life in siwa

Ahhh, Siwa.

Before I launch into my experiences in Siwa, first an update: I’m going to Uganda on February 1! I plan to spend 3-4 months in East Africa, probably splitting my time between Uganda and Rwanda. I’m very excited to venture into so many layers of newness– sub-Saharan Africa, the Equator, new craft traditions!! My research into basketry and barkcloth cooperatives is going well so far, but please please please, if any of you out there have any suggestions, contacts, favorite places, etc. in either Uganda or Rwanda, I want to hear them!

Siwa Oasis is a huge expanse of palm and olive trees, dotted with springs, crisscrossed with irrigation canals, and populated with mud-brick buildings and newer buildings made of white chalky stone blocks from a quarry nearby. It’s surrounded by shallow salt lakes and the enormous expanse of the Great Sand Sea.

In the main village of Siwa Town, the ruins of the Shali fortress dominate the landscape. Shali’s mosque and the modern mosque:

Climbing around Shali:

Siwa’s 23,000 people are mostly of Berber descent– the Siwi language is a Tamazigh dialect, related to many other Berber dialects spoken across North Africa. In addition to the native Siwans, the oasis seems to attract intriguing people who like venturing off the beaten path. My friends and acquaintances here include numerous desert guides, a Siwan guy my age who just returned to his hometown after four years of studying anthropology in Cairo, a French expat who tells me stories about his escape-artist donkey, a Danish clothing designer who employs local women to produce her pieces, an artist from Alexandria who works with ceramics, wood and stone, and her husband, a lawyer-turned-cafe-owner, as well as two teenaged guys who escaped the city and came to the oasis with their guitars to learn about Siwan music.

Kershif (mud-brick) houses and ruins in the old city:

I met Mona, my artist friend, while observing at a training that she gave in Maraqi, one of the oasis’s outlying villages. Mona studied Siwan clay for her PhD, and is helping a group of unmarried women in Maraqi develop designs and products using the local clay. After the training, I rode around town in a tuk tuk with Mona to find olivewood and have it cut (with numerous stops for tea, of course) for her latest woodcarving project. Drinking strawberry-orange juice and hanging out in Mona’s husband’s cafe is one of my favorite things to do here, during my down time.

Pottery and palm baskets in Maraqi village:

Ismail, my anthropology-studying amigo, has been a fantastic friend, resource and help to me. After I told him about my project, he introduced me to his mother and four sisters, who are now teaching me the embroidery patterns that Siwa is famous for. I’ve spent several lovely days in their home, practicing my stitches, attempting to make conversation, watching Dora the Explorer in Arabic, and eating delicious home-cooked food!

A traditional hand-embroidered Siwan wedding dress that one of Ismail’s sisters will wear someday! This is the kind of embroidery I’m learning how to do:

Ismail also, somehow, got me permission to attend a wedding with his mom and sisters (I told you he was great!). The two-day wedding celebrations are segregated: women and men have their own parties in separate locations, so I spent two days in a house jam-packed with Siwan women and girls. As soon as I walked in the door the first day, I started gathering a crowd of giggling little kids who obviously thought that I, the lone confused white girl, was a hilarious new source of entertainment. I wandered my way through groups of women picking over grains, peeling vegetables and patting pita dough into perfect circles in preparation for the feasts. By the time I sat down in one of the living rooms, I was surrounded by about fifteen kids aged 3 to 8. I got a lot of “Hello!”s and “What’s your name!”s, although all of them would dissolve into giggles anytime I asked their names in return. Finally they settled down a little, enough to show me their hand-clapping games (I taught them Say Say oh Playmate, that staple of St. Paul public school lunchroom entertainment, in return). Adorable, but exhausting.

