"Yes we speak Tamazight, yes we eat the couscous, but we are 100% Egyptians". Thus characteristics of the people of Siwa, an oasis located 560 km west of Cairo and near the borders with Libya in the desert.
Leaving the northern coast of Egypt and sinking into the asphalt road in the arid desert, no one has the impression that he will find a treasure of beauty. Then suddenly you find yourself in front of a stunning fortress overlooking a hill. Around houses made of "karshif", a mixture of earth and salt. The "old" Siwa has been half destroyed by torrential rains. At night, it seems like the house of Dracula as seen in the cinema.
In the morning we open our eyes on a huge palm grove. A green that hides the desert behind. You might think in the Berber regions of southern Morocco and Algeria.
Siwa, which has 25,000 inhabitants, is the easternmost point of Berber settlement (Amazigh) and their only place in Egypt, which gives the oasis a special uniqueness.
Siwa, the Berber The first inhabitants of Siwa came from North Africa 12.000 years ago. They belonged to the tribe "Zanatha". There are also Takrouris, the black Berber as the Tuareg of Mali and Niger. Their first project was to build the fortress of Shali, in the center of the oasis, to protect themselves from attacks of nomads. Then they built the village of Aghurmi, located around the Temple of Oracle, where Alexander the Great would have had confirmation that he was a direct descendant of the god Amun.
The oasis was then cut off from the rest of the world. It had no connection with ancient Egypt. Siwa was best known as a resting point for caravans ferrying goods between North Africa and the East.
In the year 708 the Siwis faced Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula who conquered Egypt. It was not until the 12th century to see them convert to Islam. From this period dates the first appearance of the Arab tribes around the oasis.
In 1926, the oasis has begun to spread beyond Shali. Following the torrential rains that year, residents have begun to leave the two ancient villages and build their current villages.
Until 1975, Siwa was totally isolated, no service was available. During the visit of former Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat in Siwa that year, the Siwis have requested the construction of a road that links them to the nearest town, Marsa Matrouh on the north coast. This road was completed ten years later. From this moment, the life of Siwis has changed. "A hospital, a post office and other government services have emerged, remembers Medhat Hweitti, Director of the Office of Tourism in Siwa, it has improved the quality of life of residents". This road has also helped the oasis to be more accessible for tourists despite the 10 hours journay ...
Since they live in the desert, someones might think that Siwis are nomads, but it is actually an agricultural society of the first degree. Agriculture is the main activity of the oasis. The inhabitants cultivate dates, olives, fruit.
The Siwis have never been great adventurers of the desert. They have always been rather scared. They have discovered the Sahara recently with the arrival of tourists. "I gradually discovered the desert a decade ago with my cousin when he bought a 4x4 car and started his excursions into the desert which surrounds us", remembers Mahmoud Qenawy, a tourist guide of Siwa.
A tribal society The siwi society has always had its own style of government, far from the Egyptian laws. In general, people don’t care about legislative and presidential elections in their country. In Siwa, each tribe has a leader, called "Sheikh". He must be wise and rich. He is the governer of the clan. A Council of Elders, composed of at least 10 people representing different families of the tribe, helps the sheikh.
Above the sheikhs of the tribes, there was the Council of Elders of Siwa (majless al-Ajwad) which is formed by a wise leader and 40 persons to govern the oasis. After the arrival of government bodies, this system has disappeared. But tribal leaders have kept a lot of weight in siwi society, especially in resolving conflicts between people, thanks to the great respect of their clans. "Now, the verdicts are majoritairy in form of almonds, which are, in most cases, distributed among the poors of the tribe", says sheikh Rageh Omar, 43 years old, leader of the clan Awlad Moussa (Moussa's son).
The Sheikh represents his tribe in front of the government and the trial judge during trade disputes between residents. The sheikh’s decision is final. But according to Sheikh Omar, this operation is changing: "Now, because of education, some do not respect the verdict of the sheikh and go to civil justice that applies the law without understanding society", he laments. "Who does that loses respect of the tribe".
The siwi society could contain, so far, the different cultures that have invaded the oasis as the Romans in the past and the Arabs Bedouin now. Siwis had so influenced the Bedouins till a point that the latter, who live in the oasis, speak tsiwit (Tamazight dialect with Arabic words coming from the Egyptian dialect) and have almost the same traditions as the Berbers. They have practically adopted the siwi lifestyle.
The family of Said is the perfect example. The mother is Berber, the father is Bedouin, their children master both languages, and the whole family (35 people!) lives in a house typically siwi on two floors, built with clay. "My children and my grandchildren have tough Bedouin face with green eyes of Berber, says the 72 years old man.
