Seeing beyond the veil

Illustration of niqab, hijab and burqa courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corp.,-niqab-and-hijab/5785816
Illustration of niqab, hijab and burqa courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corp.,-niqab-and-hijab/5785816

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.

Women wearing full face coverings in Siwa Oasis

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.

Asserting the right to wear hijab in France, with thanks to Al Araby:
“This is not provocation, just my freedom of conscience.” With thanks to Al Araby:

Tour of Siwa, walking edition


Traditional pigeon houses in Siwa Oasis
Traditional pigeon houses with their own distinctive Siwan design.

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.

Walking the back roads in Siwa Oasis

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.

Guide in the oracle temple in Siwa Oasis
Guide in the oracle temple
View from oracle temple across Siwa Oasis palms to mountains to south of the temple of the oracle.
View from oracle temple across Siwa Oasis palms to mountains to south of the temple of the oracle.
Temple of the oracle, Siwa Oasis
Temple of the oracle

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.

The Bride's Spring, Siwa Oasis

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.

Temple of Amun in Siwa Oasis
Temple of Amun, or what remains of it.
Two old graffiti: E. Webb 1941 and Patraga Khphakos 1931.
Two old graffiti: E. Webb 1941 and Patraga Khphakos 1931.

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).

Relaxing in a cafe next to Cleopatra's Bath, Siwa Oasis
Relaxing in a cafe next to Cleopatra’s Bath
Cafe next to Cleopatra's Bath, Siwa Oasis
Omaima and friends at cafe.

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.

Sayd Haroons Sand Baths in Siwa Oasis 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.

Old mud houses
Old kersheef brick houses on back street of Siwa Oasis.
New house old pigeon house
New construction next to traditional old pigeon house.

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.

Old kersheef house, newer limestone brick house behind.
Old kersheef house, newer limestone brick house behind.

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.

Garden in Siwa Oasis

Orange kitten in garden at Siwa Oasis