Part VI: Siwa
Siwa town is an interesting antique made of straight mud walls, which seems somehow familiar. The temple house I’m staying in is 200 years old with squared walls built of clay and salt and sand. The beams are made from palm trees. The way the beams stick out from the upper part of the walls make me realize what the architecture reminds me of — the southwest of the States, like in Santa Fe. It’s very reminiscent, even the way they are decorated with large ceramic jars set at romantic angles.
I chose Siwa as my last destination in Egypt because it's the only place in Egypt where there is a large population of Berber people. I talked about the Berber, or Amazigh, people earlier in this travelogue, as the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa, who speak Afro-Asiatic languages, related to Ancient Egyptian. I mentioned that some of them are blond or redheaded, and that the are the ancestors of the Celts of Scotland and Ireland! The Berbers are still the majority population of Morocco, where they are fighting for their rights against their Arabic colonizers.
I believe that the boy in this photo has a classic Berber face.
My Airbnb host, who’s not the owner, is a mostly-Berber man with the haunting blue-grey eyes many Berbers have. He’s not the smartest guy and doesn’t speak the best English, and he seems a little nervous. All I want to do is to go lay down in my room and change, but like many hosts in this part of the world, he is more focused on his script of how to be a good host than on my actual desires, so I am obligated to sit down at the beautiful antique hardwood table and have breakfast and tea with him. He tells me about how in the summer, this house stays perfectly cool. At the moment, though, it’s uninvitingly chilly. I finally get through the required hour of chatting and tea drinking — he had at first given me a Lipton teabag, which I told him I didn’t want, so got some fresh lemongrass — and can go upstairs to my room. It’s well-appointed with antiques and a very comfortable bed with fluffly linens, but it’s cold. There is an outside deck with Bedouin rugs and cushions. It’s a beautiful house, but not very cozy. No one is occupying the other 3 rooms so I’m alone with the host who is nervously trying to sell me tours.
I lay down and rest for a while before heading out to town to see what’s up. It is a nice town, with a main square arranged around a central park, the first time I’ve seen that in the Middle East. The main town of Shali in the Siwa Oasis was abandoned at one point and now most of the scenic mud buildings are in ruins, some of which are occupied. There are old storefronts, donkey carts, old mosques. I'm eagerly seeking a place with real coffee, but find nothing, to my disappointment.
I walk the antique streets and take some photos and pet some donkeys who look like they need love. A woman in a black burqa chuckles when she sees me petting a donkey. Not even small children here pet donkeys. I wander into a craft shop with some beautiful textiles that look a lot like Guatemalan ones, and with dangling beaded things that look a lot like ones from the west of India. I guess this is Berber stuff. Check it out, how much do those textiles look like they are from the southwest of the United States, or Central America?
As I've said Morocco is a Berber-majority country, but in Egypt the only place where Berber culture has remained is Siwa Oasis, miles from anywhere else. Thanks to this isolation they have retained their language, an Amazigh language known as “Siwi”. Two generations ago there were people who spoke no Arabic. By the way .. 'Amazigh' sounds to my ear like "Ah-mah-ZHEER".
The shop owner invites me to tea, of course, and I don’t want to drink tea as usual and don’t feel I have a choice. I go for some karkadeh, the hibiscus. He is a round-faced, handsome 30-something guy with a dark olive skin tone, with a distinctively Amazigh face, wearing the lightweight loose white pants all the men wear around here, and a beautiful white and gold embroidered vest that reminds me of the Afghan style. The way his turban is tied is different from Arabs. Adel is indeed a Berber and teaches me some words in his language. It’s somewhat less guttural than Arabic.
He's singing an Amazigh song and drumming on a Tupperware lid.
Adel talks about Arabs in a slightly derogatory way, annoyed at how much they talk.“Alwayz zey talking, talking, talking!” he exclaims. “You want to say just ‘Give me the keys’ and takes like 20 minutes!” I agree completely.
