Archive for November, 2009

A Desert Dream

Posted in Uncategorized on November 18, 2009 by racheltobias

WARNING:[**The first half of this blog is quite pessimistic and a little boring, but the second half isn’t worth missing, so scroll down to the photos if you don’t have time to read!**]

**Note: Hold cursor over photos to see label


I feel as though I have just woken up from a



I’ve been privileged enough to visit a lot of places in my short life, but last weekend I finally discovered my favorite place in the whole entire world.

Siwa Oasis is located at the very northeastern corner of Egypt, almost kissing the Libyan border. It is about a 7-8 hour drive from Cairo, most of the way through desert nothingness.

We left Cairo at 5am, and man I couldn’t get out of there fast enough – I needed a break more than anything. Not that I don’t love Cairo. It’s funny actually: my mom told me the other day that she never knows what to tell people when they ask how I like Egypt.

It’s not that I don’t like Egypt. Actually I love this experience and it will be devastating to leave my life here.

I have a beautiful group of friends, mostly Egyptian, who I love. It had been so great to get to know Egypt through their eyes, and to teach them a few things here and their about my own culture. Interesting sidenote** In a past blog I think I may have written about how I didn’t believe the US really has a distinct culture, although after living in Egypt, I am 100% convinced that we do. ** On Halloween I made my friends dinner (chicken with mango salsa, coconut rice, and grilled aspargus) plus my aunt’s delicious pumpkin bread. I even tried to carve a jack-o-lantern (Egypt only has gourd-shaped squash, but I chopped off the top of it and it was basically a pumpkin) and after dinner we watched a scary movie. Almost the American Halloween experience. (KK if you had been here we would have done Dia de los Muertos instead…but I wore my earrings and tried to teach them about it anyway, just for you!) We also went to an Egyptian wedding a few weeks ago for our friends Soha and Tarek; what a beautiful wedding with so many interesting contrasts to Christian weddings. First of all, let me tell you, Egyptians know how to have fun. Everyone was dancing the entire time, the girls all knew how to bellydance which was so fun to watch, and when the bride and groom were presented for the first time, a giant band complete with drums, bagpipes, and Egyptian horn instruments play wedding songs while the wedding guests cheer on. Traditionally, the groom will not kiss the bride, and he does it will be only on the cheek or the forehead. We made a bet, and I won: forehead. The wedding was supposed to being at 9:00 I believe, and didn’t start until closer to 11pm. We bet on what time the buffet would be served, and I won: 1am.

Egypt is so much fun, but it certainly is quite an experience. Most of the time I face frustrating and wearing challenges. I may be critical of the way the country runs itself or the some frustrating elements of the culture, but I want to emphasize how much this country and this experience means to me. I didn’t study abroad to party, to hang out with Americans and get wasted, to speak English and flaunt some distorted idea of American entitlement. No, I came to Egypt to be challenged, to be faced with new peoples, new languages, new religious ideas. There are things I really do not like about living in Egypt. In fact there are things I despise, ideas that I can’t even begin to understand: but the process of learning, debating, discussing, observing, challenging my own belief system, this is why I came to Egypt and this is why I love my life here.

The American University of Cairo causes a lot of my frustration here. The university is composed of mostly upper class Egyptian students. Most of come from piles of wealth, and they are not afraid to show it. There is one hallway on campus where all of the Egyptian students congregate to the point where they block any hope of getting to class on time: the Americans call this Gucci Alley. Every Egyptian at AUC is dressed in exactly the same way: foreign-bought designer handbags, skinny jeans, designer sunglasses, designer boots, flats, or Converse (depending on the season). Individuality is not embraced (for those of you who know my quite eccentric fashion sense, you can imagine the looks I get on campus); in fact, if you do not have a designer bag or if you wear the same clothes more than a couple times, you are ostracized, forced to find a detour to avoid showing your face on Gucci Alley.

It’s a shame actually at AUC that the international students and the Egyptian students rarely mix. But there’s a strange tension that is very apparent: these kids (most of whom are actually much younger, 16, 17, 18, and therefore much more immature) chase Western styles, Western traditions. They all speak perfect English, and some of them no longer speak Arabic with each other. The sad fact that perhaps accounts for this tension between the two groups is that, no matter how much they try to dress like me and act like me, at the end of the day, I get to go home a free citizen and they don’t.

