By Annapurna Mellor
‘Welcome to Libya’,
I jolt awake, confused at the words I’ve just awoken to after hours of unfulfilled sleep on a rattling night bus. The guard towering above me chuckles, pleased that his clever little joke has worked, and gestures to the Egyptian Eagle, displayed proudly on his right shoulder.
‘Welcome to Siwa‘ he adds reassuringly, and my face relaxes, realising I haven’t accidental border hopped during the night. He hands me back my passport, and I begin to adjust my eyes to the endless desert which stretches along the road beyond.
Located only 40km from the Libyan border, the Siwa Oasis exists as a micro culture of it’s own. The native tongue is Siwan, and the part time liberalism of Cairo is long behind us, as we fail to catch even a glance of eyes from the local women, who appear veiled from head to toe in thick black cloth. Beaten, worn, with sandy feet and sunken eyes, Siwa, like much of the country, has been badly affected by Egypt’s 2011 revolution.
‘Only five tourists today’, the lonely man in the tourist information tells us, ‘Before, each Christmas, there would have been over 100’.
While the solitude is welcomed for the few of us who venture into these parts, it is obvious that it has only negatively impacted the Siwans. We can find hotel rooms for only £3 a night, but we’re usually the only ones dining in the restaurants, the only ones swimming in town’s surrounding hot springs. As we climb the ruins of the Temple of Amun, and look down at the expanse of palm trees, golden dunes and the salty oasis which shape this unique area, it feels unjust to have this stunning place almost completely to ourselves.
The next morning, we take a Jeep out to the rolling desert dunes. Mint tea is served on one of the area’s highest sand mountains, as we watch the red sky turn dark in awe of the solidarity we have discovered. All around us is endless sand, and it’s all for ourselves, to run and dance free through. Later we sleep around a lone camp fire as locals sing love songs in a language even an Egyptian wouldn’t understand. Our guide Osman drags us through the desert deep in the night. He carries no flash light or compass, yet he’s firmly sure of the direction we’re going.
‘How do you know the way?’ I ask him, carefully trying not to catch my feet on the uneven ground beneath my feet.
‘I follow the stars’ he says, so matter of fact I feel like it’s a gift which he was given at birth.
‘Specifically, that star there’ and he points to the brightest and boldest in a sky of one thousand universes. The star has led us right, and we find a small opening in the dunes, displaying a dome of the milky way above our heads. As we sit for a few moments in perfect silence, feeling the impossibility of our own existence, a thought pangs into my head; it’s Christmas Day.
The next morning, I am awoken by my best friend who shakes me in the early hours. ‘Sunrise’ she echoes. I walk towards the expanse of desert as the Egyptian sun lights the waving sands. My family would be sitting around the Christmas tree, opening presents and arguing over who will be preparing the Christmas dinner. But the scene in front of me rivals any white Christmas I’ve seen before.
Siwa can be reached by bus from Cairo or Alexandria. The journey takes 10 hours.