He tells me about how he’s different from most people. He wants to live free, he doesn’t like to be around lots of people, and he doesn’t want a wife or kids. The fact that he doesn’t plan to have kids is indeed different — the first Egyptian I’ve met who has said that. He loves to walk around at night when everyone is asleep, like me. He pours tea the way Indian tea wallahs do, holding the teapot 2 feet above the glass and pouring with a flourish.
He tells me that there are some local women in Siwa who like to party. Some young girls see he is different and want sex with him, he says. But he doesn’t want to do anything in secret. For him everything needs to be honest and open.
“Well,” I say, “girls don’t have the freedom to do that in the open. You are a man so you can do anything you want.”
I change the subject to talk about the textile patterns that remind me so much of Mayan textiles in Guatemala. He tells me that the embroidered patterns have meaning in their ancient script. I google "Libyco-Berber Mayan", and indeed, there is evidence of the Libyco-Berber script being found in the Americas, in the Central American Olmec civilization!
In that moment it hits me: maybe I came to Siwa to discover these connections between the new and old world. The story that the Americas were populated only by people walking across the frozen Bering Strait during the last ice age is obviously not the case. Experts are desperately clinging to this story, since it's all they know and their careers are connected with it, so it's career suicide for an archaeologist to talk about ocean voyages from the Old World to the New. But the evidence is mounting. See my page for a brief introduction to this topic. For a taste, check out the photos below:
Mada in'Saleh in Saudi Arabia:
... and, Hayu Marca in Peru:
Anyway, back to the present moment! Adel takes me on a tour of his family real estate behind the shop. There’s a sheep house, a chicken house, and one annoyed cow. Beautiful old wooden doors adorn even the chicken house. He had built a coffee shop in the palm tree zone but now there are not enough tourists. Antique refrigerators lay among the palm trees in the sand.
I’m hungry and he takes me on his motorbike to get some barbecued kofta, which is really good. He’s starting to hit on me, exclaiming how much he likes my smile, reaching out to ruffle my hair and rub my face. I tell him that I’m not interested in men. He laughs. “I’m not a man! Now everything is different, you are in Siwa!”
“Of course you’re a man, what do you think you are?”
He takes me on a moto ride out to Siwa lake for sunset. In the evening light the salt lake is lovely, ringed with decaying mud buildings. A small mountain shaped like a lumpy pyramid has square tomb openings carved into the clay. We sit on the edge of the lake on some Bedouin cushions. There are tons of people around, a huge group of Egyptians, as it’s their weekend. My friend is annoyed by all the talking. He claims that one woman nearby in a head scarf is giving him an evil look.
“Well, I understand,” I say. “She’s followed all the rules for female behavior, only to have Western women show up and do whatever they want and hang out with her men.” He insists on holding my hand, which must be really taboo. It doesn’t feel good, he grips it too hard and traps my thumb, like Moustafa did. I pull my thumb free and tell him he doesn’t have permission to touch me.
He sings to himself, Berber songs that I like. I try to hum along, and the exotic scale is harder that it sounds.
The swollen ball of sun falls quickly below the lake, illuminating the soft dunes of the Sahara beyond. We ride back. I love that he sings while he is riding. When we get back to town he wants me to sit and have tea and help him make dinner, but I’m not hungry and just want to rest and be alone. I didn't sleep much on the 10 hour bus ride the night before. I escape, to his consternation. I know that I will be obligated to interact with my host, too, so I need to save some energy. I’m happy to see that the host has made a fire in the chimney in the courtyard, as it’s cold. We drink green tea and chat by the fire. I had told him I don’t drink caffeine in the evenings and he swears several times green tea doesn’t have caffeine. I try to tell him that it does, and I don’t want to drink it, but as usual what I want doesn’t matter. I force down a couple cups until I can finally retire and rest under the covers.
