Last week I had a day of no work or housework, for the first time in ages. The family next door invited me on safari in the sahara. Safari here means simply a trip outside the centre of Siwa, and yes, Siwa is in the middle of the desert called the Sahara, but sahara is also Arabic for desert.
We set out at 11am, and due to ongoing imperfect communication (my limited Arabic and non existant Siwan) I knew we were going swimming and to the desert, but I was not sure where to exactly. The family have a palm garden in Siwa about 10 minutes donkey ride from the house, and another garden further out, about 20 minutes by donkey, on the edge of the desert looking out to one of the lakes, and it turned out that the desert edge garden was our destination.
This garden has a large palm leaf room lined with mats, and they load up the cart with mattresses and pillows to sit on in the room, a gas burner and food for two meals, and large insulated container of iced water. The three girls and mother sat in the cart, I sat up front on the driver’s bench with father A., hanging on tight to the bench, though I am gradually becoming less scared of falling off when the donkey picks up speed.
A has built a pool over the spring, and after a day’s swimming he lets the water out a plug in the side so that it irrigates the surrounding garden. There is also a small basin on the side of the pool with a similar stopper, which can be opened and filled to make a small swim pool for the youngest daughter, who was unimpressed and insisted on swimming in the big pool with us. She jumped into the pool fearlessly and repeatedly, so we had to watch and make sure someone caught her.
The water of this spring is soft and cool, not too cold, and the pool a good size – I can swim it in two Australian crawl strokes, and it is below waist deep but perfect size for lazing about and for the girls to get some exercise. As I haven’t see Siwan girls swimming at Cleopatra pool, only the few foreign children who come here, it was a delight to see the girls being so energetic and having as much fun as other kids, and even being fully clothed didn’t hinder the enjoyment of the eldest daughter. The younger girls are dressed day to day in clothes similar to those any Western child wears, but they also swim in these, rather than stripping down to a swimming costume, so they are still more clothed than we are used to seeing children swimming.
I showed A. and M. photos of me as a two year old with Dad dangling my feet in a pool somewhere in Sydney, and others where I am wearing what decades later looks a very strange swimming costume and hat, beside the little pool Dad made for me in the backyard of our home – the first of increasingly larger pools he installed, which we were lucky to have as we lived many miles from the beaches. While the girls don’t have beaches in Siwa, they are fortunate to have the spring pools, which provide relief from the heat just as our backyard pools did.
The dark green of the garden is on one side of the pool, the gold desert dunes on the other, a peaceful setting, with bright blue cloudless sky by day and the always star filled desert sky at night. We stayed until 1am, and it was SO much cooler than being in the houses. The girls and I swam for several hours, we ate lunch (large shared plates of rice with a delicious sauce of tomato, pumpkin and chicken, salad and bread), talked, then went to a nearby house to visit cousins who had a one month old baby. Then the eldest daughter and I, joined part way by one of the young male cousins O., went for a walk in the desert to watch the sun setting over the lake and mountain.
M. and A swam later (or I think they did) when the girls and I went back to the palm room and gave them some time to themselves, then A. emptied the pool. We had dinner (hot potato chips, more of M’s excellent Siwan bread, soft white cheese and watermelon) and took mattresses and pillows out to lie beside the pool and watch the spring at its centre gradually refill it. Sweet Siwa tea between meals, and I bought grapes which we had for supper. I am never sure which times it is polite to bring food when I go somewhere here, or if it is ever insulting (as it may imply the hosts don’t have enough to feed you), but I like to contribute something small, and if I say it is for the children this seems to go down well.
All day I was unsure and didn’t like to ask whether we were going to overnight out there, as I know the Siwans do this in summer, and I was a little concerned as I had left Habibi without food, only with water. I initially thought we would go for just a few hours, but once I realised we were staying for dinner, I began to think we were staying the night. But Siwans rarely go to bed in summer before 1am, and about midnight A. called a friend who came with a 4 wheel drive to take me and the girls home, he and M. followed later (I suspect this gives them a break away from the girls for some personal time).
I can’t photograph the eldest daughter or wife due to modesty traditions here, but they were happy for me to photograph the younger two, as A. also wants the photos for his phone, as the ones he has are not clear. He checked before we left home that I had my camera with me, so I think I may become family photographer, at least until the girls reach puberty. M. had her Siwan cover on while watching the girls in the pool, but the spot is isolated with no passing traffic, and once she was sure there were no strangers passing, she took off her covers.
It was lovely to see her so free outdoors; I had my leggings on and a mid-thigh length top for swimming, to set the girls a good example and not embarrass A, but M was happy to lie about and wade with her lower legs uncovered. Great to see as so many of the women including her wear synthetic dresses, and I don’t know how they stand the heat when they are covered up so much outside the house.
Despite being covered I discovered next day I had my first sunburn in the 7 months here, because the long sleeved shirt I wore had a dip in the back neckline, I had my hair plaited and not covering my neck, and while sitting on side of pool to dry I must have got more exposure than I realized. I won’t be doing that again, will pick a more covered shirt next time.
It was a perfect day, except for T not being with us, but if he had been M. would have had to remain covered (as he is not family, and he has never seen her unveiled and probably never will, despite visiting A. for tea and sometimes eating dinner with him).
Anyway, we spoke on the phone while E. and I were watching the sun go down, so we were both beside water at the edge of the desert, me on the outskirts of Siwa and he by the sea in Sharm.
Hopefully soon we will be by the water together again, rather than so far apart. But the day out certainly made me feel a bit less restless about being in Siwa at the moment.