Posted by: Caity | November 3, 2010

Laughter and Silence in Siwa Oasis

I wasn’t paying attention the first time we topped a dune, and was lurched forward all of a sudden, clutching onto the back of both front seats as we half-drove half-slid down the mountain of sand at something like 45 degrees. After a few jerking moments when I felt the truck would tip forward and that would simply be the end of it all, the 4×4 gradually leveled and we peered out the back window to watch the caravan of trucks behind us, one by one sliding down the dune at an angle that now looked less frightening from the other side. Our driver glanced back at us through the rear view mirror with a slight smile I could see in his eyes,  “khayifiin?”  he asked – “scared?” Oh, you know, ‘aadi – normal, we teased. Like a usual day back in Cairo.

We were out trekking in the vast desert surrounding Siwa Oasis, a sizable stretch of green in the dry pale desert near Libya that is home to 23 thousand people and famed for its dates and olives. With the thirty or so other students, we made up a caravan of 4x4s flying up and down the sandy sea, periodically circling up to not to lose anyone, and getting stuck in soft sand or at the top of a dune – all four wheels spinning uselessly in the air. We drove out to one of the oldest found human footprints, an alcove in the sand where sand dollars and seashells belie an underwater history, a random salt lake, a fresh water spring and a natural hot spring all hidden within the creases of the desert. We concluded the day’s traveling by reclining comfortably on a mountainous dune and watching what might have been a beautiful sunset, had the sky been clear.

The night picked up with the arrival of a local band, after a dinner on low tables spread out over thick rugs. Drums, tambourines, and wind instruments circled up near the fire. And the music began.

I had been expecting and was enjoying the festivity, yet my mind was drawn to a conversation the evening before with the English teacher from a local high school. Emphasizing the Salafi religious conservatism of the secluded community, he responded to a question about television and radio in Siwa. “The people of Siwa don’t really listen to music,” he said, “or watch television except for the Islamic channels. Perhaps Qur’anic recitation, or sermons.” Yet here we were—dancing, singing and clapping along to the traditional music with local Siwans—but barra, outside of town.

Taking a break from the joy and excitement, I decided to take advantage of the cool desert evening and walk alone, barefoot in the expansive sand under the moonlight. As I retreated farther and farther away from the joyful gathering I could feel the sand become progressively firmer, until reaching the cool hard ridges on a nearby dune—it had not been walked on in recent times. As I slowly mounted the dune, the music faded like a scratchy radio tune turned down to a buzz.

Standing at the peek, I looked out to my right: the mountainous desert, grey under the moonlight and extending until far beyond my ken. I felt as though gazing on eternity, the weight of all that is pressing down from the clouds hugging the earth, with the breath that is me simply ruffling some sand here during these moments. My footprints will be washed over and the sand will become hard again with time. In the distance in front of me I could see the faint glow of the oasis, and to my left below the gathering of friends circled together on rugs near the burning fire. Being faced with this endlessness left me feeling both exposed and overwhelmed by its majesty and beauty.

I was lost in my gaze, looking out into the eternity, but I could not help but feel that the place to be is right there among friends, joyful and light. We are meant to contemplate eternity, to be awed by the vast stretches of time and being beyond ourselves, and reminded that we too will become dust after our own brief visit here. But we are also meant to be joyful, to laugh, to be light! I am reminded of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, that peaceful soul Who had been imprisoned from childhood until grey hair, approaching so many with His face wreathed in smiles, asking simply: “Are you happy?” When our gaze is fixed on the eternal, the joyful things of this world are not distractions from our path but signs of the Beloved directing us onward.

The joyful din gave way to the clinks and clanks of packing up the evening, signaling an immanent departure, and I descended from the dune. We boarded the trucks and made way for the oasis. Two of the musicians had crammed into the back with some instruments, and we began talking with them and sounding some beats on the Dumbek and Tar drums. Knowing the answer, I asked, “How is your work here as a musician? Is playing music enough, or do you have another job?” They work on date and olive farms, they said. “Do you ever play in town, or just out in the desert like tonight?” Yes, they said, but only for tourists, at hotels and the oasis’ cultural house.

We were trying to hold a light steady beat together, despite sudden ups and downs and turns. As we crossed the unmarked boundary of desert to village, and small houses began to appear, the driver raised his hand to us saying, “Please.” Thinking perhaps he had become tired of the noise, remembering long car rides and parental drivers having enough of back-seat ruckus, I asked playfully, “You’ve had enough?” It wasn’t that, he said. We were entering town.

A taste of Siwan music, thanks to Youtube!



  1. “We are meant to contemplate eternity, to be awed by the vast stretches of time and being beyond ourselves, and reminded that we too will become dust after our own brief visit here. But we are also meant to be joyful, to laugh, to be light!”

    I so love you. ❤

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