The Sahara Desert translates to the Desert of the Desert (no wonder some Egyptians think foreigners can’t learn Arabic!)
I wrote this right after returning from Siwa, February 11. Please forgive the delay!
A lot of small poignant victories have happened over the last few days: I’ve now tackled the microbus and the tram. I’ve explored a remote Berber village with the whole crew: Sarah, Elise, Matt, Dhruv, and Moutaz. We’ve been covered in the Saharan sands. I’ve had my first meeting with my language partner. Finally, I’m understanding more and more of the words little kids said to us or about us when we were walking through the Siwan roads, sticking out like sunburnt and sore thumbs.
Though taking the microbus to class, sloppily jabbering away with my Egyptian language partner in a downtown café, exploring pockets of diverse domestic Egyptian culture like Siwa and thinking I have conservative dressing down pat, may feel like milestones towards understanding and melting into Egyptian culture, I had a simple reminder this morning that there is so much more that I don’t even know I don’t know yet. Casually stepping out of our apartment in a hijab after taking a weekend trip to Siwa, an Oasis in the middle of the Sahara, you could say I had an Egyptian swing in my step. We needed groceries and I was going over the list making sure I knew how to say the random vegetables and fruits in Arabic, when the front of the temporarily closed corner store came into view. I had perfectly timed my Egyptian grocery-run with the afternoon-call-to-prayer. Cleary, I’m not quite as attuned to the Egyptian daily rhythm as I had thought.
But setting aside the deflation of my premature Egyptian ego, as I’ve already eluded our trip to Siwa was an adventure! We took a 10 pm to 5 am bus ride along a cold desert road lite with lampposts, thick with military bases and training facilities, and peppered with the occasional cluster of rest stops. We shared music, ideas, and naps only snapping back to reality to glance out of the windows into the vacuum-ous black night and in response to the snake weaving forced by traffic barricades every so often. Once in Siwa, we walked around in a town that seemed flash-frozen just before dawn in a pause stretched out to infinity. We meandered the wrong direction without seeing a soul. Eventually the six of us clambered into the vestibule attached to a motorcycle (a larger scale a rickshaw) and warmed up for our four-wheeling on the patchwork road to the hotel. After rejoicing with a nap, we tore off into the desert.
We are taking a minute out of your normally scheduled programing to bring you this brief educational message:
- The Sahara is larger than 9,000,000 square kilometres or 3,500,000 square miles—in nation-state terms, it is almost as large as the continental US or the continent of Europe
- Extreme sand dunes can pile 180 m (600 ft) or essentially two lengths of football fields stretching into the sky.
The only reassurance I found while we were driving off of sand dunes edging to a 45 degree slope was that I couldn’t see any abandon cars jutting out of the sand or crumbled and dejected at the bottom—if the desert had defeated any it was at least courteous enough to clean up and prevent the car skeletons from marring the endless sands. The desert’s deceit (fittingly enough) consumed a lot of my apprehension and erupted as giddy appreciation of its magnificent beauty and power. Beyond surfing the sand mountains, we found sand dollars (sea cookie), remnants from 150-200 million years ago during the Jurassic Era. Egyptians tourists flock to the desert, ironically enough, to dip in the hot and cold water springs. We perched on top of a smooth ridge to watch the sun melt into the desert.
Next stop was the tented camp where we stayed the night. Our timing could not have been better planned for local Siwans were having celebration of music and dancing in a quilted tent. Without removing our shoes, in an attempt to peek in and dip out, we passed through the internal illuminated quilts and ended up dancing with the performers.
The true highlights of the trip came while stargazing, the part I was honestly looking most forward to! Matt and I were just chatting and breaking our necks, admiring the stars outside the tents when red smoke billowed, engulfing part of the starkly black sky, right over the only building in the area. Time stretched as we double tacked, and then began running towards the explosion. None of the local Siwans looked up at the explosion, but the deranged white foreigners running through the sand was the abnormal and noteworthy occurrence in the moment. Realizing we were the only two worried, and hearing no screams or groans, we turned bamboozled and flabbergasted back to the other side of camp. Quickly after that, the fighting wild dogs seemed to draw closer so we joined our already snoring comrades in the large sand warmed tent. We didn’t find out what the explosion was until the next morning per our own investigation: they were burning a pile of trash and plastic explodes when burnt.
One other tidbit: We walk through a Siwani berber market and all around the town. Out of 300 people, I saw 5 woman, only 2 of whom could I look in the eyes. The fully covered woman sat crosslegged in the beds of carts towed behind motorbikes. Since this I’ve been paying especially careful attention to where women are veiled, how they are, and which women. I am still trying to get used to walking into the women’s bathroom and finding veiled women adjusting their hijabs, niqabs, or burqas before re-emerging. I feel rude staring (so for the most part I don’t) but even just the mere logistics of putting different types on, their multitude of styles, and how they conduct themselves throughout their daily lives. I have seen women running around playfully in the park in Cairo just this weekend in hijabs and abyas, and I have worked out with women in a gym class while they work hijabs. I am keeping my eyes out to see a woman fully veiled in a burqa run after a pesky child. It must happen and I have so must anticipatory admiration for a woman that can negotiate with so much cloth after a blurr of a toddler. As you can undoubtedly gather, I am looking forward to reading about had discussing gender and Islam, as it is such a visual component and thus apart of everyone in Egypt’s daily world. However, we have much to cover before then (pun intended) as we currently stand in the 1500s through 1700s with the Safavid, Mongul, and Ottoman Empires. I am also planning on where a niqab for a week just to try it out from a cultural perspective. A post to look forward to, inshalla! Last night my sub-conscious went to work mulling over these last comments of mine on veiled woman, preoccupied with the chance that they might not be politically correct by American standards. So consumed with this pontification, this morning when my first alarm sounded, my brain justified my rolling over again by thinking well at least the way I turned off my alarm, and set my head on my pillow was culturally inquisitive and tolerant, such productivity! Perhaps I am at the apogee of conscious incompetency to the degree that I am even subconsciously on the alert for my own cultural incompetency.