The excitement of meeting new people and mingling with different – sometimes flat-out weird – cultures has always been a highlight of travelling for me. You expect that much while going to a foreign country, but having that rush of being fascinated by a culture and a people in your own country? Now that was a shocker. I’d heard many tales of Siwa Oasis and its serene beauty, all singing praises of the people of Siwa and their demeanor unlike any other they’ve seen in Egypt. What got me even more curious was the fact that you wouldn’t hear the name Siwa mentioned without hearing about Eid El-Solh. I wanted to know what exactly that is and why I haven’t heard about it before. I did a little digging and the most agreed-upon version of the story tells that the celebration was about 160 years old – but it didn’t start out with festivities and peace; it started out with a war.
For years the eastern and western dwellers of the oasis were at war, until a Sufi Sheikh named Muhammad Al-Madani decided to end the dispute in the simplest of ways possible. He gathered all the elders of the fighting tribes and told each to bring bread and break it; then he mixed all the bread together and told them to eat. By doing so, each had eaten from his neighbor’s bread, and he told them they can fight no more after doing so. Like that, they reconciled and spent the night praising and praying to God. Since then, on the lunar nights of every October, the people of Siwa gather at Dakrour Mountain to celebrate peace, harvest, and tourism for three consecutive days.
The way that truce happened fascinated me in more ways than one; the notion that a righteous man – who had nothing to gain from such a peace –– decided to reconcile the people just for the sake of ending the war, and doing it like that? It just shows inner peace and tranquility you see only in movies, and the fact that the people of Siwa were willing to reconcile that easily also shows that the people of Siwa had just as much inner peace and willingness for reconciliation within.
As equal as the teeth of a comb, with no difference between a Sheikh, a minister, or an official.
The opportunity finally presented itself and I was able to visit Siwa at the time of Eid El-Solh. We arrived a few days before the Eid and started witnessing the preparations; what really stood out to me immediately was how much the place and the people weren’t phony or contrived. The entire setting was effortless and genuine, with an excess of simplicity and humility!
If you visit Dakrour before the Eid to see how they prepare, you won’t find a fancy red carpet leading to some sophisticated quarters; you’ll find people sitting on the floor over the mountain, cutting meat while chanting and praising God. Across from them, the cooks are lighting fires under large pots, going tirelessly back and forth with the food and the utensils.
In the midst of it all, you’ll find a hero making tea for the bustling crowd, with the unique Siwan motif – they pour it in tiny glasses, then pour back into the teapot, and repeat until it’s stirred. On the opposite side of the mountain, a large pile of tents lay waiting for the hardworking folks' occasional rest. Inside and outside of these tents, kids play with their toys in their colorful Eid attire. Everyone’s smiling and content; no one’s pissed off because they’re cooking with roaring fires under the heat of the sun, or because they’re up at dawn cutting meat.
Day one of the Eid begins like the couple of days of preparation, work from as early as daylight and movement everywhere. Around Noon Prayer is where it gets a bit different; a person, who they refer to as Al Monady, starts calling people to gather for the meal. He says only two words: “wa’alaam,” which means gather, and “hayoo,” meaning come on. In a few minutes, the people of Siwa gather in front of the mountains in small circles, elderly and younglings alike, and eat together.
Sheikh Abdelkader Abdeldayem is one of the oldest people in Siwa, and one of those who witnessed how the Eid has changed over the past 60 years. “As equal as the teeth of a comb, with no difference between a Sheikh, a minister, or an official, we all sit on the floor listening to the Monady,” he says. He says the peacefulness of the tradition engulfs everything, even kids. “Subhan Allah, as if it’s divine intervention, you won’t find a crying child during the entire process, or a child antagonizing their father while eating,” he adds.
We come out of the Eid with all disputes settled.
Eid El-Solh – which translates to the festival of reconciliation – is not just so the people could gather, eat, and celebrate; on this occasion, any dispute between Siwans is resolved as well. Each year, the elders of Siwan tribes and others from Matrouh come to settle any conflicts; one of the reasons this festival is done after the harvest is to ensure that if the dispute is financial, it can be resolved. “Eid El-Solh settles all the disputes; you have the little issues and these are taken care of in one sit-down. There are some bigger issues which take a little bit more time, but because this is the Eid and all the elders are there, it’ll be resolved no matter what,” Muhammad El-Abd, a Siwan, tells me. “The Eid lasts for three days, and we come out of the Eid with all disputes settled,” he adds. I was surprised to find out that they even search for those who have a conflict and might not have come to the festival. “They look for any two people with a dispute and bring them to reconcile; the most important thing is for everyone to come out of the feast with no grudges held,” El-Abd reiterates.
This point was one of the things that personally touched me for more reasons than one. Not many would disagree that we live in a conflict-riddled, war-torn world, be it for ideological, religious, or whatever the hell reason people find to hate and fight one another. So, to find people amidst it all going through great lengths and trouble to keep the peace and spread love and tolerance was something I didn’t expect in a million years, and it was overwhelming.
In Siwa, Dakrour Mountain is the family home and the people of Siwa are your family
Nighttime is different in Eid El-Solh; after Night Prayer, the people of Siwa gather at Dakrour Mountain in a Sufi gathering called Hadra, which starts out small with the elderly and then grows in size gradually to include all those present from the people of Siwa. At first they’re seated on the ground, chanting simple chants like “there is but one God” and “Allah,” and as the circle grows the chants vary and are truly enchanting and simple, without the contrived caution about appearances that is the trait of many religious gatherings.
I can’t lay claim to being a spiritual person, but regardless of your beliefs, I reckon you’d be unable to help feeling some spirituality, under the moonlight by the mountainside, while witnessing the people of Siwa in a large circle holding hands and chanting as one. Writing this, remembering some of the chants like “he who loves cannot fall asleep, for sleeping is forbidden to those in love” and “I am helpless, with nothing to hold or nothing to owe,” I was back there for a moment, with a smile on my face.
When you look back to the three-day festival, it’s the small details that linger long after you leave Siwa. The custom told to us by many Siwans that you have to pass by each tent at the mountain to say hello, the sight of people and children wearing their best and brightest and playing, the large souq and small amusement park next to the mountain, and the simplicity and genuineness of it all – that’s what I’ll be remembering from my time in Siwa.
I reckon this is what the feasts were like in Cairo a hundred years ago, before all the pretentiousness – a logical result of advancement – took over. A friend told me something quite insightful about Eid El-Solh: “In Cairo, Eid is all about the family home that gathers everyone but, in Siwa, Mount Dakrour is the family home and the people of Siwa are your family.”
Peace of mind is one of those things you hear about in movies or read about in books; the protagonist is always searching for it and everything they do is driven by it. Personally, I’ve long searched for it – I still am, and probably always will. In Siwa, I saw what peace of mind looks like on the faces of the people; I saw simplicity, satisfaction, and contentment with much and little alike. I honestly don’t know what peace of mind really is, or if I'd be able to tell if I ever found it; what I do know is that I caught a glimpse of it in Siwa, and what I’m certain of is that Siwa is one of two places in my life where I slept without being overwhelmed by dark thoughts or the past and future keeping me turning all night. If peace of mind means sleeping with a clear mind and a heart at ease, then that is a favor I’ll owe Siwa eternally – even if our paths don’t cross again.