Siwa, City of Sand

Maher shuffled his way into the coffee-shop sneezing, coughing and complaining, his flip-flops hardly lifting from the dusty floor as he moved, I’m sick he announced to the waiter who didn’t look away from the TV, he sneezed again to prove his point. In Egypt the cure for the common cold is Helba a herbal yellow tea made from fenugreek seeds; Doctors will prescribe Helba for almost any ailment from flu to a twisted ankle. Maher though ordered his usual shisha pipe, hitched up his Gallabiyah and plonked himself on a chair in the corner, sucked on his pipe and coughed some more.

Outside the street is drowning in clouds of dust and sand stirred up by the haphazard traffic, mostly motorbikes, some with three wheels some with two, some with two passengers and some with three and other infinite combinations. A group of lads sitting playing backgammon at the entrance to the cafe oblivious to the swirling Saharan smog, a shop keeper on the other side of the street squirts water from a bottle in a futile attempt at controlling it.

Inside the café every surface is coated in the grainy dust, the waiter understands the futility of wasting his time, when the Khamseen blows the desert comes to town and paints everything beige, welcome to Siwa says the waiter when he puts down my coffee on the dusty table.

Siwa an island adrift in the Great Sand Sea between Western Egypt and Eastern Libya, an oasis of palm trees watered by underground springs, of crumbling mud brick houses populated by Berber Nomads, a place of more legends than tourists, where spring swirls with the Khamseen wind.

Egypt has had a turbulent time over the past few years but consensus has it that things have settled now, increased stability has seen a steady return of tourists with forecasts set to increase, But Siwa is a long way from the sandy beaches of the Red Sea and the Pyramids of Giza, it has never been high on the itinerary of the charter crowds that fill coaches and head from Cairo along the Nile to Luxor, Siwa takes a little more effort to reach.

Alexander the Great set out from Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capital, driven by the need to prove his divinity and seek approval from the Oracle of Amun, the desert crossing as harsh now as it was then, with routes obscured by the ever-drifting sands he followed a flock of crows to the oasis, at the Temple of Amun his status as a God on Earth was confirmed and the young Macedonian King went on to make his historical mark. These days it’s much easier to just take the train to Alexandria and then a bus as the crow flies into the desert, it’s a bumpy ride with numerous military check-points, the errant Bedouin tribes having little respect for the border with Libya about 30 miles away.

It’s a rickety cycle ride along a dusty track to the temple ruins, past groves of palm trees dusted dull from the surrounding sands, ageing Siwians sitting on their doorsteps gossiping. Somehow it seems unlikely Cleopatra passed this way and even less likely on a bicycle but a pool fed with natural spring water takes her name, in the past brides would bathe here prior to their wedding but these days it’s more a spot to wash the sand off, sip a juice and watch the local lads dip and dive.

It was 323 years before the birth of Christ that Alexander entered the temple and time has taken its inevitable toll on the complex, but by climbing the path you follow in the footsteps of the Pharaohs and from the crumbling ramparts you can see the extent of the palm groves and beyond the shimmer of a vast salt lake.

 The distant Nile is the thread that weaves life into Egypt; the land is parched beyond its fertile banks except for the seven oases where underground aquifers feed the date palms. The dates of Siwa are the best in the world, at least according to a grinning Mustafa, who was trying to sell me a half a kilo from his shack in the shadow of Shali fortress. The verdant gardens have always proved a reliable provider; tourism is an intermittent side show.

I washed the dust from Mustafa’s dates and munched on them as I followed the path through the decrepit ruins to the former fortress that dominates the town, an impenetrable citadel that stood for 13 centuries until 1923 when several days of flash floods took its toll,  the houses had been built from Kershef, a muddy mixture of clay and salt and now most of the houses are just mustard colored skeletons, home to donkeys and huddled sheep,  although now investment and restoration is seeing a slow transformation with a boutique hotel or two and inevitably a handful of  Airbnb’s.