Nevertheless I know is that I rue the minutes I have to walk to class, because I know I’ll be given the

look up


look down

by every Egyptian girl who wants to make sure they establish and control whatever it is they need to establish and control between me and them.  The other day I was in the bathroom washing my hands, and an Egyptian girl was standing next to me. As I am doing my thing at the sink, she turns to me and just starts staring. 10 seconds. 20 seconds. 1 minute. Just staring. This happens all the time, by the way. Their parents never told them not to stare. I could literally feel this girl’s eyes on me. I glanced at myself in the mirror to make sure I didn’t have anything strange stuck to my face or growing out of my head or something. No, everything was normal. I sighed as I dried my hands off. Then I turned to her, looked her straight in the eyes and said in my most pleasant voice, “Can I help you with something?” She quickly hurried out of the bathroom in embarrassment. I’m glad she was embarrassed. I mean, really.

I get most frustrated by the hippocrisy of the place. Many of the female students, and this is not specific to AUC, will wear designer jeans, tight shirts and makeup, but will also wear the hijab, which is supposed to be the utmost symbol of modesty and religiosity for women. On another note, these students may crave and appreciate RayBan and American Apparel, but in class, they spew anything and everything against the United States system and government.

School other than that is comical, really. The students here, for the most part (I am speaking in generalizations about AUC…of course not every student is like this) don’t care about school, class, or grades. Notebooks can’t fit in a Louis Vuitton bag, God forbid, so the girls carry abound these tiny little notepads on which I suppose they take some type of notes. In my classes where the majority of the students are Egyptian, they talk back to the professors in the most disrespectful manner I have ever seen. Students leave their trash all over the campus for the janitors to take care of, probably because they have never had to pick up any of their own trash, ever.

I have been very negative about the Egyptian AUCians, but believe me, the American/International students are even worse. I’ve heard from others who have studied abroad here in past semesters that this particular batch of study abroads is just a bad group. Coming to Cairo, I assumed I would meet like-minded people who wanted to explore the world, explore the culture, learn the language. I assumed anyone who wanted to come live in a country like Egypt must be very worldly, respectful, and curious. Quite the contrary with this group of students. Most of them came here for one reason and one reason only: to party. Halas. Which is ironic, since alcohol is scarce and taboo in Muslim countries, and the drinking age is 21. Many of them spend weekend after weekend getting trashed in nightclubs, throwing fits at club entrances spewing things like “I’m an American, you have to let me in…” The girls walk around the streets without a care as to how they are dressed, breasts hanging out, short dresses or skirts; sometimes they’ll bring along a scarf to cover strips of exposed skin, but only if it goes with the outfit. Again, I speak in generalizations; not all of the international students act this way. But many of them do, thereby wrecking the reputation for all of us coming to take a very different experience away from Egypt. It’s no wonder men catcall on the street: it’s a well-known FACT in Egypt that American girls are easy. And how can you blame then when there are half-naked Americans running around Cairo?

The most frustrating part of Cairo however, at least for me, is being a woman. I dread walking to the bus every morning, not because I trip and fall constantly over the broken sidewalks or because my clean hair gets dripped on by mildewed air conditioners or because I have to sidestep the million cats scampering for the early bird special of leftover street trash. But because I know I must keep my head down and wear my sunglasses so to avoid making eye contact with any men.

Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to stare?

I’ll be honest, I’m waiting for the day some bowab (doorman) crosses the line and I get to punch him right in the face

you see, this is what Egypt does to us nice California girls.

I always dress conservatively, but it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference if I were naked: my blonde hair and white skin attracts attention everywhere I go. I’m not angry at the men, persay. But I’m angry at the situation: I’m angry that I cannot smile and converse freely with people in the street. I’m angry that I have to put on a façade, and a rude one at that, in order to get by without mushkelaat (problems).

Actually I have a lot of anger towards Egyptian policies and culture when it comes to women and sexuality. As much as I am tolerant and have made the effort to understand the Muslim tradition of the veil or hijab, I have yet to be convinced that it is anything but oppressive to women.


Let me restate.

