August 18, 2008

Siwa Oasis

The Siwa Oasis Revisited, August, 2008


An e mail read "I'm in Egypt, studying Arabic. Your chapter on the Siwa Oasis inspired me a lot and I hope to go there. It would be great to go with you. If you ever come to Egypt, you're welcome to stay with me." It was from Danielle, a dancer from Vancouver BC who had taken a workshop and a private class with me.

How serendipitous, I thought, since I was headed to Cairo in two weeks. I had hoped to get to Libya, but the visa process was too drawn out, and I cannot have my passport tied up for weeks at a time. I did need to visit the Siwa Oasis and give some money to Nama, the little girl on my book cover. She lives in a tiny mud brick village outside Siwa, past a mountain of Roman tombs, a salt lake, and a controversial archeological site that many believe contains the remains of Alexander the Great. No one in her village fully comprehended that her photo would be on a book cover, or that I was writing a book and that it would be about their unique Berber culture. I feel it is only fair that she receive a modeling fee, because there are 4000 books, 5000 flyers, and a blog with her photo on it. (You can see Nama  and I a year later in the photo taken in 2007 on this blog.) We took more pictures this year, She is almost as tall as me now.

Danielle was utterly surprised when I wrote back that I was headed to Egypt and would be going to Siwa if she cared to join me. She wrote back warning "We want you to stay…but I must warn you that our apartment is a dump, so if you don't mind roughing it, we'd love to have you." Soon after she wrote again "Last night a cockroach crawled across my roommates face. That was the last straw for us. We moved to a much nicer place, so you're in luck."

I arrived in Cairo at 4am and a driver took me to the suburb of Maadi. Danielle and Maria lived in a middle class community of towering high rises. Lest you think I had landed in the lap of luxury, I must add that every building in Cairo is blanketed with a thick layer of grotty dirt. Once inside, every surface is covered with dust. That is the universal reality of Cairo, across all socio economic strata. The elevator was frighteningly slow, noisy, and shook all the way to the 25th floor. I occasionally have elevator nightmares, so I prayed all the way up.

Day one in Cairo; The light was out in the elevator but I refused to go down 25 sets of stairs. My elevator nightmare was even closer to becoming reality. I bought bus tickets to Siwa. What had once been a dusty parking lot full of  "West Delta" busses is now a spanking new bus station. I kept walking back and forth past it, looking for the familiar grimy haven for honking busses and ticket sellers calling out the destinations. Someone finally pointed out the hulk of a building and said "That's the bus station."

I wandered to the Windsor Hotel, where I usually stay when in Cairo. There is no employee turnover there, so as I left it last summer, and the three summers before that, it remains…An old bathhouse that was the British officers club during colonial times. As in years past, my favorite taxi driver, Masri was sitting in one of the many tea houses set up on the sidewalk. It was like a homecoming. Masri sat me down and ordered fresh lemonade. Soon I was reading his fortune from the bottom of a Turkish coffee cup. Soon a line of men from the different tea houses showed up with cups in hand and I spent the rest of the afternoon reading the patterns that emerged from their coffee grinds.


Early the next morning Danielle and I were off on the long and boring bus ride to Siwa. Where there had been nothing but sand and distant turquoise waves, modern buildings were popping up all along Egypt's north coast. After a delicious lunch of fresh fish and a side trip to majestic turquoise beaches outside of the Bedouin city of Marsa Matruh, we got to Siwa late at night. In the desert, people take long naps at lunch time and stay up into the wee hours of the morning. The oasis was bustling with business at midnight.

Danielle got to see life in Siwa as it has taken me years to be able to penetrate. We went to Nana'a's village, sat on mats on the floor and drank tea as her family presented us with gifts of mud clay pottery. On the previous days long bus ride, I told Danielle about last years sand bath experience. She said "I could never do that!" As the hours passed, she got more and more curious, until I had to ask my friend Helal to take us to the desert for a session of Siwan torture…"Good for health."

During the hottest hours of mid day Saharan sun, we were buried up to our necks in sand,  Once baked sufficiently, we wrapped ourselves in thick winter blankets and stayed in a virtually airless tent for the next hour drinking helba. Helba is an herbal tea that facilitates sweating. Still wrapped in blankets, we were taken in the back of a pickup truck to the local hotel to lie in bed drinking hot soup and lemon juice and left there to sweat. Danielle asked "When can we leave?" Helal replied "When you stop sweating."

Many cups of strong Siwan tea and a couple of days later, it was time for Danielle to go back to school. I couldn't face the long trip back to smoggy, chaotic Cairo yet, so I opted to stay a bit longer.

Last year I made cookies for Helal's family. This year his mother asked me to teach her how. Last year the local "Pepsi store" sold slabs of butter. This year we had to settle for a can of ghee. Otherwise, the toll house cookies made with M & M's were a smashing success.

I am captivated by Siwan embroidery. It is one of the only ways women in Siwa can make money and it is truly a unique art. Siwan wedding dresses are voluminous caftans that are intricately embroidered in the front. They come in black or white fabric with orange, yellow and green silk embroidery, buttons, cowrie shells, amulets, and rhinestones. I bought a black one to be made into a one piece bellydance dress. Helal's mother adorned my dance pants with embroidery along the sides. The designs are traditional Berber symbols, but the meanings have been lost over the centuries.