Siwa is a place on the edge. It is on the edge of Egypt, it is on the edge of the desert and it is on the edge of change.
If you find yourself in Siwa you must really want to be here; it's in the Western Desert, nearly 600 km west of Cairo, 300 km south of Marsa Matruh and some 50 km from the border with Libya. And if you are arriving from Cairo on the 9 hour overnight bus, the journey is almost 900km as you detour to Marsa beforehand. I should also add that the last few hours of the overnight trip from Cairo are ball numbingly cold. My advice is hat, gloves, thermal socks, sleeping bag, possibly a valet with a small stove, failing that a small child to sleep across your feet. Two Germans sitting across from me, before settling down for the trip, got a load of kit ready that would not have shamed an Antarctic expedition. You could have heard my smug aside in Hamburg, but they were the ones smiling at 08.40 next morning!
Forget any image you have (usually inspired by the front of date boxes at Christmas) of a handful of camels and their riders hunkered down by a pool in the desert, looking for shade beneath a solitary palm tree. Siwa is an oasis pumped full of steroids - it's the Lance Armstrong of oases, extending some 80 km in length and 20 km in width, with millions of palms and olive trees and a population of probably 30,000 or so. But despite this scale, Siwa remains one of the most isolated communities in Egypt and of course it is that isolation and the oasis' link to Alexander the Great, that proves so attractive and irresistible to foreign travellers. (For Foreign Travellers read me). And by the bye, Siwa claims to produce the best dates in Egypt, if not the world! (They do a rather splendid date stuffed with almond).
About 20 years ago I read a book by a chap called Robin Lane Fox, a classicist who had written about Alexander and the bloody swathe he cut across most of the known world in the 330's BC. Digressing slightly, I know two 'interesting' facts about RLF. One that he is the father (I think) to Martha LF, one of the founders of lastminute.com and a government tsar in charge of something or other, and secondly, and much more fun, is that he allegedly appeared in the Oliver Stone biopic of Alexander, with the blondely coiffed Colin Farrell, as part of a cavalry charge. And thinking on it, thirdly, he is, directly. responsible for me being here. I read the book, loved it and was intrigued by Siwa, the place where Alexander, after consulting with the Oracle of Amun, became convinced he was the son of the God, and generally speaking these things end badly. That was the case for the tens of thousands of strangers Alexander's soldiers slaughtered, the friends he personally filleted and he himself exited stage left, gibbering in Babylon (and if that is not the title of a future blog, I shall go to the foot of my stairs).
Siwa itself, the town is minute, little more than a square with shops, some restaurants a couple of hotels. It is overlooked by by the Shali, (a Siwan word for town), which until 1926 was the heart of Siwa. That is until a terrible thunderstorm meant that the Shali literally melted back into the landscape - something to do with the high salt content contained in the building clay. Beneath the Shali are several dozen traditional style Siwan houses, a couple of mosques, a small bus station, a bakers and a tourist office. Oh, and a police station, it's size out of all proportion to any other building in town and inhabited by a senior officer with no joie de vivre. It is only from the Shali you can get an appreciation of the size of the oasis, and how much bigger it was before buildings were erected in the palm gardens.
I think it's fair to say that if cornered and his or her life depended on the answer, a Siwan would admit to living in Egypt, but that is probably as far as it would go. I'm fairly sure they would insist that they are Siwan rather than Egyptian. Whenever I talked to shop owners about business (and they don't have much good to say about their oppos in Cairo), they always lumped Egyptians in with other foreign tourists.
Siwans are Berber, so have a lot more in common with peoples across the rest of North Africa and the Maghreb. Many Siwans live across the border in Libya and Siwans ties further west into Algeria. The first thing I noticed when I arrived was the architecture. Anyone who has visited the High Atlas region of Morocco will immediately recognise what I mean. Siwan's have their own language, culture and traditions, more conservative that many parts of Egypt and their geographical isolation meant that it was only in the mid 19th century that Cairo really began to play a role in Siwan life.
Sit for any length of time, especially with one of the shopkeepers, drinking tea and you will be approached by Mr Mohammad. He's a tall, shambling, unkempt figure, who asks for alms or a cigarette. He looks constantly tired and I've been told that his mind was affected after spending the night in a palm garden, where the jinns, the supernatural beings of Arabian folklore, visit and play.
When I talk about Siwa being on the edge of Egypt, this is what I mean. Siwa is not quite Egyptian, not quite African, not quite Arabic; it's just not quite. But being on the edge doesn't mean that Siwa is safe from the vagaries of life in the rest of the country. And in Egypt this means only one thing - the Revolution. Since 2011 tourism has dropped away dramatically and Siwa has seen that impact like everywhere else. The vast majority of visitors to Siwa are Egyptian day trippers from Marsa or Alexandria. Or Italians.
