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William Langewiesche
Excerpts from Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert
(Pantheon, 1996)

From Chapter Five:

The Physics of Blown Sand

I drank at a well with a rope and bucket. There was no farming here. The only sign of industry was a freestanding stone oven, a baker's oven, against which palm wood had been stacked. The wind blew sand, but otherwise nothing stirred. Two men sat in the shadow of a wall by a fire on which they had placed a blackened pot. They motioned me over and offered me tea in a dirty glass. The men were older than I, bearded and thin, and had no work. We spent a few hours together. They pointed to where the school lay buried, and to where most of the village stood beneath the sands. I asked them the details of its burial.

They said the sands are fickle. Dunes may drift for decades in one direction, or not drift at all, then suddenly turn and consume you. Consumption by the sand is like other forms of terminal illness: it starts so gently that at first you don't worry. One day the grains begin to accumulate against your walls. You've seen the grains before, and naturally assume that a change in the wind will carry them away. But this time the wind does not change, and the illness persists. Over weeks or longer, the sand grows. You fight back with a shovel, and manage to keep your walls clear. Fighting back feels good and gives you something to do. But the grains never let up, and one morning while shoveling you realize that the dunes have moved closer. You enlist your sons and brothers. But eventually the land around your house swells with sand, and you begin standing on sand to shovel sand. Finally no amount of digging will clear your walls. The dunes tower above you, and send sand sheets cascading down their advancing slip faces. You have to gather your belongings and flee.

Hear William Langewiesche read this passage (in RealAudio 2.0):

  • Part One (1:28):
    RA 28.8, RA 14.4

  • Part Two (1:39):
    RA 28.8, RA 14.4

    (For help, see a note about the audio.)

  • But your house is your heritage, and you would like somehow to preserve it. As the dunes bear down on it they will collapse the walls. The defense is again the Saharan acceptance of destiny: having lost the fight against the sand, you must now invite it in. Sleeping on the sand, covering your floors with it for all these years, helped prepare you mentally. But shoveling in the sand is not enough. Your last act is to break out the windows, take off the doors, and knock holes in the roof. You allow the wind to work for you. If it succeeds, and fills your house, the walls will stand. Then in a hundred years, when the wind requires it, the dunes will drift on and uncover the village. Your descendants will bless God and his Prophet. They will not care that you were thin and poor and had no work. They will remember you as a man at peace with his world. The desert takes away but also delivers.

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    Copyright © 1996 by William Langewiesche. All rights reserved.