“Sorry, the mountain closes at 5 today”: Siwa contradictions

Siwa is a magical and otherwordly place, but also one that is full of contradictions.

  • The town seems to be stuck in chronological limbo.  While welcoming tourists from all around the world, the culture is heavily tribal, the people still speak a very traditional language.  Siwans, at least those we talked to, considered themselves Siwi first, then Egyptian.  They made jokes about people in Cairo and poked fun at our hoity-toity lives in Alexandria.  The average family appears to be very big; Zait was one of 6, Aadil one of 14.  They told us about a man in town who had 32 kids by 3 women, as polygamy is still practiced in Siwa.
  • Siwa is the most conservative and traditional place we have visited in a cultural sense, but in a personal sense it felt the most open.  While the children play outside and men run businesses and participate in public life, the women are shuttered away from public life.  The adolescent girls wear hijab, some other women niqab, but the traditional outfit for women of marriageable age is the milaya, a big embroidered cloth that covers the entire body from head to toe (usually light blue with dark blue trim) and a black veil covering the face and the front of the body.  The effect is jarring—they reminded us of the Ringraiths from Lord of the Rings.  It would be impossible to recognize someone by sight alone and to me that feels like an objectification of women in itself—they all look the same, so it’s easy to imagine that that uniform image could extend to their personalities in the eyes of local men.  However, we (as white foreign women) were treated like human beings, better on average than all of the other places we have visited.  Nobody stared at us obviously, nobody called out to us, nobody bothered us, really.  We could talk with men and there wasn’t really an issue.  It was a strange place to be in, talking with the men as equals, but then watching the local women out on the street under the hand of these restrictions.  One very telling moment happened toward the end of our time in Siwa.  We were heading to Zait’s house to see off two of his Dutch friends, when we found a donkey cart blocking their way under a lamppost.  It was only after Zait got out of the car that I noticed the woman (in a milaya) sitting in the back of the cart.  Without saying a word to her, Zait pulled the donkey over and cleared the way.  The woman might as well have been another sack of potatoes, she was so visibly invisible.
  • Zait is a Muslim, but also claimed to be a healer with special powers and had gone to massage school in Alexandria.  He claimed that he could see treasure underground or tell people where water was in the desert, but he doesn’t use these powers for just anybody.  He said he knew special remedies for ailments and even showed us a bag of herbs to be brewed into tea that he had prepared for one of his foreign friends who has cancer.  He cursed, smoked, drank, even brewed his own date alcohol, and admitted to smoking hashish (weed). But he also prayed regularly.
  • Even though Siwa has maintained a fierce independence for centuries, the traditional lifestyle is being commercialized for tourists.  The Bedouin camps set up by safaris, the camel treks through the desert, the emphasis on traditional things from food at restaurants to the crafts on display all gave me this sickly feeling that we were in the middle of a living, breathing museum.  Part of it is nice, that Siwi culture might be preserved in such a way, but I worry that the tourism industry whittles away the authenticity and liveability of the traditional Siwi lifestyle.  If everything is for show, will Siwans lose track of what is really their culture over what is dramatized for tourists? This question could be synthesized through the poetic history of Shali fortress. Shali fortress, which is in the middle of town, was built in the 12th century, originally housing a thriving village with enough living space for 700 people at a time.  It held off centuries of attackers and in
    vaders, but when heavy rains came in 1930 and 1985, the fortress began melting!  Why? It was constructed out of karsheef–salt, clay, and fine sand cut from the edges of salt lakes and formed into blocks.  Three days of rain did more damage than Bedouin raids, war, and century-upon-century of inhabitants.  I see the tourist industry possibly inflicting the same damage upon local culture.  When the flood of foreigners come into town, the locals stop living the traditional way simply because it is traditional and start living it as a sort of circus act.  In that way, the ancient culture, like the salt blocks cut of local earth, is melted away and filled in by a stilted and dramatized version, like the inauthentic (but lasting) concrete and plaster used to hold the fortress together today.  In that way, the ancient culture becomes locked into one archetype, as opposed to maintaining an organically-developing life of its own.

 

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