One of the great pleasures Alexandria has to offer is a morning walk on the Corniche. You can wander up and down, people-watching to your heart’s content, despite the constant flow of noisy traffic on the six-lane highway separating the seaside walkway from the rest of Alexandria.
You almost always see people fishing with incredibly long poles (I estimate they’re about 15 feet). But this morning we got to see something completely new to us: a large group of men wielding a huge net, and dragging their catch in to shore.
We stopped to watch when we saw about six men pulling on a rope that led out to sea. We had no idea what they were doing until we noticed a curving line of little red floats beyond the rope. One of the men saw us watching, and called out to Alan. He gestured eastward, saying that there was another group working with them. Sure enough, as we looked up the beach, we spotted another group, also pulling a rope. That’s when we realized the small red floats were holding a big net, and that this net was being managed not only by the onshore rope pullers, but also by two men in a small boat, way out in the water.
The men below us were enjoying the attention as we took photos and Alan chatted back and forth with them. We moved up the beach to watch what the other group was doing, then realized the two groups were beginning to move slowly towards one another to close the net.
As the two groups of men drew closer, they traded places and crossed their ropes in the water, drawing the huge net into a noose shape. Two men who’d been on the shore began to strip down, and dived into the water. One of these swimmers grabbed a net we had casually noticed before – it was gathered together, its small floats bunched like a bouquet of red flowers. The swimmer dove below the surface, and brought the smaller net up inside the large net. The second swimmer spread the net across the near end of the big noose.
The two swimmers stayed parallel to each other, treading water, holding the shorter net in place, as the two groups of men onshore continued to pull the big net in, drawing it together. As they pulled it in, they neatly tied off the incoming net at intervals with pieces of rope, turning it into a long bunched ponytail with decorative red bobbles.
It was wonderful watching these men working so quickly and nimbly, in a sequence and rhythm I recognized must be ages old. This method of net fishing has probably been used since people have been able to make small light boats and strong nets. At one time, the floats would have been made of glass, rather than plastic, and the onshore fishermen would have been wearing traditional loose pants rather than jeans and t-shirts. But otherwise, their methods and movements have probably been the same for centuries.
We noticed that the two swimmers were beating their palms and hands on the surface of the water in a very deliberate way as the net closed in. My guess is that the splashing was to discourage fish from swimming between the edges of the large and small nets, to keep them inside the noose.
Finally, in one swift movement, the men pulled the entire remaining net out of the water, landing it on the narrow shore. It was exhilarating to see it land, after all that effort.
I noticed a kind of blue perforated plastic bag at the center of the collapsed net, heaving as if it were being punched all over from the inside. I caught my breath, feeling the desperation of the trapped fish; the exhilaration of just a moment before deflated as suddenly as a punctured balloon.
Part of me wanted to look away, but I really wanted to see how good the catch was. Big plastic tubs at the ready, the men opened the net. Swift hands reached into the flashing silver heap, and scooped out perhaps two dozen large flopping fish, possibly 15 inches long. I saw one of the two swimming net-holders receive a few of the big fish; he put them in a bag and began pulling on his clothes.
The rest of the catch was all small fish that looked to be about the length of my hand — that, and a lot of plastic bags and other garbage, which the men quickly flung to one side.
Both Alan and I were surprised by the size of the haul. It didn’t seem like a lot of food after all that effort; we’d been watching the men, at least a dozen of them, for more than half an hour.
I jumped up on the sea wall to get a few pictures of the men emptying the net and distributing the catch. Alan, who’s a lot taller than I am, did much better with his camera, and took some of the photos I’m sharing here.
Despite my vegetarian misgivings, I was fascinated by this whole process – the first time I’d seen anything like it. And we weren’t the only ones. By the time the net came in, there was quite a crowd there with us on the Corniche: well-dressed people enjoying their Friday holiday, with enough time to stop and watch something that’s both ordinary and miraculous.
When I first read about the rebuilt Great Library of Alexandria years ago, I wanted to see it. But it never occurred to me that someday I’d be able to casually stroll there after breakfast.
That’s exactly what we did this morning, after enjoying a plate of fuul and some tomato-and-cheese salad at our favorite coffee shop. We walked along the Corniche, enjoying the morning breezes and watching fisherman casting their lines, until the Alexandria Library came into sight.
I wasn’t much of a history buff as a kid, but the Great Library of Alexandria caught my imagination at a certain point in my childhood. Public and school libraries were important places for me, so I imagined the Great Library of Alexandria as something between a fairytale palace full of treasure rooms, each filled with more glittering rarities than the last, and the high-ceilinged, wood-panelled library at Van Nuys Junior High School.
The Biblioteca Alexandrina was opened in late 2002. When I saw the photos and read about the vast ceiling, sloped towards the Mediterranean and with specially designed windows that let light flood in without admitting any rays that could damage the books, I felt my imagination stirred exactly as it was decades earlier. But now the place was real. Someday, perhaps, I could see it.
As we walked towards the library this morning, I stopped to take pictures of wall art near the library complex.
Mosaic of DaVinci’s rule of human proportions, near Alexandria Library.
Mosaic of Roman letters near Alexandria Library.
Mosaic of Arabic writing, gently sloped, near Alexandria Library.
The library’s plaza-like entrance invites the visitor to approach (despite the necessary security gates), and the entire structure slopes towards the Mediterranean, as if connecting the vast repository of human knowledge within to the world beyond the glittering sea.
When you first enter the library’s reading room, you really feel the power of the design. The vast space before you indicates wordlessly the immensity of human knowledge. Below the shelter of the sloping ceiling with its light wells, a series of terraces cascades hundreds of feet downward, each terrace holding a separate collection of books and rows of beautiful wooden tables and chairs for the people who come to read and study.
Within the vastness, the space available for reading, research and computer use feels intimate and comfortable. It’s just as I’ve always felt in the libraries I’ve loved most, when I take my chosen books to a table, and settle down for a couple of hours of reading pleasure.
