Two blogs ago I said we had two reasons for traveling to Dahklah Oasis and Ain El Oda in southwestern Egypt. I failed to mention that we also wanted to check out and purchase some of the wonderful handicrafts the region is so well known for.
I should back up some and tell you that Azza, my Egyptian wife of three years, is in the home stretch of receiving her green card. About fifteen months or so ago, we hired a fancy immigration lawyer, with an office in Austin, Texas, to help us start the process. I’ve been living in Egypt for seven years now, but recently, let’s say in the last year and a half, the security situation has gotten so that it’s now time for us to get out of this part of the world while the gettin’s good. This point was recently driven home when we had a bomb blow up on our street, not more than a hundred yards away from our apartment building, which is located in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo and a part of the city once thought to be immune from the sort of political violence that is wracking this country and the entire Middle East-North Africa region.
So what does this have to do with us wanting to look at handicrafts in rural Egypt? Well, we’ve been thinking that we might start an import-export business and bring a bunch of super cool decorative items into the US to sell. The Egyptians are not as well-known as the Turks or Iranians for their rugs, but they make some mighty fine ones. And they produce hand-tooled metal light fixtures that are simply to die for. Applique, pottery, furniture, and hand-blown glass can be added to the list of things produced by Egyptian artists and craftspeople.
In this piece I want to focus on baskets and basketry. During our visit to the oasis, we picked up a few of these vessels to add to our collection. They are exquisite examples of the craft and the sort of decorative item many Americans would simply go bonkers over. Don’t you agree?
I’m pretty sure my visit to Ain El Oda was unprecedented. Never had a non-Egyptian stepped foot in the place. And then here I came, an actually American, wandering the unpaved streets and taking in the sights.
As you might guess my sudden appearance created quite a stir. On about the second day I began to catch villagers sneaking peeks at me. They’d hide behind donkey carts and such. All I’d see would be a curious eye, often wide with amazement, peering out from some dark, secretive place.
Azza’s family’s reaction to my visit was sweet. Many tried their hand at speaking English, not having uttered a word of that foreign tongue since graduating from school. People wanted to give me things. The fatted calf was killed and great pots of food were heaped upon the table. They wanted to make sure that my glass was always full. Did I want a little taste of homemade cheese? How about some fresh bread?
They also planned a lot of events. So, every afternoon and evening, they’d load me into a car and shuttle me around. I think they were worried I’d find the place too off the beaten path, so they wished to assure me they had places to go and things to see too, just like the larger world did.
I was driven to see two nearby hotels and given tours of each one. Both were funky-cool by any set of standards a person might want to apply. One of the places was called Badawiya Dakhla Hotel and was situated in El Qasr, an ancient place known for its wonderful folksy handicrafts. The other was Al Tarfa Lodge and Spa which is owned by a member of Sawarises, a family with pockets so deep their bottoms cannot be seen without the use of a high-powered telescope.
I’ve included a selection of exterior and interior photos. Note how reminiscent the buildings are of New Mexican adobes.
Azza and I are very tired today. Last night, around 10 p.m., we returned from a week-long road trip across a good portion of Egypt. We made this journey—a bumpy and sandy one—in a tough-as-nails Jeep Grand Cherokee owned and driven by Magdy, my wife’s oldest brother. Accompanying us was Basma, Magdy’s wife, Zeineb, Azza’s mother, and “Mehdu”—short for Mohamed—Zeineb’s youngest grandson.
The purpose of the trip was twofold: have a Spring Break adventure and visit a number of Azza’s uncles, aunts, and cousins, a sweet bunch of country folk who reside in an area of southwestern Egypt known as the Dahkla Oasis. To get a sense of where we went, find El Kharga on the map (see below) and then go west from there until you come to a place called El Qasr. That’s about where we ended up. The village we actually stayed in is not depicted. It’s called Ain El Oda.
If you’re into distances and that sort of thing, that’s a thousand miles, round-trip, across potholed highways that occasionally disappeared due to the creeping encroachment of mountain-sized sand dunes. In fact, portions of our sojourn could realistically be described as “off road.”
I envision this blog being the first in a series about the trip. What I did in Ain El Oda, and its environs, and the people I met there. My impressions. That sort of thing.
I’d like to do this first one on a woman named Khadra, one of Azza’s great-aunts.
I first met Khadra on her bed in the room where she slept, a dark space, made of Egypt’s version of adobe, with a dirt floor underneath our feet. The ceiling consisted of raw timber rafters and more mud. The bed was pushed up against one of the walls and the door was standing wide open, allowing flies to freely enter and exit. Semiha, one of Khadra’s daughters, was visiting her mother when we arrived. Of course, we all greeted one another in typical Egyptian fashion—a kiss applied to one side of the face and then the other, alternating like that until three or four smooches had found their mark.
There were no chairs so we simply sat on the bed itself. Khadra was wearing mourning black—Azza later explained that she’d dressed herself in this color nine years earlier, at the loss of a close member of the family, and just about the time she was ready to return to her regular attire, one of her sons died. Those traumas had been enough to cause her to grieve in perpetuity. Before the end of that initial visit, I asked Azza to ask Khadra how old she was. Khadra thought for a moment and then shrugged her shoulders. She wasn’t for sure. Eighty something, she guessed.
I immediately felt a strong kinship with Khadra. She talked about her physical ailments but never seemed to dwell on them. She had this marvelous way of suddenly turning toward me and looking me straight in the eyes before sending countrified Arabic my way. Of course, I wasn’t able to understand most of what she said, but Azza kept translating. Her utterances often had something to do with how happy she was to meet me and how glad she was Azza and I had gotten married.
In the evenings we made sure to return to Khadra’s place for a bit of socializing. After dark she’d leave her bed and go to the “sitting room,” a space that included a small television which she completely ignored. Instead, she would busy herself by talking with the ten or so visitors who’d come to say hello.
At one point, I told Azza to tell her great-aunt that she reminded me of my maternal grandmother, a woman I’m sure I’ll eventually blog about. As soon as she heard that, Khadra smiled and her face lit up. I’d given her such a compliment that she insisted I allow her to give me a kiss. Of course, I immediately obliged. Luckily, Azza had her camera at the ready and was thus able to digitally capture the moment.