Seeewahhh: Egypt’s oasis
I whispered its name to Enrique, another tourist resting in our eight-bed dorm in Cairo. I breathed it, “Seeeewaaahhh”. I had been there, and the travelers who had experienced it couldn’t help but fail to enunciate it. They say it with the same soft droning aspiration that comes from somewhere deep inside the throat like the “ayn” or the “khaa” of the Arabic alphabet. “Siwa” is the clandestine passkey for travelers with the need to be incorporated into the native color of the place. It’s impossible not to soak up Siwan culture. Engulfed in the atmosphere of the place, a visitor is as absorbent as a black polyester shirt under the midday desert sun ï¿½ even more so, I think.
Siwa is an oasis between the Qattara Depression and the Egyptian Sand Sea. It’s without steel, without high rises, or apartment complexes. The only metal blazes from the few rusty 4x4s with half-deflated tires designed for desert dunes and the infrequent buses that carry rowdy off-duty military patrol. They are the men unfortunate enough to have been assigned to the fiery Libyan boarder: Hades without its refreshing river Styx. They ride to and from Alexandria, overnight, to rejuvenate in the presence of the Mediterranean. There are no taxis, no Honda Civics, no Land Rovers with soft-covers in camouflage print. The Siwan people ride the most rudimentary form of transportation, which they prefer to all others ï¿½ donkey-cart. The wooden two and four-wheelers are so characteristic of the area that they pass by announcing the name of their own town: “Seeeewaaahhh.” It’s the same tired ‘swish’ of the driver’s cane-stick paired with the bray of his donkey and the sighing of one lopsided wheel as it carries him over the sand on its way past the dilapidated town of Shali.
Shali had once been a five-story enclave, in the 13th century. Now only waist-high, unsheltered, and made of mud, salt, and clay, it looks like it’s melting ï¿½ slowly shrinking under a hayclon heat nonpareil. The old center’s presence looms, yet no one makes use of it, as if it was an antique bench in a hotel lobby, made of wood and without cushions. My Siwan inn, The Desert Rose, didn’t have antique furniture. It had a few creaky beds on the rooftop, a dining area, chest and bookshelf. It didn’t have electricity either. Siwan’s homes are certainly not equipped with electric wiring and light fixtures; but Shali is well lit, in spite of its meager height. Shali’s spotlights make it the museum-like centerpiece for Siwan life, especially at night. The bus stops before it, the markets circle around it, and the children park their bikes at its side.
The oasis stretches from all sides of these old city ruins ï¿½ a labyrinth of ramshackle mud-brick and palm-log houses. One flows into the next; staggered and crumbling, a living room threshold opens into a donkey’s stall. Most are incomplete, some miss roofs, others lack a front outer wall. “Are they in disrepair?” I asked a man sitting in his kitchen ï¿½ the room continued, uninterrupted, directly into the street.
“I need only to pay taxes once my house is complete,” he said, with a smile ï¿½ no hesitation, no abashed look. He gloated at his own wile, as if this were solely his idea.
It wasn’t, though. The owners of the many Siwan homes are almost all content with gazing directly at the stars, witnessing the bustle of the main thoroughfare from their kitchens or living room floors.
Indeed, the townspeople work little, contemplate life and relax much. They’re carefree. One of the only regimens I saw that they honor ï¿½ and they do with ant-like fidelity ï¿½ is their late afternoon naps. At four o’clock the town’s olive oil and date sellers close their shutters and a monumental stillness lulls even the pesky mosquitoes. In a place where everything would seem to conspire to make living a misery: bugs, heat, dust storms, isolation, and the lack of anything green outside the confines of its eighty kilometer-long, twenty-wide plot, the people are docile. They live the highly desirable ‘dog’s life’: the men watch the day pass from their coffee-shop seats (the chairs don’t typically rock, but they may as well). They blow white clouds of apple-scented smoke out from their nostrils ï¿½ seasoned smokers ï¿½ frequently putting aside their shisha cords to wish ‘is-salaam allekum’ to the passersby.
Instead of cursing the incessant sun, their ancestor’s named him “Amun-Ra,” the ram-headed sun god, these early men offered him sun-cooked dates (and flies) from Siwa’s 300,000 fruit-bearing palms. The sun is not an enemy to the dwellers in the oasis, but a well-respected, effulgent force.
That is why, if you ask a Siwan man what gold is, he will tell you that the sun is gold and the sand that reflects it looks aurous at dawn. Siwans are quick to offer that their home is a treasure chest without the ‘bling bling’ of cash ï¿½ the Euros, Yen, and U.S. bucks that I found so coveted in Cairo and Dubai. The only gold that sparkles in Siwa’s oasis comes from the gritty desert waves and the distant dunes of the Libyan Sahara, close enough to walk to (but I wouldn’t recommend it). At twilight, the last light reflects off the particles of the Great Salt Lake, wide and with sodium-levels high enough that swimmers are able to bob effortlessly about on the surface. Sometimes the oasis’s many hot springs appear iridescent as well, namely Cleopatra’s Bath and Fatnas Spring.
Siwa is the antithesis of hotel-packed capital: the tour operators’ initial stop, beside Giza and the pyramids, offering camel rides and souvenir stalls ï¿½ a conundrum of streets and cars and touts hissing for a moment of travelers’ attention and, if their lucky, procuring more than a modicum from their wallets.