There’s plenty of art in the library space, and many pieces are both beautiful and imaginative. We loved the bench that’s shaped like an open book, inscribed with several Shakespeare sonnets (including Sonnet No. 12). I also admired the busts of famous Egyptian writers.
Sitting on Shakespeare’s sonnets, including No. 12.
Busts of famous Egyptian writers.
It was after we left the building and went walking around the library that I got the sense of grandeur and grace I know the architects intended for the building’s exterior. I love the outside walls of the library, inscribed with many different scripts, both ancient and modern.
We ended our outing in the usual way: at a local coffee shop, sipping our drinks and watching people talking, laughing, smoking and passing the time, just as they have in Alexandria coffee shops for more than 200 years.
You can’t miss the Shali. As soon as you arrive in Siwa Town, you see it looming at the center of everything – a small mountain surrounded by an ancient city of mud houses melting together. It looks like it’s caught somewhere between a fairy tale and a futuristic sci-fi movie.
“Melting” is actually a pretty accurate description of the Shali. It’s the original settled town and fortress of Siwa Oasis, built in the 12th century on a base of rock and clustered around one of the melted-ice-cream-cone hills that are so characteristic of this oasis. The houses were all built out of kersheef, a combination of mud and huge hunks of salt harvested from Siwa’s dried-up salt lakes, with palm logs used as posts, headers, beams and other supporting elements. This traditional Siwa building method can still be seen all over the oasis, though many people are forgoing it in favor of white gypsum brick or more expensive red bricks.
It almost never rains in Siwa, but the Shali’s melted appearance is due to a three-day rainstorm in 1926 that caused a good many of the buildings in the Shali to collapse. That storm, plus subsequent rainstorms in 1930, 1970 and 1985, drove most inhabitants out of the Shali, and spurred the building of small satellite villages around the oasis, a pattern that continues today as the population grows and settlement spreads out further and further from the town center.
The half-ruined structures of the Shali create a fascinating, photogenic place to ramble through. You can follow winding paths through the Shali, and if you dare, climb through doorways and windows, hauling yourself up ledges. You can do this for days on end, always discovering something new: a spectacular view, a doorway you hadn’t seen before, a wall of windows that somehow has survived intact.
As you ramble, it becomes increasingly easy to imagine what this place looked like before it all melted away: narrow dark lanes between incredibly tall houses, whose walls contain warrens of small rooms.
There were passages built high up off the street between houses, too, so women could pass from one family home to another without going into the street. We’ve seen this same kind of building technique in Dakhla Oasis as well, and I found a surviving example of this on one of our walks near the downtown area.
We aren’t the only ones who enjoy exploring the Shali. Every evening we’ve been here in Siwa, we see people ascending the two peaks of the Shali to watch the sunset. One peak is the actual mountain/hill around which the Shali was built. The other peak is a section of the ruined houses that must have been especially high, as it looms above the ancient mosque of the Shali (the one built at the beginning of the 13th century – you can read more about it here).
This mosque has been restored carefully, and is considered the oldest mosque ever built of kersheef, the combination of mud and salt that is the traditional building material of Siwa. This old mosque is on the north end of the Shali, and the rest of the Shali spreads itself south from the mosque and between the two peaks. (And there are at least two more mosques in the Shali maze, both living mosques as well.)
The Shali is incredibly attractive to photograph, as you notice new things every time you visit. As the light changes throughout the day, the look of the Shali changes, too.
We have met quite a few interesting people as we’ve explored the Shali. Some are visitors, and some are residents, including a few foreigners who have invested in restoring old houses. An Italian man we met has made an exquisite, many-roomed rambling home out of a ruin, and is expanding further into adjacent houses he’s purchased. I admired how beautifully he’s furnished his house with traditional old furniture and Berber-patterned carpets. I also loved a painting he hung on one wall, unframed and with rough edges: vague outlines of human figures recede from foreground into the distance, all rendered in a wash of soft blue. The Italian was pleased that I noticed it; he likes it because it reminds him of “the souls of those who lived here, that we live with still.”
A house restored by a European owner.
A house with a rooftop garden, restored by a European owner.
A house under restoration, owned by a European.
These men are restoring the house.
There are other beautiful restorations here, some done by Europeans, others by Egyptians who have moved to Siwa. One old mosque is currently under restoration; we talked with the Egyptian structural engineer who’s supervising the project, and he took us up to the top of the minaret. It gave us some lovely views of the Shali all around us.
As we’ve been invited into different Shali houses, it becomes clear what an ongoing project these kersheef houses are. One foreigner living here showed us where a crack had opened up in one of the walls of her house when it last rained. She described how she scooped up the mud that the rain made from the bits of fallen wall, and how she stuffed the mud into the crack to repair it.
We stood the other day on one of the high points of the Shali, looking down the other at an expensively restored house owned by a foreigner. We noticed a long crack running horizontally across the decorative facing at the front of the house. Earlier, we’d been told that vertical cracks can be repaired, but horizontal cracks are a disaster, so we looked at each other and said, “horizontal” in a gloomy tone.
It’s not just the kersheef that’s vulnerable; the beautiful palm beams and posts in kersheef houses get attacked by white ants. Once that process has gone far enough, you have to replace the affected wood, and the wood around it. This reminded me of dealing with dry rot in the house we had in Wales years ago; it wasn’t a fun process.
With the various states of repair and disrepair, sometimes it’s hard to figure out whether a place is inhabited or not. A lock on a weathered wood or rusted metal door can mean it’s a residence, or that the space inside is used for storage…..or that someone simply locked it and forgot about it.
