Saturday, November 12, 2011

The middle of nowhere

Apologies for the long gap in posts, but I did a bit of traveling within Egypt during a vacation for Eid Al-Adha, or the Festival of the Sacrifice, a Muslim holiday that commemorates Abraham's obedience to G-d when he nearly sacrificed his son. Before the father of all monotheistic religions was able to carry out the dirty deed, the big man in the sky had him slaughter a sheep instead. In that vein, Egyptians sacrifice thousands upon thousands of sheep every year to celebrate. The streets in some cities and villages supposedly run red with blood, although that wasn't the case where I was.

Just where was I, then? Well, to get there, hop on an overnight bus from Cairo, fall asleep as you drive for five hours away from the capital, wake up to screams and smoke in the bus after a wheel blows out, wait on the side of the highway for 45 minutes, pay a microbus driver to take you the rest of the way, then hurtle 185 miles (300 km.) straight into the desert with literally nothing to be seen for hundreds of miles around you. Twelve and a half hours after leaving Cairo, you will have arrived in the enchanting desert oasis of Siwa, only 30 miles (50 km.) from the Libyan border.

A small mosque at a rest stop on our return trip to Cairo.

The small town of Siwa gives off a distinctly prehistoric air, mainly because it's so far removed from the rest of civilization and because many of its 20,000+ ethnically Berber residents live in mud huts and adhere to centuries-old customs long untouched by outside influences. Located in a depression in the Libyan Desert, Siwa sits close to the water table and boasts an abundance of arable land and springs that themselves boast an abundance of hairy Arab male tourists. The waters allow for date and olive farming—the dates in particular are delicious—and are the source of much of Egypt's bottled drinking water.

Dusk over Siwa's salt flats.

Siwa is so isolated that its residents, who converted to Islam back in the 12th century or so, speak their own language and maintain a set of customs distinct from the rest of the country. The first paved road to reach Siwa was only built in the 1980s. Before that, according to a Siwan I met, journeying in a truck across the desert to the nearest town took three days and depended on the stars for direction.

Donkey carts seem to vastly outnumber cars in the desert oasis, and youths speed around on "tuk tuks," the local version of which consists of a metal cart attached to a motorcycle. Most village women only leave the house covered entirely from head to toe, including a black net completely concealing their face. Everyone knows everyone in the tiny town.

A marauding band of children on a tuk tuk whizzes past a woman. Note the five-year-old behind the wheel.

But Siwa's rugged isolation didn't preclude it playing host to some important visitors over the years. Alexander the Great stopped by in the 4th century BCE on a quest to visit the village's ancient oracle. So did the Germans, Italians, and British during World War II, as fighting raged in and around the oasis. How random.

Anyway, whatever reason past travelers came to Siwa, today the oasis attracts Egyptians and foreigners alike to its slow-moving, unique way of life, 4x4 camping trips in the desert, and cold and hot springs. We rode bikes around town, sipped tea with the locals (per Lonely Planet tradition), and feasted on delicious, cheap meat and bean dishes. Oh, and we went sandboarding and slept out in the desert. Even though tourism is central to the local economy, the town as a whole remains remarkably low-key and without large resorts, with most locals coexisting beside foreigners whose presence they hardly even acknowledge.

Like snowboarding, minus the snow and the annoying snowboarders.
(Photo credit: Jill Lyon)

In short, Siwa is different. Wandering around an ancient mud-hut fortress destroyed in three days of rain in 1926—the last time it rained in the village—my friend Jill and I met Moussa Aissa Moussa, a 14 year-old Siwan whose name translates as "Moses Jesus Moses" (he is Muslim). As he and his friend guided us up a hill dotted with ancient caves, he taught us the Siwi words for "sun," "rock," and "mountain," as well as the super useful phrases, "You are crazy!" (Anta kharfata!) and "I want to marry you" (Ana ayiz anjaf). It turned out that Moussa's father, whose name is Aissa Moussa, is a musician who plays a traditional wind instrument; every Siwan we asked in the next couple days seemed to know who he was.

Moussa's friend looks out over Siwa. The washed-out Shali Fortress, top left, towers over the town.

As we followed Moussa down the crumbling hillside, where modern-day Siwans live alongside caves from the time of the pharaohs, our new friend told us to jump in a tuk tuk that would take us to the town's main square. As we puttered back toward our friends, we asked our young-looking driver how old he was. "Thirteen!" he said, with a smile on his face.

Oh man, oh man, we thought. Turns out that far-flung place wasn't too unlike the rest of Egypt after all: Shabaab (youths) recklessly driving motor vehicles had made their way all the way to Siwa!

Moussa, the boy holding the cell phone, chills on a tuk tuk. (If you can't see the video, click here.)

No comments:

Post a Comment