The Dakhla Oasis: Stories from the ‘field’ (0)



The road from Kharga is an isolated strip of asphalt winding through arid desert that alternates between flat, uneventful plains and more spectacular sand-dunes. Seventy kilometres before you arrive to the village of Mūt, the landscape bursts with numerous shades of pastel colours: the desert alternates with lush vegetation, plain fields, and palm tree groves bounded on the Northern side by a mountain chain and on the Southern side by more flat desert. Several villages dot the remainder of the road, some tucked in the bosom of the mountain and barely visible and others, like Asmant, start right at the road and sprawl into the distance. A few villages later the vegetation is overtaken by the low-lying buildings of Mūt; a curious mix of half-completed one and two-storey concrete buildings and traditional mud brick dwellings. This is the largest village in Dakhla, the Inner Oasis and the third most populated in the Western desert.

Oases of the Western Desert: An Historical Snapshot

Extending west of the Nile-valley and occupying two thirds of the land surface of Egypt, the Western Desert – otherwise an arid expanse of over 680,000 square kilometres – is dotted by six depressions: the oases of Siwa, Fayyoum, Bahariyya, Farafra, Dakhla, and Kharga. Beyond the Western political border of Egypt, it becomes the Libyan Desert, and shortly after merges in with the Sahara. With Cairo as a reference point, Fayyoum is the closest, largest and most populated of the six oases. Siwa lies only 50 km east of the Libyan border and, traditionally, has been the most isolated. The other four oases lie on an arc that starts at Cairo, curves West into the desert and 1330 km later returns to the Nile-valley at Luxor. Farafra lies at the Western-most point of that arc, followed by Dakhla.

According to the 2006 national census, the population of the locality of Dakhla is 79,812 (CAPMAS 2007). This is the total population of each locality including the main town, Mūt, and the many villages surrounding it. The oases have seen a significant population boost over the past few decades. Throughout its history, however, the population of the oases tended to fluctuate dramatically for reasons to do with diminishing water supplies and the ever-present danger of Bedouin raids.

What we know from archaeological remains is that Dakhla has seen human activity since Palaeolithic times (Kubiak and Zabowski 1995, 10). In the Pharaonic period, Egyptians from the Nile-valley appear to have arrived at Dakhla in 2300 BC (Mills 1999). Ohat R’seit – the Southern Oasis – was part of the same administrative division as the oasis of Kharga, and evidence indicates that the responsible authority sought to maintain and develop the oases primarily as a first line of defence against incoming raids from the West and South (Abu-Zayd 1997). Papyri from the Graeco-Roman period indicate that Dakhla was governed through a tight organisational structure, with the population mainly of Libyan Berber origin and engaged in agriculture (Wagner 1987). Prior to the introduction of Christianity, religion was a form of paganism; late Egypto-Hellenic syncretism. The Roman period is considered to have been unusually prosperous for the oases but at a price. Intensive farming and the use of new irrigation techniques have, as Thurston wrote, “sucked the oasis dry of easily accessible water” and meant that during the Byzantine period, Dakhla was “unable to provide more than a subsistence living for a greatly reduced and declining population” (2003, 320). That did not preclude the spread of Christianity to the oases, with evidence of dominant Christian presence persisting up till the 10th century; four centuries after the Arab (Muslim) conquest of Egypt.

By 644 AD the Arabs had already conquered all of Arabia, Syrian and Egyptian parts of the Byzantine Empire, and parts of Persia. The decline of the oases in later Roman and Byzantine empires continued into the first few centuries of Arab rule: wells were not maintained, and the population were offered no protection against Bedouin raids, which resulted in immigration to safer areas and a relative depopulation of the oases between the 11th and 15th centuries (Fakhry 2003; Beadnell 1909). By the 14th and 15th centuries (towards the end of Mamluk rule) the oases experienced a second period of prosperity. The outcome of this period has been likened to that of its earlier Roman equivalent in that the extensive use of water was not accompanied by a concern for the “long-term consequences for the residents or the productivity of the land itself” (Thurston 2003, 324; see also Keall 1981). It was during this period that the medieval walled city of El-Qasr would be built in Dakhla. It survives to this day, unlike the similarly named city in Farafra which collapsed after heavy rains in 1945. Here is Thurston describing El-Qasr in Dakhla:

Heavy acacia gates divided the city into neighbourhoods, each of which would have been the precinct of a tribe-based clan. The gates were locked at night, as were the main city gates, against the threat of raids, which continued into the 19th c. (2003, 323).