The simpler homes we’ve been invited into provide a contrast to the beautifully furnished and appointed houses of the foreigners. Non-wealthy Siwan residents fix windows with any scrap wood that comes to hand, or fill in unneeded windows with stones. Any carpets on the floor are old and worn, and were not chosen for their beauty and authenticity. In one home we were invited to visit, I noticed that nails driven into the walls served as hooks for hanging clothes, implements and a cell phone in a fabric bag. There was very little electricity, and the wires that had been run in were simply stapled to the wall with nails – the family didn’t bother to bury the wires in the wall, as foreign owners do to preserve the beauty of the mud-surface walls. The lady who invited us in showed us around the house, and I wasn’t sure why until she sat us down and showed me a couple of embroidered dresses. I wasn’t interested in buying them, so as she showed us out, she asked me for money. I gave her a little, and as we walked away, I could hear a woman across the way arguing with our hostess, demanding some of whatever we’d given.
We’ve had some other interesting encounters with people in the Shali. There’s one kindly old man who always greets us politely, shaking hands. I am pretty sure he’s blind, but I am also sure he knows exactly who we are, which I find interesting.
Another old man we met in the Shali informed me within minutes that he wanted to marry me. A local man who was chatting with us at the time pointed Alan out to the would-be groom, and told him I was already married. He also told us this old man already has three wives, so Alan offered the would-be groom an exchange. Delighted with the jesting, the old man grasped Alan’s hand and laughed so hard, I could just about count his few remaining teeth.
When you read guidebooks or travel websites describing activities around Siwa Oasis, it’s easy to overlook that this area is largely agricultural. Most Siwa residents spend their days caring for crops – olive trees, date palms, vegetables, guava, nehbak and pomegranate trees, a bit of emmer wheat and forage crops for the animals. People here also keep domestic animals for their meat, milk or labor – sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, pigeons, cows, donkeys and horses – and the animals, too, require care.
We enjoy wandering around the small back roads of the oasis and seeing all this agricultural life. Just a few minutes from downtown Siwa, you soon find yourself on some narrow, bumpy dirt road that curves through palm groves and around natural springs with big round wells built around them, some with stonework from Roman times. A lot of the time you’re alone, or you might run into a farmer (or a few kids) on a donkey cart.
You can walk through the palm gardens themselves, as the Siwans call them. No one will mind, or try to stop you. Dates are ripe for harvesting in October, so right now, in late March, it’s all about maintenance – sawing off old palm fronds and piling them up for burning; digging and weeding; trimming the olive and fruit trees.
Men dig up the small palm trees that sprout out from the base of their mother plant, to plant in other gardens. These will yield fruit years earlier than palm plants that start from seed, and I have been told they yield better fruit. This is also the time of year when men climb into one tree after another, hand-pollinating the acid-yellow flowers of each female palm with a bunch of flowers from a male palm.
The men working high in the trees seldom call out to us, and we’d never try to start a conversation with them; it’s just too dangerous. But we’re happy to chat with people working on the ground. We exchange polite greetings – “salaam aleikum, or “sabah al-kheer” – and occasionally get invited to tour someone’s garden, or settle down for a chat. We sit on the edge of a bund with our host, and while Alan practices his Arabic, I look up at the bits of blue sky between the overcrossing palm fronds, and listen to the palm doves cooing high above the human voices.
Time slows while we’re rambling through the palm gardens. Peace is upon us as walk carefully along the bunds, cross palm-log bridges over irrigation channels, and point out fish and frogs to each other. The palm gardens have their own soundscape, composed of wind in the palm leaves, the soft cooing of doves, and the surprisingly varied sounds the frogs make – singing one minute, croaking the next. These gentle sounds wrap around us like a soft Siwan shawl, insulating us from the mechanical growling of motorcycles and tuk-tuks passing on roads just twenty or thirty meters away.
You’d think the most peaceful groves would be those the furthest away from town, but that’s not really the case. The oldest gardens, those with tall trees more than 100 years old, are pretty close in to town. As you move further out, the gardens tend to be newer, so the trees are shorter, and the landscape more open to the sky. These are beautiful in their own way, of course, and we explore them, too.
I am constantly tempted by the bunches of dates that still hang from some of the trees, months after the last harvest. I gauge whether they’re close enough for me to reach, prompting Alan to refer to “low-hanging fruit.” I reach carefully around the sharp thorns on the palm-frond stems, and carefully pick the softest-looking dates I can find. I dust each one off with a tissue (or the hem of my shirt, if I’ve run out of tissues), and open each date in turn to check for insects before I pop it into my mouth. The taste of these dates, dried by the sun and wind, is extraordinary, at least to my palate – much richer in flavor than the very same dates after they’ve been processed and packaged in one of the local date factories.
When I asked Yusuf, the owner of the hotel where we’re staying, if it’s okay to pluck these dates, he said, “No one will be angry you take three, five, seven dates.” “What about 30?” I asked. He laughed, and said, “Even 30. These are left for give to animals,” meaning donkeys, mostly. “But you come in October,” Yusuf said, “when dates fresh. Oh my God, with yogurt, so good. People working in harvest time, they eat all day, not want dinner.”
The palms of Siwa provide a lot more than fruit to the people of the oasis. Palm logs have been used as posts, headers and beams for hundreds of years, at least, and palm-log ceilings are one of the features of new buildings designed to evoke Siwa’s past. People make furniture from palm wood, weave baskets of all kinds from the leaves of the fronds, and use entire fronds to build fences and other enclosures.
One friend who’s lived in Siwa Oasis for 17 years told us that the Siwans sometimes cut the living trunk of a palm and gather the sap that drips out overnight, collecting it before dawn. She says it has an amazing taste and medicinal properties, but only if you drink the liquid right away, before the sun rises.
I’ve read that people eat palm blossoms, which seems a real indulgence – eating blossoms that could otherwise become fruit. But there’s such a bewildering abundance in the palm groves, maybe it makes sense. Dates lie everywhere in the palms, uncollected, being slowly consumed by insects, decaying into the soil and enriching it. It’s been like this for thousands of years, I am sure.
Palms are some of the most ancient plants on earth – Wikipedia tells me that there are fossilized remains of palms from 50 million years ago, and palms are known to have been cultivated in eastern Arabia between 5530 and 5320 BCE.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that we get such pleasure from wandering amidst these tall beings that have given us sustenance for so many centuries. They reach to the sky, and when they collapse sometimes, people prop them up with pieces of palm log. “We say she is praying,” says Yusuf, when we point to the leaning, supported palms in his garden. That seems about right.
