Isolated in the desert with his brother, Hasan learns that there is more to the legends of the dunes than he initially believed.
The angels and spirits ascend to Him in a day, the measure of which is fifty thousand years.
—The 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 muezzin—insistent 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 age . . .” 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 does—very 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 begged 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. Attenborough! And it means more money in nine months than Dad could make in five years—unless 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.
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. Voomvoomvoom.
“I don’t hear . . .” 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 cold—the 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.”
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 National Geographic magazines in the chair behind him, then be startled to see a shadow stalking along the ridgeline high above the house.
Tariq was struggling not to sleep through prayer times. He had built himself a nest of cushions, power cords, and water bottles in the hammock outside the door, and rarely stirred from it. He would swing in the hammock, obsessively checking his phone’s Wi-Fi like a fisherman angling for a catch that never came. The cloud was as remote and elusive in the desert as its namesakes above.
Some days it was so silent that he could hear the tiny shutter-click of the camera every three hours. Other times, the horizon hummed like a field of locusts. It was just vibrations from wind rolling sand grains down the slopes, Google told him, but it was unnerving, and he kept his earphones in at those times.
Today there was something wrong with the music on Tariq’s phone. The beats of all his songs had sped up, the singers sounded like chipmunks. He experimented with settings and playback for five minutes until he gave up and threw the phone into the sand with a curse.
The drone of the wind bored into his head. Hasan seemed unfazed by the sound. He sat in a sagging deck chair beside Tariq, peacefully contemplating the dunes.
“Hasan, let’s sing. Remember when we did our own version of ‘Buffalo Soldier’? