Photos by the authors.
Siwa, a small Egyptian town just 60 kilometers from the Libyan border, is renowned for its hot springs and mud-brick fortress—and, following the uprisings of 2011, as an entry point for smuggling. Despite being a tourist destination, however, the township is dry. Stella, Egypt's seemingly ubiquitous beer, is nowhere to be found. Alcohol comes in the form of smuggled bottles of Absolut or Bacardi from Libya, or as a home-brewed moonshine called aragi. Described by locals as a type of arak—an anise-flavored spirit found in parts of the Levant—aragi has no trace of licorice. Rather, it's made from fermented dates.
An oasis on the edge of the Western desert, Siwa is divided into gardens brimming with olive and date trees—the traditional staples of the area's economy, prior to the arrival of tourists and its recent status as a contraband crossroads. After date farmers harvest the groves, the leftover and unsellable dates are rounded up and distilled illegally. While the consumption of aragi isn't much of a secret, its production and sale is kept muted to avoid problems with the law and judgment from a community that sees drinking as forbidden.Sitting on floor cushions in a tiny restaurant, we drank numerous cups of tea, alternating between black and green and black again, to distract ourselves from the grumblings of our stomachs while we awaited our tagine. In the meantime, the chef-owner Hisham* asked if we drank whisky. We responded with an emphatic yes, hopeful that he would spare us a sip. Eventually the conversation turned to how we might procure something more probable—aragi. "You either make it yourself or, if you are offered some, you ask for their connection," he said. While aragi is free-flowing during the summer—heat quickens the fermentation process—winter batches are smaller and take much longer to produce, Hisham told us. It took him four phone calls to finally find someone willing to sell some of their winter reserve to us.
Later that night, we followed Hisham and his friend to a garden, where we sat around a fire and sampled the spirit. Hisham poured the aragi out of a recycled soda bottle and into tiny glass teacups. It was easy-drinking, with a slight yellow hue and subtle fruit undertones. "There are about half a dozen varieties of dates produced in Siwa, each with their own taste and quality, which has some effect on the taste of the aragi," said Hisham. The standard recipe is two parts water to one part dates. "But some people change the ratio to their liking, which also affects the taste." This particular batch was smooth, even kind of refreshing, and decidedly not as strong as we expected.
But we could hardly call ourselves journalists without doing a little more investigation, so we decided to compare our first experience with another batch of aragi—for the sake of fact-checking, of course. The following evening, we took a tuk-tuk out to the periphery of the town to meet up with a different drinking circle. Before sitting down to imbibe, we were led to a back room to observe the makeshift distillation operation and get an explanation of how it's made."The dates are left to soak in a barrel of water for ten to 14 days—but only for three days during the peak of summer," explained Ahmed, one of the covert producers. He adds a pinch of yeast to quicken fermentation during the winter months. The mixture is then distilled.
The back room was sparse, with greying white walls and a lone fluorescent light. Aluminum pots of moldy dates soaking in water and plastic water bottles holding the finished product crowded a countertop. Across from that, a closed metal container was boiling on a gas stove. Attached to the metal vessel was a four-foot pipe that ran through a second container, propped up on a small table and filled with cold water, and onwards to empty out into a third container on the floor.As the fermented liquid boils, it produces a concentrated alcoholic steam that travels into the pipe, which is attached to the first container with tape and secured with a dry mud. As the steam makes its way through pipe, it passes through the container of cold water. There, the alcohol-filled steam cools and condenses, and then drips into the third container.
Voila: concentrated aragi.One of the brewers caught a few drops on his finger, and put a lighter to it—a thin flame appeared. "It's almost done," he said, evidently measuring the proof of the liquid by the persistence of a flame.Our three hosts poured a bottle into a metalteapot. We gathered around a low table in a separate room, again next to a fire. "Now we drink the Siwan way," said Ahmed. The alcohol was distributed in mini tea glasses once again, but this time, the contents were completely clear. This batch was crisper, dryer, and obviously stronger. While there was no definite alcohol measurement, one of the covert brewers estimated that it clocked in at 42 percent."The alcohol content is unknown," a friend told me later. "But it's more magical that way, since you only find out the next day how strong it actually was." In retrospect, aragi could not have been characterized better.Music and dance, alongside the consumption of the aragi, are kept concealed from mainstream Siwan society. The two are largely intertwined, occurring in hidden gardens or the desert at night, as they are both taboo for the Muslim-majority community. Interestingly, making moonshine and Siwan song are rooted in a similar centuries-old subculture, as they descend from the folklore of the zagali, the former "servant class" of Siwa."Zagali roughly translates to the 'strong youth', and were the traditional workers that harvested the fields and did hard labour," said Hassan, a local archaeologist. These youth lived on the outskirts of Shali, the original settlement of Siwa. "After working all day, they would drink aragi, make music, and dance," he explained. "Their folklore was associated with a sort of vulgarity, and this has continued up until today."
After polishing off the first teapot, our hosts refilled it with a second batch, passing us each a quarter-filled cup. This one was distinctly different from the tawny tinted liquor of the first garden, like comparing wine to a camphor concoction. This batch was slightly bitter, and had a pungent odor. They put a lighter to a small pool of aragi on the table to demonstrate its potency once again. A blue flame wavered about for a good 30 seconds.Yet, even as we piled into a car that would drive us to one of Siwa's infamous hot springs, our sobriety felt more or less still intact. Another water bottle of the second batch continued to go down without major effect. At some undefined point, however, the moonshine (combined with the steam from the hot spring) finally hit us. The next day, we would conclude that the alcohol content was, in fact, very strong.That conclusion was reinforced when we offered the remnants of a bottle to friends back in Cairo. Upon smelling the contents again, it was clear our taste buds had stopped working that night. The aragi was met with scrunched noses, a couple cautious sips, and an impolite decline.Maybe "moonshine" is aptly named, and should be drunk only under a moon and around a fire. Or at least when there isn't imported whisky at arm's length to compare it to.*All names have been changed to maintain anonymity.