It’s cold in the house when I wake up and I’m kind of dreading breakfast with the guy. The turkish coffee is mediocre but the beans, bread and soft cheese are really good. He shows me some videos of a festival that happens in October. Hundreds of men and children, and tourists of both sexes, (but no local women) are doing a kind of a sufi zikr, a group trance, nodding their heads and chanting together. In another video they pass plates down a long line, getting ready to feast together. It does look really cool, but makes me so angry that my local sisters aren't welcome.
I’m looking forward to moving to the other Airbnb I booked, where I hope to be more anonymous and come and go as I please, without having to commit to mealtime beforehand. The next place is out of town a bit and very quiet. One thing I can say for Siwa: it’s the quietest place I’ve been in months; few vehicles, dogs, or roosters! I walk around and interact with the children. Women are mostly dressed in black burqas but the children sometimes wear beautiful colorful dresses that remind me of Roma, western Indian and Afghan peoples. Some of the children’s faces are often distinct from Arab faces in a way I am coming to identify as Berber: round faces, big cheeks, freckled complexions (of any shade), reddish hair.
When I get to the next Airbnb I’m very relieved. It’s a big place and I have no social obligations. I can eat breakfast anytime between 8 and 10, so no need to order the night before and stick to the time. The hotel is built with modern materials, so it’s warmer than the mud building. I'm sure the mud buildings are way, way better in the heat, which is more of a problem throughout the year. I like the domed Arabian style of the new place. The swimming pool is dirty.
The hotel offers massage and it’s like 15 bucks for an hour so I decide to take the chance. I can choose between female and male practitioners. The male is the hotel manager himself. I choose the woman, who speaks no English. The massage room is provided with the only space heater I have seen in Egypt, and a decent leather massage table. I feel awkward as I have no idea what the expectations are here; should I be naked? Is nudity normal and comfortable among women here?
The massage is pretty good. I also opt to try to their salt cave, a domed chamber with large, aromatic salt crystals. It’s not in the sun, so when I undress down to my underwear and dig myself into the salt, I’m really cold. I didn't realize there would be a guided meditation. The woman speaks the meditation while the man translates. It’s the first I’ve heard of that kind of thing in the Middle East. The guided visualizations are pretty similar to other New Age meditations: imagine all your pain and put it outside your body, imagine you’re in your happy place, that kind of stuff. I try not to shiver violently from the cold. I cherish every word the woman speaks, as it's the first time I've heard so many sentences from a female speaking Arabic. The language is so beautiful in a female voice speaking gently, as opposed to yelling at a child. I try not to smile at the man’s translation, as he keeps telling me “You *must* breathe, you *must* feel comfortable.” Being commanded to feel good feels like the ultimate expression of Arab hospitality that I find so charming and so oppressive at the same time, like the endless, obligatory tea.
The hotel is okay, it’s the quiestest place in Egypt with the exception of the 3 children who live there. But it’s too hot in the sun, and it's too cold in the shade or inside the room except in bed, and the flies and mosquitos are relentless. When I wander into town for food I find it sleepy, dusty and depressing. I am just ready to go home.
I spend quite a while contemplating whether I will go find Adel in his shop before I leave Siwa. I don’t want to just totally bail on him without an explanation. I also don’t want to spend time with him and endure his touching me and telling me he wants to lick my body (he kept saying that). I imagine a conversation with him where I explain in simple English the concepts of consent, and tell him I enjoy his company and would like to take a trip to the desert with him but don’t want him to touch me or make sexual comments. I don't think he will let it go without a fight. Ultimately, I don’t see what good it will do to spend my time on this. But I do feel bad to just ghost on him.
So I don’t see Adel again, and I spend my last 2 days writing, and take two tours alone. One to a hot spring, a medicinal warm pool, which is quite nice; and one out to the Sahara, the great sand sea beyond the oasis. I feel nervous to do the desert tour because it’s only 3 hours before the night bus leaves at 6. If I miss the night bus, I would have have only one more night bus before my flight leaves Cairo, and I don’t trust that they leave reliably every day. But I’m aching to be out in an open natural space one last time before I leave. I negotiate a fee of $15 with the hotel manager for a driver to take me just outside the oasis to a place in the desert to walk for an hour. When I offer him the money, he says, “Pay when you get back! Amazigh are not like Egyptians .. not just about the money. Enjoy!”