On the way out to Taghagheen Island to watch the sunset with our friends Amal and Ahmed one evening, Alan noticed that there were tombs and interesting formations along the line of hills at the north edge of Siwa Oasis. “It’s not really all that far from town,” he said to me. “We could bike out here and hike around these hills.”
That’s exactly what we did. Yesterday morning we equipped ourselves with roasted salted peanuts, dates and lots of water, then rented bikes at a place right next to the Shali. It was so much fun to get back on a bike, even though the main roads in Siwa Town are filled with potholes, stone, sandy patches and 11-year-olds driving three-wheelers (not to mention the hotshots of all ages on motorcycles!).
It took less than five minutes to leave the downtown area and relax into a peaceful, scenic ride. We turned left at the date factory and pedaled through quiet villages and palm groves for about 35 minutes, until we found a spot that looked just right for hiking, with what looked like a gentle sand slope leading up to a colorful cliff with square-cut tomb openings. We pushed our bikes along bund paths running through a date farm, and parked them next to a fence made of palm leaves.
The farm where we parked was very pretty, though no one was there. I got the feeling that the person who owns it comes out to tend things perhaps once a week.
We set off up a valley towards the cliff and tombs, then started scrambling up the sandy slope. It wasn’t steep, but it wasn’t easy, either. My shoes quickly filled with sand, and it was the one-step-forward, two-steps-back pace for a while.
Eventually though, we got up onto the cliff, and began to explore the tombs. Of course, people in search of treasure had been there before, and cleared most of the tombs. We saw a few where people had tried to penetrate the inner chamber, but then abandoned the effort. I’m guessing that’s because these were the tombs of poor people, and all the opened tombs yielded nothing but bones.
Three of the tombs in the cliff edge.
Bones scattered in front of an opened tomb.
We spent the rest of the day wandering in and among some amazing rock formations. Just like at Gebel el Dakrur, they are sculpted by wind and water, but in this part of the oasis, the rocks are even more spectacular.
We also found way, way more marine fossils here than at Gebel el Dakrur.
My favorite find was probably the shards of a layered, clear, glass-like substance. I don’t know if this is shellfish remains compressed to another state, or sand compressed into glass, or what. But it is completely fascinating and amazing to pick up chunks of a mica-like substance and see it flake into layers of transparent material.
Whenever we lifted our eyes from tiny details, there were spectacular views across the oasis, very different from those you see at Gebel el Dakrur – even though it was a really cloudy day.
We’re enjoying how easy it is to explore Siwa Oasis on foot. You can walk to many fascinating landmarks, monuments and springs around the oasis, including Gebel el Dakrur, a collection of peaks that stands out in the desert landscape.
Gebel el Dakrur is not terribly far from where we stay – a little over three kilometers – but we like to take the longer, more picturesque way, so it can take us as long as an hour to reach it.
As you approach Gebel el Dakrur from nearby Cleopatra Spring (one of the most famous bathing spots in the oasis), you see a mosque and a collection of buildings, some in use, some seemingly abandoned, and quite a few falling to ruin. There are also a couple of big, open fields with signs of cooking fires. This is the location of Eid al Siyaha, the yearly festival of peace and friendship that’s held every autumn in Siwa Oasis.
Several people have told us about Eid al Siyaha, and you can find videos of it on YouTube. It is a three-day event to which all Siwans are invited. Adult women stay home, but even so, that’s a lot of people – the population of Siwa Oasis is said to be about 27,000. Siwans take part in religious celebrations and rituals meant to bind everyone together in a spirit of sharing and fellowship. Abubakr, the gentleman who looks after the Siwa House museum, explained it to us this way: “Perhaps I have a disagreement with someone. We shake hands and say, ‘okay, it’s finished.’ But something remains in the heart. Then at Eid al Siyaha, we see each other, we embrace and kiss each other, and our hearts are cleaned. Everything is clean.”
Yusuf, the owner of the place where we’re staying, has told us about how much fun the festival is. People sleep out under the stars for the duration of the festival, there’s lots of food, and Sufis come to lead the singing and chanting. The men of the village donate huge amounts of food, enough to feed everyone, and also do all the cooking for everyone. It’s all volunteer labor, and a huge collaborative effort. “You feel very good there,” Yusuf said.
At this time of year, though, Gebel el Dakrur is pretty much empty of people, and feels very quiet as you approach. Drawn by the changing colors of the peaks, and their fantastical shapes sculpted by wind, we climbed up slowly the first time, inspecting the variations in the rock, and noticing seams of white running horizontally between layers. Some of it was crumbling away, and soon we realized we were looking at fossils of seashells, compressed into layers of white crumbly material between the layers of sandlike stone.
Scattered on the ground around us, and clustered against rocks, were fossilized bivalve shells with strongly marked ridges, and even more that were irregular in shape, like oyster shells we’ve seen on beaches.
Cluster of marine fossils
We were both thrilled when we found fossils of sand dollars, just like we’re thrilled when we find sand dollars on the beach in Oregon.
I even found a fossil of undersea foliage, with delicate veining.
While the fossils remind you how ancient life on Earth really is, you also get reminders that human beings have been here in the desert and oasis for a long time. Like many of the mountains around the oasis, Gebel el Dakrur has a number of old tombs. Unlike some of the tombs at Gebel al Mawta to the northeast of downtown Siwa, there aren’t any paintings left (or at least, none have been identified as far as I know), but the tombs are interesting anyway.
The largest tomb we entered had some interesting graffiti near the entrance.
Besides the fossils and tombs, Gebel el Dakrur offers spectacular views of the entire oasis, in every direction. To the south is the Great Sand Sea of the Sahara; to the east, there’s the huge salt lake and a number of villages, some inhabited, some abandoned. To the north are spectacular hills, and to the west, another huge salt lake, and less than 50 kilometers beyond that, the Libyan border.
