Friday morning, so at first light, we pulled up in front of a crumbling, empty mosque in the middle of nowhere. The adaan had turned the reverb up on the loudspeaker, and while some prayed, the rest of us slept in the bus or, like me, wandered in the cold desert night to stretch our legs and listen to the chill wind.

The second stop for prayers was an hour later, in another roadside mosque near Marsa Matrouh, this time a makeshift affair with screens up for the women to pray in, while the men lined up behind the old building. As we pulled up, we saw dozens of Bedouin families rolling up in trucks or walking across the highway from a cluster of shacks to pray, with an improbable amount of young boys in white gellibayas with black waistcoats over the top, shooting each other with their Eid toys, mostly semi-automatic rifles and machine guns.

By the time we got to our hotel, Siwa Gardens, a hessian sack on a concrete floor would have sufficed. But the spring-fed pool and pretty domed ceilings (natural air-conditioners, they’re cool in summer) made up for it all.

After a swim and shower, we headed out on the town. The oasis comprises the main town, built around the crumbling mudbrick Shali fortress, and a scattering of villages amongst the palm gardens and out along desert tracks. Donkey carts are the main form of transport, though they’re under threat from cheap Chinese motorbikes. The main industries are bottling spring water and growing dates and olives. My guidebook suggests that the town’s Bank of Cairo might be the world’s only bank made from mudbrick. It’s ATM coughed up cash and the clerk spoke good English. What more do you need?

I miss my bike in Australia even more after we hired some sturdy but wonky beasts to explore with. The afternoon passed in a deliciously blurry breeze – skimming on rough tracks through the palm gardens, past hot and cold natural springs and chasing donkey carts loaded with shrouded women and children in bright silks, visiting relatives on the first day of the feast.

At the temple of the Oracle of Amon, we listened for the clues to what Alexander the Great might have whispered to the Oracle before taking Egypt for his own. The Oracle wasn’t telling; she is sleeping in her hilltop fortress as life moves slowly amongst the palms below.

Bedouins and Beyonce

About a month ago, Adam, spotter of weird internet stuff par excellence, sent me a link to a ‘beautiful camel’ competition in Dubai with a question: do they have anything like this in Egypt?

I asked friends who said,”Belle, where are you living? Of course we do!” But they’re not easy to find like those in the Gulf states. A beautiful camel competition, for those of you who are unawares is, obviously, a beauty competition for camels.

Popular in the Arab region, the most fetching animal can haul in a swag of cash. Beautiful goat competitions have sprung up recently too, in a part of the world where displaying your womenfolk in skimpy bikinis to be ogled by other men is considered uncouth.

So I hunted around but found mostly just camel races, with a gathering each May in south Sinai the big event. The exception was the Characters of Egypt gathering. In only its second year, the event gathers tribes from across Egypt to play traditional music, compete in tugs-of-war and other physical feats and yes, to race camels.
As to be expected, it’s organised by a foreigner. The reaction from some Cairenes when I mentioned I was going to head down past Marsa Alam (12 hours by bus, 1:20 hour flight) to hang out with Bedouin tribesmen, was lots of giggling and slight disbelief. However, others were more impressed.

“We saw it on Facebook and thought it’d be a cool thing to go to,” a young, funky banker told me on why she and her friends had made the trek. There were representatives of tribes from Siwa on the Libyan border, the Farafra oasis in the Western Desert, Nubia, north and south Sinai and the local tribes from by the Red Sea or in the nearby mountains, way down here on the Sudanese border.

We spent two days at the camp, learning to tell the difference between the tribes – all wear light-coloured gellibayas, but some, like Al-Bashariya and Al-Ababda, put a black waistcoat over the top, while the North Sinai men wear red-and-white scarves (kufiya) with the black ring (iqal) to hold it down, a sight common in the gulf states, which they’re closest to.

