Photos: 1 and 2: siwi women. 3. Mechanical problems in the Sahara.
Many years ago, when the circular tables of the Coratazar Cultural Center at Mar del Plata were circular and centered as petals boiling mind travelers craving to hit the road, any road, then Viqui would say that routine is as sad as a physic map of la Pampa Province. When I started walking south from the Mediterranean city of Marsa Matrouh to Siwa Oasis, inmersed 300 kms in the Sahara desert, I couldn’t less than remember Viqui’s metaphor: the desert is so featureless that the map is all whitness and quadrants organizers of the most absolute nothingness. A red line challenges that void: it’s the road that the government built in 1984 to abreviate to a 4 hours drive what used to be a week long camel trek. Alexander the Great, on his way along the same path to visit the Oracle of Amun in Siwa and confirm his sinship of Zeus, took 8 days for his trip, which according to history was rather uneventful, with the rulers of neighboring Cyrene (present day Lybia) sending him war horses as a present intended to show sympathy and discourage an attack from his behalf.
Exiting Matrouh, evidences of mankind reduce gradually until the Sahara gains all its magnitude. A quarry 40 kms away and some oil fields ahead allow for some traffic and gives pulse to the road. 20 minutes after I set off a quarry bound truck beats the roadside and lifts me. Its driver makes it clear from the beginning that here we are bedouins, in Cairo they are arabs. The next driver were also going to prove good examples of local mind. It was a pick up carrying two sheep, and the drivers were interested in knowing two things: first, if there was rain in my country; second, if there were arabs… The answer: (with rain and without arabs) let him shocked in awe and wondering the requeriments for a visa… It is also interesting to note that, while the bedouins themselves are ethnically arabs, they use the label arab to refer to the settled ones, in opposition to their semi nomadism.
Eaten away the last sandwich, I was only hoping to anchor my tiredness in some inhabited place… A tank truck forward me until the oil fields, where some angel had opened a tea house, where I could buy provisions. The tea house itself is a cubic structure outside which the owner (the angel) smokes shisha. One of the walls calls my attention, there is a giant graffitti of a Nokia mobile phone with realistic details of each numeral key. “Do you sell telephones?” – I asked surprised. No as an answer. I looked inside: biscuits, some bread, tea, final stop. The mural is just decoration, altough I would risk considering it a sort of amulet , icon of the prosper West, an almost magic artifact. The mobile phone is a clear example of the irrational pattern of globalization. The devices have arrived here more as a mandate than as an option, and are seen in hands of people and farmers who should have other priorities. At night the oil digs cheer up in light as tiny Eiffel Towers. I travel now in another truck, we horn to clear the road of camels… In Bir-el-Nuss, a well to which modernity has added a restaurant, I am allowed to sleep. It is midway.
During the morning I make an attempt (failed) to reach Qara Oasis, extremely isolated, 100 kms away from Bir-el-Nuss, which is already in the middle of nowhere. But I am asked for militar permits. Then I continue on to Siwa, contemplating with envy the nylon bags, the only beings to transit freely without documents and at full speed towards Qara. I start to note that I am not Alexander the Great: the Libyans didn’t come to offer me their war horses, and the two crows that showed the good way to Alexander (according to his yellow press paid court poets) must be guiding genuine emperors-to-be. After an hour of walking, and matching the context, a Land Rover stops. A man from Cairo who is building a hotel in Siwa. After a while the Lan Rover starts puffing, sand in the oil bomb, which we dismanteled with the aid of my MSR kitchen tool. As a result we reach Siwa by night.
If asked to describe Siwa, I shuld say that nothing I imagine can resemble more a miracle. After 300 kms of plain desert, of compact emptiness, it is hard to believe my eyes: for kilometers the palm trees don’t leave patch of sand at sight, only interrumtpes by two large blue lakes. On the streets the disbelief rises: people speak not arabic but siwi, a local bereber language. The people don’t look after any other I have ever since, and the are a synthesis of all the peoples that have roamed in the area: algerian bedouins, black people from Sudan, and arabs. Their skin is dark, their forehead high and broad, and finely curly hair. In top of that, one family is composed by blond blue eyed individuals…
Since the construction of the road-umbilical string, Siwa seems doomed to resign slowly its cultural uniqueness in favour of the Nokia and the moods of Cairo, Arabic has replaced Siwi at schools, and tourism rises as a kind of reparation prize, while the government forces the bedouins at neighboring Abu Shrouf village to leave their tents and move to houses. The siwans, however, promise to offer some resistance in this wrestling contest with the global village… Siwa continues to be a highly conservative townn and the few women who venture to the streets covere themselves from head to toe. Often they move in groups, over donkey drown karts. More than women they seem an apparition. The population continues to be divided in 11 tribes, and any new resident must suscribe one fo them. Regardless its curious mix of tradition and change, Siwa can praise itself of being, of all the place he could choose between, the spot where Alexander the Great demanded to be buried. With the sun falling behind the Oracle of Amun, I can consider the trip succesful. Bah… there is not such a thing as a failed trip: each step under the sun is unique and beautiful.