It’s uncanny to look around you at open desert landscape, with palm groves and mud-walled villages dotted for kilometers around, and know that it was once the bed of an ocean. That seems to explain the deep layers of salt in the soil that the Siwi people have dug up to use as building materials over the past few centuries. Today, salt is dug and harvested to be shipped to Europe for de-icing roads, or to be crafted into salt lamps and salt rooms. The salt lakes of Siwa are growing larger as salt water seeps up from the water table, encroaching on both desert and cultivated land. Perhaps the ocean is stealthily returning. Someday, in a far-distant century, divers could discover signs of a lost civilization – a new Atlantis – in the place once known as the Libyan Desert.
As you stand on the peaks of Gebel el Dakrur, winds gust around you, seizing your scarf and blasting dust into your face. Surrounded by tombs, standing on untold billions of fossils of long-dead creatures, and buffeted by mischievous winds, it’s easy to understand why Gebel el Dakrur has a local reputation for being inhabited by afrit, or demons. The first time we climbed one of the peaks, we could see a dark cloudlike haze gathering on the horizon, shrouding some of the distant view. It brewed up into a dark, dramatic sandstorm by early evening; later, as we sipped tea in the town square, we saw the sun disappear into the sandstorm, more than half an hour before sunset. The wind funneled down the narrow main street of Siwa Town, blasting election posters with dust, tossing loose rubbish into the air, and chasing the few remaining donkey carts and three-wheelers making quickly for home.
We lived in Khartoum for six weeks. It was supposed to be six months, but as they say, life happens.
When we signed up last year for the Sudan Volunteer Programme, it seemed like an ideal choice as part of our three-year plan to live and volunteer in cultures unfamiliar to us. We’d been reading for a while about SVP, a nonprofit organization that’s been placing volunteer English teachers in Sudanese universities for more than 20 years. We liked the idea of staying in Sudan for months, not just weeks. Alan had wanted to live in an Arabic-speaking country for some time; I wanted the chance to get to know people in a culture wholly different from any I’d known before; and we both wanted to do something purposeful and helpful. We figured that being part of an organized program, and part of a university community, would give us the chance to do all of that.
This turned out to be true, and our experiences actually surpassed our expectations. While we found the first days in Omdurman and Khartoum bewildering, we soon got used to getting around by bus and masallat, figured out where to buy groceries, and discovered interesting places to visit and for our daily walks. We got to know our housemates and other SVP volunteers, and enjoyed their company. We visited a couple of English classes taught by the Khartoum director of SVP, and soon after began to work at our respective universities. It was great getting to know our students, fellow faculty members, and some of our neighbors in Morada, the district of Omdurman where the SVP house we lived in is located.
MTN card seller in Morada. I love his hat, made of MTN cards.
Street scene in Omdurman.
What we couldn’t reckon with was the bureaucracy. Every foreigner who wants to live or work in Sudan for an extended period of time must have a residency permit, and we hit a bureaucratic snag with our residency application. It brought our time in Sudan to a sudden and sad end. (There’s a longer, more detailed story of what happened, but I’m not going to get into it now.)
I wish we’d had the full six months in Sudan. I was just starting to get to know my first-year and fourth-year students, to understand what type of material they could read and enjoy in English, and which topics were fun for them to discuss. I had some wonderful discussions with the fifth-year students who were assigned to help me with my work, and some great conversations with the other faculty members in the English department. I was settling into a companionable, productive working relationship with my “boss,” the head of the English department. Alan was working with first-year students at his university, and was impressed with their intelligence and diligence.
We were also looking forward to seeing more of Sudan. We’d already been to Bajarawiya to visit the Merowe pyramids, and when we got the news we had to leave Sudan immediately, we were just about to leave for a weekend visit to one of our fellow volunteers in Merowe near Karima (“the other Merowe” – there are a few Merowes in Sudan). We’d hoped to see Dongola, especially Old Dongola, and the holy mountain of Jebel Barkal, and other interesting locations. We had hoped at the end of our volunteer gig to travel overland to Egypt via Wadi Halfa.
Though there is so much we didn’t get to do in Sudan, the six weeks we did get to spend there were just packed with wonderful experiences. We got to explore Omdurman and its amazing souk, see the Sufi worship at Hamid El Nil (twice), enjoy some beautiful music and meet lovely people.
Here are some things I can say about Sudan, even after such a short time.
Sudanese people are incredibly hospitable and warm
Sudanese people are some of the most open, warm and welcoming I’ve ever met. Traveling in places where we look really different from the local people, we’ve received a lot of stares. Sometimes this gets uncomfortable. In India, before we came to Sudan, I learned to turn that around by smiling warmly at anyone staring at me, and offering them a greeting. This usually shifted the mood from unfriendly-seeming scrutiny to friendly interaction. Not 100 percent of the time, but often enough that I did it more and more as time went along.
In Sudan, that shift from curious scrutiny to warmth and friendliness happens really fast. In fact, we often didn’t need to initiate it; people would just walk over and greet us, welcome us to Sudan and ask us where we were from. Instead of shying away from these approaches, we welcomed them. Especially during our long daily walks in Morada and Omdurman, we felt we were guests in people’s living rooms, and strove to behave accordingly. After all, a neighborhood really is a little village, with public spaces where people gather to chat, play football or backgammon (depending on their ages), shop, drink tea, share food, and hold events like weddings or funerals. So when people called out to us, we made sure to take the time to stop, answer their questions, extend the conversation – and generally, assure people that we were friendly, and happy to offer our names and reason for being there.
But we didn’t do this just to reassure people we were okay. We got a lot out of these conversations. Alan’s Arabic became rapidly more fluid, and he was able to expand his active vocabulary. While I don’t speak much Arabic, I did get to learn a little more this way, and I really enjoyed watching people indulge their curiosity about us, laugh and exclaim at the wonder of a foreigner speaking Arabic. As conversations got longer, we began to learn things about the places and people around us from those whose world we had entered – and that they so kindly welcomed us into.
