EL QASR, Dakhla Oasis, Egypt -- It's midnight at the oasis, and there's no camel to send to bed.
Arabic pop music is blasting from a fluorescent-bright shop serving icy sugar-cane juice. At the sweltering coffee shop across the unpaved lane, robed men pass the night playing dominoes and puffing on water pipes as a TV screen flickers. Trucks and motorcycles rumble past; the sound of grinding gears mixes with the barking of dogs and the braying of donkeys.
Alas, real life in a Sahara Desert oasis at the end of the 20th century is not the idyllic paradise of song and film. Yet there is still something magical about these rare and precious places of sweet water and verdant palm groves in the midst of parched sands.
Watching the blacksmith of El Qasr at work is like stepping into the Middle Ages.
Mohammed Hamoudi pumps an antique leather bellows that heats the homemade charcoal in his furnace to a pale orange. A metal bar goes onto the glowing mound and he pounds it into a flat crescent. When it has cooled, his thumb presses the metal against a worn stick. With a file in his other hand, he deftly cuts 100 tiny saw teeth. The result is a neatly turned sickle ready to be attached to a wooden handle and sold to his neighbors.
Hamoudi is proof that the self-reliant traditions of oasis life still endure. But for how long?
Five major oases
In Egypt's western desert, which stretches from the Nile Valley to Libya, there are five major inhabited oases: Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla, Kharga and Siwa. The largest, Dakhla, is dozens of miles across, encompassing hundreds of wells and providing water to numerous villages. Their populations range from 15,000 in Siwa to about 75,000 in Kharga.
Scientists believe Egypt's oases have been inhabited since the Stone Age.
In ancient times, Siwa was famed for its oracle; Alexander the Great braved the desert to consult the seer. From Rudolph Valentino's desert sheik to Maria Muldaur's "Midnight at the Oasis," these "islands of the blessed," as they were called by the Greek historian Herodotus, have come to symbolize serenity, romance and escape.
But they are changing. Newly opened to the outside world by television, modern telecommunications and paved roads built as part of Egypt's push to modernize and extend infrastructure across the country, the oases in Egypt and elsewhere are undergoing an epochal transformation.
After centuries of isolation, inhabitants of places such as El Qasr have been pushed into the future.
TV soap operas, plastic garbage bags and pickup trucks are supplanting storytelling, frugality and camels. Asphalt roads now follow the age-old caravan routes, and buses link Egypt's oases to the Nile Valley more closely than ever before possible.
Oasis youths travel out to earn money, while increasing numbers of backpackers and tourists with different ways trickle in.
Benefits of progress
Government officials say this is good -- oasis dwellers are enjoying such benefits of progress as health care, schools, a more diverse diet, modern appliances, transportation and building techniques.
They also see the oases as a partial answer to Egypt's overcrowding, and they're encouraging more Egyptians to leave the Nile Valley for the oases to work on new agricultural projects that will increase the limited amount of arable land.
But many environmentalists, archaeologists and oasis dwellers fear that a cultural and natural paradise is being lost, that development is wiping out the unique customs and social fabric of the oases. There are even warnings that poorly conceived water-drilling and land-reclamation projects could destroy the oases themselves.
The blacksmith Hamoudi, 41, is typical of the transitional generation in El Qasr, on the edge of Dakhla Oasis, 350 miles southwest of Cairo. Television did not arrive here until he was 26. He can remember when there were no lights, indoor plumbing or telephone service.
El Qasr has these conveniences today. But as more and more of its people move to new concrete houses, its old town, inhabited since ancient Roman times, is slowly collapsing. The concrete homes are hotter in summer and colder in winter than the traditional mud-brick ones inside the old town's walls, yet they are seen as cleaner and more modern.
Occasionally, government preservationists come by to shore up walls in danger of imminent collapse, and a few tourists traipse in to see the old mosque and water wheel. But the alleys are half-empty, with doors of abandoned houses hanging open.
Hamoudi sees mainly pluses in the transition to the modern world. "We didn't know anything," he says, "and the television helped to open people's eyes. I've got a television set, and I love it."
Oases occur when a natural depression or fissure allows underground water to reach the desert surface, through natural springs or man-made wells, so that plants, animals and humans can survive.
The desert was not always dry. Periodically during the Earth's history, what is now the Sahara has had substantial rainfall, and an unknown quantity of that water remains, trapped in aquifers under the desert.
Now these "fossil" waters are being exploited much more rapidly than in the past, with new technology allowing wells to reach a depth of three-quarters of a mile or more, drawing water that comes to the surface piping hot.
Some critics believe that these water schemes are doing the oases more harm than good.
In Siwa, rampant expansion and a frenzy of well-digging by private investors who have moved in from Alexandria and the Mediterranean coast in recent years have resulted in about 2,000 wells in an area of only 35 square miles.
The result is too much water. Some foreign experts fear that the entire Siwa oasis, including priceless antiquities and its medieval capital, Shali, could be drowned in 30 years. Right now, the rising outflow of these wells is gradually filling the Siwa depression, 142 feet below sea level, because it has nowhere else to go.
Damage to soil
Increased irrigation, meanwhile, is raising soil salinity and in some cases ruining the land for further cultivation. The 'u underground water is slightly saline; during evaporation, the salt gets concentrated and a crusty salt deposit gets left behind.
Sharif Baha Din, an Egyptian naturalist and environmentalist, suggests that perhaps there are better uses of the oases than farming. "Instead of having agriculture where it doesn't really belong," he argues, "you could do the most obvious thing, maintaining things in their natural order for recreation and tourism. Some of the agricultural schemes are really on the optimistic side."
But Muhammad Raafat Moomen, the government-appointed mayor of Farafra, believes differently. Egypt must keep expanding the oases to relieve overcrowding in the Nile Valley, ,, he says. "We have 800,000 more mouths to feed every year. We have to do something."
As he speaks, he serves dates, apricots and hibiscus tea, all products of his oasis. Besides, he says, the Sahara holds the equivalent to 1,000 Nile Rivers. "It will last for a long, long time."
Pub Date: 11/07/98