Egyptian Deserts

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December 29th 2010
Published: December 29th 2010
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GAP Adventures offers both one week and two week tours of Egypt. The former seemed a bit short to me, and the latter seemed a bit long. In hindsight, I still feel the same way. The second week of our tour definitely did not have the consistent “wow” factor of the first. Most of it was just OK (Alexandria, for example), and we had to spend a lot of time on the road. There’s no way around it, though. If you want to see the White Desert (and believe me, you do), you have to spend some time out there.

As much as I’d like to have the verbal dexterity to describe the experience of sunset and sunrise in the White Desert or, even more, the experience of waking up there in the middle of the night under a full moon, all I can offer is these pictures and a few more on Picasa.

Transportation on the tour consisted of an overnight train from Cairo to Aswan, a sailboat from Aswan to Luxor, minibuses into and out of the desert, and, to get to the furthest reaches, four wheel drive jeeps. Stretches of the road were covered by fresh sand dunes and, without warning (such as, say, slowing down), our drivers would veer from the asphalt onto the sand dunes. Western Egypt is desolate land. There are hour-long stretches where you don’t see any plant life at all. The further west we traveled, the more alien it felt. Not only the landscapes, but the culture. The oasis town of Siwa was our western-most destination. There, you can tell the age of a man by the prominence of the mark on his forehead, ingrained from decades of Submission. Submission—the literal translation of the word “Islam.” The greatest sin for a Moslem is self-reliance. To believe that you can succeed, even exist, without the will of Allah is unconscionable. Five times each day, they bend forward, completely prostrating themselves before God. Over time their piety manifests itself as a large dark prayer mark. The fact that none of the foremost Islamic politicians have this mark speaks volumes about Western influence. It would be easy to compare the prayer mark to the “third eye” the Buddhists speak of, and I find it interesting that not only is this comparison never made, but that most Westerners, myself until recently included, do not even know that it exists. One thing we do all know is the burka—the complete coverage of a woman by shapeless fabrics. The burka is common throughout Egypt. In Siwa, it is universal. In Siwa, a woman’s piety is differentiated only by whether her eyes are exposed. Most women there (and many women throughout Egypt) see the world outside their homes only through a thin layer of fabric. To be completely un-PC, they reminded me of the ‘80s cheesefest classic The Beastmaster. To live as a walking black gown, rewarded by what, I don’t know. They are not even allowed to pray in the mosques. It is bizarre to see wraiths interacting with their children exactly as a Western woman would and it is sad to see girls knowing that some day they too will be covered for life. I’m not a fan.

Whoa! I don’t want to fall into stereotypes or, God forbid, support bigotry. I don’t believe that all cultures are equal either. On one hand, they are genuinely more friendly and interested in other people, and who could deny the glory of shisha? On the other hand, I can’t accept this treatment of women to be OK, and Lord knows no-smoking in buses and taxis is a good idea. A stereotype of terrorism is, however, completely off-base. I meet many local people every day, most often because they introduce themselves to me unprompted, “What is your name?” is almost always followed by “Where are you from?” “America”, I say. They always smile, and every time they say one of two things, “Welcome to Egypt” or “America! Obama!” (people who see being friendly with America’s “enemies” drive me absolutely crazy.) If you meet them near their home, they will likely offer you tea or juice. If you dig a little, you will find that they are very against U.S. government policy in the Middle East, but they love people, and they love us. The world’s trend toward women’s rights is unstoppable, and they will eventually catch up on it.

More pics available at


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