Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1267, (22 - 28 October 2015)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1267, (22 - 28 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Destination Oasis

Mahmoud Bakr visits the Siwa Oasis and finds that prospects there are improving after decades of official neglect

Al-Ahram Weekly

Siwa is an oasis of magical, breathtaking beauty known for its blessed and bountiful date palms. Siwa stands out from its sister oases in Egypt for the purity of its air, the crystalline blue of its skies, and the kindness of its people. It is little wonder that it is called the “paradise of the Western Desert.”

Siwa is the eastern gateway to the Amazigh, the indigenous people of North Africa. They are Egypt’s Berbers, who retreated to this oasis hundreds of years ago, retaining their traditional customs and language. But this oasis has been largely forgotten by the state for more than 35 years, compelling its inhabitants to rely on themselves and to solve their development problems on their own.

Perhaps this is one of the secrets behind the survival of their cultural and social heritage.

The oasis is 18 metres below sea level, and its centre, Siwa village, is inhabited by about 30,000 people, with another 4,000 coming from outside. In 2007, archaeologists discovered the oldest human artefacts in the world, dating to about three million years ago, in the Siwa Oasis.

Siwa is home to 11 Amazigh tribes, and in addition to its agricultural wealth, it also possesses numerous tourist attractions, sand baths and other therapeutic features, and the wonders of a natural environment shaped by centuries of erosion.

As Abdel-Wahab Zayed, secretary-general of the International Khalifa Award and agricultural advisor to the UAE Ministry of Presidential Affairs, observes, Siwa is an outstanding producer of dates. These are a complete meal as they contain all the essential nutrients required by the human body, and are an important source of sugars like glucose, fructose and sucrose.

A portion of 100 grams of dates provides 300 calories, and they are an excellent source of vitamins (they are rich in vitamin A and have high proportions of B1 and B2) and minerals, especially iron, which is why doctors prescribe dates to counter anemia. In addition, they contain phosphorous, potassium, zinc, magnesium, fluoride (which fights tooth decay) and selenium, which is an anti-carcinogen.

However, despite its status as a major producer of dates, Siwa has a number of problems. Fathy Abdallah is a member of the board of directors of the Siwan Society for Tourist Development and Environmental Preservation. He told the Weekly that one of the biggest problems is the rising water level due to agricultural run-off which, he said, threatens to flood the Oasis in winter.

He called for an urgent halt to well digging as a means to curb this risk, signalled by the fact that the Siwan lakes now cover an area of 52,000 feddans, whereas they had formally covered a 37,000-feddan area. Water seepage also threatens the oasis’ approximately 320 mineral springs.

“The wells dug by the Regwa Company without proper scientific studies being carried out have destroyed the Siwa Oasis. They have caused the agricultural run-off lakes to grow so large that the oasis has become akin to a sieve,” Abdallah said.

He explained that 80 per cent of the land in Siwa is connected to the agricultural run-off water deposited in two lakes, one to the east and another to the west. The remaining 20 per cent is channeled to the Bahyeddin Lake.

“These lakes threaten to inundate Siwa after having wreaked enormous cultivatable land loss due to their salinity. The Wafla village was flooded and 50 per cent of the olive crop was lost this year. The area of land available for palm cultivation has also shrunk,” he added.

Abdullah said that numerous studies have been carried out to find a solution to the agricultural run-off problem, such as those by researcher Farouk Al-Baz. Studies performed on the Tabajbaj Depression, 180 km from Siwa, indicate that it could offer a solution if canals to it were constructed.

Another study has demonstrated that the huge quantities of run-off water could be channeled to the area called the “Sea of Sand” where, instead of going to waste, it could serve to water trees and shrubbery that could help stabilise the dunes.

“Such solutions are good ones,” Abdallah said. “We urge the government to intervene quickly in order to save Siwa from further flooding.”

SAVING SIWA’S HERITAGE: According to Abdallah, the problem of neglect extends to the oasis’ archaeological treasures. No security measures are in place and there are no restoration projects. As a consequence, a significant portion of the antiquities have been lost, in spite of the fact that these are important pieces from the Pharaonic, Hellenistic, Roman and Islamic eras.

Of particular importance in Siwa is the Temple of Amon, which was famous throughout the classical world. Alexander the Great was declared the son of Amon and ruler of Egypt and the world when he visited Egypt in the 4th century BCE. In addition, there is the “Mountain of the Dead,” home to many ancient tombs, and the dramatic remains of Shali, the ancient fortified town in the heart of Siwa.