Sudanese care deeply about education
Despite being warned by a few people (all Sudanese) that “Sudanese students are lazy,” our experiences were the opposite. For example, Alan had one very early morning class at his university – it started at 7:00 AM – and he told me that several of his students had to wake up at unthinkable hours to arrive on time. One student had to travel so far from home, she was getting up at 3:00 AM. “With students like that, you really feel you need to do your best for them,” he said.
My students were all training to become teachers, so they were particularly interested in education. Many came from families where they were in the first generation to even consider getting a university degree, and they wanted not only to educate themselves, but to educate others. “A teacher changes lives,” was something quite a few students said to me, in one way or another.
I found my students were very supportive of each other. They studied together, shared notes, and praised each other’s accomplishments to me (while the praised one would look embarrassed and pleased). They were curious about me, so I answered their questions about my own education, my children and my life in America, without any hesitation. And I asked equally personal questions of them, as carefully as I could – only to discover that my students were eager to share the details of their lives, to share their beliefs, their hopes for the future, and their frustrations. I had expected to have to step carefully around topics like religion, politics, love and marriage, and family dynamics, but even with that care, I was lucky enough to hear a lot of fascinating personal stories. I’m grateful to have received so much.
Sudanese know how their country is perceived in the world
Something that really touched me over and over again was people’s responses when they asked us what we thought of Sudan. They’d ask the question, and you could see them almost bracing themselves to hear something negative. After all, Sudanese are well aware of the economic sanctions imposed on Sudan by the United States, and of their country’s designation as a sponsor of terrorism. They know their country is poorer than many in Africa, and certainly poorer than Europe and the United States, and you can feel in people a sensitivity, a feeling of being regarded as lesser.
So when we’d answer enthusiastically, “Sudan is beautiful. It’s a wonderful place. We are so happy to be here,” it was both heartbreaking and lovely to see faces light up with pleasure. Smiles would break into wide grins, handshakes would be exchanged, and invitations to drink tea would pour forth.
Sudanese love to share food, opinions, and confidences
Just in our first few days, we observed that sharing is a core part of Sudanese life. When you order ful (deliciously prepared fava beans), for example, you get a big bowl of it placed on the table, along with a stack of round breads. Everyone eats from the same bowl, breaking off pieces of bread to scoop up the food. And if you seem to be eating less than your share, people urge you to eat more.
It’s completely normal for people to call out to you as you pass them on the street, and invite you to eat with them, or join them for tea or coffee. “Tfaddel,” they call out “Welcome” – and they mean it. You actually have to stop and give people a reason you’re not eating with them right now, in order to avoid seeming rude. We used to simply say where we were going, and then wish people their good health.
One lady enjoying an after-work tea at a teashop near our house offered us some biscuits to go with our drinks. We accepted, and Alan chatted with her in Arabic. When it was time for us to leave, I paid the tea lady for her customer’s tea, as well as ours – “Talata,” I said (“three”) gesturing to indicate the customer, Alan and me. Both ladies looked very pleased, and from them on, that tea lady was always very happy to see us, whether we stopped to buy tea from her or not. I felt that finally I had done something culturally correct.
One of our most interesting conversations happened when three young medical students invited us to join them for lunch. We had just finished our lunch of ful and salad, and were standing at the cash desk, trying to order juice. One of the young women had excellent English, and helped us understand that one of the juice options was a local fruit, one we’d never heard of. “It’s healthy,” she said. “Full of iron.”
Once we’d ordered, the young woman invited us to sit down and eat with her and her friends. We’d already had lunch, we explained, “but we will be happy to sit with you.” As they ate, and we drank our juice, the three young women told us they are in their final year of medical residency. After that, they would go into another residency for whatever specialties they chose.
The young doctor with the most English was also the boldest with her questions. Like many people we’ve met, she wondered if we were married, and we explained that yes, we’ve been married for more than 30 years, and “our children are older than you.” This quickly veered into the students’ own views on marriage, and their prospects.
“Sudanese men say they want a working wife,” the young doctor said to us. “But they don’t want to do the work of home.” A near-universal complaint, I think. What got even more interesting was the topic of multiple wives. “Men are allowed to have a second wife, even four wives,” the doctors told us. “But women do not like this. They do not want to share a husband with anyone.”
This very frank conversation wasn’t unique while we were in Sudan. I made friends with a young woman who works close to the Morada house, for example, and she shared a lot of confidences with me about her love life. I should not have been surprised to discover that young people in Sudan want the same things as young people everywhere: to have a happy life with the partner of their choice, to have fun, and to enjoy some ease and affluence. But I did have some surprise that romance was such a huge topic for my young friend, and for the students at my university. I had expected that a conservative, religious society would constrain people’s actions, and to some extent, it does. But it does not constrain their hearts.
Always expect the unexpected
This isn’t just about Sudan, but about traveling in general…and really, about life in general. We make a lot of plans; we make reservations, we compare timetables and prices, we plot out timelines for length of visit and arrivals and departures. We make these plans hoping for and expecting good experiences, and mostly, that’s what we’ve been lucky enough to have.
We planned our Sudan volunteer gig as carefully as possible. We had all the recommended injections, we brought Arabic books and purchased laptops for teaching. We studied the teaching resources provided by SVP, and prepared to ramp up quickly as teachers, since neither of us had taught for a number of years. Once we arrived in Omdurman, and discovered that neither of our universities could provide us with a curriculum, we collaborated with other SVP volunteers and with each other to create lesson plans.
