Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bedouins, Palm Trees, Sand

سلام عليكم من مصر! ايه اخبار؟

It has been a dark day here in Egypt, despite the ever-shining sun glinting on the sea. I could use a written escape back to the Siwa Oasis, a gathering of palm trees and mud buildings plopped in the middle of the vast Western Sahara.

The first day of our program-sponsored trip was spent touring the sites via the courtesy of our local guide Himeda. First was Gebel El-Mawt, the Roman-era mountain necropolis. I didn't really pay attention to the narration as I was somewhat distracted by the view, which was the coolest thing about this pile of sand and stone:

Then we went to another pile of sand and stone, this one called Amon, where Alexander reportedly visited to consult its famous oracle. He wanted to double-check that he was a son of the Gods (inshaallah). Rumor has it he requested to be buried there, but archaeologists' best bets are that he now lies somewhere under the streets of the very city I am living in. Anyway, more nice views from up there. Next stop was Cleopatra's Bath, an antique natural spring that she probably never swam in. The water was beautiful, as were the hours of lounging spent in a pillowed restaurant next to it. Learned Egyptian Backgammon and laughed. Then we rented bikes and hauled ass out of the little town to Fatnas Island, a palm-treed peninsula on a salt-lake with an expansive view of plateaus, Libya, and the neverending desert.

Evening was spent lying on more pillows eating more food with good company (a favorite pastime in this country.) I also visited Shali that night, the old walled fortress ruins where the Siwans barricaded themselves against enemies, pictured behind me.

Next day I wondered through the square, perusing the traditional handcrafts and bartering with friendly shopkeepers. The people are more Bedouin than Egyptian, speaking their own language, blending Islam with a sort of geographic traditionalism, and making their living by dates, olives, basketry, silverwork, and now tourism.

In the afternoon, we contributed to that booming business by hiring a group of badass Bedouins to show us the desert in their Landcruisers (driving down vertical dunes is heartstopping.) What can I say about the desert... no, the Sahara? My first thought is that it is perfect. The cascading, lilting sand forms impeccable shapes. If tire tracks mar it, the wind just lends a helping gust, and perfection reigns once more. Ah, but of course, it hides so much menace! What a mirage every view seemed to be. We were thrilled. Especially when we stopped in a spring smack dab in the rolling dunes! I. Swam. In. A. Pond. In. The. Sahara. Desert. In. Egypt. Some situations are too outrageously surreal to fathom without feeling drunk on life! Thus, I often find myself repeating various situations outloud to myself in order to believe them. Then we watched the sun set from the highest dune to be seen. I am a sucker for dramatic skies, so my heart melted a bit with this colorful poem. No words can do it justice, please look at photos (

After successfully navigating down this big dune on a snowboard (same concept, different climate!), I was led to the Bedouin camp. We waited for dinner around a big fire listening to traditional Siwan music drummed by our guides and now friends Himeda & Co. Our chicken dinner was cooked in an under-the-sand oven, and it was lezeez owee. After kidnapping our friend Ahmed and burying him in the sand (Egypt makes you do strange things), a bunch of us trekked out into the night with nothing but a guitar. The next hours were spent beneath the universe. We sang and jammed to shooting stars, double-tailed ones, green and red ones. We fell asleep there, and woke up with the sun scratching the end of our dune-bed with its golden tendrils. I have never been more aware of the earth's rotation: the sun said good-bye to me, the moon rose and fell back into the sand, Orion stood up and sat down, and the shemss returned to greet groggy me. What a night.

And once again, I take you back to Alex. So why the darkness now? A friend is hurt, bad, and I am sad, the whole program is sad. He will live, alhamdulillah. But I keep asking myself Why. I am okay, and I will be; you know me - strong and adaptable! Trying situations are made all the more challenging here because a.) we are out of our comfort zone, aka away from America and loved ones and b.) because this country only seeks temporary solutions to its problems, never prevention. The road ahead is harder. Heart and mind with Austin.

I miss all of you a lot, and wish you were all surrounding me right now.

Yamila جميلة

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