The siwis have several things in common with the Berbers, in addition of language and couscous. The architecture of their old houses and traditional clothes of women have much in common. But they are considered totally different from the Berbers of North Africa, who are, according to siwi people, "racist" concerning the Arabs, "Siwis are tolerant and can coexist with other people", as said Mahmoud Qenawy.
The place of women in Siwa The siwi community is very conservative. It is rare to see a woman in the streets and, if she is sawn, it’s impossible to get near to her. Once she is married, the siwi woman is covered from head to foot by a "malaya" a large blue-gray cloth and a piece of black viel covers her face. The woman in Siwa must be accompanied wherever by a man even if he is much younger ...
Traditions that many young women would turn out well. Among them, Nour, 18 years old. In six months, she will be married and her beautiful gray-green eyes highlighted with kohl will be hidden behind the malaya. "My fiancé forces me to do that. I have no choice. I can not oppose it. Here, all the girls are covered once they are married". Her sister, 15 years old, is also engaged to a boy from the village. In siwi culture, the girl is betrothed starting the age of 10 years. Her future husband has the right to visit her for 5 years, twice a year : during the Eid al-Fetr and Eid al-Adha (small and great Bairam). If it is the man who chooses his wife, the bride has the right to object. For Mahmoud, who has a little girl of 5 years old, the opinion of the girl's family is more important: "If my daughter tells me tomorrow that she wants to marry the boy she crossed in the street, my role is to give her my advise. Here, we see all the young men grow. We know their families. We are sometimes better placed than the girl to judge whether she will be happy with this man or not. The opinion of the tribal chief is also critical. He knows the past of the people, he knows if they are honest or not".
According to Sheikh Omar Rageh the siwi society has recently started to change from a closed society to a society rather open. "Before, the man could see unmarried women of the oasis and speak directly to them in only two occasions: the day of the Mouled (the Prophet’s day of bith) and during the feast of al-Seyaha. This event still exists today in Siwa. It is a celebration of love and tolerance that lasts three days at the foot of al-Dakrour hill. "Now that has changed. Boys and girls see each others more easily through the school."
The marriage rites The wedding day is decided by the family of the husband, while the girl’s family has the right to postpone it for 3 to 5 days. Marriages in Siwa are often real feasts for the whole village. It is common to have 2000 people attending the wedding! Marriage is spread over three days starting with a battle between women of both families to retrieve the wife. Meanwhile, the husband, shy, does not see his father. And the festival ends with a meeting of reconciliation between father and son in the presence of the wife's family and son’s friends.
The family of Safiha, 25 years old, is in full swing. In one month, her sister will be married. They must finish preparing the outfits of the bride. In general, the bride changes dresses five times, each one more beautiful than the others. The last one is covered with a first layer of embroidered with colored fibres, then the second layer is covered with thousands of beads of all shapes. "It takes them a year ahead to achieve it. The family of the woman are all there. They must be experienced. It takes eight years of learning before a girl can begin to embroider.
In another room of the house, women do trays from palm leaves. They are part of the dowry. They are traditionally used to cecieve bread just baked at home.
The greatest fear for these women, who often have the upper hand in everything that relates to the home, is polygamy. A tradition is still difficult to accept for Siwis. "I know many men who have two women for no reason. It's really a horrible thing. Living in three under one roof, I do not like it" says Safiha. Sheikh Omar Rageh says that polygamy is rejected by the siwi society. "Polygamists are rare in our society. It takes a very serious reason, like illness, so that man can marry another woman", he adds. Divorce, in turn, frowned at Siwa, it is also virtually non-existent in the oasis.
Another fear, a little more surprising, for these women. It is that their husbands become tourist guide. "This is a fairly new business too. We were not used to see a siwi man surrounded by foreign with their small clothes..." continues, a little embarrassed, Safiha.
Faced with tourists, Siwi guides, themselves, are also often shy. They sometimes ashamed to accompany a group of foreign women. If the tourists do not respect the traditions of the oases and bathe in bikkini in water sources, they immediately look away. Siwa is also one of the few tourist places in Egypt, see the only part in the country, which does not accept the marriage of a siwi with a stranger. Even if we sometimes hear stories of some young Siwi left to live abroad with a tourist that he met in the oasis ...
Heritage Conservation The singularity of the oasis attracts many international associations seeking to improve the quality of Siwis life while preserving their lifestyle. They finance micro-loans.
Among these structures, "Siwa Association for Development of society and protecting the environment". This body assembled by the Italian financial and technical assistance, aims to help poor siwis families to obtain credit to start a project like the manufacture of carpets, handicrafts, land reclamation, rehabilitation of the old olives gardens and construction of typical houses.
