“When we are starting a new uncharted path, we never know what we’ll see along the way, or where our journey will end…”
Creatures of the night as we are, we started our exodus under the blanket of night…
The bus is not extremely comfy… but it’s better than I thought. Anyways I don’t really care!! I have to get out of here… the city is suffocating me, and it’s starting to close in… I fear it’s not gonna let me go easily!
Claustrophobia has a new sister, Urbanephobia, Or Civiliphobia!!!
850,000 meters away from grace land… but I can smell freedom… we all can, and our spirits are high… high on sand and air! Seems like the desert will be my new addiction!
As our pilgrim from the city to the vernacular starts, our heads swarm with hopes and fears, we didn’t know what to expect… but we all hoped for a miracle, each in his/her own perception.
9 companions on a road to nowhere; slowly “I” becomes “we”, and we share a unity that no one else will understand… may the fellowship of the sand begin… and may it never be broken!
We endure the hardships of the road, with ease because we were all eager for the heaven beyond…
The closer we get, the greater our anticipation grows, until it became an entity hanging around us, greater than we are, threatening to devour us all!
After more than 8 hours, fulfillment arrives with the early rays of dawn, and the call for prayer in the background… the opening act could not be more perfectly set!
In the darkness of the first hours of the new day we fumble to our simple yet friendly motel; later on we discover that friendliness is a trait of this time forgotten land, and it colors all the places, individuals and creatures that live here with it’s kindly light. The weather is freezing cold, but our souls are animated by our exhilaration, and no one minds anything, a state of being arises in all of us, that is almost between ecstasy and euphoria!
In our rooms, though tired as we can ever be, we cannot sleep easily; because we want the day to begin… too bad we have no control over time!
We wake up with a contrasting mixture of peace and intense frenzy, eager for adventure, yet relaxed and happy merely because we are here. I could almost taste the sand in my mouth although the room was perfectly clean. We grab our breakfast in a hurry, and head out to tour the town.
Touring the Old town with our donkey carets, we were shocked at how everything is moving unhurriedly and at ease (except for our drivers)… a general calmness and peace dominates the life here, and slowly as our bodies start to adapt to the pace, our body tempo drops from 1000 to 0.001!
Our drivers move through the town with the speed & pride of old warriors and for an instant I see the one driving our caret as if he’s Ahmous heading to war! Yet their spirit of genuine friendliness and Egyptian sense of humor are a stark example for how people of their profession should be.
By mid day we fully adapt to the harmony, and only then that we are taken by the surrounding serenity…
We tread the path of Alexander, entering the temple of Amoun and I can almost hear the whispers of the priests and the psalms of a thousand worshipers. Standing in the terrace, over the top of the temple hill, where he stood, I grasped for the first time the full size of the oasis, acres of green gardens and palms stretched in front me, and I felt as he must have felt… at awe at the beauty of God’s creation… it was almost a revelation… tranquility personified!
By dusk we had toured the whole city, and we moved to the outskirts to witness the sunset… there, we meet four more companion refugees from the city, 2 friends of ours, and 2 of their friends (one of whom turns out to be the very “Camel” of PTP to my astonishment and convenience).
We join to witness the simple miracle of the sun’s departure… it was pure rapture all over… every one was seeing it for the first time, even those who had been here before… every one was experiencing the bliss of his/her God. As night dropped, the chill was back, but again it only heightened our senses… engulfed by the stillness, we sat there listening to the sound of silence.
Back at our lodge we enjoyed the warmth of the fire as we started to share memories and past experiences, derived by a desire to know each other more. We were sharing moments to prepare for the coming moment… tomorrow the escapade begins! tomorrow the desert begins!
And it’s calling was already being heard…
Adventure: Journey, quest, exploration.
Desert: Wasteland, Wilderness, barren land, desolate tract
All language falls short from the experience… words are static & lifeless, and any experience is dynamic & full of life…
How can we describe something so intense and full of beauty? How can we reduce life to verbs & nouns? I don’t know of a way… but nonetheless I’ll try!
