As I discovered on my bus ride last weekend to the western oases, much of Egypt's Western Desert is simply empty. Whereas in Morocco and Jordan the terrain was broken by powerlines, occasional buildings, and patches of small shrubbery, along the road through the desert in Egypt there was almost nothing, kind of like Kansas without wheat and intersections. On one side there was a railroad track running parallel with the road, but aside from that there was beige sand in every direction, as far as the eye can see, just like one thinks of a desert before actually seeing one.
At one point, perhaps an hour into the trip, the bus stopped and someone got off. I am at a loss to explain where he was going or what landmarks were used to determine he had reached his destination; perhaps if he comes back in a few decades to found a new religion, I can claim to have seen a bit of history. Aside from that and the extremely rare building surrounded by various machinery, the only civilization for about five hours consisted of a rest stop selling soda, tea, sheesha, and snack foods that redefined by perception of "the middle of nowhere." Clearly the only reason it existed was because it was halfway between Cairo and the first oasis, but it did a booming trade for that, as two tour busses stopped there during our own rest stop.
Eventually we reached my destination, the Bahariyya Oasis in the northern fringes of the Black Desert of western Egypt. Here millennia ago, before there was an ancient Egypt, the Nile had flowed before its course changed to the present route in the country's east, leaving a series of springs to provide enough water for agriculture and more recently tourism. The latter industry is a recent development, for about 12 years ago its main town of Bawati didn't even have electricity, though today everyone has a television, telephone, and often a cell phone to stay in touch with the outside world. Aside from the desert, tourism has picked up with the discovery in the late 1990's of the "Golden Mummies" dating from the Ptolemaic period of the 4th-1st centuries BC and a Temple of Alexander the Great outside of town. It was, however, the first place I've ever visited that didn't have an internet cafe, though several hotels had their own internet access.
Arrivals in Bahariyya always attract the interest of the Egyptian Tourism and Antiquities Police. In Cairo these guys wear clean white uniforms and sit around all the hotels and museums; out here in the desert they have all the trappings of a frontier posting, wearing beige uniforms less well kept, or sometimes no uniform at all. One wearing a blue shirt and jeans got on as entered the oasis to ask after the nationalities of me and a guy I met on the bus who was basically a drifter from Baltimore. According to the real-life Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy known as the Lonely Planet
guidebook, his purpose was to escort us to the tourist information center where we would be presented with an array of hotel options by the authorities. As it happened, however, the drifter and I had already gotten an idea where we were going, so we simply went there directly.
Most of the budget hotels in Bahariyya are really safari camps scattered a few kilometers outside the city, and when we got to ours we met two more new arrivals, an early-30-ish heiress-adventuress from New Zealand who, when asked if she had been to South America replied no but that when she returned home to "buy more land" she might learn Spanish in preparation for going there, as well as a slightly older Irish woman whose story I never got. The heiress-adventuress had been travelling since February and the Irish woman since April - they had been when they both signed up for a 15-week Cairo-Capetown truck trip that would be starting in a few days.
The place where we stayed showed clearly that a lot of the traditional desert hospitality still survived in Bahariyya, as the four of us were all made to drink tea and talk about where were from and how our trip had been before we got down to questions about whether we would like to see a room or go on an overnight safari. In fact, much of the hotel's organization was fairly ad hoc. At every other place I've stayed in the Arab world I've had to provide my passport number so they can report my presence to the authorities; I don't think anyone at this place even learned my surname. I also learned that lots of desert guides know each other. The two women had done a safari in Farafra to the south, and one person asked who their guide was. They said it had been Hamdy Ali, and the guy indicated he knew him and that he was good; someone else said he was the best guide in that area.
After each getting a room, we assembled for lunch in the dining room. They offered a meal of a quarter chicken, rice, potato soup, and salad, but all of us wanted some lighter and had pasta instead. We had the place to ourselves - this is low season for Egypt as a whole, and even more so for the desert, as even the safari guide said he refused to leave the shade until early evening. Someone came back to report on the day's new arrivals, and it was something like ten people split among over a dozen hotels.
That evening we all went on a local trip around the area. The first stop was a spring, where the women went swimming in a concrete pool, while the drifter and I settled for hiking around in the shade. There was great diversity in the flora, with palm trees and something that looked like a thinly leaved conifer - I asked one of the workmen by the spring what the names of the trees were, but could not later find them in my Arabic-English dictionary. There were also some purply flowers and old firepits that had probably been used for burning trash.
After that we went to a place called English Mountain, really a large hill in the Black Desert on which the British had built a fort during World War I. The fort is now in ruins, but the vantage point still affords stunning views of the area. As you hike up to it you climb through numerous small slabs of either basalt or some metamorphic rock (I need to start travelling with a scientist) which the wind wears away, leaving everything coated in a layer of black so that the hills look like slag slabs over a sea of rusty iron.
The last place around Bahariyya we went to was a salt lake, similar to the Dead Sea between Jordan and Israel where locals would still go to get their salt from the shores. The heiress-adventuress wanted to watch the sunset there, so we did while talking to the guide about the changes which he'd seen in the oasis. He grew up a farmer, and while there was more money now, he sometimes missed the old days, saying it was a "natural life."
The next morning, I headed into town to catch the bus to Farafra. The "bus station" in Bawati was really a small cafe. I sat down and ordered a tea while waiting, and a bunch of men sitting in the cafe immediately asked where I was from and where I was going, and upon learning my destination indicated I shout just sit there, while one gestured to his watch indicated the bus would come. After finishing my tea I went to buy a bottle of water - the instructions to sit were repeated until they realized what I was doing. While there, I got to observe some of the life of the oasis. Because this was the main road, I saw several trucks go by, but the most common means of transportation within Bahariyya was still by donkey. That morning around the hotel, I had seen many people riding donkeys or carts being pulled by donkeys, and the night before saw what I guess you'd call a donkey headlight - as we came back from the salt lake we suddenly saw a light in front of us to the side, revealing a donkey with a sort of miner's hat which the rider had just turned on as we approached.