We are out into the desert in 15 minutes, and the van promptly gets stuck in the sand. I start to feel panic rising. There is nothing I can do, he doesn’t speak English and I have no choice but to trust he has a plan. We only share one word: hashish, so i share some with him an wander off into the desert. The wind is blowing fiercely, the sound whistling in my ears. When I look in the direction that it’s blowing I can see sand flying through the air. In the sands, it carves curves like tiny rivers. It’s beautiful, all dunes as far as the eye can see, forming constantly-shifting hills and mini cliffs. I walk barefoot, hearing my deep breathing as if I’m diving underwater, trying to calm my nervousness. It’s nice to get some exercise. When I walk back toward the van, a dune obscures it, making it seem like I am truly in the middle of nowhere. But the van is there and a jeep has come to rescue it. They pull it out of the sand with a rope. He takes me back to town and I get some grilled kofta to go, and make it to the bus station right on time. The bus is late, though. I finally climb aboard so grateful to be starting the journey all the way back home.
On the night bus, they show two loud movies and the second one actually intrigues me because it features musical numbers, and women. I am still curious by Arabic women since I’ve had so little contact with them, and so much contact with the men. If you haven't noticed, I'm a student of human nature and culture; I watch the way they gesture onscreen. I also like that the movie has a bunch of musical numbers, scenes from discos or concerts. I think the style is something called khaliji, modern Arab music mostly from the Gulf states, that involves some synth keyboard and electronic beats, and call and response style between a man and a chorus. I like it, a lot. I’m fascinated by a scene where a man and a woman do a dance number together at a disco. Are there places in the Arab world where women dance sexy in clubs? Maybe this is Dubai. There are also scenes where the women are at home together wearing sexy thigh-bearing outfits like French maid lingerie. Do they really do that? I also notice that there are lots of public scenes where no women cover their heads. Are there places like this in the Islamic world? Or is this a fantasy world depicted in the movies? It’s the first Arab movie I’ve ever seen so I have no point of reference.
Hours later, someone shakes me awake and I’m in Cairo in the chilly dawn. In a few minutes by taxi I arrive in Zamalek, the rich neighborhood where I booked a hotel for my final night before my flight home. The hotel is one of the cheapest in Zamalek — $20 a night — and is like a time capsule to the 70s. Certainly nothing has been updated. The color palette reminds me of my childhood, and when you get into the sketchy, dated elevator, 70s muzak blares. The elevator is the only way to get downstairs; since I’m claustrophobic and my room is on the 2nd floor, I naturally try to use the stairs, only to find myself trapped in horrifically dirty dead ends filled with buckets, cigarette butts, dust, and antique trash. I ask them how to get out and they show me the elevator. I guess in case of a fire jumping off the balcony is the only option. But the necessity of using the ancient thing gives me the opportunity to observe Egyptian elevator etiquette. Here, too, people awkwardly face opposite directions and stare at their shoes. One man inspects himself in the mirror, which I’ve never seen a Western man do in public.
I walk around the neighborhood for the first time in daytime, thrilled to be in a leafy, cosmopolitan place full of trees. I love the cool art deco architecture, atmospheric cafes that are fully enclosed, appealing food, bookstores, and cute, dust-free boutiques. There are beautiful mansions converted to embassies everywhere. I walk around eating yummy stuff, the first truly good egg dish I’ve had in Egypt. I’m excrutiatingly aware of my privilege to be in Zamalek instead of some the dusty, boring, noisy places I've been. Yet, I know I will soon tire of this place too. Very soon. The sidewalks are all broken and interrupted with obstacles, so you really can’t use them; pedestrians are banished to the narrow streets where cars honk at them aggressively. I am so, so grateful that I have the privilege to escape this reality, and I’m counting the minutes. Also, I look forward to accessing certain websites that Egypt has censored as "un-Islamic", like medium.com!
