Baking bread el-Qasr style isn’t great for the lungs, but it does wonders for the beleaguered soul. Twelve hours south of Cairo, past the enigmatic White desert, and past the lush Farafra Oasis, this city was once a Medieval fortress built over an old Roman village. Formerly the capital of Dakhla, the last of the famed oases where intrepid travelers stocked up on provisions before braving the formidable Sahara desert, el-Qasr hasn’t lost its full-bodied, slow-paced rhythm.
But when the news that an Americaine arrived swept through the sleepy village, women suddenly emerged from every corner carrying their woven baskets. “La, shokran,” I said over and over, “No, thank you, la, la, shokran.” One woman, however, taught me something that no money could buy.
As we were getting into our jeep to move on, Abdul Hamid, my guide, told me that one of the villagers was about to bake bread. Last night over dinner at the Desert Eco-Lodge, he explained how they make bread in el-Qasr, so this seemed like an excellent opportunity to see a live demonstration.
“Come Tafline,” he said.
I scrambled after him down into the street below. At the end of the street there was a small, mud-brick enclosure. Inside, an old woman wearing a yellow hajib was fanning a fire in a giant clay oven.
The oven looked like a great big jar, which is not surprising given that the village is renowned for its pottery. We were joined by the woman’s daughter, and two small grandchildren, who all helped with the bread-baking event.
Once we were all assembled, the old woman fed straw and sheep poop into the side of the oven, which then billowed a horrific black cloud of smoke. I was pressed against the wall in a corner, the little girl hid her face, but the baker-woman fanned the fumes.
“Would you like to try?” Abdul Hamid asked. “I take photo.”
“No, no, that’s OK,” I said. “I’ll stay here.”
From what I could gather, though there was a definite language barrier, the dough consists of dried cornmeal, salt, and water. This mixture is kneaded together and left in the sun for half an hour.
The sun-baked dough is then carried to the enclosure on lightweight plates that looked suspiciously like dung.
“No, they are made from paper,” said Abdul Hamid.
The villagers collect, wet, and ground used paper into a pulp, which is then molded into round trays with a small lip.
While the old woman tends the bread in the oven, pulling out the loaves, dusting off the black soot, turning them around, and somehow never getting burned, the daughter prepares the next batch.
After roughly fifteen minutes, the bread was done. My hot loaf of (rather bland) bread that I absolutely couldn’t refuse was wrapped into two sheets of white paper covered in Arabic script. I handed over 10 Egyptian Pounds (about $1.50) in return.
“Shokran,” I said. “Thank you very much.”
She rattled off something in Arabic and then kissed me on both cheeks. My soul, weary from Cairo’s troubles, has been mercifully restored.
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all images via Tafline Laylin