The Siwa Festival in Egypt
This festival takes place at the Egyptian oasis of Siwa, located approximately 900 km to the southwest of Cairo, during the full moon in October.
The history of this celebration spans more than 150 years. In many primitive agrarian societies, disputes over land and water usage were common since protocols for sharing these finite resources were seldom established. After numerous disputes and discussions, Ahmed Madani, a Sufi from the Madanya clan, finally instilled peace by ordering all Siwan men to attend a meeting in the mountain village of Dakrour, not far from Siwa. There the men were compelled to pray to God for harmony, each of them refusing to leave until all outstanding quarrels had been settled. It is these very meetings that mark the beginning of the Siwa festival.
The celebration takes place in Dakrour, roughly 3 km from the center of Siwa. Nearby mountain slopes are dotted with abandoned houses that fill with people who have come to take part in the three-day festival. These houses also see use during the summer months, when individuals suffering from rheumatism come to benefit from the therapeutic properties of the desert sand. Siwans erect temporary huts, tents and stalls for the event. Visitors from Marsa Matrouh, Alexandria and elsewhere come to enjoy the occasion with the locals, often bringing with them food that can cannot be found in Siwa, such as ice cream.
During the three days encompassing the October full moon, all of the men and the boys and girls twelve years of age or younger from Siwa make the trip to the neighboring mountain village. The colorfulness and din of the occasion brings the senses alive. People arrive in donkey carts and children abound. Girls are beautifully dressed, often clapping and singing.
On the first day of the holiday twenty-five men go to Dakrour in order to groom the festival grounds. They clean the areas designated for sitting, cooking and worship. Animals are slaughtered for ritual dishes. Large fires are built and ignited. Meat is stewed in big pots placed over the fires, around which cooks walk throughout the night, stoking the flames and adding spices. The desert sky at night is filled with otherworldly sounds, perfumed with the aromas of simmering food and smoke.
These men do not receive payment for their labor. They are volunteers in the service of God. On the first day visitors are busy as well, preparing the tents or old, mountainside houses where they will sleep.
By noon on the second day the meat is fully cooked. A final inspection by the head cook is conducted not long before one o’clock. The fires have since died down, leaving behind only the commingled smells of smoke and stewed meat that fill the entire vicinity. The cooks set out hundreds of large dishes of bread. The stock that remains from cooking the meat is poured into these bowls. Then the men pass the dishes along from hand to hand toward a special area where they are lined up. Another group of cooks prepares the meat, carving it into small cubes and skewering it on palm tree thorns. All the while the music never ceases as the men sing hymns seeking blessings (barakas) upon the food they have prepared.
Also around this time the eleven chieftains of the oasis’ eleven tribes gather, who together with the head of the governate (the representative of the Egyptian government) are greeted by festival participants and guests. There is a great clamor as everyone struggles to photograph and shake hands with members of this venerable assembly. They are the leading men of the oasis, the most honored and esteemed men present.
Meanwhile, guests take their places on the sandy ground below the mountaintop all the way to the road, forming circles of six or seven people each. After the official ceremony, volunteers place pans filled with meat and bread on their heads and descend in an orderly line down the steps. They walk among the groups of seated festival-goers, placing one pan of food in the center of each circle of people.
No one is allowed to touch the food until permission is granted. Anyone who attempts to eat beforehand will find himself in trouble with the Shiekh. Once everyone has been served, the head cook calls out, “Basmala!” (“In the name of God!”), from the top of the mountain, after which everyone begins eating. Everyone present, both rich and poor, young and old, eat at the same time and from the same dishes. This symbolizes the unity and equality of all people before God.
When a signal is given, it is time to finish up the meal. The volunteers walk by and collect the large pans.
After lunch, everyone walks along the village’s main street along which merchants are selling delicacies, fruit, vegetables and toys. Raw meat is sold as well, covered in flies and dust as it hangs over the street. Some people roast meat right in the street over improvised fires built beside their stalls. The air is choked with dust and the smell of fire and meat. Old men sit on small rugs, smoking hookahs. Children squeal as they run about. The hubbub and noise have swept up everything around.
The organizers have installed a primitive amusement park that could pass for a very early prototype of a Disney theme park.
At dusk religious rituals commence. The men’s prayers are filled with thanks to God for peace and bountiful olive and date harvests.
Young men form small singing ensembles complete with percussion instruments. The only light available emanates from candles, but sometimes the party falls into complete darkness – only the music, the smell of the desert and the perfume of herbs and grasses reach the senses. The dancers are skillful, their movements enchanting.
The party along the village’s main street continues at all hours over the course of three days. At night the view is particularly captivating – fires used for roasting meat glow in the street while the entire mountainside over the village shines with artificial light. Smoke and dust abound. Tired peddlers lie down directly on their stalls or in the street for a quick nap. By three o’clock in the morning the cacophony has died down, but the celebration continues.
The Siwa Oasis is home to fifteen mosques, each of which is responsible for collecting bread and money from the villagers to cover the festival’s expenses. Every household receives meat in amounts proportional to the number of people in the family.
On the morning of the third day men begin the walk home from Dakrour, singing hymns along the way. Later in the day they gather at the Sidi Soliman mosque for the Fajr prayer, which signals the end of the festival.
During the celebration’s three days women and girls over the age of twelve remain in the villages. Each day they meet at a house where they prepare meals and eat together. While the men are away the women sing, dance and play drums. All of the girls twelve years of age or younger go with their fathers to Dakrour in the morning and return home at sunset. Men and boys over the age of twelve sleep in mountainside houses and tents during each of the three nights. The married women of Siwa and their children spend those nights in the home of their sister-in-law or mother-in-law.