August 04, 2007

August 4, 2007

August 4, 2007
      40 days is only the begining. Revisiting the lands of "40 Days and 1001 Nights" are like the book on fast forward. I just returned from a week in the Siwa Oasis and am sitting in a cafe in Cairo once again and leave in a few hours for the US.
      So much that you will read about in my book (available as of August 10) continued to unfold in this summers travels.
      First is the story of Yahya. I was supposed to stay in the home of a family in Maraqi, a village outside of Siwa, past ancient tombs and what they say is the final resting place of Alexander the Great. Unfortunately, their 21 year old son, Yahya had disappeared. As my book gives mention, police brutality is rife in Siwa, but this case went beyond, and the people of the oasis rallied together. As one man said "It's 'normal' to beat people, just dont leave any marks". That is a resigned approach if I've ever heard one. Anyway, the fact that 21 year old Yahya was burned over most of his body gave the local Berber population the power to unite, take the police to court and gain massive publicity in an effort to curb police brutality in their oasis. The police are Egyptian, and the local population are of a completely different culture with a different language and a tribal system of justice.
    A couple of weeks before I arrived, Yahya was called into the looming and modern police station that dominates the mud brick oasis and asked to provide information on what he knew about a recent theft of government property. He was not a suspect, merely a person they thought might be able to give some information. He was mum, so they poured flamable liquid on his feet and played with a cigarette lighter near his shoes, not expecting them to light up. Needless to say, his long robes went up in flames and the officers didn't know what to do.
    They whisked him to a hospital in Alexandria, then after his scars had dried sufficiently, he was driven over to Libya and dropped off in a town where he didn't know anyone. A report was made that he had escaped during questioning. Luckily, Yahya had a brother living in Libya who he was able to contact and the story blew up around the region. The police were tried in court and now it appears that three officers will go to jail and two, including the head general of the area will be dismissed. Yahya's wounds are scarring over and his village is abuzz with reporters and well wishers. Police brutality is so commonplace in Egypt, even more in this tiny minority oasis, and we can only hope that this will be the beginning of an end of such rampant abuse.
     The visit was not all that tradgedy. I spent three days in another village called Dakrur doing the "over 40 spa treatment". It is actually what people do each summer after the big 4-0...Spending three days sweating and eating, sewing and getting hennaed together.
     The famous Siwan sand bath involves being submerged up to ones neck in scorching summer sand in the Sahara at mid day for 15 minutes, then wrapped in a heavy blanket and put in a tent to sweat for over an hour as you drink herbs that encourage further sweating. Then a pickup truck takes all of the blanket clad bodies to the village and puts us in rooms under mosquito nets, where we sweat some more in our blankets drinking broth and lemon juice for a couple more hours. That happens every day until the smell gets unbearable. We are not alowed to bathe for four days. People claim it has cured bad knees and back problems and that the sand outside this village has special healing properties. I asked how this custom started and was told "About 150 years ago, a girl who couldn't walk was buried in this sand and started to walk again." Anyway, they say it is quite rejuvinating, and if nothing else, encourages comraderie. I sat for three days with families from Alexandria and a group of Bedouins swapping stories and sewing sequins, finalizing with some girls putting henna designs on our hands and feet.
     Finally, I did some cultural exchange with another Siwi Berber family. I'd had a chiffon evening dress made by a tailor in Zanzibar. I brought it to Siwa for some traditiopnal embriodery and beadwork, which was done in grand style by four women all working on the dress at once. On the final day, I was in their home too, and continued my own sequin sewing on a new costume that I am making out of Somalian fabric. They cooked dinner and I made cookies. I had promised to make toll house cookies... but there were no chocolate chips in the Siwa oasis. Luckily, they didn't know about chocolate chips, and we spent part of the afternoon wrapping cookie dough around some coveted Droste chocolate pastilles that cost a small fortune from the refrigerator of the "Pepsi Store". Brown sugar does not exist either, nor do they have the same measurements as us, so I was concerned about how edible my concoction would be. Happily, these new Siwan-American sweets were a sucess. That can be determined by a universal expression of appreciation- a young boy with an impish grin and chocolate surrounding his lips telling his mom "I don't know what happened to the cookies".