In collaboration with Thomas Haunschmid, Monika Humer, Mafred Kaunfmann (ethnography) and Franz Fuchs, Barbara Kofler (computer software).
Siwa, the westernmost oasis of Egypt, is, at the same time, the easternmost of a Berber-speaking group: The Siwi. They speak the Siwi language, they live in Siwi things, wich are being replaced at an incredible speed by non-Siwi imported goods. The acquisition of television-sets by all the households in the oasis in 1988, together with the availability of round-the-clock electric current (since the spring of 1990) has become the major Siwa attracted visitors such as Alexander the Great, who in 331 B.C., consulted the oracle of Jupiter Amun, situated in the oasis. During the first millennium of Islamic rule, Siwa´s high quality dates were a much desired commodity in the Nile valley. Otherwise, however, there was little interest in this remote spot, far away in Egypt´s Western Desert.
Let us start with a chronological report of our approach. Curiosity – no more than that – was aroused in 1975 by a collection of Siwi jewellery, acquired for the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna by Peter W. Schienerl. First out of a collector´s fascination, and later, between 1982 and 1987, within the framework of a research project Schienerl systematically studied and bought jewellery in Cairo and Alexandria. He published extensively on the subject (Schienerl 1973, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1980a, 1980b) without having ever visited the oasis. Nevertheless his analyses provide interesting data on this singular aspect of Siwi culture that attracted the special attention of observers before and after him.
In 1986, Janata by chance came across Siwi things on view in Zurich gallery. As it turned out, they were duplicates of Bettina Leopoldos´s collection exhibited at the same time in Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève (Leopoldo 1986). Contact was established and Bettina, together with her husband Leonardo, agreed to continue their collecting activities for the museum in Vienna.
It was the special charm of the oasis, it´s people and it´s culture that, after a short visit to Siwa in 1981, brought the Leopoldos back for extended stays every winter since 1984. In December 1985, when torrential downpour had washed away more than 200 houses, it was Bettina who managed considerable emergency aid from Swiss government and from Caritas. These successful efforts were honoured by people, and the Leopoldos were admitted to Siwan spheres hitherto closed to foreigners. After five winters in Siwa (from late September or early October to March/April) Bettina has become fluent in the Siwi vernacular, probably as the first non-Siwi. Leonardo, after nearly twenty years of travelling in the Arab countries of North Africa and Levante, well versed in Arabic right from the start, has no problems in communicating with the men.
Bettina devotes most of her days in Siwa to the welfare of the women, being constantly on the move as a “barefoot doctor”. This as not only made her a welcome visitor to all households, it has also given her acess to specific, sometimes intimate, details of Siwi life and culture.
Siwa city has a government hospital with mainly male staff that, accordingly, is not visited by women. Thus the Leopoldos come up with the idea of establishing a clinic for women (Leopoldo 1989). With the help of Agha Khan Award for Architecture they were able to secure the cooperation of Hassan Fathy, the internationally renowned Egyptian architect, to draw the plans for the clinic. Hassan Fathy finished his detailed plans on the eve of his death at Solomonic age. Negotiations with sponsors are still going on but we are assured of positive results.
Bettina, whenever in Siwa, “goes native” insofar as she wears Siwi dress and hairstyle. Both the Leopoldos live an austere and frugal life in their van. This also accounts for the sympathy of the local population. It is argued that Bettina has no academic training as an ethnographer or anthropologist. We can only state that the Leopoldo’s cooperation with the museum für Völkerkunde, now in it´s fifth year, has clearly shown their outstanding capabilities with all the professional problems involved, not to mention their sensivity. They devote a great deal of their time not only towards understanding the Siwi but also towards their welfare. Bettina, in the meantime, is doing a better job in Siwa than many trained ethnographer elsewere. Leonardo keeps insisting that she is the only person who deals with the problems professionally.