Abdallah says that a British archaeologist has also discovered the oldest Pharaonic tomb yet found in Egypt in Siwa. Located in the area of the old olive press, the tomb is 11 metres high, of which 1.5 metres appear above ground. The edifice was constructed in such a way that the sun would shine on the face of its central statue at the time of the spring and autumn equinoxes in March and September.

The British scholar maintains that the temple attached to this tomb, which remained in use throughout the Pharaonic and subsequent Hellenistic eras, is unique in the world. Yet, the government has shown no interest in this important discovery.

Sheikh Abdullah Omar Mansour, the imam and preacher at the oldest mosque in the oasis and the whole of the Matrouh governorate, told the Weekly that the “Old Mosque,” as he called it, was the first to be built in the region.

Dating from 500 AH (6th century CE), it is located in ancient Shali and is still functioning. “I have been working there since 1970,” Sheikh Mansour said. He explained that the fortified walls of the ancient town were originally built to protect the town from marauders. Today the ancient city, although a ruin, still has a few intact homes that are inhabited by their owners.

Abu Bakr Ismail, director of the Siwan Home Museum, said that a committee of representatives from all the tribes in the oasis was formed to create the museum, which is dedicated to the preservation of the Siwan heritage. It houses traditional Siwan embroidered clothes, jewelry and domestic artefacts and displays the layout and decor of authentic Siwan homes. Sadly, it receives no support from the government.

Ahmed Haboun is the owner of a date-processing plant in Siwa and complains that the date season this year has suffered an enormous blow due to the importation of more than 2,500 tons of Iraqi dates. Although these are generally used as fodder, they are now being sold at LE6 per kilo, which Haboun says has undercut the local market and caused Siwan date producers major losses.

Haboun also stressed the need to resume bio-insecticide treatment against red palm weevils in Siwa. This treatment, usually applied in March and April, worked well until its use was halted in 2010 when grants ran out.

“The Ministry of Agriculture has not earmarked a further budget for Siwa,” he said. Haboun said the disease was spread when date palm strains infected with the weevil were introduced into the oasis by an entrepreneur who had founded a tourist village there. Local farmers have since been forced to cut down and burn infected trees.

On the question of marketing and exports, Haboun said, “We have asked the Chamber of Food Industries at the Federation of Egyptian Industries over and over again to inform us of international standards so that we can manufacture dates stuffed with almonds or peanuts, or covered in chocolate, or other such confectionaries for the export market. No one there has bothered to answer us, even though exports are currently limited to raw dates. We export 12,000 tons of these to Malaysia per year.”

The rapid completion of the road that connects the 6 October City to the Al-Bahriya Oases and Siwa would also offer another important lifeline. It would shorten the distance between Siwa and the capital by about 300 km. Two thirds of the road has already been constructed, and when complete “it will contribute greatly to the implementation of development plans, as well as to facilitating touristic, agricultural, industrial and commercial services,” Haboun commented.

PROMOTING DEVELOPMENT: Al-Nawi Eissa, the owner of a tourist bazaar in Siwa, said that Siwan women should be offered special training to inject new life into the traditional handicrafts industry for which Siwa was once well known. Today, most of the embroidery work and rugs on display in the bazaar come from outside Siwa, such as from Al-Arish, Fuwwah and Kardessa, he said.

“A manufacturing centre was constructed in Siwa at a cost of LE40 million. It has six production lines and aims to increase production, improve quality and diversify. However, it will never be able to operate at its full capacity because it cannot hold on to staff because they are so poorly paid. Employees earn, at most, LE8 per day,” Eissa said.

Naima Mohamed Al-Kilani, a native of Siwa, spoke to the Weekly on the problem of female college education in the region. Because Siwan families oppose sending their daughters to university outside the oasis, less than one per cent of Siwan woman have the opportunity to receive a university education.

This has naturally affected their employment prospects. Appointments to civil service and other government posts inevitably go to Siwan men on the grounds that the women do not have university degrees. Al-Kilani hopes that one day a branch of an Egyptian university or an open educational facility will be founded in Siwa so that local women can receive university educations.

Matrouh Governor Alaa Abu-Zeid acknowledges the neglect that Siwa has endured for more than 35 years, adding that the oasis has not received its fair share of basic services in healthcare, education and other domains.

“When I was appointed governor, the president instructed me to make radical changes for the better. He told me to change Matrouh in all its aspects and that the years to come would bring huge investments of up to LE80 billion to the region,” said Abu-Zeid.