As the sun sinks the call to prayer rises, a crackle and cough from a thousand-year-old minaret, remarkably intact and looking not unlike a potteries chimney, shadowy figures scuttle up the steps to the dun colored Mosque.  

Siwians are easy going and independently minded, conservative and polite, the language is Siwian first and Arabic second, the culture is Berber Bedouin, they see themselves as a world apart from the rest of Egypt. Siwa is cloaked in a sandy otherworldliness.

Over breakfast of mashed fava beans and yogurt at Abdo’s restaurant I negotiated with Abdul Rahman to chauffeur me a little further than the bone shaker bicycle could manage, Abdul Rahman assured me of the upmost comfort, no distance too far, salt lakes and sand seas guaranteed.

Thirty minutes later I was being thrown violently from side to side in the back of a motorcycle tuk-tuk, Abdul Rahman glancing over his shoulder every so often to check if I was still aboard, the engine noise limiting our communication to a series of emojis, me thumbs-up and him a smiley face.

The Sahara surrounding Siwa is remarkably wet, despite its status as an oasis it does come as a surprise to see so much water, expansive saline lakes and numerous hot and cold springs all offering respite and rejuvenation and adding to the unique character of this remote Egyptian outpost.

The road out of town is flanked by mountains peppered with tombs cut into the limestone rock, grave robbers long gone, on the walls only intricate inscriptions detailing the importance of life and afterlife remain. And an earie quiet.

The tuk-tuk has overheated, Abdul Rahman had pushed it too far and was now fiddling with the tormented engine, the sand drifted silently across the tarmac, I kicked at the bleached bones of another victim an unforgiving landscape, a couple of local Bedouin from a settlement close by wandered over to offer advice and offer refreshments.

The Bedouin seemed amused at my choice of transport, a shiny 4×4 was parked at the entrance to a cluster of yellow painted buildings in the shade of several palm trees, Bedouin culture is more settled these days. With the tuk-tuk fixed our new friends invited us for tea, we loaded up with supplies and headed off in convoy along a dusty camel track to the edge of a salt heavy lake, as the sun faded we kindled a fire and cooked more tea, selfies were made and conversation revolved around our hosts cross-border drug smuggling business, the border with Libya a few shifting dunes away.

The desert can be unforgiving, vast and unknown, it can also be serene, poetic in its shapes and hues, and it can also be therapeutic, not just in mind but also in body. The desert bathing season starts once the sand is at its hottest, taking a Siwa sand sauna involves being buried up to the neck and left to roast in the hope of curing everything from rheumatism to impotence.

We said goodbye to our new friends, promising to keep in-touch regarding some potential business opportunities and struggled through the darkness back to town.

Next morning in the coffee-shop Maher was puffing on his pipe, the water gurgling in its bowl, a glint of sunlight picking out the particles of Sahara in the air, the TV was switched off and outside the traffic was still quiet, I ordered coffee and waited for Abdul Rahman to take me to the bus station, apart from Maher’s occasional cough we sat in silence, inside the café the dust was settling but outside the sands were shifting.

Maher

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In these dire and desperate times I am collating stories and images otherwise forgotten.

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Middle East Print Sale

Photographs really should be printed and hung on walls; I say this as someone who loves photography not as a photographer.

As I work towards launching a new website dedicated to print sales I am offering a generous discount to raise the necessary funds, buying a print will go a long way to supporting my work as well as the opportunity to own a beautifully crafted image.

The prints are made at a London lab that pride themselves in producing the highest quality Giclee prints using the latest Epson professional Ultrachrome inks on beautiful archival rag paper.

Only $75 for a 30cm x 40 cm print (+ postage) other sizes are of course available.

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(Please note a few images are not available due to lost hard-drives when I fled my house in Syria)

Have a browse and drop me a line and I will forward a detailed price list.

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An Old Man In Cairo

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Having wandered the fetid alleyways of the Fatimid’s all morning I found myself sitting in a tiny coffee shop no bigger than an average size bathroom, the old man was sitting on the opposite row of benches, the sun couldn’t quite reach over the mud brick walls of the Cairo labyrinth, it was December and cold outside and the door had been pulled shut, the old man had shown little or no interest in the foreigner sitting an arm’s length in front of him, I on the other hand was obviously drawn to him, the lines etched onto his face like a map of the winding lanes that had brought me here.

With two Nikons dangling from my shoulders the old man must have guessed my intention, I smiled and raised one and he nodded approval somewhat reluctantly, I snapped one shot in the dull fluorescent light, then the door opened and the old man looked towards the light coming from the alley and I made the second image.

From my El-Hara project.

El-Hara was a project inspired by the works of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, shot sometime ago on a couple of crusty old Nikons and pockets full of TriX.

I was lucky enough to meet Mahfouz and the project has been exhibited in a few countries, I will post some more from the series in due course.

Prints Available to Purchase

Portraits and Cairo Coffee

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A typically beautiful Cairo morning, cool in the dusty shadows with cats basking in the warm November sun.

I crossed the not yet busy square of Midan Hussein dodging a bread delivery boy balancing a rack of fresh baladi bread on his head; I slipped into my usual first port of call for coffee, one of the many joys of Cairo is never having to walk far to find a coffee shop.

While I waited for my coffee I loaded some film and set my pen and notebook on the chair beside me, I looked over at the man sitting opposite pulling heavily on his Nargila, I said good morning and noticing the portrait looking over his shoulder I asked if I could take his photograph, he nodded and I made just the one frame, my coffee had arrived and we both resumed our morning ritual.

 

From my El-Hara project.

El-Hara was a project inspired by the works of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, shot sometime ago on a couple of crusty old Nikons and pockets full of TriX.

I was lucky enough to meet Mahfouz and the project has been exhibited in a few countries, I will post some more from the series in due course.

Prints Available to Purchase

Cairo Time and Tram Lines

Time for Mahfouz is a constant theme, in the opening chapter of Midaq Alley we hear hara-1Kirsha argue in favour of the instillation of a radio leaving the poet without a venue to recite his stories, “everything has changed” insisted Kirsha.

The tram lines seen here along Sharia Port Said are, like the coffee shop poets, a thing of the past, the trams would rumble over the junction coming from Sayyida Zeinab often with small boys hanging from the last carriage.

In the name of progress and to help alleviate Cairo’s ever increasing traffic chaos they were ripped up to make way for more cars and buses.

 

 

 

From my El-Hara project.

El-Hara was a project inspired by the works of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, shot sometime ago on a couple of crusty old Nikons and pockets full of TriX.

I was lucky enough to meet Mahfouz and the project has been exhibited in a few countries, I will post some more from the series in due course.

Prints Available to Purchase

Cairo Cops

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Eating my breakfast several floors up I watched the two policemen going about their business of guarding the tourists flocking to be fleeced in the Khan El Khalili bazaar, personally I have always felt a policeman should cut an imposing figure, but this pair were holding hands and gazing into each others eyes as though Cupids gold tipped arrow had only just pierced the constabulary tunic.

I finished my hearty boiled egg and jam roll, had a second cup of tea then wandered down to my room to pick up my camera, I feel photography should never be rushed, like law enforcement, when I returned to the restaurant the couple were still absorbed in each other, the square below was quite noisy as usual but I swear I heard the guttural strains of an Egyptian love song.

I had more than enough time to compose my shot and rattle off a couple of frames.

 

From my El-Hara project.

El-Hara was a project inspired by the works of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, shot sometime ago on a couple of crusty old Nikons and pockets full of TriX.

I was lucky enough to meet Mahfouz and the project has been exhibited in a few countries, I will post some more from the series in due course.

Prints Available to Purchase

Cairo Hara Tea Boy

My friend Gomer had some business to attend to and asked if I wanted to tag along, we set off along a side street from Darb al Ahmar and meandered through the alleys, we climbed a low wall and threaded our way carefully through a smoldering rubbish tip, I wasn’t sure what Gomer’s business was but it didn’t seem like a meeting with his bank manager.

In fact our destination soon became clear as we entered a car repair workshop, the alley didn’t seem wide enough to get a car along it, I sat in a corner on an oil drum with a carpet thrown over it, there was a sheep tethered in the other corner, Gomer’s friend shouted along the alley for some tea.

The tea boy’s face looked kind and gentle and seemed out of place in the harsh depressing surroundings.

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El-Hara was a project inspired by the works of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, shot sometime ago on a couple of crusty old Nikons and pockets full of TriX.

I was lucky enough to meet Mahfouz and the project has been exhibited in a few countries, I will post some more from the series in due course.

Damascus the Beginning of the End (pt2)

I tried to put life in Syria behind me as I journeyed through Jordan; it had been a while since I had last been outside the country and it felt good not to be looking over my shoulder all the time, I did feel a sense of relief after checking into a cheap downtown Amman hotel, I have no great affection for Amman although filling up on Fuul and Falafel at Hashems is always a pleasure but putting Syria behind me was not quite as easy as I would have hoped.
My first reminder came during the night, I woke suddenly in panic only to find it was the noise from a nightclub in the next door building, my muddled mind was mixed up and for a minute I could not work out where I was, I am sure I heard gun shots, maybe I did, these kind dream induced mini panic attacks have been persisting until now, even here now in the cold light of day the sound of helicopters sends shivers down my spine.
I stayed a little too long in Amman busying myself with photography and meeting friends and was glad to be on the pre-dawn bus to Petra, now while I like to think my work shows a degree of emotion most close friends may argue that I am not prone to showing it, I am after all English so I guess I let the side down- the bus was dark and cold as I clutched a paper cup of stale Nescafe and cried to the sound of the only Lebanese women who embodies the essence of Syria; Fairuz.
From Petra to Aqaba in the hoof prints of Lawrence and that wonderful Arab revolt whose legacy is being fought over still. A boat across the Gulf of Aqaba to Sinai, through the mountains and over the Suez canal and onto to Cairo, along the Nile to the Nubian city of Aswan and back to Cairo and finally a flight to Beirut before the cab ride back to Damascus.
I met displaced Syrians at every turn, hands held out hopefully, clutching a Syrian passport as undisputed evidence of suffering, the cafes of Cairo, the Streets of Beirut and Amman most surprisingly of all on a small boat crossing the Nile to a dusty village not far from the border with Sudan, I had tried to put some distance between me and the sadness of Syria but seemingly that was not possible and now it’s time to head back.
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The Art of Raqs Sharqi

JON_6762xzxzsdThe last few years of my life in Damascus and now here in Istanbul have been stained with the pain and tears of the Syrian conflict, not a moment goes by without the sadness touching me, conversations with friends here and those still in Syria, stories of suffering and torment, ever depressing social media news feeds casting a dark shadow over my life.
Where my work is concerned I have tried at times to distance myself from Syria, looking for alternative roads to explore, the wonderful city has much to offer me I am sure although it has taken me longer to adjust than I would have imagined, one such road though has lead me to meet Hale a beautiful Turkish belly dancer.
I have been curious about Eastern dance for some time although not so much the art as the social context of the dancers in conservative countries such as Egypt, when I started to look into issues here in Turkey I found a different social situation and decided to pursue a more artistic approach.
After meeting Hale and discussing ideas we decided to collaborate on creating some images that contradicted the usual stereotyped photographs familiar Belly Dance. Hale is passionate about her art and expresses her feelings with such grace and emotion, she seems lost in a world of her own and for a few brief moments I am able to escape one world for another.
Drop by this page to enjoy some of the work so far with more images to be added soon
https://www.facebook.com/raqssharqiart

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