The Nubians were set apart because they’re darker, and now not so nomadic, and also they were the only people to bring women with them. Yeah, they had the girls. And sexy girls, too. Unveiled and all, being presenters for Nubian TV, which was there in force, along with plenty of other media. The older, heavily cloaked traditional Nubian women gave me a quick lesson in zagaroota, the ululating they do when celebrating or dancing and one another painted a henna design around my arm, the tribes discussed the steep rise of hotels on their land, and everyone was dragged up for a dance around the fires at night.

The local tribes brought their camels and caretas (carts) to take people out into the nearby Wadi Gamel, travelling also with their flock of goats and a few tall donkeys who roamed about our tents like grey ghosts in the night.

Amazingly, I met old friends including Gomma, my young guide from Siwa who proved to be an enthusiastic stilt dancer, some of the organisers of the Egyptian 4WD rally I went to in Bahariyya oasis in February, and an old Bedouin remembered giving me a ride in his pick-up in Sharm el Sheik (to prove he knew me, and wasn’t just doing a line, he told me, ‘You said you wouldn’t give me your phone number because your husband will get mad,’ a line I use every day).

The camel from North Sinai won the race pot, LE15,000 (about US$5000) and Siwa won the hotly-contested tug-of-war.

Logistically, it was amazing. Held in the desert in a national park about 60km from the town of Marsa Salam, you could either stay in a nearby five-star hotel or pitch a tent, the admission fee covering three meals a day and however much tea or coffee you could cadge from the kitchen. There were even tents for hire and the media tent had internet that was fast, but sporadic. The tribes also displayed their handcrafts in the ‘giftshop’, a tent selling everything from elaborate musical instruments to cartons of cigarettes (the most popular item).

If you’re here next year, I would absolutely recommend going, so you can get up close and personal with a way of life that’s completely different to many in Egypt.

Marsa Alam is a mess of half-baked construction sites, a ratty bus depot and a flash new airport where, three days after we’d all packed up and gone home, Beyonce flew in to perform in a remote luxury resort. From Bedouins to Beyonce, Egypt once again shows two its many faces. www.charactersofegypt.com

Time travel and the adaan

Legend goes the mosque in Shali town, in the Siwa oasis, was the last to use a live adaan. Now, they’re all voice recordings that vary with every mosque.

Sometimes, I love it. I love it when I’m up working late and I hear the fajrthe call at morning light. Cairo is so still, you can hear the mosques starting up within seconds of each other, the call rolling like waves across the sleeping city. In my street in Roxy, I look out to see a few old men, past the age of sleeping, who walk silently to the mosque, and gather to talk in the street afterwards, white gellibayas fluttering with a little breeze, prayer beads in knotted hands.

Sometimes hearing the fajr fills me with despair – it means I stayed up too late again and I’ll pay later, when I’m yawning all day.

I’ve just about reverted back to Australian working hours. Sydney comes online at about 12 midnight here, and finishes around 9am, so I find myself staying up later and later as I chat with editors, getting an instant response to questions that could otherwise take a couple of days. On the positive side, when I do eventually go home, at least I won’t have to readapt…

The Oracle speaks

The wind rustled the dusty palm trees and tickled the waters of the salt lakes down below as I stood on a hilltop, surveying the Siwan oasis.

The hill has particular significance – it was the site of the Siwa Oracle, where Alexander the Great came in 331 BC to ask the question he would take to his grave, most likely seeking advice for annexing the rich lands of Egypt for his empire.

The only sound was the wind as the midday heat grew and my guide Ibrahim and I were silent as we overlooked the oasis. Then I heard it:

“You’ve got the longest lifeline, girl!”

The voice was pure Camp Australia and I turned to find a large group of Antipodeans (with a few Americans?) reading each other’s palms on the historical hilltop. Oracles…palm reading…

Well, I guess the site’s always been a place to find your destiny.

Veiled truths of Siwa women

Out here in the remote oasis of Siwa, the women of both dominant species – donkeys and humans – are kept under wraps and away from temptation. The women are heavily cloaked, walking fabric shops, while the female donkeys are kept in a village away from the town, the males brought there to mate with them.

Photographing women is out of the question, and even tiny girls on their way to school refused my requests. The boys were less reluctant, the men: media tramps.