What we didn’t expect – and did not plan for – was to have it all cut short so abruptly. In the days between learning we had to leave and actually going, I felt dazed. We didn’t know what “immediately” meant, so we packed nearly everything, leaving out only what we’d need for the next day or two. Day by day, we waited to hear what we had to do next to comply with the authorities. We took long walks (always carrying our mobile phones), and I told myself to just enjoy everything, because this was the last time we would see or do it. We continued to answer people’s questions about what we were doing here in Sudan – “we are English teachers” – because we didn’t know what else to say. The hardest part was hearing from a few of my students who knew what was going on. They sent me urgent messages on WhatsApp – “Why do you have to leave? When will you come back?” Some of the messages were very affectionate, touching me and making me sadder.
When we left the United States in September, we had committed to each other that we’d travel for three years, looking for opportunities to do meaningful things, opening ourselves to each culture we arrive in. We chose the volunteer program in Sudan because we hoped for the chance to stay for a long time, and to learn about a place entirely unknown to us.
Even in the short time we stayed in Omdurman, we did get a lot of what we wanted. Alan got a lot more facility in conversational Arabic. I got to know people I would never have met otherwise. Hard as it was to leave, those experiences are forever part of us. Now that we’re here in Siwa, I see that Alan’s comfort with Arabic continues to grow. And I see that I have learned to be more open and receptive to people’s invitations, to their offers of friendship. That is Sudan’s gift to us. I hope we gave something equally good to the people we met there.
Hijab, niqab, burqa: The issue of women’s bodies, and how much it’s okay to show – or not – resonates with almost everyone I know, no matter what their religion, nationality or gender.
As for me, I have always felt it’s important to respect every woman’s choice, even if I’m not sure just how much choice she actually has. And personally, I have never wanted to show much skin, even growing up in sunny beach-culture Southern California.
The one thing I have always cared about is connecting with other people. That happens with a smile, a greeting, and especially with the meeting of the eyes.
Recently in Sudan, I had the chance to make friends with several women who wore niqab – the face veil that conceals everything but the eyes. I quickly discovered that I could see each of these women smiling at me, and that we could connect easily, because the eyes are such a powerful channel for reaching and touching each other. That said, I was so pleased when each of these niqab-wearing women chose the moment for me to see her face. It was an act of trust and friendship each time, one that touched my heart.
Arriving in Siwa Oasis a few days ago, I noticed women wearing a full face covering. These Siwan women wear a distinctive gray patterned shawl draped over their heads, with a long piece of black cloth hanging right in front of the face.
The sight of these fully veiled women startled me in a way that niqab-wearing women never have. I felt I was looking at ghosts, that inside each gray shawl was an eerie non-presence – that the real person inside the veil had been obliterated.
Almost immediately, I pushed back against this feeling. No, I told myself. She can hide herself if she wants to, but I am not going to ignore her. She is a presence; she is there.
Everywhere I have gone on this trip so far, people have stared at me, sometimes with open curiosity (especially children), but often with a still, blank look on their faces. At first, this made me uncomfortable, but I quickly decided I would respond with a smile straight into the person’s eyes, and with an appropriate greeting. I started out with “vanakkam” in Tamil Nadu, then “namaste” in Andhra Pradesh, then “salaam aleikum” in Sudan and Egypt. Everywhere I have done this, the result has been the same: A sudden, startled smile, a light springing into the eyes, and a return of my greeting. And quite often, the person or group of people will stop, ask us where we’re from, and chat for a few minutes. (Especially true in Sudan and in Siwa.)
So I decided to do the same thing with the fully veiled women here in Siwa. Now as I pass a woman, or women, I smile not only at the babies and children, but at each woman, too. I look straight into where I feel her eyes are, as if my eyes and my smile could penetrate that dark blankness and connect to her eyes, looking out at me.
Today, for the first time, I received my reward. Three fully veiled women passed us below the Shali this morning, each carrying a small child. I smiled at the adorable toddler in one lady’s arms, and at her older child, and then I looked straight into her face, as if to tell her: Your children are lovely, and so are you. “Sabah al kheer,” I said – “good morning” – and raised my hand in a wave. She waved back.
Today, our third full day in Siwa Oasis, we decided to take it easy and walk a short loop through date groves to the temple of the oracle, located in Aghurmi village, then on to Cleopatra’s Pool and back to town. It is indeed a short loop – just 7 kilometers – but with all the stopping to look at ruins and springs, to take photos and enjoy a cup of tea along the way, we were out walking and looking around for almost five hours.
It’s fun walking on the small roads in this part of Siwa Oasis. Despite all the motorcycles and motorcycle-trucks, the morning was quiet. We heard and saw a lot of birds of various types. The only one I recognize so far is the palm dove. There are loads of these beautiful mauve-and-blue doves in the palm groves, and their soft cooing adds a gentle note to the atmosphere of the oasis.
The temple of the oracle is just 2.2 kilometers from where we’re staying. This is the famous oracle that Alexander the Great consulted in 331 B.C. – the one that told him he was the son of Amun, an important god of the time – but the temple is considerably older than that. It’s said to have been built in the sixth century B.C. Parts of the temple are blocked off to visitors, but there are great views of the oasis all around.
Before we got to the temple of the oracle, we stopped at a beautiful spring called the Bride’s Spring. Mahdi Hweiti, the guide who took us on a car tour of the oasis yesterday, told us that this is where brides used to bathe before their marriages, but now the tradition has been somewhat abbreviated to include just a simple face-wash. It is certainly a beautiful location, with palm trees all around, interesting rock walls visible below the surface, and bubbles rising from the pool’s azure depths.
Next, we stopped at a building that looked official, and Alan translated the sign (roughly) as “the administrative center for nature.” We went in, and in fact, he was exactly right: This is the center for administering the protected areas of Siwa. We chatted with Ali, who works at the center, and he gave us a nice short guidebook to Siwa Oasis that includes information about the indigenous animals of the oasis. (It’s called Siwa Protected Area and the Old Town of Shali, by Gabriel Mikhail.) The environmental agency also has an office in the center of Siwa Town, close to the bank and the tourist office, and you can pick up the same little booklet there.
