Foot notes

Siwan women travel by donkey cart

I have become obsessed with feet. In Australia we are used to seeing bare feet for much of summertime, but those bare feet are usually at the end of bare legs, and often at the end of 95% bare bodies. While I love the look of shoes and have accumulated too many for different purposes or occasions, most prove uncomfortable for me, in one way or another. I would happily wander in bare feet day and night, except that I am blessed with poor circulation and have to resort to some cover, even if it is the softer-than-shoes comfort of socks.

In Siwa, faces, hands and feet are the only parts of the body you usually see uncovered, even in the heat of summer (45 degrees), and that extent of exposure is mostly on men. The women are completely covered outside their homes; in the street I only see their faces if they peak out of their close held, sheet-like covers (which sometimes happens when they see I am female and unaccompanied by a man) and if I am invited into their homes, I see faces, hands and feet. As the men are out and about more than the women, and about 95% of my contact is with them, it is their feet I am contemplating.

I realized on past visits that the most practical footwear for Egypt is shoes or boots that can be slipped on or off, not laced up. This is not just to visit mosques, as tourists would experience. Shoes are constantly being removed to enter houses, much better than dragging sand in, and even in the hotel where I go to watch tv, shoes come off when you enter the room as it is also the staff eating and tea drinking area. The pile of shoes at the entry may even tell you who is there before you have time to take in the face. Looking for your friend? Ah, there are his shoes… So you can see that you wouldn’t want to spend your life unlacing and re-lacing. Most of the Siwans wear slip on sandals, and thongs and sandals work well for me because when you are walking sand slides in and out of them, rather than being captured as it does with closed shoes. My closed slip-ons are protective and needed for cooler weather, but I inevitably empty a mini desert from them when I get home. When warmth is needed, Siwans do the socks with sandals thing which many Australians would cringe over having seen some horror examples there, but here it looks fine as it is teamed with long pants and shirt / robe that is calf to ankle length, not with shorts or safari suits as in Aus. But back to the feet…

When you are sitting on the floor with a group of Siwans dressed like this, you can’t help watching the feet, or I can’t. They can tell you about the person’s work – whether they are more likely a palm garden worker or jeep driver for desert safaris, but more interesting are the shapes and sizes. After three months here of seeing more men more constantly, and a bigger pool of men than on previous tourist visits, I now see family resemblances in many Siwan faces. It is natural as there was a base of a few tribes here and the oasis was isolated for so long, that I now find myself wondering “that man, his eyes – I am sure he must be related to so and so who I know”. With their feet I am yet to see family connections.

What fascinates me for now about those feet are the different sizes, the shades of skin from milk coffee to cinnamon brown, and the structures and textures. Some feet are much smaller than my own, and delicately boned – Australian women of my generation and born since appear giantesses compared to most Egyptian women and men, and pictures of my giant nephews and nieces (giants but handsome and beautiful of course) cause exclamations here. Other feet are large and long and look somehow sturdier than any I have noticed in Australia, even if these bodies they are attached to are slight. I can study the differences for hours, but try to do so politely of course because to be caught staring at men here can be so easily misinterpreted, and I would not want to make them uncomfortable around me.

I suspect my hyperconsciousness of these feet also has an element of the fascination a woman’s revealed ankle or knee held for Westerners in the era when skirts were floor length – that what you can or are permitted to see also tempts you to ponder what is covered. I do get to see men in just their trousers when they swim, but in the context of swimming the bare torsos, arms and legs don’t have that hint of mystery. That remains with bodies that are away from the spring pools and clothed, except for those fascinating, naked feet.

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