As I write, the doors and windows are rattling, sand piling up on the steps outside. The shamal is blowing flurries of sand along the road, snaking, disappearing like djinns. The wind is always unsettling - I remember working for a children's charity in Westminster, and anarchy reigned in the playground on windy days. If people are driven mad by the Mistral, living in the only true desert country in the world also has its challenges. The photo above was taken in our garden last week during what has already become known as 'The Great Sandstorm of 2015'. Sandstorms or 'haboobs' sound rather Lawrence of Arabia, make you think of Cain's lovely etching of a camel train ...
The reality was screeching shamal winds bringing a dust storm of such magnitude from Saudi that the government closed all the schools. It felt apocalyptic, the sky a sulphurous yellow, all the plants coated with a dense grey dust. Physically, your throat and eyes burn, you can't breathe - even indoors there is an unsettling smell like burning, and the dust gets everywhere.
Throughout history, duststorms have proved devastating - the five year 'Dustbowl' of 1930 - 35 in the US, the sandstorm that preserved the 'Pompeii of the Silk Road' in Western China, or the Persian King Cambyses II whose entire army was buried alive by a vast storm. I first learnt about desert life, and the challenges of surviving in a harsh environment when the photographer Ronald Codrai visited the gallery I worked at in Chelsea some years ago. He brought with him a portfolio of stunning photographs, taken over many years in the Arabian Peninsula. Like his contemporary, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Codrai captured a changing world on film. Life altered rapidly in the region thanks to the oil industry, but his photographs of Bedouin preserved Cain's world of camel trains and trading routes, skilled falcons and hounds and a strong nomadic people whose way of life had changed little for a thousand years.
'Bedu' literally means an inhabitant of the desert. Whether defined by their beliefs and culture, or a wandering, migratory lifestyle, Bedouin traditions are valued here, and the qualities of chivalry, courage and patience. Famed for their generosity and hospitality, any guest of the Bedouin would be given food and water for three days, and protection. The tribes were ruled by sheikhs chosen for their wisdom and skill, and they have passed on a rich culture of storytelling, poetry and music.
By the 1950s only a thousand Bedouin were still living a migratory lifestyle in the region, and many had settled as 'hadar' town-dwellers. It is a fast changing world, but in Qatar some of the oldest residents can still remember a life spent travelling by camel, and this "longing for a simple past" was recorded in a recent anthology 'Qatari Voices'. These memories are to be treasured before they fade, just like the work of the photographers who recorded a vanishing way of life. Perhaps it is inevitable that the past is romanticised. On moving to the desert, I'd hoped it would all be more Kristin Scott Thomas reciting Herodotus by a camp fire than cleaning up dust. Inevitably, someone said last week: 'Call this a sandstorm? You should try being stuck in the middle of the Sahara'. If it involved Ralph Fiennes reciting the names of the wind, it does sound tempting:
Fabulous - thank you!
Epic. My last biography subject, Christine Granville, Britain's first female special agent of WWII, would have experienced some of these desert winds while posted in Cairo. But when it was still, Laurence Durrell, also caught in Cairo in 1941, described the oppressive stupor of heat; 'one feels walked upon by the feet of dead elephants'. Fascinating, thank you.
Thank you. Oh, I love that description - sums up the claustrophobic weight of the heat precisely!
Wonderful evocative post. Thank you! We don't have much idea in this country of how destructive natural forces can be elsewhere.
we sometimes suffer from the tail end of these desert winds and of course the Mistral is our angry lady. I have visited with desert Bedu, silent, shy people who listen to the wind and the call of the sand
Fab post, dear Kate, sorry to be late to read this. I have been travelling
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