How long the area will remain so pristine is difficult to say. Baghi says flatly that Egypt as a whole, with its exploding population and declining resources, “is going down the drain,” and that Siwa itself won’t be far behind if development continues unchecked. “The outsiders come here, and they bring their bad manners,” Baghi says. Local wedding ceremonies, he notes, used to last an entire week: “Now it’s barely one night. You show up and it’s, ‘Okay! Congratulations! See you later.’” Neamatalla, meanwhile, is especially anxious about the prospect of regular flights to Siwa, which would cut the travel time from Cairo to one hour and possibly turn the oasis into a package-tour free-for-all. (The authorities recently decided to keep the ban on commercial air travel, for now.)
On our last day in Siwa, we head back into the desert for another leisurely lunch, this one a showstopper: The waiters have set up a table in the middle of the dunes, and after a glass of champagne, we sit down for a meal of date-marinated lamb served on palm skewers, and an herb salad with qatta (the original variety of cucumber). Neamatalla tells us that he once scolded his chefs for picking the herbs midmorning instead of waiting until just before lunch, because he could taste the difference in the salad’s flavors.
The next day we awake at 6 a.m. for the journey back to the chaotic urban mess that is modern-day Cairo. By midafternoon, while we’re fighting our way into the snarl of diesel-spewing trucks, cars and motorcycles that clog the highways on the outskirts of the city, Siwa already seems like a mirage. In central Cairo we pass an irrigation canal that now serves as the neighborhood dump—a fetid stew of cans, plastic bottles and urban sludge that turns my stomach. Evidently 18 million people can be wrong. Even though I’m reflexively eager to charge my cell phone and turn on CNN, I’m more aware than ever of the price of so-called connectivity. And I remember that at lunch two days ago Neamatalla told us about a wild, unpopulated place, three hours east of Siwa, called Tabaghbagh. He described it as an awe-inspiring spot, a spring-fed ridge nine miles long, where he hopes eventually to build his next retreat, after Siwa is overrun.
At the hotel in Cairo, I turn on my computer for the first time in five days. The first thing I do is Google Tabaghbagh.