Back from the Great Sand Sea and the oasis of Siwa where I spent a magnificently chilled few days with the girls; Anna, Jameela and Helen, who has been at the centre since the second term and has also accompanied us to Cairo a few weeks ago. Fifth to join was Farida, who used to be a private student at the centre for a brief amount of time and is here to learn Arabic in order to advance her career prospects in diplomacy. Nadia gave the whole trip a miss as an oasis means plenty of mosquitoes, amongst other bugs and these are not considered to be particularly glam… I’d been to Siwa before during my first visit to MaSr and it was nice to visit the place again in the company of sisters. Siwa is quite a special place. An oasis located in the far western corner, close to the Libyan border. It has been independent from Egypt and has only been linked to the ‘civilized world’ by tarmac road to the coastal town of Marsa MartrouH since the 1980’s. When going to Siwa you still have the sense that it is a remote and isolated place. It is not particularly pretty but it has a great sense of chill and the locals very much go about there daily business unlike, for example, Dahab, which very much appears to be a tourist town. Siwans are not Arabs but Berbers and have their own language and distinct traditions. Although it is not right on the tourist trail the oasis receives a fair amount of visitors except in the summer months when the heat can be fierce. But unlike Dahab where, although I don’t do it, you get away with walking around in skimpy clothes, Siwa is very conservative. Conservative to that extend that women seem almost invisible. They don’t play any part in public life and since they are not easily spotted on the street they could be considered an endangered species. When you do see them in the local taxis, cart and donkey, they look like ghosts clad in all-covering pieces of black shapeless fabric. One of the attractions of Siwa are the many natural springs scattered around the oasis. Besides a tourist attraction they form a gathering place for people to relax, play or have a bath. For men and boys that is. It’s a very big deal for women to bathe in these springs and even young girls who you’d think could do with some water fun and refreshment as a day in the oasis can be hot, are nowhere to be seen, not around the springs nor elsewhere in the oasis. All your interaction with locals at your hostel, restaurant, internet cafe, travel agent or shop, will be with local men. When I was bathing -fully clothed- in one of the springs and being surrounded by mainly young boys, who where playing in the water I was wondering why it’s only the boys who can have all the fun. When we were at yet another spring Jameela was sitting on the edge of the spring with her feet in the water, while a man jumped into the water with much ado wetting Jameela in the process. Jameela shouted something but the guy didn’t acknowledge her. Only when the owner of the tiny winy cafeteria near the spring said something about it after it came quite clear we were all rather appalled by it, he muffled an apology in Jameela’s direction. Now, this particular man might just be an mastodont lacking any grace or manners or he might just be particularly Siwan. Why would he acknowledge a woman, she shouldn’t be there in the first place.
Not ‘allowed’ to leave the house to have a change of scenery, a stroll through the palm groves, bathing in a spring or even do some shopping. And if she does go out, only God knows where she might be going, she has to pretend she’s not there. ‘I’m not a person, I’m just a living ghost, don’t mind me’. When it comes to social laws concerning equality of the sexes Egypt has a long way to go. Siwa might not be as isolated as it was in the past and tourism has come to town. It has a distinct culture and is an interesting entity within Egypt but when it comes to acknowledging its women it’s very much stuck in dark, dark times.