By Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com
After spending almost a week travelling through the Sahara desert in south-western Egypt, I badly needed a break. And so I headed north, to the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, Egypt’s largest city after Cairo. Founded in 331 BC by Alexander ‘the Great’ and named after him, Alexandria remained Egypt's capital for nearly a thousand years, until the Arab conquest in the seventh century CE. I had hoped to spend a quiet few days in the city, but the moment the bus pulled into Alexandria, I knew I had to leave it that very day. After several days in the desert, the bustle of the city seemed to be too much to bear.
I did a quick tour of some of the mandatory tourist sites in Alexandria, and decided to head back to the desert. And so, in the early afternoon that same day, I boarded the bus to Siwa, an oasis located to the far west of Egypt, just a couple of miles from the Libyan border, a journey of almost ten hours. Siwa was the only settlement in all of Egypt inhabited by one of the country’s smallest ethnic minorities—the Amazigh or the ‘free people’, who are also called the Berbers.
The smooth highway straddled the sparkling turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, but the brilliant view of the sea was rudely interrupted after a short stretch by a vast chain of expensive resorts and villas. Enormous bill-boards at their entrances depicted well-fed, beaming European families skinny-dipping in pools, playing golf, partying in Californian-style clubs and luxuriating on the sea-side, promising them, as they declared, ‘the ultimate experience in luxury’. Set behind forbidding walls, these vulgarly huge complexes were built on what would otherwise have been stunningly beautiful beaches. They were geared to rich European and Gulf Arab tourists, besides the few Egyptians who could afford them. The monstrous structures continued uninterrupted for almost two hundred kilometres, till we arrived at the town of Matrouk. All along, the other side of the highway was littered with ramshackle box-like stone-brick houses, possibly the humble homes of families displaced by this vulgar process of ‘development’.
We stopped at Matrouk for dinner at a roadside eatery. The town had a typical frontier look, with lines of pick-up vans loaded with goods heading towards Libya, just a few miles down the road, and army trucks packed with soldiers. “I love AmitaBacha!” declaimed the amiable owner of the eatery where I stopped for a bite. Amitabh Bachan was definitely the most famous Indian in all of Egypt. ‘He Muslim?’ the man asked a question that I had been confronted with numerous times before elsewhere in Egypt. His face fell when I answered in the negative. ‘No, no, he Muslim! Muslim!’, the man insisted. ‘Every man say me he Muslim. He act as Muslim in one movie I see,’ he went on, oblivious to my insistence to the contrary.
A few miles from Matrouk, by which time the sun was gently dipping down towards the distant horizon, the road swerved into the desert, leaving the sea far behind. We travelled for several hours through empty, rocky expanse—unremarkable and what seemed to be wholly uninhabited countryside. Then, almost at mid-night, I spied the twinkling lights of a town in the far distance, nestled in the lap of a series of enormous flat-roofed mountains. All of a sudden, we began driving through a luxuriant forest of palms—the first trees after an over 300 kilometre stretch of desert. We had arrived in Siwa.
I hopped out of the bus at its last stop, and checked into a grubby inn nearby, too tired to look for more comfortable accommodation.
The next morning, I sat in at an eatery, sipping mint-tea and watching the town coming back to life. A batch of school-children, dressed in neatly-starched uniforms, boarded what seemed to be Siwa’sfavoured form of public transportation—a canopied cart driven by a shaggy, richly decorated donkey. A peasant man drove a horse-cart laden with an enormous pile of fresh vegetables. A donkey-cart bearing an enormous drum of petroleum sauntered by—a mobile petrol station. A couple of women, fully veiled, from head to toe, without even space for their eyes to peep out from, sailed past in a donkey-cart. ‘Our women rarely step out of their homes,’ said Hasan, the owner of the eatery. ‘Even if they have to go to the shop down the lane, they travel in a donkey-taxi. And not a bit of their skin can be seen, so much so that even they must wear gloves on their hands, even at the height of summer.’ He said this with evident pride, as if it were a matter of great honour.
But if such patriarchal traditions still remained deeply-rooted, Siwa, now home to more than 20,000 people, was no longer immune to outside influences as it perhaps once was. Every second stall sold the ubiquitous Coca-Cola; dish antennas sprouted from every roof-top (‘We can even watch three Hindi 24-hour channels’, Hasan helpfully boasted); Internet cafes did brisk business; shops sold Japanese air-conditioners, dish-washers, music systems and computers; and tourist buses disgorged loads of curious, camera-clicking foreigners every day in the town.
Siwa was definitely no longer a remote idyllic oasis cut off from the larger world that my guide-book touted it as. Five mineral water bottling plants had just been set up on the outskirts of the town—a heavy burden on the oasis’ precious water resources, Hasan complained. ‘We never faced water shortage in all our history,’ he went on, ‘but now, with this craze for earning money at any cost becoming an obsession, and these plants consuming our water indiscriminately, bottling it and sending it off to Cairo, we don’t know what the future might hold.’ A dozen or so new luxury hotels aimed at rich foreign tourists had recently sprouted in the town. Every Siwan family once owned packs of camels, Hasan said, but now almost none did. Because trucks and buses had replaced camel caravans as modes of transport and for conducting trade, the Siwans had eaten up most of their dromedaries, and had sold the rest to ‘desert safari’ companies that arranged for ‘camel adventure tours’ for foreign tourists, charging them a hefty fee.
