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November 14, 2002

Siwan Anthropologist Sparks Controversy

The Siwa oasis lies in western Egypt near the border of Libya, home to a tribal community of 15,000 that boasts a unique Amazigh dialect and religion. Sheikhs who adhere to 13th century Siwan law, the Koran, and answer to a council of respected elders, lead the ten tribes who dwell there. Adhering to traditions distinct from Egyptian culture, the Siwan culture is based on tribal family groups, between which marriages take place, aiming to preserve their community. Today, their “authentic traditions” are reportedly threatened by Siwa's integration into the mainstream economy, with a road that was constructed in 1985, opening their preserved lifestyle up to tourism and development.

These new outside pressures prompted Siwan anthropologist Fathi Malim to write a book, Oasis Siwa: From the Inside, that documents a number of unique aspects of Siwa life and culture. The chapters are devoted to birthing customs, marriage, death, folklore, and medicine. It explores a variety of fascinating topics, like the belief that cat fur stops nightmares, and the fact that most divorces occur because of conflicts with the mother in-law.

Despite his avowed intentions to preserve a record of a changing culture, his work has sparked a controversy in the otherwise quiet community. The rulers of Siwa feel Malim's work inappropriately reveals precious secrets of Siwa. If they open up their culture for all to see, they say, then it is no longer something that is just theirs. One townsman said, “We are not a zoo… some things must stay just for Siwa.” Even though few will speak of the controversial topic, everyone in the isolated community seems aware of it. After the book was published in December 2001, Malim's tribe threatened to expel him from their community. Emphasizing the severity of this possibility he said, “If I did not find a solution…I would be a person without a tribe. Without a tribe there is nothing to stop me being killed, or from having my land taken.”

Under great pressure, Malim decided to edit the book's next edition, and to white out from the current edition material that the elders found offensive. Many of the topics that the Sheikhs deemed taboo deal with the private lives of Siwan males, including allusions to homosexuality, the groom's wedding customs, how Sheikhs punish those who commit adultery, and allusions to unfortunate and poor families. Other traditions were permitted to remain in print, such as the female customs of marriage, and traditional punishments of common offenses.

Overall, Malim says that the changes do not detract from his book. As an anthropologist Malim feels that the facts should be written, so he said he “wrote the good things and the bad things.” He did not realize that his work would create such controversy. For his next book, he plans to explore a less loaded topic: Siwani food.