The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The khamseen

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Today, one of the nastiest Khamseen in years is blowing through Cairo. My balcony is covered in dust, and the old doors and windows of my 1940s apartment are letting the fine red sand carried by the wind blow in, covering everything in the house with a thin sliver of dust. Your mouth feels dry and mealy, your nose congested, and their a vaguely rancid odor of hanging in the air.

The above picture, taken from the balcony at Arabist HQ (at an undisclosed location in Garden City) shows that you barely see the outline of the tall buildings in the distance, such as the new Four Seasons hotel. In fact, you barely see across the road.

Seeing all of this made me think about finding out more about the khamseen. Wikipedia informs us the term can be used generically, and is used commonly in at least Egypt and Israel:

Hamsin (from Arabic:خمسين, khamsīn or khamseen) is a Middle Eastern term for the dry, hot wind that blows in from the desert. It can refer to the wind that blows from the Sahara across Egypt in the spring, typically from March through May; or in Israel, for the easterly wind that brings dust from the Arabian desert to cities and oppressive pressure on the people.
I found this explanation rather unsatisfactory and turned to Cassandra Vivian's The Western Desert of Egypt, the ultimate guide to Egypt's main desert. It has a short chapter on Saharan winds, describing the possible variants:

In the spring, from March to May comes the special sandstorm, the khamasin, (the 50). The season lasts for 50 days, and most storms are a few days in duration. Called siroccos in Morocco, qibli in Libya, cheheli in the northern Sahara, irifi along the coast and ouahdy in the central Sahara, the storms of North Africa each have their own special personality. Some, like the khamasin, are hot winds, others cold winds, but all are laden with sand and dust. The khamasin blows from the south to the northwest, in opposition to the prevailing winds. The harmattan in West Africa is a cold northeasterly wind that blows in November through February. The simum, 'poison wind,' is hot and dry and temperatures reach 55C or 130F. The habub is hot and moist and is prevalent along the southern edges of the Sahara and in Sudan. It carried sandstorms and duststorms, but can be the harbinger of thunderstorms and small tornadoes. With each storm lasting about three hours, the habub is mostly a summer affair. Its wall of sand and dust can be as high as 900 meters (3,000 feet).
Looking at some more academic sources, you find out some rather amazing facts. Did you for instance know that 40 million tons of dust are transported annually from the Sahara to the Amazon, providing the main source of sediments that fertilize the Amazon basin across a distance of 5,000km?

A Google search also yielded this language column in the Forward by Philologos:

The hamsin is probably called “50” because this is, on a rough average, the number of days per year that it blows. These days can be divided into two equal periods, one in springtime, as Ondaatje writes, from March to May, and one in autumn, from September to November. (A cold, dry wind like the hamsin, known in Arabic as a sharkiyya or “easterly” — our English word “sirocco” derives from it — blows in much of the Middle East in winter.) In Israel the hamsin, while it strikes from the east or northeast, has two possible points of ultimate origin far to the west. One is North Africa, Egypt or even the Sahara, from which the wind whirls around cyclonically in a great circle through Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria; the other takes the form of an anti-cyclonic high-pressure front moving across the northern Mediterranean through Turkey and again wheeling, first southward and then westward, across Mesopotamia. In either case, the wind reaches the end of its land journey over Israel — particularly, over the northern part of it — before petering out at sea, so that many of the desert storms that will continue to bedevil the allied forces in Iraq for the next month and a half will rage across the Galilee a few days later.

The word hamsin comes from Egypt and has spread throughout the Arabic of the Middle East. Israelis use it colloquially too, although in more formal language, such as that of weather forecasts in the newspapers or on TV, it is replaced by the more “proper” Hebrew term sharav. And in the book of Exodus, the hamsin is called quite simply ruah. kadim, an east wind. Back in those days, it caused military problems too. When Pharaoh’s chariots, the equivalent of a modern tank brigade, pursued the Israelites to the Red Sea, “the Lord,” the Bible tells us, “caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind, all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” Then the Israelites passed through, the violent hamsin that had rolled back the water died down, and the sea returned to drown the Egyptians.
Of course it's not only in the Bible that the khamseen is referred to. Many travelers wandering through North Africa mention it. For instance, the BBC has gathered an extensive collection of memoirs from British soldiers who fought Rommel's Afrika Korps in Egypt's Western Desert. One is a testimony, titled "Hell Alamein," of a soldier who arrives in Egypt in August 1942 and is sent out to a place in the desert called Kassassin to face the Nazis and the unbearable heat:

Not many days after we had been at Kassassin, this cauldron seemed to boil over. That was the day the dreaded Kahmseen dropped like a blanket. I shall always remember my first experience of this terror from the interior wastes of Africa. The air came from the desert far inland, not from the Mediterranean as it usually did. Blistering not air, with minute particles of sand floating in their millions, floated through the sky, shutting out the perpetual blue, and turning the heavens into a mass of grey.

