Egypt: Swallowed by the Western Deserts (Part 1) – Siwa Oasis and the Great Sand Sea


Though getting increasingly popular, the marvelous deserts and oases of western Egypt are still often overshadowed by the pharaonic ruins and omitted in many travellers’ itineraries for Egypt, and oh, did they ever realize how much they’ve missed out!

Siwa Oasis

A haven in the middle of the barren Great Sand Sea and only 50km from the Libyan border, it is inhabited by the Siwi people who managed to preserve their own traditions and language (which, unlike the Bedouin language, is not a dialect of Arabic) over the years due to the isolation of the oasis. Dotted around the oasis are date palm trees, olive trees, hot springs, salt lakes and ruins of an old mud brick city. Instead of cars, donkey carts roam the streets. It was certainly a breath of fresh air from the hustle and bustle of Cairo.

On the first day of strolling around the winding alleys in and about the oasis, a friendly young girl pulled me by my arm into her mud brick house – and the family living within became by adopted family for the next couple of days. Inside the house lived four sisters and their parents. The Siwi people kept very strict Muslim traditions and a woman above the age of 13 is required to veil her face completely and in the company of others whenever she goes out. She is also required to dress modestly and refrain from wearing any makeup until the day of her marriage, which is normally arranged around the age of 15-20.

The two older sisters, having reached the age of maturity, were required to stay inside their house at all times outside school hours. Having nothing to do apart from housework and watching the television (which is always kept inside the father’s room except on Fridays), they were more than entertained by this strange foreign girl who was roaming the streets alone. Every evening, I went to hang out at their house, and in between food and chai and using mainly hand and body signals, coupled with some drawings and scribbles, we had our daily Arabic-Chinese language exchange sessions. The television was not introduced into Siwa until 1986, but with the influx of information about the ways of living of girls and women in other parts of the world, I would have guessed that the girls would not be happy with their lack of freedom and rights in the Siwa society. But apparently not. When I asked the eldest girl whether she was happy to be veiled and stay at home, she nodded to me in the positive. To her and probably many other women in Siwa, to be kept pure and protect her family honour is the foremost duty of a woman and she was happy to obey. Likewise, although she enjoyed studying and would strive to finish university, she would still like to get married before she turns 20. She saw it as her lifetime’s greatest success to be able to raise a family and keep a household in proper order.

In the eyes of many, Muslim women are the sufferers – always secondary to the male and with no freedom to be themselves. But this has to be considered in the context of their cultural and social background. Of course, I would rather die if you are going to put me into such a situation, but what is good for us may not be good for them because they were brought up with a mindset and values completely different from ours, to which we should treat with respect. Afterall, given that there is no dishonesty or bad intentions involved, who are we to judge other people’s ways of life and behaviours?


The Great Sand Sea

On the second day in Siwa, I rented a bike to ride to the lakes and hot springs in the outskirts of the oasis. Women seldom bathe in public spring pools in some conservative places, and would usually resort to the women-only hammams, if there is any. After a strange hot spring experience in Vardzia, Georgia, where I originally had the pool to myself but then one man after another came peeping in through the door slit, even one man (at whom I literally threw one of my flip-flops) who actually came in and asked if he could join me, I was determined to avoid the hot spring ‘swimming pools’ in the centre of town and tried to look for some pools further away from the crowd.

After some asking, searching, and bike pushing through the sand, I found this pool near the beginning of the sand dunes, but already inside were two Egyptian men and two mid-to-old aged European ladies *wink wink*. They came in their 4WD and was surprised to find me walking in with my bike. Desperate for a rest after hours of riding, I asked if I could join them anyways. They were very friendly and even invited me to join them on their sand dunes tour on the next day. And so, I got to visit the Great Sand Sea for free, which included some rollercoastering up and down the dunes on the 4WD, and more soaking in even more remote hot springs! It was great fun, although towards the end my head hit the ceiling of the car from one nasty bump. The bleeding over my forehead and face was so dramatic that for a moment I thought I would need stitches, but after washing off the blood, the wound was actually not so big…hehe. I have never had a bleeding head before so please don’t laugh at me!

→ To Part 2 – Black and White Deserts