As indicated above, in 1987 we acquired in Viena a first set of Siwi artifacts, more or less duplicates of Geneva-collection. Since then every year, the Leopoldo’s have enriched it, not only with objects but with increasing information and documentation. Unlike most collectors of ethnographic specimens, museum curators included, they could be convinced to document culture change by sometimes buying, as mutually agreed upon, less appealing pieces as well. Hopefully they can continue their activities in Siwa and for the Siwi and for the promotion of Knowledge about their unique culture.
Currently, the museum´s Siwa collection comprises 327 single catalogue numbers. Clothing and personal ornaments, together with amulets and cosmetics make up two thirds of it, 212 items. Household utensils in the broadest sense are documented fairly well whereas we still specially lack means of production and transport. The collection, including items of folk religion and folk medicine, musical instruments, toys, etc., as been described and catalogued according to professional standards. In addition, in her list, Bettina gives a special “documentation of items” tracing most of the pieces to the specific person who produced or used it, thus including essential data on Siwi personalities, especially women, and their personal histories. Each single item of the successive collections was discussed with Bettina and Leonardo, based on the professional experience of the curator as well as on the data in the more recent publications. At an early stage, a “checklist of items desired” was written in order to systematize the respective activities in the field. Special attention was likewise directed towards rather “ephemeral” items, such as the simple palmrib sticks used to carry baskets on the back or to turn over the hot loaf of bread in the oven. This resulted, for instance, in collecting the date stones, which are used as projectiles for slingshots.
During a ne-year course with 17 students (Oct. 1989 – June 1990), the documentation was put into overall context, using literature readily available. During the summer months, three of the participating students introduced a computer into this stage of our work (see below).
At the beginning our goals were very vague. What we expected in the first place was to supply the fieldworkers with relevant data, e.g. by elaborating the list of “items desired”. In view of the acute process of culture change in Siwa we tried, as a first step, to file quotations on items of material culture in the literature, starting with the earliest reports by western (and very few Egyptian) visitors up to the Second World War.
Unfortunately these sources (table 1 & bibliography) are quite poor. The mais interest of the early visitors was entirely concentrated on the archeological remains in Siwa. In 1792, W.G. Browne was the first western to visit the oasis in search of remnants of Jupiter Amun. At least another 18 visitors left records during the course of the 19th century. Most of them were kept away from the settlements of the local population. The duration of their stay in the oasis ranged from a few hours to a maximum couple of days – a span of time too short to satisfy even main interest in the ruin Pharaonic, Hellenic and Hellenistic periods.
Roughly the same number of visitors from outside published notes on their travels to Siwa between 1900 and outbreak of the Second World War. Only three of them, the Egyptian archeologist Fakhry, were privileged by their professional status to stay in the oasis over extended periods.
A major difficulty in data processing is the lack of a dictionary of the Siwi language. Every single author used and uses to this day his very personal system of transcription, confusing us thus with up to half a dozen different spellings of one and the same Siwi term.
Especially with respect to the female aspect of Siwi culture, we were very careful in analyzing the sources. We know by now that unmarried girls were dressed up for photographers in order to represent married women. Hands of European ladies have been decorated with the full set of Siwi finger-rings in incorrect order. So much for the undeceiving photographic documents we are using as sources along with the written records. With the help of Bettina we can hopefully escape most of the traps of this kind.
Gradually we have also learned to deal critically with hitherto firmly established patterns, for instance such as the division of labour between the sexes in weaving basketry, the men producing the diagonal weaves (mats, large, baskets for transport and storage), the women coiled ones. Bettina acquired a dry mesure made by Tjatjah who specializes in this type of basket and sells it to other women. On the other hand we already have a number of coiled baskets, woven by Mohamed Furgalla, a male immigrant from the neighbouring Gara oasis.
