When we were starting to leave the town of Bawati, Nasser told us, “At checkpoint, say you are German. Also, tell them you leave passports in Cairo.” This statement by our Bedouin guide raised many questions for us, most of them unsettling. “Why should we say we’re German?” Is there anything wrong with being Americans here?” “What has happened here that makes this necessary? Nasser was our guide for a three-day, two-night desert trek at the Bahariya Oasis, an oasis in the middle of Egypt, and we eagerly awaited his answer.
“German people no problem. American people no problem. Americans and British people have escort with gun…make it difficult for desert safari.” I asked, “Why do Americans and British people need escorts?” Nasser replied, “French, Spanish, German good. Americans and British VERY good.” What Nasser was trying to tell us was that the Egyptian authorities took extra precautions with American and British nationalities in the desert, specifically an armed guard to accompany them, and that the guard’s presence put some of the more interesting sights off limits. We agreed to pose as Germans and the kids were practicing “Guten tag” in the back of the jeep. If we were caught in a lie, we could always say we misunderstood the guard at the checkpoint. We rolled smoothly through the checkpoint and left Bawati and the Bahariya Oasis.
The Bahariya Oasis has been a permanent fixture on the Egypt-Libya caravan route since antiquity and in the past has produced wine and dates for export to the Nile Valley and Rome. The Romans set up a fort here and the discovery of Alexander the Great’s image and cartouche in the 1930’s suggest that he visited as well. We motored south down the highway and within a half hour entered the Black Desert. The Black Desert looked like hundreds of small volcanoes with black rocks spread all around. The desert was formed by the erosion of the conical black mountains, which spread a layer of black rock and gravel everywhere. After an hour, we reached the White Desert and the landscape changed significantly. Now the white sand had and many wind- and sand-eroded rock formations all around. The formations – eroded calcite deposits – took the form of many familiar shapes: chickens, mushrooms, birds, camels, Pharoahs and many others. We stopped for photos soon after we entered the White Desert Protectorate and while there came across a solitary, black scarab beetle in the sand. The scarab beetle was considered sacred in Ancient Egypt and is found on the inscriptions of many temples. We learned of its significance while in the famous Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The scarab beetle, essentially the feces-collecting dung beetle, is typically seen rolling around a ball of dung and the ancients assumed this ball to be its own egg; the beetle thus came to symbolize death and rebirth, common preoccupations amongst the Pharaohs.
We stopped for the night in the New White Desert and Nasser parked the jeep in the shadow of a large rock formation. While he set up camp and got our “Bedouin dinner” started, we walked around a bit. The kids went exploring and climbed every possible formation near our camp. Once dinner was ready, night had fallen and we sat down to a meal of chicken, stewed tomatoes, zucchini and rice, washed down with some sweet Bedouin tea. As we ate, we were visited by a few curious and hungry desert foxes, who would alternately inch forward then sprint backward with any sudden movements on our part.
Nasser was a tall, slender Bedouin with misaligned, yellow teeth but he was a good guide and cook. He looked elegant in his turban and grey, floor-length Bedouin gown. Clues to his cultural identity came when I asked him if he was Egyptian. “No, I am Bedouin,” he stated. He mentioned that he’d be “going to Egypt” for a wedding later that week, which to him meant Cairo. I actually ran into him when he was there; he looked non-descript, short and insignificant in his western clothes and I hardly recognized him. After dinner, we watched the moon rise from below the horizon and traverse up into the night sky, giving the sandstone sculptures around us an ethereal glow. We cleaned up our dishes and got out some massive camel-hair blankets in preparation for a night under the stars. We watched shooting stars for awhile but the cold desert night soon made us retreat under our blankets and we fell asleep.
We left the desert the next day and got back to the Bahariya Oasis. Nasser put us in a shared microbus back to Cairo that was going to take about 5-6 hours. As we left, we came to another checkpoint. While officials peered into our packed microbus, passengers chattered amongst themselves, wondering where we were from. The kids, remembering Nasser’s words at the desert checkpoint, muttered something about us being German. This information got to the lead official who looked at me and said, “Passport! Go inside.” At this point my wife and I were concerned that we’d be in trouble for lying. I went inside with the passports and waited while four Egyptians officials argued with one another. Two of them had bruises on their foreheads, something that we’d seen a lot of in Cairo. The bruises were from daily prayers -- vigorously touching the ground with one's forehead -- and the more devout the Muslim, the darker the forehead bruise. Both my wife and I had been to Egypt over 20 years ago, and neither of us remembered the forehead bruises or the large percentage of women wearing burkahs, for that matter. Egypt had definitely gotten more conservative during that time.
As I was preparing my story – I don’t know who said we’re German, we’re Americans…here, look at our passports – the two forehead-bruised officials looked at me for about five seconds and said, “No passport. Go,” and motioned for me to quickly leave. I jumped into the microbus and we rolled out of the Bahariya Oasis and back to Cairo.