We started our journey by noon. After stopping for gas and supplies, we headed straight to the desert, and as we got closer, an insatiable anxiety & sense of adventure arose in all of us… we couldn’t wait for our own quest to start…
As we moved into the desert, we had to make one last stop to reduce the pressure of the wheels (a necessary procedure we later understood), in front of us the wilderness stretches, and to our astonishment it looks peaceful yet full of wonder, with no signs of malice or danger!
I start feeling my individuality again, and I feel that the desert have been waiting for us, to tell us some deep secret or truth, each in his/her own tongue and manner…
Something is taking over me, something which I cannot explain!
As we resume our journey again, the desert opens up, revealing to us it’s full marvel & charm, and I feel spellbound and entranced… slope after slope and endless valleys of white creamy sand… it’s as if no one have ever been here and we are the first humans to venture through this land… I can stay here forever, and forever can stay here in me!
On the way to our next stop, we start to talk to our guide, trying to get to know him more, maybe that would help us understand the people of the desert & why the inhabitants of this place feel so genuine. “My nick name is TASH TASH” he says in perfect English! And we discover that he is the leader of the pack, and one of the best guides in Siwa. As he tells us his endless stories we develop a strong sense of wonder with his character, mixed with a deep respect for his simple yet virtuous logic. Is this how our companions in the other 2 cars feel towards their guides?! I don’t know, but I sense that they feel similar. Over the next couple of days we get to know them more, and we discover that every story they tell no matter how far fetched & unbelievable, is true… these people have no need for lies & deceit… they have no need for heroic exaggerations & fake pride… their pride is immense as it is, and their dignity is great, they need not impress some city folk to feel venerated.
We stop for the second time, and now it’s picture complete… our exhilaration reaches it’s maximum height. We gasp at the sight of the sun shining on the dunes, the blue skies with white streaks setting the perfect background, & the green oasis that is now a mere line in the horizon. We all feel the adventure swelling in our blood, each experiencing the same sensation, but expressing it in his/her own way, some takes long walks by him/herself to contemplate the miracle, others sit and debate eternity, some are taking pictures while my drug of choice was sand boarding…
Although the language of expression changes from an individual to another, we all share the same sense of freedom & serenity…
An hour later we have late lunch & Arabian tea, and for the first time in a long while we all appreciate our simple meal… every one is content and satisfied… satisfied with the nothingness and stillness, it’s an amazing sensation not to need anything!
After lunch each resumes his/her inner/outer explorations… each trying to find his/her answers… maybe the sand can tell us more about ourselves…
Before we hit the road I decide to do one last boarding stunt, a dangerous slope we all agree and our guides warn me against it, but I’ve to do it nonetheless… even if it’s the end of me! Standing on the top of the slope I hesitate for an instant… but it’s too late to back out now, there is no return from where I stand… everyone is waiting for me at the foot of the hill, everyone has always been waiting for me at the foot of the hill… if only I can get down to them, but no! Now I will… I have been gathering my courage for this moment for as long as I can remember, and now it’s almost time.
I reach back into my life for self assurance, I reach back into my heart for faith and then I step forward… as I start my descent I feel the freedom swelling inside of me, and I let it out with a cry of triumph, time freezes for a moment and I’m just feeling the wind and sand rush past me, I stop thinking about me and I start glimpsing a meaning; Life feels perfect, the world feels perfect & I stop caring about how this will end… I reach the climax of speed and with it I feel a deeper climax in my body, but as any other ecstasy, the moment of climax is directly followed by the moment of decline…
I reach the bottom amongst the cheers and applause of my spectators, even though I stumble by the end, but I don’t care! I want to go back and do it again & again & again… unfortunately I can’t, and I’m left instead, with a memory of rapture and a feeling of frustration.