 According to the governor, ten memoranda of understanding of a total value of more than $10 billion have been signed with the UAE as a first phase in this development. In addition, an agreement has been signed with South Korea to implement a health spa project in the oasis, a modern agricultural run-off water treatment plant, and a state-of-the-art amusement park. The final contracts for all these projects will be signed during the economic conference that is scheduled for 24-25 October in Matrouh.

The governor noted that Siwa’s transport problem “is among my top priorities, especially given that the oasis attracts 10,000 tourists a year. We intend to introduce an airline to serve tourism in the oasis and to create full-time job opportunities for the Siwan people.”


The palm forests

To promote the date palm sector in Egypt and support farmers, the government, in cooperation with the Khalifa International Date Palm Award, organised the first Egyptian Date Festival in the Siwa Oasis (8-10 October).

Sponsored by UAE Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Egyptian Minister of Industry and Foreign Trade Tarek Kabil, and the governor of Marsa Matrouh, Alaa Abu-Zeid, with the support of the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the festival drew several hundred participants, including entrepreneurs, farmers and manufacturers.

On the sidelines of the festival, scientific seminars were held to discuss high-quality date production and the demands of international markets. The festival also featured exhibits on date production and handicrafts that use palm fronds. Hanan Al-Hadari, director of the Industry Council for Technology and Innovation at the Ministry of Industry, said the festival was the result of a protocol signed with the UAE five months ago with the purpose of developing date production in Egypt.

Siwa was chosen as the site for the first festival because of its importance to Egypt’s date production. The oasis produces about 1.5 million tons of the highest quality dates, by international standards, and its exports account for around 3.3 per cent of international date exports.

Al-Hadari underscored the ministry’s interest in the sector and keenness to partner with countries with expertise in the field, such as UAE, to increase Egyptian exports of superior-quality products and attract investments to the sector. She emphasised the added value of dates, as they are used by manufacturers of a wide variety of other products, including jam and animal fodder.

Abdel-Wahab Zayed, secretary-general of the Khalifa Award and agricultural advisor at the UAE Ministry of Presidential Affairs, said that this was the first time the Award had moved outside the Emirates. Egypt was chosen on the direction on UAE Deputy Prime Minister Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan as a means to reaffirm the strong relations between the UAE and Egypt and to enhance bilateral cooperation, especially in the agricultural sector and date palm cultivation.

Zayed explained that Siwa is one of the largest date-producing oases in the world. With over 700,000 palms, it produces 84,000 tons of dates at the rate of 120 kilo per palm. The focus in the future will be on producing and marketing dates through collaboration with civil society organisations, research centres and other agencies, with an eye to enhancing the Siwan product and promoting it through international exhibitions, contests and fairs.

 He added that since its inauguration in 2007 the Khalifa Award has contributed to developing the date sector domestically in the UAE as well as regionally and internationally by means of research aimed at improving strains and production.

This work has succeeded in producing solutions to many of the problems faced by farmers, manufacturers and exporters and remedying many of the diseases affecting date palms. He reserved particular praise for Egyptian researchers, who had made considerable contributions to enhancing the work of the Award since its first round.

The Khalifa Award, awarded every year, seeks to encourage famers and manufacturers to develop the date industry in Egypt. Zayed said that ten winners were chosen out of the 80 entrants to the competition who came from different Egyptian governorates.

He added that this was a large number and that he expected numbers to increase in coming years, saying that the jury had applied international criteria in the selection process and that each winner had been awarded LE20,000.

Mustafa Ismail Othman won the prize for cultivation of the Siwan Saidi date, and Saad Abdel-Wahab won the prize for the best research project for the development of date palm cultivation. The prize for the best handicraft project went to Mohamed Hameida, and the award for the best farmer cultivating diverse palm strains went to Omar Abdullah Rageh. Moussa Mohamed Abdel-Rahman earned the prize for the best technology, while the prize for best date producer was awarded to Abdel-Ghani Abu Karam.

Bilal Mohamed Bilal won the award for best processor and packager, while the award for best packaging design went to Fatma Hilal Mohamed. The prize for the person offering the best services for Siwa and the Western Oases in general was awarded to Mohamed Shaker Haboun. No prize was awarded for the best organic date farmer.

The winners expressed their delight at being selected, saying that the prizes were an incentive to compete more vigorously in the processes of date production and marketing. The awards would contribute greatly to stimulating the date industry in Egypt, they said.

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