The Western Desert is vast, stretching from the Nile and the Mediterranean to the Sudanese and Libyan borders. The Great undulating Sand Sea contains some of the largest dunes on earth. The strange rock formations of the White Desert litter the sandscape like meringues gone mad; and the charred dark peaks of the Black Desert exude an other-worldly feel. It's an isolated, desolate, sometimes eerie landscape. Out on a limb, away from the desert circuit road, lies Siwa, a tiny, tranquil, still largely traditional oasis, surrounded by ruins, springs and date palms. But Siwa is changing.
Mahdi Hweiti has lived in Siwa all of his life. 'For every person it's different. I cannot be away from my village for more than a week'. When Mahdi was a boy there was no road at all - not even to Marsa Matruh on the coast. Siwa was truely isolated - a small oasis in an undulating sea of sand. It took 17 hours to reach Marsa by truck. Mahdi went to school there and travelled with other boys crammed together in the back. 'Siwans didn't feel like Egyptians then', he told us. But in 1985 Siwa was linked to the coast by
road. Today, the journey takes 4 hours.
Modernity is a double-edged sword; the road bought many changes - constant electricity (1988) the telephone (1989) and eventually, TV, mobiles and the internet. The TV showed Siwans how people lived in the rest of Egypt and abroad. Shows like 'Knot's Landing' and 'Falcons Crest' gave everyone the idea that all foreigners were rich, lived in huge houses and had countless affairs; while other Egyptians, it seemed, lived in concrete houses and had furniture. This and a particularly heavy rainfall in 1986 which destroyed more than 200 mudbrick houses in the village, sounded the death-knell for the traditional building technique of building with kershef (large chunks of salt from the lake outside town mixed with rock and plastered in local clay). Until recently the only kershef builder had been unemployed for 12 years - now he works for a Cairo-born entrepreneur, the owner of three local eco-lodges and high-end hotels. Hotel owners and foreigners are the only people interested in building traditional houses.
'Before the road, there were no cars or motorbikes - only donkey carts. Before that there were no donkey carts, a man just rode the donkey with a
basket on the back', Mahdi told us. 'I think in ten years there will be no more donkey carts' he concluded sadly. 'We only have male donkeys in Siwa - a man used to bring them twice a year from Upper Egypt, for the last two years he's bought only tuk-tuks and motorbikes. There are many accidents (over 160 in the last three years) - boys as young as ten and twelve drive too fast, and the dirt roads are not designed for such traffic. There is one hospital in Siwa but not enough doctors. Once a week an ambulance drives patients to Marsa Matruh.
There is still a traditional element to life in Siwa. The townspeople form ten tribes, each tribe ruled by a sheik and a council. The police are almost never involved in disputes. But this form of social control has become weaker since the Revoloution. 'The younger generation have no respect, they just want to be rich', Mahdi grumbled. Libya is only 50 km away and since the relaxation of military/border control, smuggling has become rife - mostly hashish and cigarettes, but there is some weapon trafficking. It's possible to make two or three trips
a night through the desert and some boys have become very rich in a few days. 'Last year for the first time in my life we didn't hold the Friendship Festival - never could I imagine this', Mahdi told us. The sheiks were worried that the smugglers might disrupt the event.
Outsiders are also moving into the village. 'Before', said Mahdi, 'we all knew each other. Now there are thirty thousand people living in Siwa'.
All of these changes seem to have little effect on the townswomen. Wearing long embroidered shawls over full veils and floor length abeyya's, they are inscrutable, shapeless beings; ghosts who move silently through the town square or sit hunched and still in the back of donkey carts. After marriage (at the age of about seventeen) women do not work outside the house. 'My wife cooks, cleans, washes the clothes. I work, I do nothing when I get home', Ahmed told us. There are now some opportunities for employment for girls. Suzanne Mubarak started a handicrafts centre to train girls in traditional embroidery skills - 'but not many go - the pay is low and it's hard work' said Ahmed. Women no longer wear
the huge, heavy silver Siwan jewellry. The last silversmith died without training a successor. And silver is no longer fashionable - it's value has deteriorated. Women prefer gold, believing it reflects their wealth and status better. 'TV is to blame for that', Mahdi mumbled. TV is also responsible, Mahdi believes, for the decline of the traditional Siwan wedding dress. In the 'old days' a wedding would last seven days with the bride wearing different clothes at each step of the proceedings - all heavily embroidered, heavily symbolic, wishing the bride all manner of good things in her married life. Now everyone wants a western white wedding dress.
The only place such things can be seen is the House of Siwa Museum - a little gem inspired by a Canadian diplomat who feared that Siwan culture might disapear in a flow of concrete and "progress". A Swiss woman bought three thousand pieces of Siwan jewellry and handicraft - all of which now grace the Ethnological Museum in Geneva. The older generation see the tragedy of what's happening, while the young are racing towards a bright new future and leaving their identity behind. There are laws in Siwa which prohibit the
building of property more than three stories high and bricks must be covered with plaster to give a traditional look, but it's impossible to legislate against loss of consideration, care, and tradition.
Siwa is an oasis, but for how much longer?
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