We resume our journey and now our guides start driving faster because dusk is closing in… As if chasing Count Dracula in Bram Stokers’ classical final scene, we are racing through the wilderness, and it feels surreal, even though we’re only speeding to reach a higher ground so we can view the perfect sunset.
We reach our destination minutes before sunset… and witness the miracle all over again; & I find myself constantly re-assessing the ground on which I stand here and comparing it with that I know back in Cairo . A change is occurring in the deepest folds of my consciousness, a change that I don’t understand & can’t yet put to words!
A while after sunset, we headed back to our camping site, to spend our first night in the desert. There we are once again amazed by the hospitality of the people.
Our camp had a hot water spring, which we enjoyed until dinner was set. Afterwards we sat by the fire and “Camel” sang us a song he came up with, with the aid of the Bedouin’s “Semsemyia”:
Afamsa kamel la neqdaar (we can’t stand all that)
Issa drarin issa leb7aar (on one side, mountains, on the other, the sea)
Men gabl el mi3ad besa3a testanna 3al bab
Men gabl el mi3ad besa3a testanna 3al bab
Te7sebny mesh wakhed bali
Te7sebny mesh wakhed bali
wana galbi daab!
wana galbi daaab!
Men gabl el mi3ad besa3a telbes a7la tob
Men gabl el mi3ad besa3a telbes a7la tob
Wet3ed fi argaam el sa3a
Wet3ed fi argaam el sa3a
Te3mel alf 7esaab!
Te3mel alf 7esaab!
And although we didn’t know the lyrics, 2 minutes into the song and we were all singing along, as the fire preformed it’s eternal sacred dance, but this time it was dancing just for us. Then our guides started singing Siwan Folklore and again we sang along, it was not important who knew the lyrics or the tune, what was important was that we all shared the sensation. And for the second time this day, I felt that everything was just alright.
We stayed by the fire until it died late into the night. Afterwards some of us went to get some rest in the tents, and I decided to take a long walk, which ended by the hot spring. There, I sat listening to the sound of flowing water for an eternity.
Suddenly I came to an startling & frightening realization… for the first time in a long while I was truly satisfied… I could stay in this moment forever! And I wanna stay in the moment forever!
I started wondering about going back home, and panicking about how hectic it will be to re-adapt to Cairo ‘s chaotic life. And then I came to another realization, that I loath it all, I don’t want any of it… yet I knew that I’ll have to go back… and in 2 days exactly, I will give in to the duty, and all my ideas about staying here will soon enough seem foolish and crazy!
I didn’t want to think about it anymore, it was distressing me and distracting me from the silence!
A while later I decided to go to sleep…
I wake up from my stupor minutes before dawn… the wind is blowing hard against the tent, but that not the reason I woke up… I can swear I’m hearing faint whispers under the sound of the wind! Is there anyone from the group still awake outside? I don’t think so! Mystery is in the air! But then again mystery has been in the air ever since we got here… I’ll go back to sleep I decide, the weather is far too cold for me to go out and check what’s out there! Besides it’s probably my imagination…
As I close my eyes something stirs in the far end of the tent………… but that’s not important anymore!
We wake up to a change of weather, a gloomy day dawns, and the wind is high… we have our simple breakfast. And minutes later we hit the road (desert that is) again…
Today we see a new desert, an angry one! Not fully angry of course (God is merciful) but angry nonetheless. And the amazing thing is that even though it’s chilling cold and the sky is covered by a blanket of grey clouds, it is still a marvel to witness. As if the experience had to be completed by seeing the desert in the light of such weather.
My efforts to sand board prove in vain, because of the weather. The sand keeps blowing in my face with such speed, that it feels as if razors are cutting through my cheeks… So I decide to lay back and enjoy the ride, slightly disappointed but content nevertheless.
We stop at several wells and springs on the way, and pass by an area where you can still see the fossil sea shells from the “Jurassic era” when this desert was the ocean bed. And although I read about it before I stand stricken by the power of the almighty.