So for once it paid off to be a female journalist (the downsides: bathrooms and leery men), and I was met two groups warm, funny girls who work in a co-op arrangement, performing the traditional embroidery for which the oasis is known, as well as weaving palm leaves and trunks into an array of household goods, such as pots and beautiful baskets.

I met a girl called Mabrooka today, which means congratulations. I thought I’d heard wrongly when she told me her name. I thought she was congratulating me for something. She and her friends paid out on me in Siwan, laughing as they worked.

Their work ends up in the US and they have a regular client in Italy, and they are paid well – more than many men earn working the traditional agricultural pursuits of date and olive farming. They are not city girls: their eyebrows are ungroomed, their skin is sun darkened and they don’t have the obsession of colour coordinating of the flashy Cairo city girls.

They are not pretty girls. Their features aren’t fine and there’s not even the addiction to large amounts of eye kohl. They’re all unmarried, only the unmarried ones are allowed such freedom to be out of the house.

When Siwi women marry, they won’t venture out of the house socially except for extreme cases – weddings, the birth of a child… and when they do leave the house, they are heavily cloaked in a blue and white embroidered piece of fabric over their clothes, that covers from head to toe, and black gauze fabric across their faces. You see them tearing past with children in a cart on the back of a donkey or motorbike, the wind whipping at their robes, nothing but black faces. (I took a pic of a dummy in the local museum to give you an idea – naughty hussy, she’s not covering her face!)
Of the working girls, one wore a niqab, but the others had just scarves thrown over their heads, hair covered with a sort of cummerbund.

They let me take a photograph of them, but only once they had covered their faces. I caught big eyes looking into the camera from behind a thin veil of fabric. The girl in the niqab could almost have been smug, but then I couldn’t read her face. She was the meekest of them all, compared with a couple who were positively ebullient. I was struggling with them with language, then toward the end, I remembered my book in the car, we started to hit it off, and then it was time to go… I was sad I had to leave just as it was all going off.

I did feel so bad learning that it takes up to six days to weave one basket. It really shows how much we devalue this work.

[PS In between, hundreds of economic refugees fleeing Africa for the riches of Europe were shipwrecked off the Libyan coastline. Here’s an interview for RTE Radio…

Oasis life: Siwa

What is it that makes people fall in love with Siwa? Is it the isolation? With an 11-hour bus journey, or eight hours by car, Siwa’s not exactly on the way to anywhere.

The oasis is 50km from the Egypt-Libyan border, set on the lip of the Great Sand Sea, which stretches the length of the country, where thousands of sand dunes shift shapes as the wind takes them. Siwans identify themselves as Siwi first, and Egyptian second. They speak their own, unwritten language that is shared with Berber tribes from across north Africa, including Morocco and Tunisia, and dress, think and act differently to that of their Egyptian counterparts.At night, Siwa town, population 10,000, is quiet as only a desert town can be quiet. The sand seems to suck the very sound from the air. In comparison, Cairo’s ever present grumbling, even when asleep, is like an old dog revisiting grand fights, growling and moaning while its eyes are closed. All I can here is the click of my keyboard, the crackling of the beeswax candles and what I think is the occasional night bird.Instead of heavy trucks and souped-up cars, the main mode of transport is by careta, or donkey cart. However, like its brethren, the less remote Bahirayya oasis, Siwa’s young guys are far more interested in cheap Chinese motorbikes than donkey carts. The main town is built around old Shali fortress, a collection of mudbrick buildings huddled together for safety. For hundreds of years, Siwans defended their turf against ravaging invaders and greedy governments but, the story goes, a deluge of rain here in the desert in the 1920s washed away the structures which today cling to the ground like a dinosaur’s carcass, sliding gently back into the earth from which they came. The oasis has all the hallmarks of an Arabian fantasy; palm trees, cool sweetwater springs, pink flamingos and shallow salt water lakes, also a delicate shell pink from the salt that lies beneath the surface. Siwa doesn’t wake early, so the sleepy soundtrack is one of calls to prayer and the braying of a dismayed donkey as each morning the oasis awakens slowly to its contemplative life, far from a world of package tours, shouts and touts.