‘Siwa is big now,’ says Salama, the bellboy, with a bit of disdain.
It is just another afternoon in the oasis of Siwa. Even in the fading light of the winter sun, from the terrace of Siwa Shali it is easy to make out the lakes hedging the oasis on one side, and the mountains to the other. This village of mud huts doesn’t appear ‘big’ at all.
The last known outpost of Berbers in Egypt, Siwa lies in a shallow depression in the Sahara desert, hidden behind the magnificent dunes of the Great Sand Sea. Such was the remote location of this oasis that entire armies have disappeared without a trace and it is only now, after 2,500 years that the sands are uncovering the remains of Cambyses’ soldiers.
Ten hours drive from Cairo through relentless desert landscape – with not even a gas station on the last 300-km stretch – by the time we arrive late evening, in our dust covered, fly-battered Daewoo, the village appears rather quiet.
The haunting ruins of Shali, a fortress built from salt rock, mud and palm overlooks the square. There are no cars; only cycles. There are no women; only men who sit huddled over steaming pots of tea and water pipe in the coffee shops. Every now and then a donkey cart goes by, carrying children or women, shrouded in black.
Nothing changed in Siwa for a very long time, explains Salama. Then, a paved road in the mid-80s brought the first bus service from Marsa Matrouh, the nearest town 300 kilometers away and with that, trickled in modern day influences like television. Girls pleaded with fathers to allow them to school; wives cajoled their husbands to let them take up embroidery classes, at each others’ homes.
But the Siwans, a fiercely independent lot, having resisted waves of conquerors and agreeing to convert to Islam only around the 12th century, decided if change was inevitable, it would come at their own terms.
Justice continues to be meted out by a council of 11 wise men – chieftains of the tribes, while the police prefer not to interfere. Girls are still married off at fourteen. But young men like Salama are not forced to marry the girl they were betrothed to, as a child. They can pick their own brides.
Curiosity is perhaps what brings most travelers to Siwa these days; not its UNESCO heritage sites or ecolodges hewn into mountains.
Hoping to understand a bit about their nomadic existence I hitch a ride into the desert with Abdallah, one among the counsel of wise men. The night we set out, the moon rides high and over a meal of lamb cooked on coal he regales me with stories from the past. Before we return, he pulls out a small chest from beneath the seat and shows me some traditional silver jewelry. I pick a bracelet offering to pay in dollars. He accepts and I think to myself, atleast some things have changed.