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a little piece of paradise (rose)

EGYPT | Saturday, 24 July 2010 | Views [714]

By the end of our first day in Siwa Oasis, instantly enchanted, we knew that we’d stay longer than the three days we’d planned. What we didn’t know was that time would start playing tricks on us: suddenly, we’ve been here almost three weeks, and fallen into Siwi life, with routines, roles, social engagements, and of course new friends.

We both agree it is the perfect time and place to fully recharge our batteries and seek sanctuary from the ever-changing road. It’s approaching the heat of summer and Egypt is melting. It’s over 40 degrees here most days, but it’s a soft dry kind of heat and there is often a breeze blowing, which makes it far more bearable than the stickiness of Cairo or the stuffiness of Luxor or Aswan.

Beneath half a million palms, deep in western Egypt, around 25,000 people (and 10,000 cows) live here in the oasis, but you’d never guess, scattered as they are in camouflaged mud homes, hidden amongst the dense forests and irrigated gardens. It is a community of story-tellers, song-singers, and tight-knit tribes, fiercely proud of their unique traditions. Weddings last for three days and literally thousands of people attend. A baby must be named on its 7th day. Funerals are an affair for the whole oasis. Hassan, the waiter at one of our favourite haunts (he is also a history teacher at the secondary school and a wealth of knowledge), told me about a funeral two years ago where 10,000 people, basically every male in Siwa, turned out to console the family.

Siwa has its own language, which is severely stalling and confusing our Arabic progress, though everyone learns Arabic too when they start school. They are naturally mistrustful of outsiders, perhaps due to a long history of being invaded from all sides over centuries. So it’s been a pleasant surprise to feel so genuinely welcomed – especially as Siwi people even talk about “the Egyptians” as if they are another race.

Deeply superstitious people and shameless gossips, they spread rumours quickly which have the power to make or break a reputation. A man who is alleged to have stolen something, for example, may feasibly never find a wife.

Male and female roles are strictly defined. Women stay in their homes, unless visiting family, when they must be accompanied by a male relative; men earn the money and do the shopping. When she is out of her house, a married woman must cover every inch of flesh, including her entire face behind a piece of black muslin, and she must not speak to anyone from outside her immediate family. These are some traditions Huw and I are still struggling to get used to.

The place is stunning: approximately 30km by 70km of lush vegetation, surrounded by huge soft sand dunes on all sides. Enigmatically-named mountains and ancient shrines protrude above the sea of green: The Hill of the Dead, The Temple of the Oracle. In the labyrinth of gardens below, hot and cold springs bubble up to the surface, demanding that you dive in to whenever you pass. Some have Roman ruins visible many metres deep. Outside the oasis we’ve experienced just a few of the many wonders of the desert: swum with fish in a freshwater lake, floated in salt water, driven over enormous dunes several storeys high, and explored huge areas of seashells and petrified coral. It blows your mind to imagine this desert was once a seabed. Tomorrow night we’re out on a staff outing: dinner and dancing in the desert.

What’s left to do? We haven’t swum in Cleopatra’s Bath yet, or explored all the tombs at the Hill of the Dead. Huw’s also really excited about sandboarding down the dunes, and I’ll have to have a go too, though I’m less keen after my rib-breaking snowboard experience. We’re still so captivated and happy to be here, and now we have commitments that will keep us here until early August, so we have plenty of time.

By the end of our first day in Siwa Oasis, instantly enchanted, we knew that we’d stay longer than the three days we’d planned. What we didn’t know was that time would start playing tricks on us: suddenly, we’ve been here almost three weeks, and fallen into Siwi life, with routines, roles, social engagements, and of course new friends.

We both agree it is the perfect time and place to fully recharge our batteries and seek sanctuary from the ever-changing road. It’s approaching the heat of summer and Egypt is melting. It’s over 40 degrees here most days, but it’s a soft dry kind of heat and there is often a breeze blowing, which makes it far more bearable than the stickiness of Cairo or the stuffiness of Luxor or Aswan.

Under half a million palms, deep in western Egypt, around 25,000 people (and 10,000 cows) live here in the oasis, but you’d never guess, scattered as they are in camouflaged mud homes, hidden amongst the dense forests and irrigated gardens. It is a community of story-tellers, song-singers, and tight-knit tribes, fiercely proud of their unique traditions. Weddings last for three days and literally thousands of people attend. A baby must be named on its 7th day. Funerals are an affair for the whole oasis. Hassan, the waiter at one of our favourite haunts (he is also a history teacher at the secondary school and a wealth of knowledge), told me about a funeral two years ago where 10,000 people, basically every male in Siwa, turned out to console the family.

Siwa has its own language, which is severely stalling and confusing our Arabic progress, though everyone learns Arabic too when they start school. They are naturally mistrustful of outsiders, perhaps due to a long history of being invaded from all sides over centuries. It’s been a pleasant surprise to feel so genuinely welcomed – Siwi people even talk about “the Egyptians” as if they are another race.

Deeply superstitious people and shameless gossips, they spread rumours quickly which have the power to make or break a reputation. A man who is alleged to have stolen something, for example, may feasibly never find a wife.

Male and female roles are strictly defined. Women stay in their homes, unless visiting family, when they must be accompanied by a male relative; men earn the money and do the shopping. When she is out of her house, a married woman must cover every inch of flesh, including her entire face behind a piece of black muslin, and she must not speak to anyone from outside her immediate family. These are some traditions Huw and I are still struggling to get used to.

The place is stunning: approximately 30km by 70km of lush vegetation, surrounded by huge soft sand dunes on all sides. Enigmatically-named mountains and ancient shrines protrude above the sea of green: The Hill of the Dead, The Temple of the Oracle. In the labyrinth of gardens below, hot and cold springs bubble up to the surface, demanding that you dive in to whenever you pass. Some have Roman ruins visible many metres deep. Outside the oasis we’ve experienced just a few of the many wonders of the desert: swum with fish in a freshwater lake, floated in salt water, driven over enormous dunes several storeys high, and explored huge areas of seashells and petrified coral. It blows your mind to imagine this desert was once a seabed. Tomorrow night we’re out on a staff outing: dinner and dancing in the desert.

What’s left to do? We haven’t swum in Cleopatra’s Bath yet, or explored all the tombs at the Hill of the Dead. Huw’s also really excited about sandboarding down the dunes, and I’ll have to have a go too, though I’m less keen after my rib-breaking snowboard experience. We’re still so captivated and happy to be here, and now we have commitments that will keep us here until early August, so we have plenty of time.

Route, photos and more at www.thelongandwinding.co.uk

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