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three pairs of lovers with space


The American anthropologist Walter Buchanan Cline (1904-52) spent three months living in a mud hut in the Siwan Oasis in Egypt gathering information for his
Notes on the People of Siwa and El Garah in the Libyan Desert (Menasha, Wisconsin, 1936), the first detailed ethnography of the Siwans, of considerable interest here for their tradition of institutionalised Greek love.  A more lively and personal account was later provided by Robin Maugham in his Search for Nirvana (London, 1975). The illustrations here all accompanied the original text.


I submit the following description of the Siwi people , among whom I lived between December 1926 and February 1927. Since I knew nothing about Siwah before my arrival, had had no field experience in ethnography, knew only a little Arabic and no Berber language, and never overcame the natives’ suspicion, I returned with only a handful of data. In the winter of 1928-29, … I again visited the Oasis and spent a few days in the eastern outpost of Siwan culture at El Garah.

I base the following remarks on my own casual observation and on information obtained from ten or twelve reluctant informants. To these data I have added details from the accounts of earlier travellers, and made some attempt to weigh the discrepancies.

The drawings included here are based for the most part on photographs which have already appeared in the Harvard African Studies, Vol. 10, 1932. [p. 3]

The Zaggálah

The zaggalah – men and boys who work as servants, cultivate the soil, and band together for recreation – form the most clearly defined occupational class. When questioned as to membership in the zaggalah, my informant replied, “Whoever wants some fun.” But the zaggalah are usually unmarried. When asked why they do not marry, they answer, “We sleep in other men’s houses, and often must work in the groves at night, or labor far afield at Meraghi and other outlying gardens. How could we keep wives of our own?”

A club-house for the Zaggalah of the Western faction

Cailliaud[1] says that youths had to leave the main part of the town and lodge outside the walls as soon as they reached puberty, as did all men without wives, and did not again live in the town until they married. These bachelors and widowers might visit friends and relatives in town during the day, but should withdraw before sundown.

The naïveté of this observation [about the zaggalah's quarter], made at a time when the old order had nearly disappeared, gives it special weight as evidence for the former segregation of unmarried men in this quarter. Besides working in the gardens, the zaggalah were the main fighting force, living near the main gate at the north of the town.

Their seclusion without women may have stimulated sodomy, a habit in which they all indulge. Though at present they have access to all neighbourhoods and to the numerous prostitutes, they still revel in pederasty, and often address their love-songs to boys. My Siwan informant told me that the Egyptian police forbid any young boy to enter the zaggalah club-house during a carousal, and that in former days the captain of the zaggalah kept his favourite boy beside him at the parties as a kind of mock-bride.

The zaggalah have summer-houses in the groves where they can frolic undisturbed.

Sexual Relations

Because of the prevalence of sodomy and the ease with which women may be obtained by all comers, Siwah has such a bad reputation that some of the Egyptian officials stationed there refuse to use it as a mailing address, telling their friends at home that they are serving at Marsa Matruh.

The natives demonstrate the old saying that the chastity of a group of Muslim women stands in inverse proportion to the strictness with watch they are veiled and secluded.
[… pp. 17-9]



[Though the details of this section about prostitution (pp. 42-3) are irrelevant to Greek love, the ready availability described of female prostitutes, professional and otherwise, is surely not].


A boy on stilts

All normal Siwan men and boys practice sodomy. I say "normal" advisedly, for the vice seldom connotes the effeminate manners and speech which often mark homosexuals in our own society. ‘Abdallah[2] questioned sixty Siwan men and found that fifty-nine had been catamites. "The one who was not was brought up in Alexandria." Among themselves the natives are not ashamed of this; they talk about it as openly as they talk about love of women, and many if not most of their fights arise from homosexual competition. Fear of the Government has lately made sodomy a more secret matter. If the officials find a boy under suspicious circumstances in a club-house of the zaggalah, they imprison the whole party.

My chief informant, when pressed for information about pederasty among his people refused again and again to give an exact account, but merely said, “There isn't one man in Siwah; they are all women." When asked to explain this, he replied, “Don't you see that if man has done it when a boy, he has played the woman; and when he does it when a man, he is still playing the woman?“

I then inquired if Siwans ever perform a marriage ceremony between a man and a boy. He denied this.

When he saw that I already knew some of the details, he became more communicative. He said that men rent boys for five or ten piastres a night. Some fathers rejoice to have their sons earn money in this way, but in most cases the boy is prostituted by his mother.

Prominent men lend their sons to each other. All Siwans know the matings which have taken place among their sheikhs and their sheikhs' sons. They say that the most influential sheikh of Siwa is impotent for women; and that he has often tried in vain to produce offspring by exciting himself with a boy in his wife's bed, and then joining his wife for the orgasm.

Most of the boys used in sodomy are between twelve and fifteen years of age. Formerly the zagallah all had their boys, who kept company with them in the gardens, companions as well as objects of lust. In many but not in most cases the boy is the active rather than the passive agent. They call this ed dudah, “the worm”, because it feels like a worm in the rectum. A Siwan informed me that if a zaggali, desiring a certain boy, is troubled with priapism at night, he strikes his penis with a ball of camelthorns which he keeps at his bedside. The natives told me that sodomy was more prevalent long ago, because the boys were prettier.

Zaggalah dancing. Arab onlookers

Actually, then, the sexual scheme in one hardly sanctioned by Islam or any other great society. But when we turn to the outward forms of birth, puberty, kinship and marriage, and finally to the rites of death, we find that Muslim ideas, or those associated with Islam in other regions, strongly prevail. [p. 43]


[1] Frédéric Cailliaud, Voyage á Méroe - a Syonah et dans cinq autres Oasis, fait dans les années 1819, 1820, et 1822  (Paris, 1828) Vol. 1, pp. 91-2.

[2] Mahmud Mohammad 'Abdallah, Siwan Customs (Harvard African Studies, Vol. 1, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1917) p. 7.




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