After a light breakfast, I trudged up to the Shali, an ancient fort, Siwa’s prime tourist attraction. It was perched on a knoll in the far end of the town, and consisted of over a hundred houses built cheek-by-jowl and carved entirely out of mud. These structures were intersected by narrow lanes and covered with shades made from the trunks of palm trees. A few mud hovels doubled-up as homes and as shops selling crudely-made Berber handicrafts—bits of embroidered cloth, baskets made of palm leaves and camel-hair rugs in striking desert hues. Till a few decades ago, the entire population of the town lived here, but now hardly anyone did. As a result, the buildings were now rapidly crumbling down, but the Shali still had a quaint appeal, harking back to the times when Siwa was almost completely isolated from the outside world, cut off by hundreds of miles of pure desert on all sides, and accessible only after an arduous journey of many days on camel-back.
The view from the pinnacle of the Shali was stunning—the untouched Sahara stretched on till the far horizon on three sides. On the fourth side, to the north, were a series of hills, below which was a vast sea of green—hundreds of thousands of palm and olive trees that were fed by a complex system of canals that received abundant water from underground springs that never seemed to go dry although it hardly rained in this part of the Sahara.
Despite Siwa’s isolation, it has a rich history. Archaeological evidence suggests that it was one of the western most outposts of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. The Jabal al-Maut, ‘the Mountain of the Dead’, located on the edge of the town, is one of the several historical sites that Siwa boasts of. It is littered with dozens of catacombs, connected through a series of underground passages, hewn deep inside the rock-face, and I spied faded Pharaonic etchings splattered across the walls.
A short distance away are the ruins of the Temple of the Oracle. Little of it remains, though, except for snatches of stone with delicate hieroglyphic inscriptions, crafted in the ancient pictorial Pharaonic script. Beyond, a muddy path leads through a dense thicket of olive trees and opens out into a vast pool called Cleopatra’s Bath. This is where the famed Egyptian queen after whom it was named is once said to have sported. The pool was still full, fed by dozens of bubbling underground sulfuric springs, and its waters are said to have curative properties.
That evening, I walked across to a Sufi shrine located adjacent to the town’s main mosque. The mausoleum of Sidi Sulaiman, said to have been a Berber saint of the Arusiya Sufi order, was a bee-hive of activity. Crowds of men gathered around, squatting on dusty mats strewn across mud floors. An old man played a drum energetically, and the congregation burst into a heavy beat, singing after him—praises of God and possibly of Sidi Sulaiman himself. I could follow only some snatches of it, words in Arabic with which I was familiar, but it was entrancing. The session carried on till late at night, getting over with a round of mint-tea served in little porcelain cups.
The next day I trekked almost ten kilometers to the sprawling Fatnaslake, through a tangled jungle of fruit trees. Dates and olives lay scattered on the roadside, and that is what I breakfasted on, for no eateries were open at that early hour. Ahead stood the massive ‘sand sea’, as it is called, the vast Sahara that stretched into Libya in the west, and, in the opposite direction, hundreds of miles away, to the Sudan. I swerved off the main road and headed towards the hump-shaped dunes. Two hours later, I arrived at Fatnas. The lake hardly went dry, I was told, not even in the scorching summers, when temperatures reached almost 50 degrees. It stretched like a vast sea, bordered on one side by a row of rocky mountains, and on the other by enveloping hillocks of sand. Here, hundreds of kilometers from the sea, a veritable zoo of birds had accumulated. They kept up a steady din, flitting across the palms that skirted the waters, and diving into the lake to spoon little fish in their beaks.
Human life had, it was true, been thoroughly transformed in the Sahara, but here at Fatnas, amidst the rolling sands and the chattering birds, finally I felt a touch of the Sahara as I imagined it would be—wild, haunting and pure.
It was clear, even at the time of my visit, a year before the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ broke out in Egypt and toppled the unpopular regime of Hosni Mubarak, that the Siwans were restive. They complained that as Berbers they were looked down upon and treated badly by what they referred to as the ‘Egyptians’ or ‘Arabs’ for being non-Arabs and for refusing to give up their carefully-cherished separate identity. They were mocked, they said, for having allegedly been compelled to convert to Islam after their military defeat at the hands of invading Arabs, even though this had been centuries ago. Several Berber men had, over the years, been arrested for trying to revive and propagate their native culture, which the Egyptian state saw as disruptive and ‘anti-national’. It still remained even a punishable crime to publish literature in the Siwi language, which was seen by the Egyptian state as undermining its insistence on a monolithic Arab identity. Most of the government servants posted in Siwa, the Siwan Berbers grumbled, were ‘Egyptians’, who treated them as country bumpkins. So, too, were many of the town’s rich traders. ‘We are friendly, simple and hospitable people’, one of them, an ardent Berber nationalist, who had spent spells in jails for his views, insisted.
This was no empty boasting, I admitted to the man. Nowhere else in Egypt had I met such warm and kindly folk? Nowhere else did I feel that I had not been over-priced for anything I bought, even for just a mug of tea. Nowhere else in the country did I not feel somewhat intimidated. Those few days in Siwa were, clearly, the highpoint of my Saharan sojourn.
A regular columnist for NewAgeIslam.com, Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.