After the temple of the oracle, it’s just a short walk to the temple of Amun, or the temple of Umm Obeidah (which translates as “the mother of Obeidah”). There’s been a little bit of restoration here, so you can see some of the pharonic carvings that have survived, but there isn’t a lot left. As at many ancient sites in the oasis, well-cut stones have been carried away over the centuries to provide strong foundations for people’s building projects.
The next landmark was Cleopatra’s Spring, a place that’s apparently popular with tourists for bathing. Unlike the other springs we’ve seen so far, this one has several souvenir shops and a couple of restaurants surrounding it, and the local shop owners keep the surface of the pool free of algae.
The shops offer colorful rugs, clothing and other items – all very attractive and decorative, hung in the bright sunshine – and the restaurant where we stopped for tea is also beautifully decorated with traditional basketry, rugs and old Siwan agricultural tools. We tried Siwan tea, quite different from normal black tea, and talked with Omaima, a young woman from Alexandria who’s been living in Siwa for about a year. Like lots of people here, both Egyptian and Siwan, she caters to the tourist trade with handmade and traditional items (she showed me some nice-smelling homemade olive oil soap).
There’s a real movement here towards building ecologically sensitive lodges and hotels, often drawing on the soft, organic lines of traditional mud-plastered Siwan houses. The owners furnish these places with beautifully made palm-wood furniture, rugs and blankets of Berber design, and other traditionally crafted touches. It makes for a warm, inviting aesthetic.
As we walked on from tasteful Cleopatra’s Spring, we circled the Gebel al Dakrour, where people go to get hot-sand treatments for all kinds of conditions, apparently including rheumatism, erectile dysfunction, arthritis and hemorrhoids.
We soon entered the outskirts of Siwa Town. This is the less tourist-pleasing part of Siwa. Houses here are either in the old style construction of kersheef (chunks of salt mixed with rock and mud) with palm-log beams and headers, and a finishing coat of mud plastering. This type of construction is very strong, until there’s a period of heavy rain, which happens once a decade or so. A good soaking can melt a kersheef house into unusability, which is what happened in 1926, when the central old city – the Shali, Siwa’s most famous landmark – became uninhabitable.
Many of the old-style houses are crumbling away, and are being replaced by houses made of a newer material – white limestone bricks. These bricks have become popular throughout Siwa Oasis, because it’s inexpensive and lasts well. It doesn’t have the organic beauty of the older materials, though.
The streets in this part of Siwa Town haven’t been remade with asphalt yet, and like all earthen streets, they are riven with ruts made when vehicles drive over wet soil. Here in Siwa, that doesn’t usually mean rain; the ground normally gets wet when it becomes soaked with seepage from the oasis’ near-the-surface water table.
Despite being less pretty than other parts of the oasis, the humble town streets are fun to walk, because the people we encounter here are friendly, and enjoy a little interaction with the foreigners. They enjoy it even more once they figure out that Alan speaks some Arabic, and the conversation can go beyond, “Where from?”
We finished up our walk feeling a little tired and hot. It was a pleasure to enter the garden where we’re staying, to wash some cucumbers, carrots and fruit for lunch, and rest in the shade of the palms. There’s also plenty of entertainment to be had from the resident kittens and the hotel manager’s children and their cousins, who use the large garden as their playground.
After our abrupt departure from Sudan, we were glad to land in Cairo, a city we’ve enjoyed since our first visit in 2013. We’ve been walking around some of our favorite places, remarking on what’s changed and what hasn’t. A big highlight of this visit was the chance to see our friends Tom and Linda, who spend three months of every year here in Cairo.
We met up in Khan el Khalili, a famous souk located by El Hussein Mosque and Al Azhar Mosque. After dinner, we ambled down to one of the pleasant pedestrian streets in Khan el Khalili to enjoy tea, juice and more chat. Plus, of course, Tom’s humorous interactions with the vendors who frequent the coffee shops of Cairo. Here, Tom is negotiating for a new wallet. I do admire his bargaining skills, honed by years of living in Cairo.
We first got to know Tom and Linda when we started planning our first trip to Egypt. It was not long after the Egyptian revolution of 2011, and we wondered whether conditions were safe enough to enjoy Cairo, and to travel in other parts of the country. I got online and looked for blogs in English, and found Tom’s Travel Blog **. It was full of detailed posts about Egypt (and lots of other places, too), and the entries were recent. So I wrote to Tom, and after some back and forth, Alan and I felt confident that it would be perfectly okay to go forward with our plans.
Tom and Linda invited us for a day out during our March 2013 visit – and what a wonderful, memorable day it was! We visited the Ibn Tulun mosque, one of the most beautiful and atmospheric I’ve ever seen; the Gayer-Anderson Museum next door to the mosque; walked up to the Citadel for incomparable views of Cairo; toured the Northern Cemeteries; and finally ended up at Khan el Khalili for a lovely dinner at El Ahd El Gaded, a well-known restaurant located in an ancient building, and filled with interesting modern art.
It was both fun and comforting to meet up with Tom and Linda again. They have a deep love and appreciation for Egypt, and they’re both frank and funny about the glitches and obstacles that crop up from time to time as you live and travel in this wonderfully complex country. (Plus, Linda is an avid reader and has provided me with many excellent recommendations over the years.)
Friendships formed through travel are special. You feel you’re part of a tribe – the Tribe of Travel – and that your fellow tribespeople understand, like no one else, the attraction of living in places that test your patience and resourcefulness. Of course, the pleasures of new sights and sounds, and of experiencing different people and cultures, are a big part of why one travels, but travel always brings some unexpected twists and hurdles. At such times, it’s these precious friendships with other travelers that can remind you to laugh and relax again, and to be grateful that you get to live this life of change, motion and vitality.
** If you’re at all interested in travel – or even just in reading the observations of two insightful people leading an interesting life – you should follow Tom’s Travel Blog. It’s really the production of both Tom and Linda, reflecting both of their interests. The pictures are great, and Tom provides links back to his Flickr account, where most of their photos live. The Flickr account is also a great one to follow if you enjoy excellent photography and a wide range of interesting and unusual subjects.