The association also organizes workshops in order to safeguard the art of making traditional clothes that appears less and less.
"Our loans are free of interest. The deadline to pay them back is between 3-8 years, depending on the size of credit which does not exceed 16.000 Egyptian pounds (2.000 euros). The aid offered by the association is not in money, but in materials", says Karam Abdel Meguid, responsible for granting credits to the population.
Karam would like to see the rich Siwis help in financing the activities of his association to help the poorest. But at the same time, as siwi, he understands this behavior. "Our association is not truly independent. It is under government control. Now the Siwis often lack confidence in the projects financed by covernmental funds.
Other Siwis did from their tradition a buisness. The objective of the association of Mahmoud Qenawy, our tour guide, is to learn siwis how to attract tourists without damaging the nature of the oasis. Mahmoud, who is a volunteer in this structure, ride as projects, for schools in the oasis, to maintain the cleanliness including sessions to collect bins in the alleys of palm trees.
His association "Siwis for tourism development and environmental protection" depends entirely on the financial contribution of Siwis donors in its activities.
"For example, we help tourist guides to quickly have permission to camp in the desert for their group and, in exchange, they pay us a small sum of money", he adds.
But these NGOs are allowed by the state because they do not attempt to distinguish the siwie culture of the Egyptian one, which is not the case for the association of "protection of the heritage of Siwa", which was been refused by the State for "security" reasons. The leader of this organization, Sheikh Omar Rageh, however, would want to educate young people the importance of their own culture, music, language, customs, even clothes.
"The Siwis learn tsiwit at home before they go to school. This is a spoken language. But it is a fragile legacy. Society needs programs like this", said the tribal leader, passionated by Tamazigh. He says he will not succumb to pressure from the state. "The government has made Siwa a nature reserve to protect the environment, plants and animals, but I want to protect Siwis".
Siwa, a victim of its beauty
Last year Siwa has welcomed some 20.000 visitors including 13.000 foreigners. These visitors represent almost half the income of Siwis: Most of them have an activity related to tourism (guides, craft shop, restaurant ... etc.). The first foreigners have begun to explore Siwa in the 80s. The Egyptians themselves have gone there on vacation 15 years ago.
If they have the choice, Siwis prefer foreigner tourists because they respect the environment even if they do not meet with the dress customs.
Tourism is not without negative impacts on the traditions of Siwis. The project of the Egyptian government to transform the military airport which is located near the oasis as a civilian airport, is what people fear most. "It is true that it will change the quality of tourism in Siwa, we will have rich tourists instead of backpackers, which will enable the oasis to become more prosperous. But we will lose calm. The luxury hotels are going to land and the pollution will invade our little paradise ... I fear that Siwa will lose its identity in few years", said Yehya Qenawy, Chairman of Siwa popular council and tourist guide.
Yehya believes that the government made mistakes in its determination to develop the site, including building a massive sports complex with olympic stadium, swimming pool ... "Instead of building a 25.000 seats stadium that was never used, the government should improve the transportation to Siwa and install services throughout the road to the oasis".
Yehya can't forget the day that the Egyptian government decided to tile the source of Cleopatra (where tourists bathe in the heart of the oasis) before taking untile it few months later. "I see that the authorities are trying to restore some tourist sites, but sometimes it's catastrophic", said Yehya.
Another difficulty for Siwis: The 2 million Egyptian pounds (250.000 euros) asked by the authorities to give the permission to create a tourism agency. The Siwis would love to be exempted from these fees. "We do not have the resources to advance such a sum", notes Yehya who hopes one day to have his own company and his own hotel.
"The authorities also limit us in our travels with visitors in the desert. They deliver us permission to go there. These permits are valid only 24 hours. But tourists want to camp in the dunes 2 or 3 days and this forces us to return each day in the oasis for a new license. Why do not they give us a license for four days if necessary?", asks Yehya.
The challenges of Siwa
The main challenge in Siwa is the agriculture. The groundwater is not sufficient while the salt water coming from the farm dreinage increases, which has already caused the destruction of many palm trees. At the same time, the oasis is still lack a sewage system. "A project to get rid off the wastewater is underway but the administration is very slow. It had to be done 10 years ago", said Yehya.
Sheikh Omar Rageh says, with irony, that there are five factoris pf mineral water in Siwa but Siwis drink untreated water. "Do we have to buy water coming out from our lands?", he wonders.
To be more efficient in solving their problems, people would like to decentralize the power. "Nobody can understand the challenges we face better than us", notes Yehya Qenawy.
This article was written for the french magazine "Courrier de l'Atlas"