Oasis life: Siwa

What is it that makes people fall in love with Siwa? Is it the isolation? With an 11-hour bus journey, or eight hours by car, Siwa’s not exactly on the way to anywhere.

The oasis is 50km from the Egypt-Libyan border, set on the lip of the Great Sand Sea, which stretches the length of the country, where thousands of sand dunes shift shapes as the wind takes them. Siwans identify themselves as Siwi first, and Egyptian second. They speak their own, unwritten language that is shared with Berber tribes from across north Africa, including Morocco and Tunisia, and dress, think and act differently to that of their Egyptian counterparts.

At night, Siwa town, population 10,000, is quiet as only a desert town can be quiet. The sand seems to suck the very sound from the air. In comparison, Cairo’s ever present grumbling, even when asleep, is like an old dog revisiting grand fights, growling and moaning while its eyes are closed. All I can here is the click of my keyboard, the crackling of the beeswax candles and what I think is the occasional night bird.

Instead of heavy trucks and souped-up cars, the main mode of transport is by careta, or donkey cart. However, like its brethren, the less remote Bahirayya oasis, Siwa’s young guys are far more interested in cheap Chinese motorbikes than donkey carts.

The main town is built around old Shali fortress, a collection of mudbrick buildings huddled together for safety. For hundreds of years, Siwans defended their turf against ravaging invaders and greedy governments but, the story goes, a deluge of rain here in the desert in the 1920s washed away the structures which today cling to the ground like a dinosaur’s carcass, sliding gently back into the earth from which they came.

The oasis has all the hallmarks of an Arabian fantasy; palm trees, cool sweetwater springs, pink flamingos and shallow salt water lakes, also a delicate shell pink from the salt that lies beneath the surface. Siwa doesn't wake early, so the sleepy soundtrack is one of calls to prayer and the braying of a dismayed donkey as each morning the oasis awakens slowly to its contemplative life, far from a world of package tours, shouts and touts.

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