The Ottoman conquest of 1517 signalled the end of Mamluk rule in Egypt. The three centuries that followed witnessed a decline in farming areas and the oases were not spared. They were also three centuries with no information on the oases, a fact that has been linked to the general cultural decline in Egypt under Ottoman rule (Kubiak and Zabowski 1995). It was only with the rise of European exploration by the early 19th century that the oases began to be mentioned again in various topographical and geological works. Absent from the work of these explorers, which is perhaps expected considering their interests, are consistent observations or accounts of social and cultural life in the oases. And in the case where such accounts exist, as in W. J. Harding King’s (1925), they take the form of travelogues with superficial observations that would now seem to us ethnocentric and biased, if not racist. The paucity of historical material has only been partly rectified by Ahmed Fakhry, the first Egyptian Egyptologist. Fakhry (2003) visited Farafra and Bahariyya several times between 1938 and 1968 and wrote in an informal style about archaeological findings as well as brief comments on life in the oases.

In 1938, according to Fakhry, the only link between Farafra and the neighbouring oases (Bahariyya and Dakhla) was a four day camel trip. There were no modern means of communication or any form of “mechanized transport”. There was no electricity, and in the whole oasis only three watches existed. Houses, as Fakhry described them, were similar in form to those found on the edges of cultivated areas in the Nile-valley: a central courtyard with a dwelling in one corner, a small garden and a well. The inhabitants, he observed, had a different dialect to those of Bahariyya and Dakhla, a fact he attributed to their Bedouin blood. They were more religious and stricter than their neighbours; women did not mix with strangers, unlike in Bahariyya, which had been a place of forced exile for Siwan women accused of adultery. He described a total absence of what he called “European clothing” in 1938, but by 1968 teachers and the few government officials in the oasis could be seen in trousers and coats. This seemingly minor observation, however, was an indication of significant changes that began to happen in the oases of the Western desert. The “new-valley project” had already been conceived by the Egyptian government, and it was only a few years into the project, and as he was leaving Farafra in 1968 that he wrote:

I thought of the rapidly changing life in the oasis and wondered how long the inhabitants could keep their old traditions alive. The concept of bringing several thousand immigrants here from the Nile Valley when the new irrigation projects opening (sic) thousands of feddans take place, saddened and distressed me. Will the honest, peaceful citizens of Farafra be pushed into a corner by the new, aggressive immigrants, as has happened in Kharga? (2003, 180)

The New-Valley Project

Land reclamation in the Western desert began in the 1960s under the guidance of President Gamal ‘Abdel-Nasser. The idea was to counter overpopulation in the Nile-valley by reclaiming desert land, creating new villages, and boosting agricultural production (Gudowski and Raubo 1995). The Western desert was seen as a land of opportunity that could potentially solve the problems of a “new Egypt” freed of British and Monarchic rule and set to modernise and develop:

Escaping the confines of the narrow and over-populated Nile-Valley into the wide expanse of Egypt’s land is the only way to build a future for Egypt, by absorbing the increasing population, and opening wide horizons for development and progress (Abu-Zayd 1997, 17).