In Egypt, women choose to wear the hijab. There is a growing percentage of women recently who have decided to don the niqab, or “ninja suit,” the black, full-body veil which leaves only the eyes showing. Many women I have spoken to tell me that they choose to wear the hijab because it is a way of bringing them closer to God and to their religion: The wives of the Prophet Muhammad were covered by a veil in the presence of visitors. One of my professors commented that her veil allows her to feel as though she will not be judged based on her sexuality; without flaunting her feminine features, she feels as though she will be listened to and treated like a person, rather than “just a woman.”

However, the origins of the veil are oppressive to women. Even for the wives of Muhammad, the veil was something which they were commanded by a man to wear. All subsequent forms of facial or bodily covering have been developed by men who yearn to control women and their sexuality. Recently, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar in Egypt issued a fatwa banning the niqab from schools. This was the result of him angrily and publicly commanding a young 13-year old to remove her niqab, stating that there was no reason why young girls should be wearing this. When she took off the veil, he said, in so many words, “and you’re not even beautiful.” When I first read this I approved of his ban, assuming that this young girl had not chosen to wear niqab, rather it had most likely been imposed on her by her family. Then, when I thought about it more, I questioned what right this man had over her or any other girl. Even the fact that he was telling her to take it off is oppressive to women. Women should be able to choose what they wear and why they wear it, but it is a shame that this tradition has prevailed throughout the centuries since the life of the Prophet.

Why would God have created women in such a beautiful form if he wanted her to be covered?

This is my question.

The whole issue is really a question of respect. For example, Islam says that a man should lower his gaze in the presence of a woman. Do you think one man has lowered his gaze in my presence? Like hell he has. Men with long beards wearing gallabiyas who claim to be the most pious of Muslims abandon all of their rules when women walk past them on the street.

Another example: I teach refugees once a week in a an area of Cairo called Ain Shams, which is about an hour and half away from my house in Zamalek. The cab ride can get pricy, so usually I take the metro home since it costs 1 Egyptian pound (less than 20 cents). Each train on the metro has a car specifically designated for women. Men are not allowed in this car, although if you are a woman you are welcome to ride in the men’s car. My first time on the metro, I did not know about the women’s car, so I hopped onto the first car I found open. The train was so crowded; mostly men were pressed up all around me and each other. The smell, oh goodness. I felt someone’s hand touching my butt; since it was so crowded, I assumed it was an accident and started to move to another wall of the train. I realized the man who had been grabbing me was following me as I moved around the train, his hand on my butt the whole time with the most innocent look on his face.

From then on I rode in the women’s car.

But still, while it’s nice that they have a women’s car, it’s still a matter of segregation, and it’s still a matter of disrespect. Sure you can ride in the men’s car. But you’ll probably be groped. Sorry.

Halas. Back to the good part.

Anyway, Siwa Oasis was the perfect escape from ass-grabbing and the LongChamp invasion, so I welcomed it with open arms.

The characters of this story are

Me: Blonde American tourist with a giant camera permanently fastened to her face

Jimmy: Egyptian musician / pro-Sandsurfer / boyfriend of American Camera-Face

Mohammed Tarek: Best friend of Musician / Pro-Sandsurfer #2 / really awesome

Soha: Wife of Pro-Sandsurfer #2 / shopping buddy of Camera-Face / also really awesome

We drove through the desert.

Are we there yet?


Are we there yet?

100 more kilometers

How many miles is that?

I offered to drive, but nobody was really up for that. We got to Siwa in the early afternoon, but were all so tired from the trek that we took a little nap. Soha and Tarek had arrived home from their honeymoon in Bali only the day before, so they were extra exhausted.

The hotel, Shali Lodge, was quite beautiful. The building was constructed out of something similar to adobe, but much sturdier. All of the light fixtures were made of salt, which of course I had to taste just to be sure (and they were salt!).

After our nap, we went to get dinner at the hotel restaurant.

Best food I’ve had in quite a long time, maybe ever.

— SALAD (hallelujah!): delicious white cheese and tomatoes, Greek salad —

— Freshly made pita bread —

— The most delicious chicken that I don’t really know how to explain —

—  Homegrown deliciously perfect olives —

Everything was fresh, organic, grown in Siwa. Since it is an oasis, they can grow all of their own food. Siwa is famous for its olives and its dates. As a result, everything was cooked with the most savory olive oil.