As the bus pulled up across from the cafe, people indicated that it was, in fact, the bus to Farafra, and as it finished its rest stop I got on headed south. The Black Desert continued on for another hour or more before giving way to the region's real attraction, the White Desert, made mostly of chalk and quartz with rock formations that looked a lot like pale version of pictures I've seen of a national park in Utah or crystalline forms that glinted in the relentless sunlight like stars fallen to earth but retaining their twinkle.
As you went south, the tourist police also became more of a presence. About 2/3 of the way to Farafra we stopped at a police station. An officer got on, made his way to the back of the bus where I was, asked if I had any problems, and, when assured, got off and we continued the journey. I must admit it felt really weird. On the outskirts of Farafra another officer got on to ask where I was staying. I had a couple of places in mind, one of which turned out to be closed. The other was on the main road; when the bus reached it two officers were there to tell me I could just get off there while making sure I had all my stuff. It still felt weird - most of the Egyptians on the bus were looking on benignly, a few younger people appeared frustrated at the delay. (Something similar would happen the next day - the place was slow enough that I had four tourist police whose only real job all morning was making sure I caught the bus back to Cairo.)
Perhaps with this as the introduction, I didn't like Farafra as much as Bahariyya. The hotel staff was less enthusiastic, though whether from lack of competition or the sudden spike in temperature I couldn't say. They were also more expensive - my lunch of a quarter chicken, rice, potato soup, and salad was over twice as expensive as the same meal the day before. Farafra was also, despite its tiny size, much more modernized in terms of infrastructure. I had come there mainly to see an art museum, which was the home base of a local painter and sculptor famous for his scenes of Bedouin life. Turning down the offer of a police escort, I found it, but the museum was locked. When I went across the street to ask a tourist cop when it might open he stepped into a cafe, said something that caused a flurry of activity, then told me that they were looking for the artist to tell him someone had come to see his museum. I waited for a couple of hours before giving up. I did eat in a local 4-seat restaurant, where for less than half of what I paid for supper in Bahariyya I got a standard "dinner meal," which included a quarter chicken, rice, potato soup, and salad.
What didn't change in Farafra was how friendly the people were, all waving at me and making conversation. One stark change, though, was more people speaking English and more politics to the conversations. I'm going to run three or four distinct conversations together here (2 English, 1 Arabic, 1 short one in a little of both), but a lot of people were really upset about Iraq. They all assured me they liked Americans (one even added that he thought Israelis were perfectly nice people), but were completely unable to understand why we were letting our government do what it was doing in Iraq, with stories of civilian casualties that had stuck in their minds from the media coverage, such as an old man being shot in a raid on a mosque, and why we had re-elected President Bush. This was not support for Saddam Hussein - one person called him a "filthy animal," which is pretty much the lowest rung to the Arab ladder of profanity, but they were wondering if Bush and Co. might actually be worse. They were also upset at the Egyptian government - with reference to the May 25 protests, one guy said, "We couldn't believe it when we saw what they did to the women," and then got so upset he couldn't go on. But the comment someone made that linked the two themes together was about American support for Arab democracy - that person said he'd love to have democracy, and that he'd welcome American support and guidance, but he felt what the U.S. wanted to do was control everything like in a chess game and force our own changes rather than let Egyptians do things themselves.
I was thinking about these sorts of issues talking to one of the staff in a small sitting room near the front of the hotel. This guy was really into history, though he went for ancient rather than medieval. He made the common analogy that the U.S. was becoming the new Rome, tossing in the opinion of many Arabs that our own democracy is under attack from within. Thinking the Rome analogy a stretch, I was speaking in analyst mode as an observer and participant in American politics, when one of the tourist police stopped by to ask about my plans for the next day, which he dutifully reported over his walkie-talkie to whomever it was had to know such things.
After he was gone, I thought I'd change the subject a bit, asking why the tourist police kept monitoring everything. "It is to keep you safe," the guy said. "Am I in danger?" I asked. "No," replied the guy. "It is so that you feel safe." I still didn't think we'd pegged it, and so pressed on with how there seemed to be absolutely nothing in Farafra that could threaten me, and the guy agreed that there wasn't, but said that out here in the middle of the desert far away from everything, some people were just comforted by having them there.
I stopped for a moment to consider it, then thought of another angle from which to ferret out an explanation for what was bugging me. I spoke of the cop who had come all the way to the back to ask me if I needed anything, when anyone else on the bus could have been having problems, needed to find a place to stay, or any of the other functions the tourist police served.
The guy I was talking to paused - my mind might have falsified its present memory of him dumping ash out of a cigarette. Then he spoke. "I just told you that you are the new Romans. You know that in the Roman Empire, there were the Romans," here he made a circle in front of him with his hands, before pulling them apart again, " and the...the..." I stopped to indicate I knew what he was getting at with pre-Caracalla concepts of Roman citizenship. He then said,"It is like the Roman citizen - you always travel under the protection of the empire."
That stopped me. As I expressed admiration for the analogy his cell phone rang and he had to go. Not yet ready to turn in, I made my way upstairs to the roof, where behind the low sandstone walls of my villa-like hotel the only sounds in the pleasant desert night were the walkie-talkies of the tourist police out front as I looked down on the short road into town illuminated by streetlamps that seemed out of place in such a remote location and the shadows of White Desert formations off in the distance.