I wonder what type of fish swam here, and what sizes? And although I know the answers, I still wonder how it must have looked & felt like, with great whales swimming above this very land…
Our last stop was to have late lunch by one of the biggest hot springs I’ve seen till that moment and one of the most beautiful also… the water is so clear, it’s almost crystal like, and to our astonishment there are fish living in the pond!!! By now the sky have cleared, and the sun was doing it’s best to warm us up… even though it’s been a cold day, some of the group jump in the water to enjoy one last swim, especially that 4 of us were leaving the same night…
We returned to the camp to pack, and have our good bye dinner, 2 “Mandy” goats done in the Siwan way (which Camel wouldn’t touch). It was amazing of course, although we had major hygiene problems after the meal.
After the huge meal we started telling scary stories, and Camel was the storyteller most of the time of course. Then came “Tash Tash” and again sang us his magical songs. We were all packed & ready to leave the camp, but we were all loathing our departure from it. We were trying to push it back as late as possible… so we just sat listening to the enchanting sad music. It was the saddest goodbye, it was the perfect goodbye.
We said our last goodbyes as we left the camp, Camel and his 3 companions traveling to Cairo , while me & my 8 companions headed to the hotel, already the fellowship was breaking…
On the way to the hotel we still talked with Tash Tash about our next coming with excitement, as if it’s going to be next week or next month! Deep inside we knew these were hopes in vain!
We reach the motel drained, and after taking our showers and resting, we could still feel the desert sand on our skin. Yet we are not bothered, we realized that these for now are the only traces of the spectacle we just witnessed and we were happy with it. The memory was still fresh and vivid in our mind, and each of us was experiencing “The calling of the desert”, although we just came back. We were already starting to crave it! An unnamed desire arose in all of us, that won’t be fulfilled any soon… all we can do now is sit by the fire, and re-live the marvel, each by telling his side of story.
Tash Tash passes by to say his last goodbyes and we are all surprised with the affinity and love that we developed for this extraordinary man in such a short time.
We spend the last day revisiting the sites of our first day, now at our leisure and on foot, we take time to stop at every detail that interests us… and savor every small aspect that might be of any importance to us… a hopeless attempt to emphasize the experience so that no detail would slip our mind.
By noon we all meet at “Tanta Waa” our favorite chilled out restaurant throughout the trip, and spend the rest of the day, recounting our stories of the journey & talking to random strangers, something you can enjoy doing in Siwa & never get to do in Cairo because of all the borders and walls we put around ourselves.
We head back to the hotel an hour after sunset. And to our discontent our bus punctually arrives on time.
I always wondered if God had to choose a place where he would reveal himself, where would it be? In the mundane reality of our modern life? Or in a secluded wilderness such as this? As I went to Siwa, I was not sure what to expect, but I knew that I needed to go there. After all, this was not only a trip of adventure or relaxation I felt, it’s also one of deep mysticism & of prominent spirituality. And I have been wondering about my own spirituality ever since I had a mind of my own.
There we had surrendered our belief and our pretenses were evoked one more time to slowly evaporate with the darkness, for those moments of our lives, the fragility of our worlds was so tangible.
The silence was now reigning over our return, and we, shadows of former pilgrims and ghosts of our lives; were returning back speechless as we were still in a state of awe at having seen God waking up.
Each of us was thinking about the trip, what it must have meant to him/her, the wonder and sensations, the personal visions & inner revelations. But what I was sure of was that each individual in the bus was experiencing an irrevocable sense of loss and dissatisfaction.
Disappointment was so tangible I could almost wipe it off my forehead.
This was not a restoration to our former state, this was a departure from our true state…
I’m sure we are already yearning for the freedom we just had, this small splash didn’t satisfy our drought…
But at least we can now rest and sleep, and dream of being the nomads we really are.
“How rich our mutability, how easily we change (and are changed) from one thing to another, how unstable our place – and all because of the missing foundation of our existence, the lost ground of our origin, the broken link with our land and our past.”
Edward W Said, After the last Sky (1986)