Perfectly satisfied, we took a little walk through the town. Along the way we met some of Jimmy and Tarek’s old friends from past trips. Siwan people are so nice, which coming from Cairo, is a huge change. But they’re not just nice relatively, they are genuine and kind people, more so than any place I have ever been or lived. We asked a couple people for directions once or twice when we were walking, and not only did they tell us how to get there, but they would leave their work or whatever they were doing to walk us there. I immediately loved the people of Siwa. Unconditionally.

Another early morning was in store for us. At 5am we met up with our guide and friend of the boys’, Nasser. Nasser is 21 years old, but the desert has scribbled age and wisdom into his face, so he appears to be in his late 30s. Nasser’s father taught him to read the desert; he is like a human GPS, literally. One night, we drove probably 30 miles from the middle of the desert to a Bedouin camp also in the middle of the desert; Nasser took off across the desert in the middle of the night, no road, no lights, no trail marking, and we somehow ended up in the right place.

As we penetrated the Great Sand Sea in my dream car, the 1980s Toyota Land Cruiser, we were enveloped by towering dunes. Nasser raced




the dunes. There were a couple times I thought that truck (and its precious cargo) was for sure done for. But he knew exactly what he was doing: he knew every inch of his cars capabilities and exactly how the sand would fall around his heavy tires. He was in it. And so were we.

We watched the sunrise over the desert, and immediately the temperature rose about 10 degrees, although it was still chilly enough for my North Face fleece. Nasser stopped the truck and climbed on to, unfastening our snowboards and passing them down to the boys. Soha and  I crept to the edge of the dune we had stopped upon, and looked down the steep decline, then back to the snowboards, then again to the bottom of the dune. We are supposed to do what down this dune?

The boys immediately strapped on their boards and took off like pros down the dune.

Of course, not all of their runs went that smoothly…Tarek had a pretty fantastic fall which left his ears and mouth caked in sand for a week following the trip. Nasser called it a “sandwich.” The boys finally got us girls on the boards…it took us a couple of times to get the hang of it (especially since I am not not not a snowboarder…and it’s a much different feeling than wakeboarding), but once we did it was quite a feeling. The board literally glides upon the sand, and as you ride down, especially the steeper ones, you become parallel to the ground, and it is though gravity has lost all control over the situation. I won’t lie, gravity played its part once or twice, and I had a couple nice falls myself.

After sandboarding, we headed to a hot spring to warm up. It was a fabulous little spring surrounded by palm trees. It was a much needed Jacuzzi sesh, and we relaxed until our skin turned to prunes, marveling at the quiet of the desert and drinking asir ananaas (pineapple juice) from a juice box…my favorite! After the hot springs, we set out towards another spring. Along the way we stopped at a field of fossils, which had hundreds of giant sand dollars and sea shells fossilized in the sand, left over from when this desert was covered by water. Nasser prepared our breakfast in the fossil field: fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and goat cheese with pita bread, as well as honey and yogurt. What a way to start the day.

The second spring was much larger than the hot spring, and freezing cold. The boys splashed into the water, and Soha and I followed. Jimmy and Tarek convinced us it would be better to just jump right in ——- yeah right. Soha and I (I have finally found an appropriate use for this saying) screamed like the dickens when we came up. The water was icy. We both immediately started chattering away, standing still with the sun on our back getting warmed up by the boys, shaking with cold. I think the boys found it our predicament much more amusing than we did.

By the time we finally emerged from the cold pond, it was time to go back to town, since after 10 or 11am it would start to get too hot to enjoy the desert. We headed back to the hotel for a nap and a shower. After another delicious meal that evening, Soha and I did a little shopping, and we climbed up to the top of the Shali ruins, leftovers of the ancient Siwan city.

One of the most fascinating things about Siwa is that you will almost never see a woman. The only time you will see any women is in the morning or early afternoon, in transit on the back of a donkey cart.

