“It is a study of largesse in both legends and lifestyles,” writes emerging author Rawah Badrawi in the introduction of her new book on the desert oasis town of Siwa.
The story by Badrawi and hobbyist photographers Omar Hikal and Khaled Shokry is based on a carefully curated selection of images and text that, in a charmingly poetic style, narrate the history of this isolated town in a manner that is both informative and visually contemporary.
Styled as a coffee table book, it is titled “Siwa: Legends & Lifestyles in the Egyptian Sahara.” At 148 pages, it is replete with guest contributions and testimonies by local and international personalities including actress Isabella Rossellini, architect India Mahdavi, Egyptian Prince Abbas Helmi and wife Princess Mediha, and artist Adel El-Siwi amongst other illustrious characters.
The book is a modern travel book in the sense that it is not simply composed of long passages of descriptive text, but of short informative essays and beautiful pictures. “Siwa” essentially vies to tell an enthralling story weaved from various sources.
It is possible to read “Siwa” in one pleasurable sitting, trawling through the town’s history and making one’s way to the present moment through images of fortresses, old Siwan architecture, stupefying picturesque landscapes and portraits of present-day Siwans as captured by Hikal and Shokry.
The book starts with an introduction by Badrawi and is then divided into two segments: “Reflections on Siwa” contains the 11 guest contributions, and “Inspirations from Siwa” focuses on chapters on Siwan art, jewelry and costume, décor and cuisine.
Badrawi writes beautifully in a style and tone that is articulate about the history of Siwa, and she highlights her impetus for writing this book. As book one in a series, Rawah and her partners aim on producing a further four books on Egypt’s various cultural and lifestyle facets that would appeal to both a local and international audience. The team have a deal with Hong Kong based publisher Haven Books for the series.
For their first effort, they have produced something modern, edgy and useful. Filling a great gap in the Egyptian market for both travel books on Siwa and creative Egyptian photography, the trio has managed to harness all that is magical and enigmatic about Siwa.
Taking readers from the very beginning in her introduction, Badrawi succinctly explains Siwa’s importance: It was home to the Oracle of Amun whose prophesies pleased Alexander the Great. After consulting with the Oracle in private, he emerged confident, so much so that it bolstered him to lead numerous successful conquests and military campaigns.
Badrawi continues to spin a fascinating story of Siwan history, of its importance as a town that witnessed one of history’s greatest oracles, of a town that experienced many conquests and its eventual inclusion within the definitive borders of Egypt, and the present day reality of Siwan culture.
Badrawi’s simple yet elegant writing style betrays her clear passion for the small town. Though the book is essentially a photography book, Badrawi’s introduction is a fine piece of text that demands to be read, not ignored, as one often does with coffee books.
Aside from explaining the traditional Siwan building method of kershef, the simplistic beauty of Siwan handicrafts, the dangers of modernization creeping into Siwan life and the decline of particular traditions throughout the book, a Dr. Mounir Neamatalla is mentioned. Although he doesn’t appear as a direct contributor to the book, he is in and of himself a featured character of Siwa.
Neamatalla is the owner of an eco-lodge and two boutique hotels in Siwa. His reputation precedes him: he is responsible for having put Siwa on the international travel map by way of his eco-lodge Adrere Amellal, which means White Mountain in Berber, a language spoken by Siwans.
An environmental scientist, his ethos has been to protect Siwa’s cultural and natural resources. Not only has he helped several craftsmen develop their craft — which we learn from testimonies by a rope master, stone master and salt master — but we begin to understand how far reaching the influence of outsiders has been on locals.
Throughout the book whether by way of text or images, it is clear that the characters that populate Siwa are many: locals, travelers, desert landscapes, Dr. Neamatalla and other outsiders who have made Siwa home and have contributed to their neighbors and new community.
Therein precisely lies the real story of this book: the story of the contemporary reality of this oasis town. Throughout the book, Hikal, Shoukry and the contributors do a fantastic job of weaving an explanation that discusses the efforts made by several people to preserve the cultural heritage of Siwa and better the lives of its people.
Jewelry designer Azza Fahmy pays homage to the talent and craftsmanship of Siwan jewelers by sharing images of her personal collection of old Siwan jewelry. Clothes designer Laila Nakhla tells of her effort to preserve local embroidery techniques by employing elderly Siwan women, working against cultural norms to introduce the idea of female employment outside the home.
Some of the photographs are particularly sublime. Though amateur photographers with no formal training, Hikal and Shoukry prove their skill at capturing various scenes.
Hikal’s picture of the Fortress of Shali (page 48-49) shows the walls rough texture so clearly, running your hands on the page might elicit the faintest scratch on your palms.
Page 56 and 57 is of a nightscape: a mountain to the side of the frame with faint pinpricks of stars in the sky clearly lit yet somehow we can see that sunset has not yet fallen upon the small town for the village beneath is still naturally lit.
Another picture by Hikal (page 97) is perhaps this writer’s favorite: a perfectly still reflection of White Mountain is captured on the lake’s surface and of the image of absolute symmetry, your eyes can’t differentiate between reflection and reality, and the scene projects the majestic nature of the mountain. The various tones of browns, beiges and blues of the mountain, water and sky are perfectly harmonious but what’s captured is ultimately something intangible: serenity.
Shoukry captures the illumination of moonlight in another beautiful nightscape (pages 76-77) but modern-day scenes are given equal importance in the book.
His image of Siwa’s oldest man is in black and white: wrinkles, cloth cap and a smile resigned to the matter of old age is beautifully juxtaposed on the next page with a color photo of a young man in a head wrap and jeans, his attitude one of insouciance while posing next to sandboarding boards taken by Hikal. Here, the danger and beauty of Siwa’s brush with outsiders and modernity can be inferred in this subtle curation of two distinct portraits.
Overall the book is an enriching experience. The merits of the book are many, including that proceeds from the books will go to charity initiatives, the first being Siwa naturally.
“Siwa: Legends and Lifestyles in the Egyptian Sahara” will be officially launched at Tache Art Gallery on Dec. 9, in Designopolis. The book will be available in all fine bookstores across Egypt and is already available on www.havenbooksonline.com
Though amateur photographers with no formal training, Hikal and Shoukry prove their skill at capturing various scenes. (Photo by Omar Hikal)