Even though Siwa is where the Romans sent their banished roughnecks, it’s a place with little cynicism, with few guarded confrontations. “I’ll just invite you for Egyptian tea, then,” the man from the Bedouin handicrafts store decided after my brother had resolved not to buy a dirt-stained, half-unraveling camel-fur bag. He, the operators offering dune boarding, the town’s four hotel owners, and the vendors selling Siwa-brand bottled water, were amiable. They didn’t posses either the severe demeanor of their ancestral out-laws, or employ the competitive strategies of the city’s men. They most certainly didn’t retain the hubris of the Macedonian leader from another important part of the town’s history ï¿½ Alexander the Great.
Alexander, inheriting his mother’s superstitions, pestered by imitations of divine heraldry as vast as his army was large, wanted to make the journey to the Siwan oasis as each Egyptian pharaoh of the 28th Dynasty had done. He went to Siwa to consult the oracle behind the mountain of the dead, at the temple of Amun.
Outside of Siwa, a leisurely bicycle ride north and then east, are the ruins of Anun’s temple. Now just a slab of rock with inscriptions in the shapes of eyes and lines and small birds, it is still surrounded by the rubble that the Ottoman governor left when he made the decision to blow it up and use the debris for building. Beside it is the soothsayer: a vacant hall made of stone in various shades of gray and pink. It’s still standing as Alexander had left it in 332 B.C.
Beside Anun’s temple is ‘The Mountain of the Dead’, Gebel-Al-Mawta ï¿½ a raised maze of locked tombs, all with separate doors, hallowed out of the side of the rock. Four kilometers out of the town, in a non-residential suburb, there were hardly any Siwans near it and fewer at its peak. The five-minute rocky ascent was high by the Siwans’ standards, but not in terms of topography. Even though its highest perch was ideal for viewing the stretch of palms that comprised the oasis, at its pinnacle, on my tip-toes, I was still in the red when it came to precise altitude; I didn’t even reach sea level.
At its top, three men sat sharing tea out of two thimble-sized glasses. Mahmoud, a 15-year-old boy who invited himself to come along (he enjoyed a long bike-ride and a chat in English) asked one of the men, in his native Siwi, if he could unlock the tomb doors for us. Inside the rocky hill were pictures, carvings, and various hyrogliphs from a Ptolemaic past. They were chipped and big chunks lay missing from their stories ï¿½ giant jigsaw puzzles that could never be fully complete. “What happened to the rest of it?” I asked my travel companion. Mahmoud remained quiet for a moment and then shook his head in disgust. The British soldiers had taken the artwork to bring home ï¿½ mementos from the war.
Locked in the dank hall, the remaining tiles of the chromatic etchings had been well preserved. I didn’t linger on them for long, though, because there were objects amongst them far more bizarre than the symbolic reds and azure dyes of the Romanesque graffiti. There were also bodies: mummies of the Romans that lay displayed, in the open, without bulletproof ultraviolet beam-protected plexy. They caught my attention because they were so rancid. They reeked of blue cheese that had been aged twenty-four centuries in wet cloths. I breathed through my mouth. I inspected the threadbare gauze, wondering what the rich warrior might have looked like under the rags that secured his decomposing limbs together. I’ll surely have nightmares tonight, I told Mahmoud. Mahmoud replied, “Fascists!”
Now, Mahmoud’s English was not supreme, but he was obviously clever. His first language wasn’t Arabic, it was Siwi, a dialect strictly spoken, never written down and never read. His third language was English, and fourth was French. He had learned them both since grammar school, studied hard.
“Excuse me?” I asked. Had I misunderstood?
“Fascists!” He said it louder and when the word “fascists, fascists, fascists” echoed from wall to wall in the chamber, there was no mistaking it. I looked at the body and recalled the goriest scenes from “Night of the Living Dead.” I feared that Mahmoud had woken the nameless Roman up from his eons-long slumber. Mahmoud pointed to all of the empty tombs: one, two, three, four. There was one mummy and his caretaker, but five available ledges to rest him in. Mahmoud told us, as the key-keeper patiently looked on, that the Italians not only bombed Siwa in World War II, but looted Siwan tombs as well. They took the mummies and their jewels. Siwans used the sepulchers as shelters, not disturbing the riches, not concerned with the gold buried with them. What could those riches buy them? Instead, the avaricious Italians cleaned the crypts out, until only a few mummies and the skeletons of their corresponding servants remained.
“It’s a pity,” I told Mahmoud, not knowing how to appease him, trying not to snicker at his pronunciation and enunciation of “Fascists!” As the daughter’s daughter’s daughter of Athena, I could be sometimes so cruel.
At dusk we returned to the center of the oasis once again, and we said goodbye to our companion with a passion for history and a moral code that included a resolute dislike for thievery and despotism. We walked passed Shali for a final time, hailing a donkey-cart to carry us three kilometers southwest to our lodging, on the extreme edge of the Sahara. The sun had sunken past the dunes and the stars had again appeared. Shali began to glow a florescent white. The proprietor had lit candles for us; they were glittering like the gold of the honeyed sand and like the salt of the lake a few hours before. At ten o’clock that evening, we would catch a bus back to Alexandria, stop at checkpoints, have our luggage inspected and Egyptian militia would ogle at us like I had scrutinized the mummy earlier that day. I sat on the rooftop. There were no other guests around. I soaked in the silent hush of the town as it whispered “Seeeewaaahhh”, “Seeeewaaahhh” over and over ï¿½ a name that, in order to give it its justice due, had to be hushed and repeated.