|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
14 - 20 December 2000
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Lost in time
The chattering of a foreign tongue twittered in my ears and I wondered to myself how I had stumbled into all this. I was in a private home in Siwa, a long way from Cairo. I was there by chance -- I am no social scientist. I had not come to this desert oasis to carry out a study of women. I was just a curious traveller.
The Siwan dialect, derived from the Berber languages of North Africa, bears little resemblance to Arabic, even for a native speaker. Seated on one of the many soft cushions lining the walls, my sense of bewilderment must have been written on my face, as the women around me quickly and smoothly switched over to Arabic. Their gesture was all I needed to dismiss any lingering feelings of alienation.
I arrived in Siwa as an ordinary tourist, one of a group intent on seeing the sights in the most far-flung of Egypt's oases. We had spent our first morning driving along dirt roads lined with date palms towards various springs. We had visited the area's famous Temple of the Oracle and enjoyed a fine tour of the oasis, taking in Siwa's eastern salt lake and the natural spring known as Cleopatra's Bath (lined, bizarrely enough, with ceramic tiles like any modern bathroom).
Back in the city of Siwa, the group wound down with a cup of coffee in a local café and I broke away to have a look around. I was walking along a narrow road, admiring the buildings and taking a photograph of an old, traditional house when I was greeted by an elderly man. He smiled, indicating it was his home, and invited me in. I followed him through a blue wooden gate leading to a yard and he pointed to a narrow stairway in the single-storey building. I walked towards it and the man stayed behind.
It was then that I found myself among this lively gathering of women, both young and old. All were dressed in brightly coloured and delicately embroidered dresses and many of them wore elaborate silver jewellery. Colourful handmade carpets covered every inch of the floor, and opposite me was a single piece of furniture, a large wooden trousseau box -- an important component in every household.
It's strange, but until then, I hadn't realised how few women I had seen since my arrival. It never occurred to me to wonder why I had spotted only two. One, almost entirely hidden beneath a blue shawl, had been on a cart with her husband (it might have been her son -- I had no way of telling her age). Another I had glimpsed from a distance, placing what seemed to be her laundry on a bush to dry. But along the roads, around the oases, at the springs, roads and markets, I had seen no women. A large number of young girls, yes, but nowomen. Women are for the most part home-bound, rarely leaving their houses even to sell their hand-made crafts.
So it was an unexpected glimpse of an otherwise hidden half of the community that I was offered that day. No sooner was I comfortably seated when a young girl of about 15 emerged swathed in a gorgeous white robe. It was a wide T-shaped garment, with a single opening for the head, decorated with black, orange, red and yellow stitching along with a mass of buttons. Eager hands squared her shoulders and smoothed her skirt and I watched as she walked coquettishly up and down the room, giggling, flipping a scarf across her lower face, and looking over at me with black eyes lined with kohl. I was told that this was a bridal robe.
Siwan weddings are a highly ritualistic affair, with celebrations extending over three days. On the morning of her wedding, a Siwan bride will wear her bridal robe, together with another elaborately embroidered black shawl -- made by either the bride herself or one of her female relatives. Each morning the bride wears a different robe, and in the late afternoon, she changes into yet another robe. This second robe is decorated more brightly, in colours of pink or green, but is always accompanied by the black shawl to indicate the bride's modesty. A pile of these shawls was eagerly dumped into my lap and I spread them out before me. I could not help but admire the diversity of patterns created with a simple multi-coloured cross-stitch. As each garment is completed, it is placed in the bridal box.
Simplicity reigns: modern-day life hovers alongside the ruins of the old town Shali photo: Mohamed Mos'ad
I reached to take my camera out of my bag, thinking that this gathering was a photo opportunity not to be missed. But my hand was held firm before I could even unzip my bag and I was hastily told the story of a man who promptly divorced his wife when he learned that her photograph had been taken and published.
Time passed quickly and it occurred to me that the rest of my party might be worried about me. I graciously excused myself and made my way down the small stairwell. As I was coming down, two little girls popped their heads out of two tiny windows to wave good-bye. I pointed to my camera and they nodded their heads gleefully -- there are no restrictions on taking photos of little girls, so long as they are well under the age of marrying.
The sights of Siwa are worth the trip, but it was my encounters with Siwans that made my visit so memorable. Our sightseeing trips included the ruins of Shali, the old town originally built in 1203. We picked our way up crumbling stairways and heard tales of frequent Bedouin raids while touring the old fortress. A deep well situated nearby is said to connect to an underground tunnel that once extended all the way to the Temple of Amun. Our guide told us that the water was used by priests for washing bodies before they were mummified and that this had to be done in secrecy -- "away from bad weather and the eyes of the thieves."
While exploring Shali I found myself in conversation with a little girl named Mona, who was around 12. She eagerly introduced her younger brothers, one of whom came forward, laughing and showing off his colourful cartoon bag. She encouraged me to wait and look at the crafts made by her mother, and I fell into conversation with her, asking her to write a few Siwan terms down for me, along with their meaning in Arabic. Young girls among the women I had sat with the day before were proud to tell me that they all attended school and that they were literate, and Mona shyly agreed. Siwans are a proud people and it is obvious that they are also proud of their language, which survives solely by being passed down through generations -- through women, who teach it to their children and so on. There is no written language.
Siwa is known for its healthy environment, especially for those suffering from rheumatism, and the following day we visited a sandy spot near Al-Darker mountain used by travellers seeking cures for their ailments. Here, people bury themselves up to their heads in hot sand, particularly in the sweltering summer months, but I was neither ailing nor interested. We had dinner nearby, and as the fire was being prepared for our meal, we had a dip in the hot water spring known as Bir Wahid. At 35°C, it was certainly hot indeed. That night we dined next to the fire, a million stars scattered above us against an indigo sky. We sipped green tea and watched the moon rise peacefully into the night.
Though the fresh air, the springs and the dry weather are all a draw for tourists, not that many make it to Siwa as it is not only far, but no simple journey. Even so, I was surprised by some of the things I found there -- a bus stop, an information centre, a police station, even a telephone office. I spotted a pharmacy and my guide said there is a medical centre for emergencies. I nearly fell off my chair when I heard there was an Internet café.
Walking through the marketplace near our hotel, I perused a colourful assortment of handmade bags, shawls, galabiyas, carpets and baskets piled up outside the tiny shops. It was a Friday, and at noon the market vendors left their goods and assembled at the mosque for prayer. Everything was left unattended -- there is no crime in Siwa.
Driving out to the small village of Bahi Al-Din, along Siwa's western salt lake, I realised that I was falling for this life, and even envied Siwans the simplicity of oasis life. In Bahi Al-Din, where our guide Omar lives, we were given a hearty welcome and took our lunch in the open air on Bedouin carpets and pillows placed on the ground. Huge bowls of rice, moloukhiya, chicken, salad and olives were placed in front of us and we all ate from them.
Of course, I saw all the good things about Siwa and the lives of people in the oases, but there are harsh realities to this way of life. Taking coffee with Sheikh Omar of the Awlad Moussa tribe -- the youngest chief of the 11 tribes of Siwa -- we heard about one of the greatest problems that plagues this desert town: water. Not a shortage, strangely enough, but too much of it. Siwa can't bottle its water fast enough and in 1996 a government project was launched to create drainage channels that would collect the water in one place. The reservoir could then be used to irrigate the land and ultimately create lands suitable for agricultural development from what are now dry sand dunes. If it all sounds a little optimistic, then you can understand why Sheikh Omar is sceptical of the long-term consequences of the plan.
"The earth cannot absorb excess water," he said. "The palm trees would absorb too much ... all we can do is wait and see what happens."