I was Born in the Desert, Raised in a Lion’s Den

We took a journey to another world this weekend.  Five hours west of Cairo is the Baharyia Oasis, on the outskirts of the White Desert. The Oasis, one of five in Egypt, was cut off from the world until the early 1970s when a two-lane road from Cairo was completed. The town was before that totally self-sufficient except for fuel, and relied solely on the barter system.  The completion of the road created a tourism industry, largely focused on taking people camping into the white desert.  Of course, tourism is a complicated enterprise, bringing with it many of the hierarchical relationships that are endemic to colonialism, and it sometimes seems like colonialism but in a different form. I can’t pretend that we have figured out how to navigate these colonial dynamics, but they provide a lot to think about and can serve as a window on politics, economics and social relations.

            Our first night in Baharyia was at a new hotel recently opened by an American women with a Ph.D. in Archeology andan interest in ancient astronomy. She had lived in Cairo for many years, but found it too noisy and busy so decided to move to the Oasis. The 23 room hotel is lovely, decorated with Nubian and Bedouin art, with modest rooms, a lovely rooftop restaurant, and a Bedouin tent in the back. She has built her dream.  As we sat in the tent drinking a beer waiting for the hotel owner to join us, we engaged in a lovely conversation with Muhammad, who was from Baharyia and seemed to be the manager of the hotel.  His English was excellent, his desire to share the joys of the oasis abundant, and his perspective on life open and mutual. His wife had been educated at Cairo University in Commerce, but did not work out of the house. In fact no women in Baharyia worked out of the house, and most did not go outside during the day at all, and certainly never without being covered.  His wife, he told us, was “shy,” and only went out at night, and then only with another woman to visit her mother.  The conversation was fascinating as we reflected on the word “shy”, which Judy took to mean modest which made a lot more sense.  The conversation radically shifted when the hotel owner joined us for a beer (Muhammad was not drinking) and though deeply in love with this country enough to invest in it and make it her home, proceeded to tell us how the medical system sucked, how nobody could understand the creativity she brought to the hotel design, and how she had brought a level of sophistication to Baharyia that did not exist before.  I think all of the was probably true, but could not help but notice that Muhammed, who had previously been very talkative and engaged, became absolutely silent while she was talking to us.  I could not help think of the subtle and not so subtle power relations that were taking place right in front of us.

 After meeting our guide Amar and seeing the town and its environs which included a “natural pyramid” and seemingly endless date trees (nargala) with the sweetest succulent dates, we ate dinner at the hotel, were driven to a hot spring which proved to be too hot for our immersion, and retired for the night, ready to leave in the morning for camping in the desert. Amar is a talented man.  He was about our age with four children ranging in age from 3-12, and had spent his life taking people into the desert.  For many years he would walk with people, but now took people in an all wheel drive vehicle. He told us that he had not used English much since the revolution as that has taken a real toll on tourism across the entire country. (Tourism has historically accounted for about 5% of Egypt’s’ GDP, and had taken a significant hit since the Revolution.)

Amar was a jack of all trades, and I could not help but think of the Bruce Springsteen lyrics from the song Jack of all Trades:

I’ll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain
I’ll mend your roof to keep out the rain
I’ll take the work that God provides
I’m a Jack of all trades, honey, we’ll be alright

I’ll hammer the nails, and I’ll set the stone
I’ll harvest your crops when they’re ripe and grown
I’ll pull that engine apart and patch her up ’til she’s running right
I’m a Jack of all trades, we’ll be alright

 He was our driver, guide, cook, knot tier, navigator and chief contexualtizer.  He was pleasantly not very talkative with us, though he and his assistant Muhammed, a 20 year old veteran of the Egyptian army talked endlessly about many things, but given the different dialectic in the oasis, Judy and I were not able to pick out many words. (I did constantly imagine that they were talking about the dumb Americans who did not even know how to set up a tent.)  it is hard to describe driving off road in the desert with no “obvious” landmarks to mark the route, though Amar never got lost, at least not that we knew. He also cooked us three meals all with fresh salads, tea with mint, and warm bread. When we asked him if he cooked at home, he seemed almost offended. Since his wife does not go out during the day, he does all of the shopping, but she does all of the cooking and chores at home. Judy told him in the US we tend to split these duties. I think that this seemed so perplexing to him that it warranted no further conversation. I include some pictures here from our trip, which do not come close to doing justice to what we saw:

The western desert

Sunrise in the white desert

Judy at peace

On our night ride back to Cairo from the Oasis, we stopped at a truck stop where 4 or 5 men were drinking Turkish coffee and huddled around a television watching President Morsi give a speech celebrating October 6th, the holiday celebrating the “victory” over Israel in 1973. The speech was given in a football stadium to over 60,000 people. Morsi noted to the crowd that he still lived in his flat in New Cairo and that reports that it cost 3 million Egyptian pounds ($500,000)for security each time he went out were grossly exaggerated. He also reflected on progress made thus far, including the amount of trash that has been picked up and efforts made to relieve traffic congestion, with 1.5 million traffic tickets given in his first 100 days.  There is actually a “Morsi Meter” where one can track his progress. It is hard to imagine what it would really take to address all of the serious issues this country faces, which are daunting on the face of it, but somehow make sense in light of the vastness of the desert that had hosted us for a small blip in time.

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