Authors: Jack Nicholls
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The angels and spirits ascend to Him in a day, the measure of which is fifty thousand years.
âThe Holy Quran, Sura 70.4
When he arrived, the dunes were singing.
It wasn't just the wind, though there was that too, a steady whine that filled his ears with sand. But laid over that was a low-pitched vibration that rose and fell like the call of the muezzinâinsistent and magnetic. It came from the west, where the crests of the orange dunes swirled. Tariq felt a long way from home.
Hasan was waiting for him beneath the awning of his concrete hut on the edge of the desert. He had grown his beard since Tariq had seen him last year, and thinned out beneath his white robe. He looked like an imam. Tariq's own jeans and T-shirt were already drenched in sweat.
“Salaam alaikum,” said Hasan, extending his arms. “Welcome, little brother.”
“Alaikum, salaam,” replied Tariq, a little weirded out by the formality. The old Mercedes taxi, his last link to civilization, turned and began to nose its way back along the track to town.
Tariq crunched across the sand and into the shade of the awning. Hasan drew him into a tight embrace and they kissed four times, twice on each cheek. Then Hasan drew back and ran his hand over the racing stripes Tariq had carefully shaved above his temples.
“Not so little anymore,” he said.
Tariq slapped his hand away. “It's only been, like, six months.”
“It goes fast at your ageâ¦” Hasan murmured. They lapsed into uncomfortable silence. Tariq felt the sting of sand grains against his bare arms.
“So, what do you think of your new home?” asked Hasan, with a proprietary gesture across the sand.
Tariq looked around. The road from town petered out here, on the shore of the Sahara. The hut was depressingly basic, though at least it had a solar panel rigged up on its roof. Two bunks within; a laptop closed on the table; an independence-era rifle hung in brackets on the wall. A hammock was strung under the awning. Beside the house, Hasan's jeep was a ghost beneath weeks of desert dust.
And then there was the desert itself. Humming, impossibly orange and wind-sculpted into shapes more fantastic than anything his friends at home had ever managed with their hair. He had expected the dunes of the erg to rise slowly, but they sprang fully formed from the stony earth and filled the horizon. They looked Photoshopped. It was the strangest and most beautiful place he had ever seen.
“It's all right,” he conceded. “What's that noise?”
“The Berbers say it's spirits, calling to each across the desert,” Hasan said. “The land is haunted by the Ghaib, the unseen.”
Tariq raised a withering eyebrow. Hasan held a poker face for a few moments until the old lopsided smile finally broke through. “Come on, I'll show you the camera,” he said, picking up a plastic water bottle.
About a hundred meters from the house, there was a rickety metal tripod concreted into the sand. It was approximately three meters high, with a suitcase-sized black box at its apex that was reachable by a steel ladder. Facing the dunes was a dark lens behind a thin sheet of transparent plastic. Standing beneath it, Tariq could see a fishbowl reflection of his head, with the desert curving up like wings behind him.
“That's a Kumai X5 DSLR camera in there,” said Hasan. “Very expensive. It's how we film the dunes moving.”
Tariq's reflection looked sullen and tired after two days of bus and taxi rides. He straightened his posture and waved into the lens. “Sand doesn't move, donkey,” he said.
“Yes it doesâvery slowly, like your brain. The camera takes a photo every three hours while there's light. Then the BBC can run them together to make a time-lapse film of the desert at noon, or sunset, or whatever.”
“Does it have a Bluetooth connection?”
“Yes, back to the house. We can check the photos on the laptop they gave me.”
“So this is the big job you told us about? You watch a camera watch the desert? I can see why you needed a man of my talent. This is heavy stuff, Hasan.” As he spoke, Tariq drew his phone out to check his messages. One bar, no Internet coverage. He frowned at it, feeling the familiar tightness in his temples that came on whenever he was cut off from the world.
Hasan's irritated clap was like a gunshot. “You think I needed you down here? Mum
me to look after you, to get you out of the city. This is a serious job, all right? This is going to be on international TV. We're working for Mr.
And it means more money in nine months than Dad could make in five yearsâunless they fire me because they find out that my little brother is in trouble with the police.”
“So you think I'm a criminal, then? I suppose the independence fighters were all criminals too? Do you care that the government is snatching people off the street and torturing them? Do you care about freedom? Do you even vote?”
