neesh khseekh ysiwan

Neesh khseekh ysiwan means “I love Siwa!” or “I love Siwans!”  in Siwi. And it’s true on both counts!

After all that’s happened in the past three weeks, it’s almost difficult to backtrack and think about my wonderful days in Siwa. My last days there were packed and happy– I made new friends at the markaz, the government-run artisan training center that I visited when I was in Siwa the first time. I walked into the abandoned compound unannounced, feeling a bit like an intruder… but as soon as I stepped inside the huge building where 15 young women work, I met Hannem, who showed me around the first time I visited. “Madeline! You returned!” After that, I spent several mornings at the markaz, where I learned new embroidery stitches, watched my friend Marwa work with silver, and made friends with the girls. They invited me to attend another wedding– this time the festivities even more interesting & fun because I had Siwan girlfriends to hang out with.

I love how brightly painted the interiors of homes are. So much turquoise/sea foam green!

So many cute donkeys everywhere.

View of the oasis from the top of Gebel Dakrur.

Here’s an awesome vocabulary list compiled collaboratively by me and the girls at the markaz. It has Arabic, English, English transliteration of the Arabic, and Arabic transliteration of the English (plus some illustrations of how people celebrate weddings in the US). You can also see some embroidery-in-progress (mine is on the right). The girls there use  many of the same stitches as traditional Siwan embroidery, but make different stylistic patterns.

My awesome friend Ismail and me in his family’s garden, where we went to get palm fronds for my basket.

Basketmaking! Ismail introduced me to his aunts,  Mabruka and Fatima, who taught me how to make Siwan palm leaf baskets and welcomed me into their homes. Mabruka’s capable hands showing me how it’s done:

The beginning of my basket:

I don’t really understand Siwi– I can say some basic words, but that’s about it. My Arabic gets me a little farther, but is still definitely limited. However, I became pretty good at anticipating what kinds of things people were asking me/saying about me. The standard conversation went something like this:

1. Greetings and pleasantries.

2. I attempt to explain my scholarship and interest in learning crafts.

3. My new friends/acquaintances/craft mentors ask a few standard questions: Are you married? You’re not? Are you engaged? Why not? Where is your family? This is my cue to bust out pictures of my family and friends and explain that I am still very young and like to be independent (but, insha’allah, someday marriage).

4. After exhausting the family conversation, the next topic is very predictable. By this point, everyone talking to me has been secretly  or not so secretly checking out/giggling at my hair. I don’t actually know how to say “What is the deal with your hair?” in Arabic or Siwi, but I always understand when the question is asked.

I realized in Guatemala that learning to describe the process of making dreadlocks was going to be essential for my conversation skills, since I got asked about it so often. Same in Arabic– with the help of some miming, I got pretty good at describing the dreading process. People’s reactions range from amusement to fascination to mild distaste to absolute horror (usually the horror kicks in when I tell them I’ll have to cut all my hair off someday). I was originally thinking about cutting off my dreads at some point during the year, but I think I have to keep them. They’re just such good conversation starters.

On the topic of learning languages, I also realized that my Arabic vocabulary includes a disproportionately huge number of positive words– Quayyis! (Good) Tamam! (Great) Maashi! (Okay) Aywa! (Yes) Mea-mea! (Excellent) Ishta! (Cool) Ana mabsuta! (I’m happy) Mazbut/Bizapt! (Exactly) Helwa! (Beautiful/yummy) Laaziz! (Delicious… an especially important word) — and almost no negative words. I guess it’s a good sign that my experiences have given me many occasions to be happy and agreeable!

More pictures– here are some of the beautiful old kershif buildings in Old Siwa.

Turkeys in the yard at Fatima’s house.

The date harvest! These are lower-quality dates that are used as animal feed.

On my last day I paid a final visit to my friend Marwa (the silversmith) and her lovely sisters Fattma, Iman, Esme, and Amna– I spent many hours at their house laughing and talking and learning Siwi words (my favorite, for the record, is taziri— which means moon). Before I left they insisted on dressing me up in Amna’s wedding dress and taking pictures of me as a Siwan bride (they also gave me some delicious dates and olives from their garden!). They’re the best.

I feel like a blogging machine. Coming soon: Intense days in Cairo, and beginnings in Uganda!


2 responses to “neesh khseekh ysiwan

  1. Madeline, you are wonderful. I wish I could have been there, learning by your side, but I know that the experience wouldn’t have been the same. Thanks for letting me learn vicariously.

  2. Hi Madeline,
    I am currently working for an organization that is researching artisan women across Egypt in order to help them improve the quality of their work and market it. I was wondering if you can give me some info about the “markaz” you mentioned in your blog post.
    Is there anyone you can link me to? Phone numbers perhaps? I would greatly appreciate your help!
    My email:

    Thanks a lot,
    Masa Amir.

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