Throughout the 60s and 70s hundreds of wells were dug, bringing to the surface millions of cubic metres of the non-renewable fossil water under the desert (Thurston 2003). Roads were built connecting the four oases with the Nile-valley (Kuzak 1995, Mills 1999). The project slowed down during the two wars with Israel and the six years in between (1967 to 1973) and large scale reclamation properly began in the 1980s. Despite intense development, the New-valley project did not fulfil the grand ambitions of the Egyptian government which included an estimated post-reclamation population of 2 million (current population of the area originally included in the project is 210,352 (CAPMAS 2007)). Part of the reason was the expense of land reclamation and the reluctance of Egyptians to leave the Nile-valley for the desert. Concerns about the falling water table further slowed down the digging of new wells. The water situation is such that unless alternative projects for transporting water from the Nile succeed, the water under Dakhla oasis could be depleted in 50 years, in which case the oasis will gradually cease to exist (Thurston 2003).

A recent document issued by the State Information Service entitled ‘New-Valley Panorama’ (Abu-Zayd 1997) acknowledged that development in the New-Valley has not fulfilled the “dreams” of Egyptians and has failed to mine the huge potential of the region. Mubarak’s government has been attempting since the mid-nineties to rectify this situation by constructing a canal, the ‘New-Valley Canal’, which carries Nile water from Lake Nasser south of the country for a distance of 850 kilometres passing by Uweinat, Kharga, Dakhla and terminating in Farafra. The grand plan is not just land reclamation but the construction of eighteen new towns, a hundred industrial sites, and a number of tourism projects. The ultimate goal is to build “a new civilisation, parallel to that of the old [Nile] Valley”. This project has met immense technical difficulties, not least due to the intense heat in this part of Egypt which salinates the water before it can cover a fraction of the intended distance; the reliance on underground water continues.

Dakhla Today

Today, Dakhla is a major oasis with 33 villages and an urban centre, Mūt, with a population of ten thousand. Agriculture remains the main activity, although the inhabitants supplement their income through various other means. All families own land and the men usually rotate tending for it. Prior to the New-Valley project the local leader, the ‘Umda, controlled most of the land and was the one who rented and sold to others. In the sixties this changed, and the government started digging wells and offering local families and immigrants 5 feddans and a cow for symbolic prices. If a family are particularly well-to-do they could dig their own well, otherwise they must rent water from the government for a symbolic fee of forty Egyptian pounds a year.

Water is rarely owned by a single family, and a well is shared among several plots of land. Owners must observe a specific water rota, and intentional or inadvertent violations of the rota may lead to problems which are usually resolved locally and very rarely involve the police. When a well dries and the family cannot afford to dig deeper or buy a bigger pump to pull the water, the owners must accept the slow death of their land. Land owned by families tends to be small, and the families grow less for profit and primarily for subsistence. Many families own livestock kept in a shed on their plot of land. Once a year they may sell a cow which would bring about 4000 to 6000 Egyptian pounds.

Contrasting with the small plots of lands that locals own, the government has been offering areas of up to thousands of Feddans for investment. Huge plots of land, in Uweinat and to a lesser extent Dakhla, have been bought by Egyptian and foreign investors who have launched major projects with the sole purpose of profit. Occasionally I saw huge trucks passing through Mūt and carrying produce straight to Suez and Alexandria for export. These projects are subject to modern irrigation standards in order to reduce water loss. Recently the government began to interfere in what the families could grow. Rice was banned a few years ago in view of the huge water waste involved in growing it. This has been met with disdain by the locals who are big rice eaters and must now buy it at a greater expense from Asyut, the nearest city. Concerns regarding the water supply do not strike a chord here. Most people reject the scientific evidence that underground water is non-renewable, and many argue that water is replenished directly from the Nile. The government’s grand project of the ‘New-Valley canal’ is branded as mere propaganda. The water issue for the people of Dakhla is a financial issue: enough money means more wells, and pumps that can bring water from deeper levels.

