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Dusty days

There was nothing romantic about my first experience with a sandstorm in Egypt

Adel Heine
Adel Heine

Living in a desert country requires adjustments, some you make after getting it wrong only once while other things keep sneaking up on you over and over again and you never really learn. Getting out of the habit to leave your laundry out to dry during the day is easy once you stare sadly at your favourite shirt that suddenly looks like the newest design of a tie dye artist on crack. Locking all food in airtight plastic boxes in the fridge becomes par for the course once you find legions of tiny ants marching in military order in your sugar, rice, pasta and flour.

I learned very quickly to have a regiment of bottles filled with tap water handy in my bathroom after I slithered around in soapy-eyed, shampoo-dripping inconvenience when the water suddenly stopped gushing out of my shower. But leaving my windows open when I leave my house is a habit I just cannot seem to break. After living for years in a country where every house is insulated to the point where fresh air is hard to find indoors I relish in letting the breeze in.

However, sandstorms are a fact of life in Egypt. There are times in the year when the temperature suddenly rises sharply, the wind picks up from one moment to the next and in the space of twenty minutes the sun disappears and the sky turns dirty ochre. And it is always on the day after you clean your house or hang up your laundry.

A sandstorm is a bit like falling in love. You are happily going about your business and out of the blue it hits you, and when it is gone it leaves a residue in every possible corner of your life. It is going to take a lot of time cleaning it up and months later you can still unexpectedly find little piles of remnants.

The first time I saw the results of a sandstorm was back in Holland, strangely enough. Some unusual weather phenomenon had sent lots of fine Sahara sand to our little country and when I woke up all the cars in the streets were covered with a thin layer of yellow sand. As a kid I thought it was exciting, it made a nice change from the ongoing rain and the word Sahara alone was enough to send my fertile imagination into overdrive, Lawrence of Arabia style.

There was nothing romantic about my first experience with a sandstorm in Egypt. I had spent a day off puttering around my apartment, cleaning the floors, doing laundry and what not. I noticed a strange smell; it reminded me of the first days the heaters would be lit at school. The dust that had accumulated during the few warm months of the year would burn as the heaters warmed up, creating a distinctive, acrid scent.

When I opened the doors of my balcony I first realised how hot and windy it was and then I saw a brown wall coming towards me. I ran back inside, clutching my newly laundered sheets, not knowing what to expect but sure it was not going to be fun. A few minutes later the sandstorm was all around me and I learned that none of my windows and doors closed properly. When it moved on a few hours later there was sand in my eyes, ears, between my teeth and literally everywhere in the house.

While it is annoying when your clean house turns to dust, a proper full-on sandstorm can be dangerous. During the time I worked at a dive centre a sandstorm picked up on an evening when we had a boat out on a night dive. Not only had the wind picked up when the divers amused themselves by shining strong lights in the faces of sleeping fish, wreaking havoc on stomachs prolonging the journey back by a few hours, just as the lights of shore became visible a vicious sandstorm hit. It obliterated all visibility and left the captain no choice other than throwing out the anchor and riding out the storm. They finally made it back to shore at 2am and while the divers boasted of their adventure for the rest of the week, we had been worried sick throughout the ordeal.

Sandstorms carry more than the finest dust and sand particles; they whip plastic bags, candy wrappers, paper and other assorted garbage through the streets. The best things I have seen flying around over the years are a shoe, assorted clothing (including a pair of enormous granny pants) an umbrella and a toilet seat. Besides soiling clean clothes, it also airs our dirty laundry.

As I looked out the window of the office a few days ago and saw the dirty yellow sky I sighed and thought of my open windows.

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