Already, this reality has started to fade out of focus as I start to think about being at home, like in a movie when they fade from one scene to the other.
There are many women in Cairo walking around with uncovered heads. I don’t get a single glance or greeting, which is a welcome relief. I must pass as an Arab, since people often address me in Arabic. Although, often, as well, my body language gives me away. Few women stride as confidently as I do, and the few times I have unconsciously leaned my hips a tiny bit forward when I have to stand for a long time, men stare at my groin. There are so many subtle aspects of culture we absorb at a young age that we are unaware of.
Having coffee in the morning, I see a man and a woman get drinks to go and leave. The woman reaches the door first and holds it open, one hand on the door and one hand on her coffee, so the logical thing to do is for the man to walk out the door. But he won’t. He insists on being the man, on taking the door away from her to hold it for her, which forces her to do an awkward move and switch her coffee to the other hand. At this moment I understand: for some patriarchal men, holding the door open is not a kindly favor. It’s about control or appearing to be the generous one; he's making her life more difficult, not easier. I think I detect the faintest smile on her lips.
The Arab world doesn’t work 9 to 5. It’s more like 12 to 12, all the while talking, smoking, and tea-drinking incessantly. The massive construction site outside my balcony carries on till at least midnight when I fall asleep -- cranes, jackhammers and all. I wake up at 7 already excited for my capucchino, as there is one coffee place nearby that opens at 7, unlike most places in the Arab world which don’t open till noon. I pick up my luggage from the guy who stored it from me, including the beautiful pharoanic coffee table, but it doesn’t fit in the big suitcase I’d bought in Kenya. Or at least, it doesn’t zip. I cruise the neighborhood looking for some packing tape, then use bubble wrap to close the edge and wrap it all with tape. I’m going to have to use Jedi mind tricks to get my extra amount of carry on luggage through, including some arabic lamps and the coffee table top.
I have to check out of the room so I stash my huge stash of luggage downstairs and have about 12 hours to kill until my flight. I spend the day writing at Sufi, the most beautiful coffee shop I’ve ever been to. It’s a historic building with many rooms sumptuously decorated in Arabic antiques, many sufi-themed, with used books everywhere. People lounge, smoke, chat, and work. I don’t end up writing because I end up reading through some of their excellent books on archaeology, taking good notes.
Then I Uber to the Islamic distract to buy some last-minute gifts and see the Sufi dance show again. Now that I’m not in a hurry, the Uber actually comes. On the ride I take in my last sights of Cairo. My last view of the wide, glittering Nile. The European district, its wide boulevards and elegant architecture, in all its grimy grandeur. The facades have probably never been cleaned in centuries. I realize that part of the charm of Cairo is that nothing in these old buildings has ever been replaced or renovated or maintained; everything is original, from the signs with their cool old fonts to the fans and grates and shutters.
Then the European city abruptly gives way to the local low-rent area, with hastily built brick and concrete small buildings, and the population explodes: every inch of space covered with market stalls and people. And finally we’re in the old Islamic district, its gorgeous minarets stretching up to the sky.
I’m back in the souq area for the first time in almost three months, and for the *last time*. I have to push my way through the endless local market, avoiding the large hand carts hidden behind the crowds. I remember how difficult it is to avoid getting into conversations with charming but pushy men, but once you surrender to one, at least the rest leave you alone. This nice guy follows me to buy a ticket for the show, where we are told the show is cancelled due to a massive train wreck that happened today in Cairo. I guess two train conductors got into some kind of a feud and failed to hit the brakes on the trains. I feel sad for the tragedy and also disappointed that I won’t get to see some sufi music one last time.
