beeswax, pine cones, redwood crosses

A Journey Back in Time

journey back in timeThe Siwan Oasis is the last stop going west before Libya and a full 30 kilometers from the nearest Egyptian town of Marsa Matruh, where Cleopatra and Mark Anthony once had a palace on the north coast.  The only road to the oasis from Marsa Matruh was completed in 1986.  There are no airports, train stations, or telephones, although the military outpost does have telephone access.

Because of its isolation, the daily life of the people has remained unchanged for centuries.  No souvenir sellers or beggars scream at you.  Even the donkey’s frenzied wheezing is subdued.  The call to prayer is still called out without the aid of a loudspeaker.

The town of Marsa Matruh is inhabited by a Bedouin tribe that used to roam freely until the government started selling the land to foreign investors who now own all of the beautiful hotels by the beaches.  The Bedouins are being pushed into the center of town.   Nearby is the famous “Rommel’s Beach,” where the German Field Marshall took time out from W.W.II for his daily swim.  Rommel’s son now vacations here.

The bus to Amun Siwa is a military vehicle transporting soldiers between the Libyan border and other military out-posts in Egypt.  There are usually a few foreigners and the rest of the bus is filled with troops who seem to multiply with every stop until they sit on top of each other.  Some stand for the duration of the 12 hour trip.  Even seated, it is a bus ride that will test your endurance.

About the time you feel you have reached the limit of your endurance, you arrive in Siwa.  There is only one hotel but camping is allowed everywhere.  A German camped outside my window, and we had tea together every morning.  The only restaurant in town has a few chairs and tables on a sandy desert floor.  Propped up against a chair is a large board with a message on it, written in English and directed toward female visitors: “It is a request to cover your arms and legs at all times out of respect for the people of Siwa.”  The sign would have been on the door had there been one.

For the past ten years, a Swiss socioethnologist Bettina Leopoldo and her husband, Leonardo, have researched all aspects of the life, customs, and traditions of the people of Siwa.  Bettina lived with various families over a period of three years and learned enough of the Siwan language to communicate directly with local women and their families.

The Siwan people speak an unwritten Berber dialect, and Arabic serves as their second language.  Girls are usually married before the age of 14.  Only the immediate male members of their family are allowed to speak to them after marriage.  Women, however, have complete control of the household, and in some houses there is only one room that the men are allowed to enter.

You can find Bettina Leopoldo at the restaurant between January and the end of April.  She and her husband have raised money and support from other countries to build a hospital for women in the oasis.  Women are reluctant to seek treatment at the Egyptian military hospital, or any other medical facility.  They stay away despite illness because their culture prohibits contact with men outside their families.  Frequently, according to Bettina, women have died on the road to Marsa Matruh.

The funding for the hospital has come from Osman Ahmed Osman, owner of Arab Contractors, the largest construction company in the Middle East.  The equipment is donated by the Dutch government.  The hospital will be staffed by females.  Doctors, nurses, midwives, and technicians are still needed.  You can reach Bettina Leopoldo c/o the Swiss Embassy, Abdel Khalek, Sarwat, Cairo, Egypt.


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