Khaled and I stood where we were in the sand dune, with our eyes locked upwards to the cloudless evening sky. We saw a thick trail of grey smoke in the half light, before hearing a loud explosion that left us rattled. A fierce ball of fire broke the solemness of the slowly inching dusk.
We are Bedouins, we are the people of the desert. And this sight is not new to us. Since 1939, we had seen these iron birds falling from the sky. That was the time when the white men started warring among themselves. Father said that although they battle in our land, this war is not our war.
It sounded like thunder when the iron bird hit the desert ground. Bending our backs and with hands over our heads, Khaled and I ran for cover. The iron bird skidded into a hill of sand and laid there dead, while yet still burning furiously. I could feel the heat radiating towards us. Father had warned my brother and I not to go anywhere near a burning iron bird without him. And so we stayed put.
Most of the time, after the fire had died down, Father would ask us to accompany him to check the wreck. The men who fell from the sky would have died from the explosions. Sometimes we would find their bodies separated from the iron bird, and often times tangled in the huge white sheet that they used to glide through the sky. No matter how mangled the men were, Father always gave them a proper burial. He said that is the decent thing to do.
Father was not around tonight. And so my brother and I stood there, just watching the plume of fire engulfing the wrecked iron bird. It was quiet but for the crackling of fire.
“Ali! Look!” I turned to where Khaled was pointing at.
We could see a silhouette of a person standing and staggering slowly. As he moved, he dragged both his legs like they no longer belonged to him. His right hand was limp, while his left hand was in front of his body, like it was helping him navigate his way in the dark.
“Allahu! His head is burning! We need to help him Khaled!"
Father’s words were lost to us as my brother and I ran to the burning man who had fallen from the sky.
"I've always had a thing for historical war stories - especially those set in Africa or Europe. No specific reasons, I guess I just find the landscape a little bit exotic, a little bit mystical.
Years ago, I watched "The English Patient", without knowing that it was based on a book. It was pretty embarrassing for me to know that fact later, considering that I call myself an avid reader.
Anyway, shortly after, I stumbled upon the book at Tower Records in Shibuya, Tokyo. When I was living in Japan, Tower Records was a favorite book haunt on Sundays, as it had the best selection of English books in Tokyo (my opinion, at least).
Since then, The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje has been a true traveling companion, reread every year - coffee stains, dog-eared pages and all...
I have traveled the African continent countless times through the pages of this book. Some day soon, I hope to set foot there myself and see all the beauty there as seen by Almasy.
This today is a sharing of what I regard as the most haunting page in the book:
There is a whirlwind in Southern Morocco, the aajej against which the fellahin defended themselves with knives. There is the africo, which has at times reached into the city of Rome. The alm, a fall wind out of Yugoslavia, The arifi, also christened aref or rifi, which scorches with numerous tongues. These are permanent winds that live in the present tense.
There are other, less constant winds that change direction, that can knock down horse and rider and realign themselves anticlockwise. The bist roz leaps into Afghanistan for 170 days - burying villages. There is the hot, dry ghibli from Tunis, which rolls and rolls and produces a nervous condition. The haboob - a Sudan dust storm that dresses in bright yellow walls a thousand metres high and is followed by rain.
The harmattan, which blows and eventually drowns itself into the Atlantic. Imbat, a sea breeze in North Africa. Some winds that just sigh into the sky. Night dust storms that come with the cold.
The khamsin, a dust in Egypt from March to May, named after the arabic word for 'fifty', blooming for fifty days - the ninth plague of Egypt. The datoo out of Gibraltar, which carries fragrance. There is also the ------, the secret wind of the desert, whose name was erased by a king after his son died within it. And the nafhat - a blast out of Arabia.
Other, private winds.
Traveling along the ground like a flood. Blasting off paint, throwing down telephone poles, transporting stones and statue heads.
The harmattan blows across the Sahara filled with red dust, dust as fire, as flour, entering and coagulating in the locks of rifles. mariners called this red wind the "sea of darkness". red sand fogs out of the Sahara were deposited as far north as Cornwall and Devon, producing showers of mud so great this was also mistaken for blood.
Herodotus records the death of various armies engulfed in the simoom who were never seen again. One nation was so enraged by this evil wind that they declared war on it and marched out in full battle array, only to be rapidly and completely interred.
Dust storms in three shapes. The whirl. The colum. The sheet. In the first, the horizon is lost. In the second, you are surrounded by 'waltzing ginns". The third, the sheet, is copper-tinted - 'nature seems to be on fire.'
From Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient