Midnight at the oasis, and TV's on Romance: Hardtop roads. Neon lights. Blaring pop music. Movie star Rudolph Valentino would hardly recognize what Egypt's doing to those romantic oases that inspired his Hollywood films.

Sun Journal

November 07, 1998|By John Daniszewski | John Daniszewski,LOS ANGELES TIMES

EL QASR, Dakhla Oasis, Egypt -- It's midnight at the oasis, and there's no camel to send to bed.

Arabic pop music is blasting from a fluorescent-bright shop serving icy sugar-cane juice. At the sweltering coffee shop across the unpaved lane, robed men pass the night playing dominoes and puffing on water pipes as a TV screen flickers. Trucks and motorcycles rumble past; the sound of grinding gears mixes with the barking of dogs and the braying of donkeys.

Alas, real life in a Sahara Desert oasis at the end of the 20th century is not the idyllic paradise of song and film. Yet there is still something magical about these rare and precious places of sweet water and verdant palm groves in the midst of parched sands.

Watching the blacksmith of El Qasr at work is like stepping into the Middle Ages.

Mohammed Hamoudi pumps an antique leather bellows that heats the homemade charcoal in his furnace to a pale orange. A metal bar goes onto the glowing mound and he pounds it into a flat crescent. When it has cooled, his thumb presses the metal against a worn stick. With a file in his other hand, he deftly cuts 100 tiny saw teeth. The result is a neatly turned sickle ready to be attached to a wooden handle and sold to his neighbors.

Hamoudi is proof that the self-reliant traditions of oasis life still endure. But for how long?

Five major oases

In Egypt's western desert, which stretches from the Nile Valley to Libya, there are five major inhabited oases: Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla, Kharga and Siwa. The largest, Dakhla, is dozens of miles across, encompassing hundreds of wells and providing water to numerous villages. Their populations range from 15,000 in Siwa to about 75,000 in Kharga.

Scientists believe Egypt's oases have been inhabited since the Stone Age.

In ancient times, Siwa was famed for its oracle; Alexander the Great braved the desert to consult the seer. From Rudolph Valentino's desert sheik to Maria Muldaur's "Midnight at the Oasis," these "islands of the blessed," as they were called by the Greek historian Herodotus, have come to symbolize serenity, romance and escape.

But they are changing. Newly opened to the outside world by television, modern telecommunications and paved roads built as part of Egypt's push to modernize and extend infrastructure across the country, the oases in Egypt and elsewhere are undergoing an epochal transformation.

After centuries of isolation, inhabitants of places such as El Qasr have been pushed into the future.

TV soap operas, plastic garbage bags and pickup trucks are supplanting storytelling, frugality and camels. Asphalt roads now follow the age-old caravan routes, and buses link Egypt's oases to the Nile Valley more closely than ever before possible.

Oasis youths travel out to earn money, while increasing numbers of backpackers and tourists with different ways trickle in.

Benefits of progress

Government officials say this is good -- oasis dwellers are enjoying such benefits of progress as health care, schools, a more diverse diet, modern appliances, transportation and building techniques.

They also see the oases as a partial answer to Egypt's overcrowding, and they're encouraging more Egyptians to leave the Nile Valley for the oases to work on new agricultural projects that will increase the limited amount of arable land.

But many environmentalists, archaeologists and oasis dwellers fear that a cultural and natural paradise is being lost, that development is wiping out the unique customs and social fabric of the oases. There are even warnings that poorly conceived water-drilling and land-reclamation projects could destroy the oases themselves.

The blacksmith Hamoudi, 41, is typical of the transitional generation in El Qasr, on the edge of Dakhla Oasis, 350 miles southwest of Cairo. Television did not arrive here until he was 26. He can remember when there were no lights, indoor plumbing or telephone service.

El Qasr has these conveniences today. But as more and more of its people move to new concrete houses, its old town, inhabited since ancient Roman times, is slowly collapsing. The concrete homes are hotter in summer and colder in winter than the traditional mud-brick ones inside the old town's walls, yet they are seen as cleaner and more modern.

Occasionally, government preservationists come by to shore up walls in danger of imminent collapse, and a few tourists traipse in to see the old mosque and water wheel. But the alleys are half-empty, with doors of abandoned houses hanging open.

'Television helped'

Hamoudi sees mainly pluses in the transition to the modern world. "We didn't know anything," he says, "and the television helped to open people's eyes. I've got a television set, and I love it."

Oases occur when a natural depression or fissure allows underground water to reach the desert surface, through natural springs or man-made wells, so that plants, animals and humans can survive.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.