I’m on fire

Summer is officially over, though the daytime temperature hasn’t changed much and I suspect it won’t for most of September. But with the peak heat and Ramadan behind us, tourists are returning and Siwa centre will soon appear to have as many foreign visitors as it has locals.

Some days the tourists appear to outnumber the Siwans, gathered in the cafes, shopping the bazaars and date and olive stores, and moving in and out of the hotels scattered around the central blocks. Most of the Siwans are out of the central town, which covers only a few blocks, for much of the time. The men work in the gardens, on building and other projects, and the women and children are mostly in or near their homes, so that if you judge Siwa on the centre of town you would think it only had a few hundred inhabitants. You constantly see the same people, mostly store owners and those who work in the cafes, and those who run safari and tour companies pulling in and out of town in four wheel drives to restock with food and water and travelers for their desert trips. Seasonal workers, chefs and guides from other cities also come and go as the tourist business waxes and wanes, so you become used to a cycle of seeing friends for seven or eight months and then losing them for a few months, and looking forward to their return.

But just when you think life here is falling into a predictable pattern, something happens to shake it up.

I had a little domestic accident two nights ago. I get the single-ring gas burner that I use for cooking filled at a nearby home, as everyone does. Refilled and ready to cook, I lit up as usual – only turning the gas on slightly so I would not burn my fingers as I put the match to it…


Fire lept and jumped over my head, scorching my hair.

I jumped back and managed not to set any more of myself alight, then was able to reach under the flame and turn off the gas, while fleetingly thinking I should just leave it and go to get help.

The smell of burnt hair was awful. I patted my head and a frizzled handful of hair came away, with more following when I combed it. I later also discovered I had lost half the length of my eyelashes, slightly more on the right eye. I was so lucky this was the only damage, it could have been a lot worse.

I took the gas back to the place I had it filled, one of the girls unscrewed the cooking ring from the base and found that they had neglected to replace the small black rubber ring that stops the gas spewing out like that. It was a close call and I was a bit unsure about relighting the gas, but it has been fine since. I will certainly be standing with my body bent back further when lighting it in future.

I was also fortunate that I had just had a hairdressing lesson with some of the girls in the street, who met me as I walked home. I have been wearing my unruly hair up in a bun, ponytail or plait because of the heat, but as the night was a bit cooler I had my hair loose and flowing over my shoulders. The girls had forgotten seeing me like that in the cooler months, and commented on it, my lighter and different textured hair has often been a curiosity for Egyptian children and women, who like to play with and style it for me. I showed them how I usually plait it, just as most of them do, though their long plaits hang down, rather than being gathered up as my plaits are. I explained to them that my hair was down to my hips when I was their age – all this in the usual animated mix of Arabic, English and sign language we use.

I left my hair plaited and I returned to my house to start preparing dinner. If not for that impromptu hair styling exchange, my hair would have been everywhere and a lot more would have caught fire, possibly also setting my clothes alight.

I have heard olive oil is good for strengthening eye lashes, a little applied at night. I have never tried it, but as I am in olive oil territory (the olive harvest is just beginning) I will give it a go and hope it helps the lashes grow back quickly.

The smell of burnt hair brought back memories of another time my hair was singed. One Cracker Night in Australia, before fireworks were banned from home use and restricted to organized public displays, we were watching Dad let off fireworks in the backyard. One variety of firework threw balls of coloured fire into the air, and one ball must have landed in my hair, which was then also in a plait because it was much longer and this was the only way to control it. I smelt that horrible smell but no-one else noticed, probably because of all the smoke in the air. It was not until bedtime when I undid the plait to comb and re-plait my hair that a clump of burnt and frizzled hair fell out. Again, it could have been worse.

My grandfather was not so fortunate. As a youngster he went to check out a firework that appeared not to have ignited, but it finally did, going off in his face and leaving him with one eye. As a child spending time with him, his glass eye always fascinated me, as did the empty socket when he took the glass eye out sometimes because it was irritating him. I have very bad eyesight, can’t see beyond my nose without my contact lenses or glasses, but I have always thought how much more difficult it would be to have that unbalanced experience of only one eye, or no sight at all. I often think of my grandfather when I see one of the Siwan salt carvers* who has lost sight in one eye, which was damaged by getting salt in it.

I am glad my gas experience only meant a little hair loss. I have been hesitant about getting one of the gas ovens that most households have, always wondering how many accidents happen with them, and having first met T. when he had a burn extending from his wrist to elbow (the joys of working in a café). I will now be making very sure I know all the ins and outs of how these ovens work before I get one.

*salt is a natural resource of Siwa and used in many ways here. It is also carved into candle holders and lamps for sale to tourists, in shapes varying from simple cylinders to elaborate models of the old fortress town of Shali. When lit from inside, the salt carvings give off a warm, gentle glow.

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