Fayoum’s Water Wheels, Creating an Oasis in Egypt

At the roadblock the police asked where we were going.  Our driver mentioned several towns in the Fayoum Oasis (Faiyum) I wanted to see.  “But no tourist ever goes there,” which, of course, is the point.  Egyptian friends told us about these villages, each dedicated to some traditional manufacture, like pottery.  The roads into them are bad.  They don’t have bus service.  Pickup trucks act as public transport.  Because of security concerns westerners are not allowed to use public transportation here.  We must either travel in protected tour busses or a private car, which the police told us, require an escort.  So we got our own contingent of 5 guards in a Toyota Hilux pickup truck who thought it strange to be bouncing up the wadi with two crazy Americans heading toward the town of Nazla, where tourists “never go.”  We contributed to a traffic jam in a market town; the police truck, our car, three donkey carts, a pick up truck, three peddle bikes and four motor bikes all trying to squeeze past a horse drawn wagon unloading watermelons.  The police siren added a festive touch of the clatter of the market.  A vendor offered us bread through the window of our car.

Nazla makes pottery in a traditional way.  We watched the steps in the process.  We also wandered around this town on the edge of the oasis where green ends and the brown desert abruptly begins.  While the place is out of the way its residents have a well-developed understanding of baksheesh and its relationship to foreigners.  Suzi and I both thought it worth the trip.  I’m not sure about our protection detail.

Al-Fayoum is where the terrorists who attacked Luxor came from.  The district wants tourists but wants to make sure they are safe.  While I question the need for such invasive security, my friend Mohammad points out that if one American kidnapping is reported on CNN, 10,000 tourists will cancel reservations to Egypt — overnight.  The desert is vast and not well controlled.  Being on the margin of the oasis, off the main road, makes it easy to snatch someone and disappear.  The cordon around us is trained to keep some distance to let us mingle, a little, with people.  But it does draw attention to us.  “Here they are.”

Fayoum is not a “natural” oasis but was created by canals carrying water into a depression just to the west of the Nile.  A system of water wheels carries water from the Nile. They are the main reason most tourists travel to Fayoum.  The wheels turn with the water’s flow.  There are receptacles inside the wheels.  Water fills the receptacles at the bottom of the cycle.  When the water gets to the top it spills into a trough, lifting the water the diameter of the wheel.  Egyptians figured out this ingenious engine for irrigation a few thousand years ago.  The wheels are tarred and lubricated and make a singing sound that inspired the world music standard “Water Wheel” by Hamza el Din.

A second reason tourists go to Fayoum is to see the pigeon towers.  Pigeon is a favorite dinner dish.  My friend Mohammad says eating pigeon is revenge urban Egyptians take for all the indignities suffered, well not exactly at the hands, of pigeons.  A young man, a mute, tends the towers.  He “explained” the process of feeding and then catching the birds in pantomime.

Lake Qaroun is why most Egyptian come to Fayoum.  One side of the lake is oasis, the other, desert.  The lake is about 150 feet below sea level and this “sink” collects water from the oasis.  People like to swim here because, although somewhat saline, the water is free of the parasites you get swimming in the Nile.  At the beach we saw two women swimming in full-length garments and headscarves, not wading — actually swimming.  Most women took boat rides on the cooling water rather than swim.  Suzi and I were sitting on a pier under a palm thatch when a boatload of young women rowed by taking our picture.  Later they approached us to ask if they could get a picture of them with us.  They also wanted to practice English.  Suzi exchanged email addresses with one of the women (it would be improper for me to do so).  Later some boys approached us, more shyly then the girls.  All the while our police escort, drinking coffee, kept watch.  The only time we were out of their sight was when they faced Mecca to pray.

As we left Fayoum the police waved us onto the Cairo road and peeled off.  After a few minutes our driver took us back into town by a back road.  There was this basket shop that he felt we just “had to visit” and he did not want the police to share in any baksheesh in case we decided to buy a basket.  Each policeman got baksheesh of 10 Egyptian pounds, a little less than 2 dollars.  The commander got an extra 10.  This is from a family letter in 2007.  I debated cutting the last sentence.  I left it in but wonder what he would say today.

I had hoped to post on Sitka Whale Fest today, but on the whale watch I was overwhelmed and took 2013 pictures.  We were surrounded by whales.  But there was so much more to Whale Fest and a day left to go.  So I will try to post on it tomorrow.

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