The fact remains, if you exclude a few families, that agriculture on its own cannot be the sole financial sustenance. Many men and women are employed as civil servants in the various government institutions that accompanied the development of the region. These positions are sought for the consistent income they offer and the guarantee of a pension. Otherwise people get by through working in multiple jobs. A man will work as a civil-servant in the morning and tend the land in the evening or early in the morning before heading off to work. Trading in livestock, running a shop or a coffee-house, or driving a micro-bus are all common sources of income. Tourism is not as big as in Bahariyya or Farafra, and consists mainly in arranging safaris for European tourists to the Great Sand Sea and El-Gilf Al-Kabeer. Free time is rare amid multiple jobs, and the few free hours of the day are spent at the coffee-house or at home. The reality remains, however, that the land must be preserved and tended regardless of any other jobs a man takes on. A father expects his sons to take over the land from him as he grows older.

Despite the constant struggle to make ends meet, many of the older inhabitants – those who recall life in the fifties – acknowledge the significant improvements brought by the New-Valley project. Back then food was scarce, and the absence of electricity constrained the range of edible foods to what could be dried and stored safely. The scarcity of water required that vegetables and fruit be brought from Asyut on desert tracks at huge expense. The construction of roads linking the oasis with the Nile-Valley meant that more people could travel to Asyut and Cairo to seek work and send money back to their families. More recently, some men have taken to economic migration to Kuwait and Saudi-Arabia to the detriment of the land they leave behind for their neighbours to tend. However the New-Valley project resulted in a huge surge of immigrants, mostly men, descending on the oasis. Up to this day the inhabitants of Dakhla clearly distinguish between themselves – the natives – and the immigrants. Families who have lived in the oasis for over fifty years are still considered outsiders, and even though they have married local women, the preference remains to “give your daughter in marriage” to a local.

Up to, perhaps, two decades ago the old-town represented the physical boundary of the villages. Within its high gates the inhabitants lived, stored their grain, married, died and, when required, sought protection from marauding Bedouins and others. Today the old-town no longer fulfils its historic role since the majority of the population have descended to the plains below, leaving the old-town to crumble in disrepair. In any case it would not have accommodated the population increase, which perhaps explains why people in the villages continue to live in mud-brick houses. A few families continue to live in El-Kharaba (the ruins, and the name given to the crumbling old-town), and those who have moved out continue to use their old houses for storage of chickens and pigeons. Today, El-Kharaba is a cornucopia of interlocking dwellings and shaded corridors and mazes that form an asymmetrical, organic mass with a fluid horizontal and vertical perspective. The houses, which are entirely made of mud-bricks, palm reeds, and natural wood, are now mostly in ruins, although you can still see the occasional standing house in perfect condition with electric lights and a satellite dish on top. The ruins also lend themselves to more ominous uses: drug users and seekers of illicit sex frequent the ruins at night unmoved by the inherent dangers of being caught or the risk of unsettling evil spirits that tend to inhabit deserted spots.

The descent from Old Mūt to the plains below occurred gradually over a twenty year period, although some families do not want, or cannot afford, to leave their mud-brick house for a concrete one. My friend Tariq told me that the first concrete building in Mūt was raised about thirty years ago and was a government site. When I asked him when he moved out of the old-town he paused and said: “you can only extend your feet as far as your covers go”. They’ve moved out only three years ago and this, in Mūt, is very recent. Moving out of the old-town has acquired status significance over the years: everyone is expected to want to build and live in a concrete house. Even though people complain about the concrete houses – the manner in which they lock-in the heat unlike the mud-brick dwellings which are cool in the middle of summer – the majority agree that modern houses are more comfortable and require less maintenance.

The concrete and steel construction surge that accompanied the descent from Old-Mūt still shows no sign of abating. All over town you see one and two-floor storey buildings with concrete pillars jutting out of the roofs and exposed bare steel rods rising upwards, the whole construction eerily resembling a helpless upturned insect. Such constructions are scattered all over town, giving the place the feel of a perpetually developing building site. Later when I understood the economics and pragmatics of house construction I appreciated why all the houses must have these unsightly pillars and steel rods jutting out of them. These pillars stand testament to deficient funding and the intention of “raising another floor”. Families in Dakhla continue to live together. Whereas the older mud-brick dwellings were organised around a central court-yard surrounded by several rooms – one for each family, the newer concrete houses allow more privacy, since each family lives in a separate flat. Brothers tend to share a house and as they approach the marriage age and once a few thousand pounds are amassed, concrete and steel can be bought from Asyut and a further floor could be built. Fathers build for their sons, while daughters usually move in with their husband’s family.

