Born in Egypt’s desert oasis of Siwa, Mahmud and many other children in this town of about 24,000 grew up speaking the Berber tongue residents call Siwi – not Arabic, which is spoken in the rest of the country of 70 million people.
“I knew a little Arabic, like ‘My name is Mahmud’, and ‘How are you?’ and stuff I learnt from television,” the 14-year-old said of the time when he started school at the age of six.
“Our teacher was from Siwa. He would translate for us at first. But now I speak Arabic,” he said in his adopted tongue as he sat on his donkey cart urging along the stubborn beast.
Siwa’s language has been protected for centuries from the outside world by a sea of sand and rocky plains in Egypt’s western desert, which destroyed ancient armies. A close-knit community also kept alive the isolated society’s traditions.
Television and tourism are
But a new “invasion”, as some in the palm-fringed oasis call it, of televisions and tourists has started to change that.
“Change is everywhere, and you cannot stop it. There are good changes, of course. Now, women go to school to learn. The question is: ‘Why can’t we change and keep the culture?'” said 29-year-old Fathi Malim, an anthropologist from Siwa.
Characterless concrete buildings are taking over from the mud homes that insulated so effectively against heat and cold.
Traditions like storytelling are dying as old routines of farming dates and olives give way to television soaps, demanding tourists and modern pressures that force many to work two jobs.
Some worry that tourists, who have brought a welcome economic boost, are undermining the very attractions they come to visit, damaging the fragile ecosystem with its bubbling springs and breaking down Siwa’s unique identity.
“Our customs and traditions are threatened, of course,” said 27-year-old Ahmad Jery, a trained teacher.
Selective ecotourism may lessen
An Italian-backed project is working to encourage sustainable agriculture, still the town’s mainstay, as over-irrigation has created large saline lakes.
The project, running since 1998, also seeks to encourage more selective eco-friendly visitors, avoiding the kind of mass tourism that has mushroomed in other areas of Egypt, such as the Red Sea where concrete now covers swathes of the coastline.
“The ecosystem is very fragile here … Siwa is not a [place for] mass tourism,” said Marco Marchetti, coordinator of the Egyptian-Italian Environmental Cooperation Programme, which covers several areas of Egypt, including Siwa.
Plans for Siwa include revitalising with traditional methods the old fortified town, or Shali, which towers over Siwa.
Built of salt chunks and mud, it was largely abandoned after a storm in 1926, and has gradually disintegrated since.
Elsewhere, the town still has distinctive features, donkey carts rattle along tracks in the shade of palm groves, some for tourists but mostly as the favoured form of transport.
Women still practice handicrafts at home, turning out wicker baskets and other wares, though often now as souvenirs.
But the art of making Siwa’s distinctive heavy silver jewellery is dying out and many old pieces have been sold to foreigners.
Even though communications have improved, few men and almost no women marry outside Siwa’s boundaries.
Some traditions that have survived seem a world away from practices in the rest of Egypt and the modern world.
Few women are seen in public. Once married, they stay at home and when they venture out, cover their faces and wear a blue patterned wrap over their entire body.
Residents say girls may be engaged at the age of 10 or younger, and may be married at 16 or 17. Even though communications have improved, few men and almost no women marry outside Siwa’s boundaries.
Customs and traditions
Malim published a book in 2001 to document customs and traditions before they are forgotten. It relates folk tales once passed on orally, and traditional medicines and even magic that, he writes, are still practised by some.
Ancient traditions, once lost,
Tourism began in earnest in the mid-1980s with the completion of a tarred road from Siwa to Marsa Matruh on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, almost 300km to the north.
Before that, only a trickle of visitors ventured to the oasis, which was a back-breaking drive along a track from the coast.
Now, tourists come in increasing numbers to visit ancient ruins, and to cruise in four-wheel drives across the endless desert of swirling dunes or swim in freshwater pools.
Famed in ancient times for the Oracle of Ammon, the temple remains stand loftily above palm groves on the edge of town.
The Persian warrior Cambyses sent a 50,000-strong army to destroy the powerful oracle in 524 BC, but his troops were lost in shifting desert sands. Alexander the Great successfully made the trek to consult the oracle in 331 BC.
Since then, Bedouin tribes have raided the town, Egyptian leaders have marched on it to claim it as their own and planes bombed it in World War II, driving inhabitants to hide in the ancient tombs carved into a nearby hill.
But none had the lasting impact of the latest onslaught.
Malim said Siwans themselves need to realise that keeping their identity will help secure a sustainable tourist income.
“The most important thing for local people to understand is that the future of Siwa is our culture,” said Malim.