6 months in Siwa: getting to know the place and people, finding someone special, and discovering myself

Shali minaret

This week marks 6 months since I arrived in Siwa to live. It has been an amazing experience, and while I had anticipated much of what life here would be like, each day has brought discoveries, learning, and also challenges and frustrations. This post is a distillation of what I have learnt in six months, and truly only scratches the surface.

At least once each day I am astounded by the beauty of this place, and reminded how fortunate I am to be living here, especially when I walk through the palm gardens to swim in the spring pool, look up at Shali, the 14th century fortress town built of earth and salt, or watch sunset by the lake. I am also continually rewarded for putting up with the frustrations of life here, simply by the welcoming and kindness of most of the people.

On an expat website I sometimes read as a support in understanding the experiences of my new home, I found a quote which is the advice I would now give anyone considering life in a different place, especially somewhere as different from their old life as Siwa is for me: “Learn local culture, mingle, assimilate, with sincerity, not just for appearances. The soul of each country is in its people, its culture, religious practices, food. Be open hearted and open minded”.

This advice is not always easy to follow, as you must put your trust in people and new ways when you sometimes feel insecure about how this will impact on your safety and health, and because the ways and choices you must make are often so different from what you have been accustomed to.

Every day I learn something here, and the constant trial and error, and rethinking of perspective this involves sometimes exhausts me and even sometimes makes me sad. I am tired from the extra effort involved in simple tasks like ensuring daily that there is enough water in the house for drinking, washing, and all the things you may take for granted when you turn on a tap, the constant struggle to chase work (as a freelance writer), dealing with government and institutions (residency requirements, bank etc), and in not being understood, whether in what I say or in my actions (you don’t hang your washed underwear outside to dry here!).

I would be lying if I did not admit to the tears and struggles as well as the wonders of this experience, but I must keep in mind that there are always struggles and sometimes tears in life, these are not unique to Siwa or Egypt, that I still have a better life than millions of others, and my struggles and pains are small in comparison to those experienced by so many.

Learning something new every day is also exhilarating, and I feel I have grown personally in many ways, some obvious to me and other people, others more intangible but just as vital in my development. The joys of living here include many I never anticipated, perhaps most important among these being a close emotional relationship. If I was young and naïve I would call it Love, but we all know that love has many forms, and can be lasting or transient, and I cannot delude myself otherwise. I can only say it is giving me immense happiness, totally unlooked for and not anticipated when I moved here.

In Siwa you are time rich, not time poor. This will often test your patience, as your planned 15 minute dash around the small stores, the equivalent of going to the supermarket and mall elsewhere, turns into an hour or more as you are greeted and chat with people, and wait to be served while others have a leisurely chat or debate with the shop assistants. There is no express lane or rushing through the cashier with just a “Hello” handing over of cash or ATM card, and “Thanks”. However, while you wait you hear a lot about what is going on in Siwa and beyond (even if you only understand what is in English, and some of the Arabic), and you get to watch people and the town closely.

You CAN live without toilet paper. Despite some qualms, I decided to do without from the first day here. If you use paper the toilet systems here get stuffed up easily, and many places provide a bucket beside the toilet for you to leave your used paper, instead of flushing it. This seems more of a health risk, to say nothing of the smells and need to constantly dispose of bucket contents elsewhere (ie, walk it to the communal rubbish bin) and to clean the bucket, than to wash yourself instead. Washing is easy as toilets have a tap placed close to them, at about knee level, or at the very least a large bucket of water and something to act as a water scoop (in my house the scoop is the bottom half cut off a 1.5 liter mineral water bottle).The tap and bucket/scoop also provide flushing, if your toilet is hole-in-the-floor style, rather than “chair” style.

At first even the idea of no toilet paper seems unpleasant to many who go through realms of the stuff each year, but as someone put it to me: isn’t it better to wash yourself and be completely clean and fresh, than be one of those wandering around with bodily waste residue and maybe even bits of toilet paper stuck to you? And it makes you even more conscious of washing your hands properly. It is a bit like some people and cultures preferring to use tissues and throw them away after use, rather than a handkerchief which is stuffed back in a pocket or up a sleeve, complete with whatever came out of your nose.

Black may be the favourite dress choice in Melbourne, but it does not work when you live surrounded by sand. You may think that wearing sand coloured or khaki clothing will be the solution, but you quickly start to feel drab and boring in those colours, and as a pacifist I have always had an aversion to khaki and camouflage colours. In fashion magazine spreads photographed in the desert you often see a woman in some white floaty confection, loaded up with exotic tribal jewellery. This looks great on the page and white is a better solution in the heat, and it is the preference for the men’s uniform of long shirts and pants in Siwa, but white discolours after a few washes thanks to the sand and sulphur in the town water. If you don’t want to use harsh chemicals to keep your whites white, dyeing them with tea to make them sand coloured is the best option.