Perhaps the best spot to observe Mūt is from the top of El-Kharaba. Up there you could see concrete buildings stretching all the way to the green fields, beyond which the desert and mountains start. Most of the buildings have the obligatory steel rods dangling upwards; few are painted from the outside, and are built of manufactured red-bricks. The amorphous brown mass that is old Mūt gives way to a chaotically arranged red mass of houses occasionally interspersed by palm tree groves until, finally, it gives way to the fields proper and then the desert. From this vantage point Mūt is a simple collage of four colours: Brown, Red, Green, and Yellow. The colours of the naturally sourced material that comprise the substance of the mud-brick dwellings blend in seamlessly with the green fields and the yellow desert, but the New Mūt with its manufactured red-bricks and steel rods breaks this harmony.

In addition to agriculture, work, and housing, modernisation has touched other elements of life in the oasis. The literacy rate here is one of the highest in the country (81.2%). There are several primary and secondary schools in Mūt alone, although seekers of higher education must head to Kharga or further to Asyut and Cairo. Secondary education may take one of two routes: the conventional academic route that allows the graduate to go to university, and the more common route of specialised education where the students are trained in a practical discipline of their choice: agricultural, industrial, religious or commercial.

Technology has taken on in the oasis rather quickly. Mobile phones are ubiquitous since their introduction nine years ago. Television and electricity were introduced in 1982, and satellite dishes made an appearance in the past seven years. Whether at home or at the coffee-houses people spend significant time watching Egyptian, Indian and foreign films as well as American wrestling which is extremely popular with the men here. A number of religious channels offer an alternative for the more conservative. There are a few internet cafes and it remains quite rare for a family to have their own connection at home, primarily because personal computers are still quite expensive. People in Dakhla remain ambivalent about the effects of technology on society. A primary school teacher complained that children are no longer as focused at school; they are distracted by what they see on the Internet. Mobile phones are blamed for limiting family visits; prior to their introduction visits among the extended family would happen at least once a week and now people suffice with a phone call. Elders blame television for changing people’s expectations regarding marriage: “The youth now want to fall in love and live in their own separate apartments; they are copying what they see in the Egyptian [read: Cairene] serials and films”.

Health care has also seen significant infrastructural development. Mūt has a central hospital with several medical and surgical specialties in addition to an accident and emergency department, although they have no psychiatry or neurology departments. There are a number of private clinics and two private hospitals. The consensus here is that doctors in Mūt are largely incompetent. Seriously ill individuals are frequently taken to Asyut, 600 kilometres away, where there is a teaching hospital with well-known specialists. Otherwise healers are consulted for a wide range of problems, including those which medical doctors would recognise as falling within their domain.

This sketch of the major changes that accompanied the inception of the New-Valley project shows that Dakhla in the first decade of the 21st century is a different place from what it was prior to the sixties. Elements of modernisation have touched all people’s lives, extending to the intimate areas of speech and dress. Under the influence of immigrants, television and local teachers (many of whom are from the Nile valley) the Dakhlan dialect is now all but absent, increasingly resembling the Cairene dialect, a fact that Woidich (2000) already observed towards the end of the 90s. Local dress is largely indistinguishable from that in the rest of Egypt, even among older women whom Rugh (1987) noted were the final preservers of traditional dress. These changes are most evident in Mūt which I find accurate to describe as an urban centre with a village feel. The changes which started rather abruptly about forty-five years ago have affected people’s lives, creating new problems and opportunities and constituting specific identities.

Cairo 2010


One thought on “The Dakhla Oasis: Stories from the ‘field’ (0)

  1. Pingback: More Things in Heaven and Earth | Kan Zaman...

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