Tuesday, January 13th, 1998
We travel to the Siwa oasis, first in a service taxi from Cairo to Alexandria – an hour’s wait till it was full – and then in a rattletrap of a bus along the Mediterranean coast. We drive through rain and desolation: thorn trees, desert and half-started, half-finished, half-ruined houses. We are the only foreigners.
Our balcony looks down over the village square towards Shali. I watch little kids rolling tyres along like hoops: endless donkey carts piled high with long greens or tied-up palm leaves, a tented woman getting off the afternoon bus accompanied by a shawled man. Soldiers carry plastic bags full of oranges. Three men discuss a wad of money at length. A crowd gathers around a truck, buying goats and sheep: a reluctant horned one is being pushed and shoved along by its new owners. An old man sits cross-legged in the sun sorting dates, nudging them with a dusty toe. I can see down into rooftops too: women, uncovered, pegging out the washing; dates drying; quirls of bicycle tyres; a shelf with cages for ducks. Wide cracks snake down some of the mud brick walls.
I wake to the call to prayer, a hoarse amplified chant in the morning silence. Then the roosters, a truck starting up, the peaceful cooing of pigeons. My daughter rolls over and the bed squeaks and crashes metalically. Then a choking gasping for breath: the laughing braying of a donkey.
I walk out into the crisp morning: the sound of the wind against my ears, a ute driving beside the palm grove, the creak of a cart, voices. A couple of birds wade in the lake. Children are heading off to school and I follow them: two little boys say eagerly “Gotta ben?” (pen). Women in black cluster, chatting as women do everywhere as they see their kids off. Fences beside the path are interwoven palm fronds; the water in the ditches is very clear with little fish swimming around; the donkey shit a rich iridescent purple. I encounter placid donkeys tied to poles, and an aggressive turkey. A lad setting up a stall of pickled olives says “Welcome to Siwa” with a big smile. Young men on bikes wheel past on the way to work, carrying thick sticks and machetes.
I plod off towards the temple of Amun, in the steps of Alexander, who came here seeking an oracle. It isn’t far, but it’s hot. Scaling the hill looks impossible, but I circumambulate it and find the desired track – and an undesired guide whom I finally pay not to guide me. The building is partly huge blocks of stone, partly mud brick, a lot of it tumbledown or propped up with scaffolding. The view from any high place in this desert is spectacular. I’m looking down on the top of palm trees across a lake and out to a tabletop hill. In another direction the view is interrupted by the blocky minaret, no longer safe to climb, and slabs of wall. As I return I run into a heap of tourists heading where once was solitude.
That night we eat out and watch Siwa by night. Donkey carts creak past, on one a shrouded woman: a huge green truck rumbles by: kids gather round a communal TV or play table tennis or queue at a stall where a man is stuffing torpedo shaped rolls with something from a pan balanced on a gas burner. A tall good-looking man approaches us with an album of photos from a desert safari, hoping we’ll be tempted. Another man, this one wearing a tattered grimy robe, begins ceremonially shaking hands with everyone till he is hustled away by the owner. After we’ve eaten we walk along a dark puddly lane through an arched door into a cavernous room to buy breakfast bread , which is counted out and handed over in a speckled pile.
It is full moon, and my daughter and I walk into the ancient mud brick town of Shali, along narrow streets with towering ruins above them. As we sit and talk at the foot of crumbling walls, a flock of birds flies over, catching the white light of the moon and blessing our time in Siwa.