I also tried my hand at making pita bread, which went badly– I ended up with an oblong blob of dough that was too thick at the edges and so thin it was about to tear in the center– but my gracious hosts humored me and my ugly duckling pita was whisked off to the oven along with all the lovely uniform pitas. Only a few of the women spoke a little English (in Siwa, it’s very rare for girls to continue their education past about sixth grade, I think) so after I exhausted my limited Arabic conversation abilities, I mostly sat and watched all the activity and admired all the women in their mountains of shimmery, sparkly, lacy special occasion robes and the girls in their fluffy princess dresses. Pretty frequently, women would try to talk with me in Arabic, and each time I didn’t understand a sentence and asked them to repeat it (which was very, very often) they would repeat it, speaking much louder, instead of more slowly or clearly. (I think this might be a universal tendency, but Egyptians seem to be especially prone to thinking that my Arabic vocabulary will improve as their decibel level increases…)

I was surprised to find that Siwan weddings don’t include much ceremony– the first day was entirely devoted to preparing food, eating it, and sitting around talking. Only at the very end of the day did we catch a glimpse of the bride, who entered the house covered in her embroidered veil and made her way quickly upstairs, through rooms jam-packed with women straining to see her pass by. The second day was much of the same, but the bride in her beautifully embroidered outfit was there to recieve everyone’s greetings and blessings. At the end of the day, all the unmarried girls gathered in the courtyard as married women tossed down scarves, candy, little toys, plastic dishes, and snacks– like catching the bouquet, but everyone got presents!

I spent a lot of the two days laughing at myself, but it was so wonderful to be included in the festivities and to have the chance to participate in so much all-female bonding time. That’s one of the most amazing privileges of being a foreign visitor in Egypt, I think– my status as an outsider means I am both included and excused from gender convention. I’ve spent plenty of time in both all-female and all-male spaces, a kind of access that would be next to impossible for most Egyptians.

Last night I camped again in the dunes, with Ismail, three of his friends from Cairo, and two Korean visitors. Under the late-night light of a full moon, we had one of the most real and thoughtful and thought-provoking conversations I’ve had in a long time– touching on everything from religion to parenting to 9/11 to personal goals, from the lives of Jesus and Mohamed to differences between men and women to philosophies on life, from sex to politics to marriage to war. Sharing that conversation about controversial, often divisive topics, among new friends who I respect as human beings with valid and intelligent opinions, felt really productive and meaningful. We shared many common ideas, and a common desire to listen to each other’s differences of opinion. And there were some major, insurmountable differences– the point of the conversation was not that we would all arrive at the same conclusions. It was a conversation that allowed me to examine and appreciate my assumptions, my beliefs, the things I take for granted, the ideas that I hold as true– to step outside all of that and understand the context of my own perspective, as well as the context and value of other perspectives. It was a conversation that made me acutely aware of the importance and beauty of this world’s human diversity.

Love,

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6 responses to “life in siwa

  1. Maddie!!!
    You are so amazing! I love thinking of you crafting all around the world, it makes me so happy! I’m excited to share crafting stories with you when you return! SO MANY EXCLAMATIONS! you’re great!

  2. Love those moments where you can sit back and laugh at yourself in your crazy situation. It’s refreshing, isn’t it. And wonderful conversation under a beautiful moon….awesome.

  3. Hi, beautiful! That embroidery looks amaaaaazing–I continue to be in awe of all that you’re doing. I’m glad that things seem to have taken a turn from your last post–way to push gracefully through frustration! Anyway, miss you, LOVE you.

  4. My mom just mentioned today how people don’t have discussions anymore. People email, they sometimes chat, but they don’t actually converse deeply. I think that traveling, being out of our element, being with others, striving to dive in and understand those we meet, facilitates conversation unlike anything else. Keep learning from the world!

  5. Thank you for this great post! I am a journalist traveling to Siwa in the coming days…would you be able to put me in touch with your friend Mona or the Danish designer?

  6. Dear Maddie,
    I’m trying to learn embroidery of Siwa’s patterns but can’t find any online resources. Any suggestions?
    Thanks

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