The first time it hit me, I felt as if someone had placed a smothering pillow over my face. It was almost impossible to breathe. I felt the red-hot air going up my nostrils and making me choke as it reached back of my throat. Huge sand-spouts wended their way from the earth to the sky in darkening wavy pillars, and when I saw them coming, I hurriedly dived out of their path. On one occasion I was too late, and was caught in a whirling column of sand, which torched me like the blast from a furnace, making me gasp frantically for breath.

In the evenings during Khamsen, it was torture trying to get to sleep. I’d lie naked as the day I was born, with only a blanket below me to keep the sand off my body, and close my eyes, firmly determined to get some sleep. I’d sweat and sweat, the liquid oozing from the pores of my body like a slowly-pressed sponge and running in rivulets down the side of my stomach. Eventually, I’d manage to drop off for a few hours, only to awaken at dawn to find myself in a pool of my own perspiration, and so exhausted that I’d feel as if I hadn’t slept in years.

Once this terrible Khamseen arrived, I soon learned that it was certain to last for at least three days. That was the minimum. That then was the country that my comrades and myself encountered and, consequently, our first battle was not against the Germans but against Mother Nature.

A few days of sand swirling through tents, hitting our faces and bodies, and sticking to every nook and cranny, it was little wonder that dysentery set in, in its worst form. We just couldn’t avoid it. Sand was everywhere. It blew in our food and we ate it with bully beef, stew, wretched sweet potatoes, melons, or whatever was on the menu. The flies, too, lent their dirty, disease-ridden feet and gobbling filthy mouths to the daily misery. These were not like the flies back home which disappeared when you aimed a blow at them. These merely got out of the way when the blow fell and returned next second as if to attest their total disdain for the human race.

It was a contest at meal-time, you versus the flies, with the nasty fluttering creatures winning nine times out of ten. I used to take a newspaper with me to every meal, to place over the top of my mug of tea while I ate the rest of the repast. Then I’d prepare myself for the battle ahead. With one hand, I would quickly snatch the newspaper away, while, with the other, I practically threw my mug to my mouth. In all, the swift motion took me about a second --- but the insects took only half second --- and before a single drop of the tea got over my throat, my mug was rimmed with buzzing flies. How then could dysentery be prevented in stomachs not yet acclimatised to the desert hazards?
Sir Edwin Arnold, an English poet and orientalist most famous for his translation of the Baghavad Gita, used the khamseen as a backdrop for a poem on the theme of mercy. One of his poems is reprinted in The Dog's Book of Verse (available at Project Guttenberg), a collection of poems about the canine species, tells the story of how a woman condemned to death is saved by Saladin because she relieves a hound's thirst during the khamseen:


Hast seen
The record written of Salah-ud-Deen,
The Sultan--how he met, upon a day,
In his own city on the public way,
A woman whom they led to die? The veil
Was stripped from off her weeping face, and pale
Her shamed cheeks were, and wild her fixed eye,
And her lips drawn with terror at the cry
Of the harsh people, and the rugged stones
Borne in their hands to break her flesh and bones;
For the law stood that sinners such as she
Perish by stoning, and this doom must be;
So went the adult'ress to her death.
High noon it was, and the hot Khamseen's breath
Blew from the desert sands and parched the town.
The crows gasped, and the kine went up and down
With lolling tongues; the camels moaned; a crowd
Pressed with their pitchers, wrangling high and loud
About the tank; and one dog by a well,
Nigh dead with thirst, lay where he yelped and fell,
Glaring upon the water out of reach,
And praying succour in a silent speech,
So piteous were its eyes.
Which, when she saw,
This woman from her foot her shoe did draw,
Albeit death-sorrowful, and, looping up
The long silk of her girdle, made a cup
Of the heel's hollow, and thus let it sink
Until it touched the cool black water's brink;
So filled th' embroidered shoe, and gave a draught
To the spent beast, which whined, and fawned, and quaffed
Her kind gift to the dregs; next licked her hand,
With such glad looks that all might understand
He held his life from her; then, at her feet
He followed close, all down the cruel street,
Her one friend in that city.
But the King,
Riding within his litter, marked this thing,
And how the woman, on her way to die
Had such compassion for the misery
Of that parched hound: "Take off her chain, and place
The veil once more about the sinner's face,
And lead her to her house in peace!" he said.
"The law is that the people stone thee dead
For that which thou hast wrought; but there is come
Fawning around thy feet a witness dumb,
Not heard upon thy trial; this brute beast
Testifies for thee, sister! whose weak breast
Death could not make ungentle. I hold rule
In Allah's stead, who is 'the Merciful,'
And hope for mercy; therefore go thou free--
I dare not show less pity unto thee."

As we forgive--and more than we--
Ya Barr! Good God, show clemency.
So if you happen to see those yellow baladi dogs (my favorite dogs of all) wandering the streets their throats parched, it might be a good idea to put out a little water for them to drink.