Siwa is a legendary oasis in the immense western desert of Egypt, close to the Libyan border. From Alexandria, the city named after him, Alexander the Great traveled 300 miles on a white stallion to reach Siwa. A poor imitator, I covered about the same distance from Cairo in a black airconditioned car. Alexander had gone to see the oracle of Amund and ask when he would see Macedonia again. I went to see the desert and evade the stale Christmas festivities in the capital.
In reality, there was a bigger reason for the trip. my family had been fragmented. I was living in Washington, Jane was working in Cairo, my daughters were dispersed in Pennsylvania and Egypt. Siwa gave us a quiet holiday together. It meant a lot to me, perhaps to all of us.
Even in the thirteenth century Siwa had only seven families and forty residents. Now it has thirty thousand people. It is a special community whose people are identifiably different from the Egyptians. Ethnically they are Berbers, a part of the world community of Berbers called Maghreb. The Berbers were a dominant group in North Africa, in countries like Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania, and the Siwans have a lot in common with Berber families of Libya. When the Arabs prevailed and Islam became the main religion, the Berbers lost their language and had to fall in line.
I heard the Berbers of Siwa call themselves Amazighs, meaning free men, a term of defiance against the Arabization of their world. They are certainly proud of their tradition, keep themselves apart from Egyptian culture and have occasionally risen in revolt against Egyptian authorities. The story is told that when King Fouad first visited Siwa, he was offended by their homosexual practices and could not believe that it continued in a Muslim land. By now most Berbers have become Sunni Muslims, though some have converted to other religions. This was my first encounter with a major pre-Arab group and I had to confess that the only two Berbers I knew about were Saint Augustine and the famous Roman general Lusius Quietus, who brought the Jews to heel.
The food in the oasis, given the fact that we were sitting in the middle of a desert, amazed me with its quality. The Berbers commonly serve cous cous, now fairly popular in the western word, along with a delicious meat stew called Tajine or Pastilla, a fragrant chicken pie. For breakfast, we had Bourjeje, a kind of pancake with flour and eggs and Bouchiar, wafers soaked in butter and honey.
For me the most interesting was the desert itself, the surrounding expanse of sand. A desert is a bit like its opposite, the sea. The vastness leaves you breathless. I was a young school student when I went, with some friends, to a beach. It was my first encounter with the sea. I was speechless with its beauty and grandeur. As I gingerly waded into the water, I thought: I don’t need anything else to be happy. The memory returned as I wandered in Siwa. The desert does something similar to you. Its immensity staggers you and makes trifles of your petty miseries and disappointments. I just stood there, at the window or just a hundred yards from my room, and I watched in silence the endless, undulating masses of sand, glistening in the moonlight. I felt I needed the desert to leave behind my inane heartaches.
I saw the vast Egyptian desert and sensed its majesty and peace, but could bring little of it back with me.