You can look gorgeous when covered head to ankle, but it is a skill that takes a while for a “strip layers off in the heat” Australian to master. Being a foreigner, I could get around looking like a backpacker in an assortment of mismatched clothes, like a human rag bag, and not give a damn what anyone thinks. But I live here now and must show some self respect through how I present myself in public. The Siwan girls and the women (when their covers come off, inside their homes) are a constant inspiration to wear colour and coordinate. Although I worked in fashion journalism and teaching, in Australia I was always a bit of a dag/slob in my own home. And I was not a high maintenance or makeup devoted woman even for the face I showed the world, always preferring comfort over concern about looking good.

But here, as I stand out as a foreigner in the street, frequently have unexpected visitors and have a man about the house who takes pride in and is careful of his appearance, I am more conscious of being at least tidy in my dress, mending holes in clothes, wearing some of my jewellery and doing something with my hair.

I had hoarded clothes for years in Australia and I brought many of them with me, so I am actually wearing things that have not had their wear’s worth in the past, with no need to shop for anything new. I haven’t needed to buy any clothes in six months, and won’t need to for at least another year, yet I am probably dressing better than I did most days when in Australia.

I have learnt you can be gifted with great ability to express yourself with words, and much knowledge, but you function like a two year old when you are surrounded by a language you do not speak. In Siwa, make that two languages: Arabic, which is the Siwans second language and used in everyday transactions among themselves and with outsiders (other Egyptians), and Siwan, their own language. I may be able to articulate the highest emotional and philosophical concepts in English, but I am struggling to learn Arabic, sprinkled with some Siwan words. I can now ask for many things I need in the stores, and pick out many words in conversations between Arabic speakers, but I still understand very little. Most of my interactions have been in English or a mix of slow and erratic English / Arabic / sign language with those Egyptians that speak even a little English, and of course with English speaking tourists. I also sometimes use my very basic high school German with tourists who speak that better than they speak English.

Lack of language is frustrating and I MUST learn more Arabic in the next 6 months. It is especially difficult for a writer, and for someone like me who is very emotional and always turns to the written word to explain herself when she can’t say aloud what she feels or thinks. Having a partner who speaks Arabic and fluent Italian, and speaks some English but can’t always understand and can’t easily read more than a short text message in English, has forced me to reassess my way of communicating. He is trying to learn more English and I must learn more Arabic so we can talk with more depth and understanding. The relationship is a prime reason, but to learn more about Siwa and Egypt it is also essential to understand spoken language, and later also learn to read Arabic script. Everything from going to the doctor to engaging with my neighbours will benefit from this.

Public society is male dominated here, and as a foreigner I am privy to much of this life through conversations with and interacting with the men more freely than the Siwan women can. But the houses and families are the queendom of the women, and they and the children are so welcoming and affectionate that I long to talk with them beyond “hello”, “goodbye”, and “how are you,” and share our experiences.

The West does not have a monopoly on sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. I won’t go into details on this statement, just leave it to your imaginations; as I want to continue living here, this blog does not include some of what I have experienced, seen and heard about the less public face of Siwa. There are aspects of society here that would surprise many people who see the conservative, mosque-going face of Siwa. Really these aspects should be no surprise, though they would shock some people just as the darker sides of life anywhere in the world will shock some people who live sheltered lives, or who blinker themselves to what their own society is really like. If we are honest, we must admit that people everywhere share these behaviours and personality traits that may be viewed by social and / or religious laws as weaknesses or sins, but which are often simply inescapable parts of the whole experience of being human. One day maybe I will write about these aspects elsewhere, but the blog is not the place for it.

I do miss a good hot shower – in a cold water house, what passes for a hot shower is a jug of water boiled and mixed with a jug of cold, and poured over yourself. I do miss a good latte (too many years of living in Melbourne) despite my enjoyment of Siwa tea and adoration of Turkish coffee, the usual choices here.

I miss my family and friends despite their keeping up with emails and skype, it is not the same as having your sister or a woman friend on hand to hug when you need it, and not being there for birthdays and other celebrations is hard (though I don’t miss the months of Christmas/Easter/Mother’s Day commerciality and mass marketing). I miss my Dad especially.

I miss the sea and beach, despite the enjoyment of swimming in the beautiful hot and cold springs here. Hopefully there will be a trip to the coast or the Red Sea before another six months passes.

In all, I am still sure it was the right decision to move here. Habibi, my cat, and I are healthy and feel settled in our second house, having survived the initial difficulties of getting here, sickness, the first house flooding, and getting to know more people and how the town runs.

I have so much to do in the next 6 months, from learning more language to generating more writing work, but what I have experienced so far has laid the foundations for the good life I believed I could make here.

I have also learnt why after every sentence about the future, in Arabic it is essential that you add “Inshalla” or God Willing; the sentiment applies whether you are religious or not, because none of us can ever predict what tomorrow will bring. That is perhaps the greatest truth that Siwa has taught me, and with it comes the incentive to really treasure every day.

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This entry was posted in Fashion, Love, Turning Points, Reflections. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to 6 months in Siwa: getting to know the place and people, finding someone special, and discovering myself

  1. Sue says:

    A wonderful piece of writing. Great reading – not only as a friend, but as someone wondering how it is to manage in an environment of challenges. The nuances are there in the writing of how you progress,they are encouraging to read.
    I am so proud of you and wish you the VERY best of times and much success.

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