Home of the date palm and the olive grove, the Oases traditions remain untouched by the modern world
By Farah El Akkad
A Taste of Siwa
Siwa has more than 240,000 palm trees and produces several types of dates. About half the trees produce the coveted and expensive Saidi dates; the Frihi date is the next most popular crop. The oasis also grows Ghazali dates, which Siwans believe gives a lot of energy, and Izzawi dates, a very low grade of dates that is often fed to the donkeys. Izzawi dates are also used to make date wine. Siwans are famous for another date drink called labgi. Dates are a staple ingredient of traditional Siwan food, according to anthropologist Fathi Malim, a Siwan native and author of Oasis, Siwa: from the Inside. Among the most famous dishes are tagela in teg (flour mixed with dates, eaten with olive oil), tagart (crushed bread with dates and olive oil) and Il hooyy (dates cooked with oil and eggs).
Weaving a Life
While Dakhla is the largest producer of pottery in the western desert, the women also use palm leaves to weave a variety of items. The sturdy marguna, woven with palm leaves wrapped around twigs, is known for its exceptional ornamental decorations and strong texture. The women also make shamsiya, a broad brimmed hat to protect field laborers from the burning desert sun. The maqtaf is a flexible basket typically strapped to the sides of a donkey and loaded with dates or other produce. In wedding ceremonies, an oval shaped mat called bursh al-arusa is specially woven for the bride. The bursh al-tin is a mat with the edges threaded with rope that is used to carry rice or clay.
Dakhla is also known for wool kelims. “One of the most spectacular kelims of the Western Desert is the Khurg,” writes Vivian, “a Bedouin kelim used to cover camels; usually dyed in orange, red, black and white then woven into geometric patterns by Bedouin women.”
Waiting for Baby
In one Siwan tradition, a pregnant woman lies on a map on the floor for six days and only very close relatives are allowed to see her. On the seventh day, a celebration is held where all the relatives come to the pregnant woman’s house to share an elaborate meal. The father of child is expected to shave his head and give the barber the weight of his hair in either silver or gold if he is well off.
One Oasis, Many Voices
The Dakhla Oasis has seven villages, each with their own manner of speech depending on their origin. Al-Muhub village is of Sanusi origin, Mut was founded by Bedouin, Qasr has Saudi Arabian roots, while Balat and Tineda are Moroccan and Qalamun is of Turkish origin. Sheikh Wali is a newly populated village. In her book The Western Desert of Egypt, French naturalist Cassandra Vivian writes, “At Qasr they pronounce the ‘l’ like an ‘n’, saying ‘unna’ for ulla (water jug). In Tineda, they use the classical ‘qaf’; pronouncing it ‘qulla.”
A Taste of Farafra
Breakfast in Farafra always includes a bowl of olives pickled by the family, along with white salty cheese, a tray of bread and honey.
A Tight-Knit Community?
In Farafra, it is the men who spin wool into thread, which they use to knit wool scarves, hats and gloves. As Vivian writes, these are given to “a delightful personality dubbed ‘Mr. Socks,’ who can be seen riding his motorcycle around town with a scarf or two dangling behind.”
Dress to Impress
Siwan women love bright colors and silver accessories, especially the very young girls. There is usually one family member in charge of hairdressing, able to adorn the kinswomen in more than 30 braids. For special occasions such as weddings and births, the women break out their black abayas richly decorated with brightly colored silk embroidery. Weddings also bring out the best in Siwan jewelry, notable for its etched silver, geometric designs and bells.
For example, al salhat is a six-piece necklace of rounded silver and coral beads often worn by women at weddings. Other accessories include a customary silver circle called an aghraw and a hairpiece of nine silver chains with crescent-like bells, known as a tilaqayn.