During the summer Marsa is a holiday destination for Egyptians and Siwa is an easy three hour drive or so; but they don't spend any money. They turn up, do a quick tour of the Shali, visit the cultural centre, perhaps have a pre arranged and paid for meal in one of the resort hotels outside the immediate town and head back to Marsa.
The governor of Marsa has played a canny game here, and I have to be careful with what I say as, I am reliably informed, that he takes more than a passing interest in my scribblings. But I am told that he has made Marsa a summer resort of choice for cash strapped Italians. For 400 euros they can have a week all in in Marsa, which includes tanning on Rommel Beach with a day trip to Siwa thrown in for an extra 35 euros. Once again, as everything is all in, they spend no money in the town.
Having said that, a group of Italians have provided me with the funniest 10 minutes of the past two months. I was sitting having coffee when approaching me came, what appeared to be a platoon of the Italian army, all appropriately suited and booted for an invasion of any country with a desert you care to mention (probably safe to exclude the USA).
All that was missing from the ensemble were sidearms, assault rifles and the inevitable pack of playing cards that armies carry around to throw on the bullet riddled corpses of their enemies. They were a mixed group, men and women perfectly co - ordinated, looking cooly Italian behind their reflector shades. But alas, it wasn't Italy's finest on an exchange visit with their colleagues in the Egyptian military, but a group of tourists on a desert safari and this get up is apparently, de rigeur.
Siwa is on the edge of the Sahara. In fact, walk through the square and the desert is underfoot. Everything is either built on or grown in the sands. From the Shali, you can see the dunes on the edge of the oasis. Drive in any direction for ten minutes and you've left the town far behind. Most people,including me, become captivated by the desert, hypnotised by the endless rolling dunes. All that is fine as long as you are sitting on a cushion, sipping tea and gazing wistfully into the middle distance, wondering vaguely what lies beyond the ridge of sand before you. The answer, is inevitably, another ridge, probably higher and with deeper sand. It's also easy to get carried away when you are tear arseing across the desert in the front seat of a 4x4 with a driver who knows what he's doing. It's not so much fun if you are stuck, injured (My Moroccan Blister Story springs to mind here), or being pursued by a war band of Tuareg, bent on liberating your head from your shoulders. If you want to find out more about the last point you should read Michael Asher's 'Sands of Death', an appallingly titled and poorly written book. But it does tell the story of benighted French attempts to scout the land for a trans Saharan railway between Algiers and Timbukto, in the 1880's and beyond. Even Asher's appalling style cannot ruin the story.
Siwa and Siwans are also, it seems to me, on the edge of some more fundamental changes. Putting Alexander and his marauding Macedonians to one side, mass tourism is a recent phenomenon in Siwa. There are some really good local restaurants that cater to western tastes, there are some really good budget hotel options with plenty of hot water; there are some high end options that cater for wealthy Egyptians. And Italians.
Lots of Siwans speak good English as a third language after Siwi and Arabic and almost every hotel or restaurant will offer you a desert experience with a local operator. Ali, a local musician who performs as part of a trio, laments the influence of TV on his sisters. He fears that they will want something different for themselves in the future - at the moment, as tradition demands, his mother and sisters stay at home, looking after the house and perhaps making handicrafts for sale in the market. Siwan women, when they are on the street, dress very conservatively, in a black chador style garment and usually wearing gloves. Ali remembers when his grandmother found out he was moving to Siwa from their small village, it was if he were moving to New York. Whilst this belief in tradition is up to a point commendable, it often doesn't extend to men's own behaviour. Many of the young Siwan's I met don't need foreigners to teach them how to smoke and drink and dance the hoochey coo (to paraphrase Elvis).
The main social lubricant in Siwa is hash, smuggled in over the Libyan border, via Morocca and probably origination in Afghanistan. It's cheap, plentiful and easily available. My one piece of advice, waht you smoke in Siwa, stays in Siwa - probably not a good idea to take it on the bus when you leave.
The more tourists there are and the more exposure to outside influences that Siwans are subject to, the likelihood is that the changes will be greater. It's how that change is managed is the trick. Added to this is the growing influx of foreigners, both Egyptian and European, who are either buying houses or land and inevitably pushing the prices up for locals. Most foreigners are warmly welcomed and soon become part of the town's comings and goings, but I wonder how fat that bonhomie will continue to stretch. One local shop owner told me that he has not made any money for the past four years and is living and working off his savings. Foreigners are not responsible for that, but it does show that there are problems.
I don't fear for the future of Siwa particularly. If I come back here in 20 years, I'm sure there will have been changes. More people, less garden, higher prices, better standard of living, more foreigners (or less as those who were there have moved on to the next undiscovered place), better schools, satellite dishes. I suppose sustainable/ethical tourism are a couple of the buzzwords flying around, and perhaps controlled, balanced growth is the way forward. But these concepts of growth are our ideas of how things should develop and I wonder how the Siwans feel about it?