The Siwi men are spiritually guided by the rules of the Sufi-order of Al-Sanusiya which include a very strict moral code. Most visitors were stunned, to say at least, to learn about the existence of a class unmarried, predominantly young men, the Zagalla, clearly distinguished at a first glance by their special dress, are varyingly interpreted as an “age class”, a “working class” or a warrior cast” or a combination of two of them or of three of them. Further interpretations are - at least at this stage of our work – beyond our scope. We just wonder how, in 1936, a doctoral thesis based on field work about Siwi music could be written without even mentioning the Zagalla, who were by then and who still are Siwa’s musicians (Schiffer 1936).
Alexander’s pilgrimage to Siwa, Field Marshal Rommel’s visit to the oasis during an already critical phase of Nazi Germany´s North African campaign (Sept. 1st, 1942), and the fact that Siwa has been “off limits” to foreigners since the Second World War until the late Sixties, have added a mystical component to the semantics of “Siwa” has become a magic term, a destination of desires if not dreams, a legendary place of gins and ghouls and non-Egyptian wonders, virtues and vices.
The Siwi have always lived on the wealth of their date groves. Well-to-do people in the oasis oriented their life style towards the standards of the Nile Valley and its capital Cairo. Even the poorer people used textiles, imported since immemorial from the workshops of Kirdasa, close to the pyramids of Giza. Other consumer goods, such as personnal ornaments, shoes, tarbushes, household utensils of cooper, but also tea and rice were brought from the Nile Valley or from the Cyrenaica in the west. The intermediaries were Arab traders, most of them Bedouins. Thus the Siwi have long established contact with wandering Arabs, some of whom have settled permanently in their oasis. Close economic contacts with Bedouin Aulad Ali especially are already well documented in the museum’s collection.
Experiences of the Siwi with the central government and it’s representatives in the province and on the spot were not always as smooth as those with the caravan traders. This may be one of the reasons why the Siwi’s ethnic identity is most strongly defined as opposed to Maser (Egypt).
The Berber language of Siwa has never developed instruments to write down and thus to transmit the essentials of Siwi history and culture to forth-coming generations. But the Siwi women have a system of their to communicate from one generation to the next. A rich canon of symbols, embroidered with silk thread on the imported textiles (cf. Bliss 1982:40 fig.18), woven with coloured stripes into coiled baskets or painted with red ochre on ceramics or with henna on the hands and the feet of the bride, passed on the essentials of Siwi life and Weltanschauung. The items mentioned were an integral part of a dowry and, as a mother, the Siwi woman taught her daughters this language of intricate symbols and their meanings.
Nowadays mothers and daughters are busy watching television. Little time as left for creative crafts besides the toilsome duties of the housewife. Television stars are beaustifull and Siwi women want to look at them. Quite a while ago they already started to use plastic containers and aluminium vessels instead of baskets and ceramic pots. Now they are also sewing dresses and buying shoes that comply with their idea of beauty, expressed by very recent Siwi term moda.
Material culture is only one aspect of rapidly changing liveng conditions, perhaps one of inferior importance to the people of Siwa themselves. Throught the efforts of Bettina and Leonardo Leopoldo we are attempting to document the changing situation with wich we are confronted at the beginning of the last decade of our second millennium. The computer is an additional help in approaching this goal, in view of the limited time of our disposal. Work with the computer started last August as an ad hoc affair. There was no specifically structured software at hand in order to proceed towards our goal, e.g. to connect the single items of the collection with the corresponding quotations in the literature. With the advice of a professional computer programmer and a colleague similarly experienced in ethnographic and data processing matters, we could proceed.
Our next targets are a close 100% analysis of the sources on Siwa, including museum collections and their documentation and – in the field – the continuation of the collecting activities aiming at a collection cum documentation as “complete” as possible.
We expect a final exhibition of high standards, accompanied by a catalogue raisonné. Knowledgeable field experts, above all Bettina Leopoldo, will be invited to contribute towards another volume on as many aspects of Siwi culture as possible.
FOLK VOL. 33 1991; The history of Things Essays, presented to KLAUS FERDINAND on his 65th Birthday, April 19th, 1991.