Life on the edge


Al-Qara Oasis is a place on the fringe both of a major oasis, Siwa, and of mainstream Egyptian society. Until only recently this fascinating area was lost in time.

On his epic journey to Siwa in 331 BCE, Alexander the Great and his entourage went astray and wandered somewhat off course in an easterly direction; fortunately they arrived at an isolated oasis where they found shelter, if few comforts. Legend says that from there ravens guided them on the last leg of their way to Siwa.

The oasis Alexander stumbled upon was probably Al-Qara. To reach it nowadays from Siwa you must drive for 120 kilometres along a battered tarmac road just wide enough for one vehicle. As you approach Al-Qara and begin the descent into the oasis depression, high escarpments loom on either side with acacias and date palms at their feet. The oasis is embellished with fascinating rock formations and sparse but graciously placed greenery, including wispy casuarinas, which lend the air of a Japanese garden.

The abandoned citadel stands away from the modern village, a picturesque ruin sitting on a golden hill with decoratively placed date palms at its feet. Ancient tombs are cut into the rock on the lower levels; their wooden doors testify to their longtime incorporation into the network of apartments in the fortress (photo: Farid Atiya)

Al-Qara is crowned by its ruined citadel where the community lived until as recently as 1985. They left it when a heavy rainstorm caused the karshif (salty mud) bricks to melt and wash away the walls. Although this had happened many times over the centuries, this time the Qarans moved out. Instead of patching up the core and rebuilding the outer walls as their fathers and grandfathers had done, they accepted a government offer of alternative housing, abandoned the winding rabbit warren of their ancestral fortress and moved into the 20th century.

photo: Farid Atiya

With the government housing came, not before time, some attention: a school, a tarmac road and, later, a vehicle. Unfortunately no one thought of providing a road licence, so the latter stayed dormant for a few years until the oversight was remedied. Until they succeeded in putting their vehicle on the road the army or the city council sent in a car once a month with supplies. Before that, until the late 1970s, the people of Al-Qara Oasis made the journey to Siwa by donkey. This took three days each way: they would set out early in the morning and walk all day to Tanura, where there was water. They would spend the night there and go on the next day to Zaytoun. After sleeping there, if all went well, they would arrive in Siwa by noon the next day.

The villagers are self-sufficient, cultivating olives and small squares of fūl (field beans), onions, barley and barsim — a green, clover-type fodder. They keep a few cows and sheep, and every household has a few chickens (photo: Farid Atiya)

The Qarans are hospitable and friendly, and we were invited into the communal hall to drink tea and hear their story. They believe their ancestors have lived in the oasis ‘for ever’. That they are black has led some to suggest that their forebears had ‘fallen off’ or escaped from the slave caravans that used to ply across the eastern Sahara from Sudan, Chad and beyond, but the Qarans themselves strongly deny this. It might not be too far fetched to imagine that they are descendants of one of the ancient African tribes that roamed the region with their cattle herds when it was grassy savannah, like the Tebu of the Western Desert, or — arguably — the Ababda and Bishari who live east of the Nile today. Perhaps, at some point, they were cut off here. Whatever their origins they have always been very poor, living at subsistence level at best.

Sheikh Hassan and some of Al-Qara’s children (photo: Farid Atiya)

Little grows here except for the olives and dates that are their legendary basics. The tiny surplus goes to market to exchange for tea and cloth. Money is unnecessary within the oasis: whatever they gain they pool for use in Shali or Marsa Matrouh. The major shopping expeditions are to Shali in Siwa and to Marsa Matrouh at the Eid or during Ramadan. As in Siwa, there are no female donkeys and young jacks are brought in from Marsa Matrouh.

The women of Qara are quiet and modest. These were the only two we encountered in the oasis (photo: Farid Atiya)

Life has been very different for the Qarans since they joined the modern world. As well as a truck and pick-up they have an ambulance on close call, a clinic with a visiting doctor, and a school. The primary school opened in 1991 and the intermediate in 2002. There is even a television. Sixty kilometres away in Ain Qufara, an exploration company searching for oil struck potable water instead: now this is trucked to Al-Qara, courtesy of the government. Since the government took an interest in them their survival has been less threatened; until then, only 10 percent of children born in Al-Qara survived. Older people, too, fell sick easily — one of the major blights being kidney problems — and few reached what might be called old age. Mortality levels have altered since they switched to drinking clean water.

By the time of the evacuation of Al-Qara Citadel there were 380 people in Qara. This belies an old legend that as a result of a curse no more than 120 people could live there at any one time, a rule once adhered to so strictly that when a baby was born someone left the community to preserve the lives of all.

The children line up to receive the juice cartons we brought for them. The girls came first, then it was the turn of the boys (photo: Farid Atiya)

When it was time to leave and give the elders the gifts we had brought, the boys and girls lined up in single file to receive their juice cartons. And, in spite of their poverty, the Qarans pressed bottles of olives into our hands. Al-Qara Oasis is caught in a precious time capsule, and one that the Qarans themselves say they feel privileged to occupy. We might wish for a few comforts to come their way, but their communal philosophy is one from which we in the modern world could find much to learn.

Jenny Jobbins and the late Farid Atiya are the authors of Silent Desert II: Siwa, published by Farid Atiya Press.