All this becomes clearer when I walk around central Siwa—a smattering of shops and cafés surrounding a main square cluttered with donkey carts—and sit down for tea with Sheikh Omar Rageh, the leader of one of the oasis’s 11 tribes. (Tribal sheikhs still effectively run the oasis, though they now answer to the regional governor in the city of Matruh, to the north.) Rageh, a handsome 42-year-old dressed in a traditional indigo robe and burgundy camel-hair cap, says that the defining attribute of Siwan culture is its strong social bonds. When someone dies, everyone in the village goes to the funeral, which is paid for with community funds. But that custom, like many others, has been waning since 1985, when the only road to Siwa was paved, drawing new residents and vacationers from Egypt’s Delta region and beyond. “Now everything’s changing,” Rageh says, speaking through a translator. “When the people from the Delta come, they build new houses and paint them different colors: green, yellow, orange. There’s no consistency now.” He adds that Neamatalla is one of the few people in Siwa fighting to heal the “scars” of rapid development.
The lodge does indeed feel like an oasis within the oasis, a place where 21st-century anxieties quickly evaporate into the great arid expanse that extends for hundreds of miles. Even if the rooms did have electrical outlets, the act of recharging a BlackBerry in a place like this would feel like utter sacrilege. (Cell phones are banned in the lodge’s public areas, but they can be used in the rooms and charged in town overnight.) And Adrère Amellal’s staffers, if not overtly eager to please, are like walking advertisements for the kind of reserved, gentle dignity for which Siwans are known. One night after dinner, while I’m staring up at the dazzling riot of unfamiliar constellations in the night sky, the maître d’, Mohammed El Sherif, asks me where I live. Paris, I say, and he asks about what he’s heard from previous guests: “Is it true that it’s very noisy there, and you can barely see the stars at night, and there is always rain falling down?” I tell him that’s about right.
The next afternoon Baghi takes a few of us, including Roberto Rossellini (Ingrid Bergman’s son, who’s just arrived at the hotel with his wife, Dominican diplomat Gabriella Bonetti), for a long drive through the dunes to Lake Shiata, whose lush shoreline is a habitat for flamingos, jackals and slender-horned gazelles. In this part of the desert, called the Great Sand Sea, the dunes are sculpted like smooth swirls of frosting on a giant cake, and the effect is so spectacular that it leaves even jaded travelers awestruck, mouths agape. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” says Rossellini, 57, who can’t stop snapping pictures as he charges up and down the dunes.