The invisible world of Siwi Berber in Egypt

The invisible world of Siwi Berber in Egypt

Siwa oasis, salt lakes | Photo credit: Rachid H via Flickr

Secluded and idyllic, Siwa Oasis is surrounded by sand and rock. Its water is clear, almost mythical, its banks cooked in salt. For some it’s an escape, a place away from the hustle and bustle of the city. As the pulse of Egypt’s western desert, the location is immensely beautiful, located right next to the Libyan border.

For others, the oasis is more than beautiful.

It is the house.

Among the palm and olive groves live the Siwi, a people of Berber origin often characterized as “independent, private and resistant to central authority”. In their own words, they are Imazighen: ‘noble and free men.’ Nomadic in nature, the Siwi are farmers and vagabonds from North Africa. Although their communities are diverse and often dotted with respective idiosyncrasies, the Siwi are best known as Swians: people who inhabit the Siwa Oasis.

Their staple crop includes olives and dates, a romantic duo associated with their plot. To a lesser extent, the Siwi cultivate wheat, barley, sorghum, onions and broad beans. Land is bought and sold between them, as well as water rights; the Western Desert is arid and inhospitable, and their dependence on the oasis is essential to their survival.

Siwa girls in their family's bridal outfits, late 20th century.
“Siwa girls in their family’s bridal outfits, late 20th century.” | Photo credit: TRC Leiden
Siwa Oasis: the most amazing oasis in the world
“Traditional music and dance in Siwa.” | Photo credit: Taziry

As Berbers, they are the most easterly compared to other Imazighen communities in Algeria and Morocco. However, the Siwi adopt a Berber dialect (Siwa) that separates them from the Arabic-speaking tribes and communities of the Western Desert. Berber as a language, also known as tamazight, belongs to the “Afro-Asiatic linguistic group, which encompasses the ancient Egyptian and Semitic languages”. Despite the connection, Siwa is not as closely related to other Berber languages.

Although the language is not the only thing that defines the Siwi.

Their city is fortified and their villages are recognizable in raw brick, separated from the whole, with a patriarchal dynamic rooted in their intra-group politics. The majority of Siwi are Sunni Muslims, although many still adhere to traditional belief systems, observing pre-Islamic customs. Interestingly, Siwa has a patron saint (sidi Suleiman) whose tomb is next to a new mosque in the center of the city.

brown concrete building under white clouds during daytime
Sheva | Photo credit: Flo P via UNSPLASH
Egypt's Berber speakers cling to language in oases as Arabic continues to dominate
Egyptian Berber | Photo credit: Global Times

Today, Siwa has nine Siwi tribes in total: three western tribes and six eastern tribes. Their central city, an unavoidable enclosure, separated organically into a West-East divide. Western tribes are Shihayam, Awlad Moussa (Son of Moses), and Sarahena. Orientals are Zanayn, al-Hadadin (the Blacksmiths), Lehamudet, al-Jawasis (the spies), Sharametaand Aghurmi.

Although they are considered a minority on Egyptian soil, the existence of the Siwi is common knowledge among the locals and, with the influx of tourism, knowledge of their communities is constantly increasing. Still, it’s important not to over-romanticize their existence; the reality of the Siwi as an isolation and a tribe manifested several problems, including risky separation from the state.

The Amazigh people in Egypt: a fragile struggle for survival - Nationalia
“Amany El Weshahy, head of the Imazighen World Congress in Egypt. | Photo credit: Marc Español via Nationalia
“Window overlooking the oasis of Siwa” | Photo credit: Rawan Yasser

While Cairo retains control of basic necessities such as water and electricity, any issues present are often overseen by the tribes themselves. Traditional processes are often favored over lengthy, costly and often discriminatory court proceedings.

Moreover, although Siwah is the predominant language spoken – and in some cases the only language – Arabic is often imposed in all forms of legislation and schooling. As reasonable as it is to assume that an Arabic-speaking country must speak Arabic, the lack of infrastructure surrounding the Siwa Oasis has impeded integration and continues to be a disconnect that separates the Siwi from linguistic, cultural and Cairo policies.

Be that as it may, it is reasonable to admire the Siwi for what they are: a colorful and enigmatic facet of Egypt before its Arabization. They are a raw, unfiltered observation of how culture can simultaneously persist through thick and thin and evolve to survive.

Growing up abroad, El Leila El Kebeera was my window into Egyptian culture

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About Wesley V. Finley

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