Hasan turned to stare out across the sand, debating something with himself. Then he laughed softly. “You're a clueless donkey.”
Before Tariq could retort, Hasan's phone beeped. He glanced at it, then relaxed.
“Prayer time,” he said, unscrewing the top of his water bottle. He poured a little into his hands and splashed himself, then offered the bottle to Tariq. He unrolled his simple tan mat and laid it on the sand, checking the angle to Mecca on a plastic compass he drew from his pocket. Hasan was always on top of that kind of detail.
He spread his arms and looked out toward the cobalt horizon. “Allahu Akbar,” he intoned.
“Allahu Akbar,” Tariq repeated sulkily. The desert swallowed the ritual words, made them seem small. Hasan fell to his hands and knees and, after a self-conscious moment loitering above him, Tariq knelt and pressed his forehead to the hot sand. The sun beat down mercilessly on his back.
“Glory to God,” Tariq whispered. The grains were hot and coarse against his nose and forehead and they stuck to his lips. With his face pressed against the sand he could feel faint vibrations, like a tiny earthquake beneath his fingers or a vast one, hundreds of miles away. The singing of the sand.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
He opened his eyes. Hasan stood above him, wrapped in shadow. The air was bitterly cold.
“There's someone outside.”
Tariq half-rose, bunching the sheets around him. Out the window the darkness was smeared with cold stars. Hasan had taken up the rifle and moved to the doorway. All Tariq could hear was the distant desert hum, like the sound of the surf.
“I don't hearâ¦” he began, but Hasan bolted out the door.
Tariq groggily fumbled out of his blankets. There was a flashlight somewhere, but he couldn't find it, so he snatched his phone and ran outside shining its screen ahead of him like a lantern.
The stars overhead were disorienting in their brightness, but their light sank without a trace into black desert. Tariq strained to pinpoint his brother's form. He directed his phone at his bare feet, terrified of scorpions emerging into the tiny circumference of blue light it gave off.
“Come on!” shouted Hasan, chasing shadows into the dunes.
“Wait!” called Tariq, but the wind snatched at his words and bore them away into the darkness. Moments later, he heard his own cry distantly repeated from upwind, as if his voice were spinning around him like an eddy of fluttering paper.
Tariq struggled after Hasan. The sand that had seemed as smooth as glass by day now flowed beneath his bare feet like a river. He dug his toes in for purchase, and beneath the crust the underlayer was still hot with yesterday's warmth.
Hasan had reached the ridge of the nearest dune. Tariq could make him out now as a deeper black silhouette against the radiance of the stars. Hasan raised the rifle toward the sky, and the sound of a shot broke across the desert. Memories of tear gas and street fights flashed across Tariq's mind and he found himself diving to the slope for protection.
The shock of it seemed to silence the hum of the desert for a moment, then it washed back like a wave. Tariq spat sand from his mouth and crawled up to the ridgeline, where Hasan was crouched with his head cocked intently.
“Can you hear them?” Hasan whispered.
Hasan's fear seemed to people the void before them with menacing figures, black against black beneath the vibrating stars, but Tariq could only hear the sand, the wind, and his own strained breathing. He lay against his brother, shivering in the darkness.
“We must have scared them off,” Hasan said at last. “Probably kids trying to boost the camera.”
He led them to the camera tower and took Tariq's phone to examine the equipment, pointing with satisfaction to a confusion of scuffed sand beneath the tower, although Tariq couldn't tell if it was made up of their own tracks or someone else's. There was no sign of damage to the camera or its case.
“We can't risk any tampering with the equipment,” Hasan said firmly. “We'll have to sleep out here from now on, in shifts.”
Tariq wrapped his arms around himself. He was shivering, and not just from the coldâthe thrum of the desert was more overwhelming at night, like helicopters patrolling the sky.
“I am not sleeping here,” he said.
“Then I will,” said Hasan, staring blankly into the dark. “We have to do our job.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Hasan was serious about guarding the equipment. He kept his bedroll and rifle by the camera, just out of sight of its lens, and slept under the stars. He would wake with sand in his hair and nostrils and wash himself from a bucket of cloudy water before dawn prayer. In the afternoons he had taken to disappearing on long walks along the tops of the dunes. Tariq would think his brother was reading one of his
magazines in the chair behind him, then be startled to see a shadow stalking along the ridgeline high above the house.