Women wear garments that cover their entire body, even their face. I did not see the face of a woman while I was in Siwa. However, the garments that they wear are incredibly beautiful: they hand embroider the most glorious and colorful designs. There is a different traditional garment for every ocassion: one for everyday wear, one for going out of the house, the most beautiful one for marriage, etc. I wanted to take a million photographs of all the women I saw, but taking pictures of Siwan women is forbidden. However, I bought several Siwan garments handmade by Siwan women, whose means of income is usually through selling Siwan clothing or jewelry. Women in Siwa are not permitted to go to college; marriage is the ultimate goal for any woman. They can attend school up until the time they get married, which is generally today around age 16-18.

The thought constantly crosses my mind since I have come back from Siwa that it is somewhere I definitely want to return to on a regular basis. I would love to be able to teach girls or even women if the culture permitted it. We’ve been talking and brainstorming about concepts for opening some type of Eco-Lodge in Siwa that offers visitors real interaction with the culture and the desert. We met a family that owned a jewelry store while we were shopping who was from the UK and lived in Siwa during the winter months. During the summer they lived in Transylvannia, and the rest of the year they lived in England. Their two young children were homeschooled, and raved about their life. Their father made a wonderful point: these kids were able to see that they are the same everywhere and that different perceptions of you only exist on the surface. These kids are able to live in three different cultures at peace with people. This is how I want to live – this is definitely how my children will live.

The next day in Siwa, we slept in a bit, and went out exploring. We saw the ruins of an old temple, where Alexander the Great visited to consult the Oracle stone. The temple sat atop of a hill which overlooked miles of palm trees, revealing the beauty and succulence of the oasis.

A few hours before sunset, we piled back into the LandCruiser with Nasser and ventured back into the Great Sand Sea for some more sandboarding and for a beautiful sunset. Soha and I had finally gotten the hang of sandboarding, although we were still a little shaky about trying the big boy dunes.

As the sun burned orange and purple into the dunes as it retired for the night, I looked out across the hundreds of miles of desert surrounding me, and knew that this was a perfect moment. I don’t know if it is the sand or the wind or the water, but Siwa had seeped inside of me, infected my brain with its witchery, and captured my heart. There was nothing more that I wanted in that moment: sitting with nature and with people that I loved, listening and feeling nothing but the earth – it was literally like heaven on Earth; it was I think one of the most spiritual moments I’ve ever had.

The perfect end to the evening was dinner and dancing at a Bedouin camp, where we ate roasted potatoes and carrots and chicken, rice, very strong Siwan tea, and smoked shiisa (again, there is no drugs or nicotine in Shiisha for those of you, like my mother, who I need to convince of this over and over again….I am drug free and always have been so don’t get your knickers in a twist). Tarek and Jimmy played guitar with the Siwi band under the stars as we looked on, dreading the end of this beautiful night.

I dragged my feet all the next day, not wanting to leave Siwa and return to noisy and dirty Cairo. The honeymoon (literally for Tarek and Soha) was over as they say. We enjoyed a delicious fresh breakfast at the hotel: foul (like bean dip), dellliiccious goat cheese (gibna) pita bread (ayeesh), eggs (bet), olives (zaytoon), and the most incredible fig jam I have ever tasted (I don’t know how to say fig jam in Arabic).

Breakfast combined with shopping was a good way to end the trip, although I know it is not the end. I plan to go back without a doubt to Siwa.

To conclude: I will leave you with the lyrics of the song that I wrote on our last day in Siwa. Jimmy sang and Tarek wrote the music – for some reason they made me write the lyrics. And, as you can tell, I have no future in songwriting. But it’s fun to read anyway.

Once upon a time in Siwa

There was such a good group of friends

They came from the big city

To find solace in the desert

Beneath the desert wind and the towering dunes

The magic of the place swallowed them whole

They ate their meals fresh from the earth

And swam in the bubbling veins of the sand


Yeah yeah yeah, masbuteen

You’re in Siwa

Yeah yeah yeah masbuteen

Your’e in Siwa

The girls they let out squeals of shock

As they dove into icy springs

Their darlings held them close and tight

Until four pairs of legs turned numb

Together life was good, they felt at peace

Walking hand in hand to nature’s whisper

Lamps of salt lit their darkened path

And when she tasted them, they were salt


Yeah yeah yeah, masbuteen

You’re in Siwa

Yeah yeah yeah masbuteen

You’re in Siwa