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…