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The northernmost oasis on the ancient oasis route that runs west into Libya and south into Sudan through some of the most savage desert in the world, Siwa is, quite frankly, unique. Half mafia town, half backpacker hangout, extremely conservative yet awash in alcohol, hashish, guns and yes, still gay sex, packed with phenomenally kindly folk who run everything from shampoo and toothpaste to drugs and AK47s out of Libya, you could spend half a lifetime in Siwa and never understand it.
A Berber warrior town for many centuries, the crumbling remnants of an old mud fort where villagers lived and strangers died unpleasant deaths loom over the town square like the shattered jaw of an ancient skull. The spiritual whiff-whaff that emanates, leyline-style, from such a place, along with the extremely potent hash, freshly imported so hardly cut, makes Siwa as close to a hippie mecca as Egypt gets. Siwa was the last place in Egypt to allow same-sex marriage, although this has been banned for the big end of a century now, and, while the more feminine man can expect the kind of blatant, hungry, strip-you-naked stares that Western women experience elsewhere in Egypt, the unwise cruiser is headed for a bruising.
Almost everyone here, whether Berber, with blue eyes below Afro-tight curls, Bedouin or an import from the Mediterranean coast, wears robes. Siwi wedding rituals, where the bride is kidnapped on her way from a spring, still recall the more brutal habits of the past. And, after her wedding, a woman disappears. Outside the home, married women wear a thick black cloth that completely obscures the face, without even the mesh that alleviates the Afghani burka, offering only a vague perception of shadows in the world beyond, even in the glaring desert sun.
We saw them, most of the time, swaddled in layers of shawls like so many semi-animated Russian dolls, shuttling around town in the donkey carts that are still the short-hop vehicle of choice here.
Here, once married, a woman can no longer work outside the home. A town of under 25, souls, Siwa is kilometres from the nearest city of any size, Marsa Matruh on the Mediterranean coast, but under 70 from the Libyan border. A true oasis of date palms, olive trees, limpid springs and blue stone baths, it sits amid a desert of dunes and lakes so savagely saline it is impossible to sink in them, a little world of its own.