I tell the guy that I don’t feel like having tea, about 4 times. As always I am left to wonder about the wide variety of agendas he might have for me: simple hospitality, curiosity, something to sell, sex. He knows I have only a few hours left in the country. “You are here two months and I have the bad luck to meet you your last night!” he says. “Take my number for when you come back!” I tell him I probably won’t come back. Why? Because it makes me sad to be in a country where men are allowed to marry more than one woman, I tell him. He explains that this is because there are more women than men and women need a way to survive.
This is an interesting point. In our society, in the brief span of two generations, we have transitioned from a world where almost no women were expected to work outside the home to a world where almost all women are. How did we manage this? What happened to the women caught between worlds, who didn’t have husbands or families to catch them? How could the Islamic world transition to a world of independent women? Of course .. the men have no intention of allowing this.
As he and I discuss this, another guy approaches me. It's a guy I met months ago in the same area, the one who had lived in New York and could do so many accents. I tell him it’s good to see him but I’m leaving. He and the other guy I’ve just met end up shouting at each other while I duck down into the road underpass back across the road to the tourist market area.
I follow the sounds of an oud into a cafe behind the Hussein mosque and order one last shisha next to the musicians. I look around the cafe, my hungry eyes enjoying every last detail of this overwhelming, hectic, beautiful world: every inch of space decorated in colorful patterns, textiles, copper signs; a babble of voices and drums and oud music; women tapping my shoulder trying to sell me kleenex or bracelets or henna. The women sing and clap along with the music, in their wide, flat hand clapping style.
I end up chatting with the guy across from me also taking a solo shisha. He’s an Egyptian who has been living in the States since he was 12 and now he is in his 40s, so his English is in an American accent but he still speaks fluent Arabic.
He describes how his American girlfriend found Egypt overwhelming, and how Egyptian Christians like his family are as devoutly religious as Muslims, and women are almost as tightly controlled. Except, of course, they don’t need to cover their heads, which for me, is a huge thing. The times I had to cover my head to enter mosques I found it very confining and uncomfortable. Also of course they don’t practice polygamy which is a huge thing. But he talks about female friends of his living in the Christian ghettos of Cairo who struggle terribly just to choose a life of living alone. Landlords will rarely rent to solo females, nor will employees hire them, but if they do manage an independent home and income, they will be spied on and harassed by their neighbors. If they dare to have a male visitor, even just briefly during the day, they are will be forced out.
We talk about the new capital they're building outside of Cairo. It is called merely “New Capital” and will only house rich people, which means the richest will leave Cairo and Cairo will fall to shit. There are billboards all over advertising luxury flats in the New Capital.
It’s time to head to the airport. I’ve arranged with a driver I trusted to meet me at the hotel. He loads my extra luggage, full of alabaster, coffee tables, gifts, and cushions, onto the roof.
I enjoy my last conversation with an Egyptian, on the way. We talk about driving in the States. You drive? he asks me with surprise. Of course, I drive, I say, I don’t have a choice, there is no bus to my house. I point out that in Western countries we drive between the lines, we don’t split lanes. He chuckles at this. In this moment we are driving on the line between two lanes. He says, “I’m sorry to ask you this question, but are you married?” At least he’s apologized for this tiresome and universal question. “I am not interested,” I say. “I don’t understand the point of it. And I meet very few men who really interest me.” “What about children?” “There are enough children already.” “But this is the life!” “For you,” I say. “Not for me. Having children would not be the best use of my mind. My mind is best for study and writing and traveling.”
Usually, at this point in the conversation, men give me a pitying look, as if they don’t believe that I don’t want children and it’s just so sad how I’m living my life. But Wahed, a kindly gray-haired 50 year old Christian, looks thoughtful. I think he is the first man to get it. “I thought when I saw you, that you are a very clever and interesting woman,” he says. “Call me when you come back to Egypt.”
“Inshallah,” I say. Who knows. Maybe one day. But I’m thrilled to be going back to orderly driving lanes and clean streets.
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