Thursday, September 25, 2008

Crossing the Sahara

We crossed the Sahara on a bouncy bus, gazing for hours at the endless sea of sand in every direction. The Sahara is barren, empty, desolate.

We drive for an hour. Flat sand. There is no life here, no mercy. Leave someone in the sands without water, and they'd die quickly.

We drive another hour. And another. And another. The scenery never changes.

Then, suddenly, trees. We rub our eyes. Is it a mirage? No -- it's truly an oasis.

The Siwa oasis, which worshipped the Ancient Egyptian god Amun until (relatively) not too long ago, is a solitary small town close to the Libyan border. Donkey-carts outnumber cars. The stones give way to dwellings carved into the stone, which gradually give way to modern dwellings made out of stone and mud-brick.

Women are rarely seen, not even at markets. They are cloaked from head-to-toe, with a mesh veil hiding even their eyes. By contrast, women in burquas in cosmopolitan Cairo look exposed.

So on our second night at the Siwa oasis, when we had the opportunity to visit a woman's house, Laurel and I lept at the chance. No man other than her son could accompany us; women can only be in the company of other women.

Their privacy is so fiercely guarded that her son wouldn't even reveal her name.

But we did get to see her face: smiling and shy. The left side of her mouth had large yellowed teeth, the right side had no teeth. At home she wore a simple beige tunic and a blue headscarf over her curly black hair. Although she was slender, she had an unbelievably large booty.

She brought us tea and cookies; applied henna to Laurel's hands. A television, her only contact with the outside world, played in the background the entire time. It had satellite stations, most of which were in Italian, and for awhile it broadcast images of women in thong bikinis sunbathing on the Italian Riviera. I wondered how television rocked the Berber (nomadic north Africans who settled in Siwa) way of life; I wondered if shows like these were the equivalent of porn.

She couldn't speak any English. She didn't want her picture taken. She didn't ask for any money for the hours she spent applying henna to Laurel's hands; Laurel had to forcifully press 10 Egyptian pounds ($2 U.S. Dollars) into her palms.

Her son drove us back to town on his donkey-cart. We realized he's probably the sole breadwinner of the family, as his father, whom we met, is blind. Even without eyesight, though, the father can expertly manuever the TV remote.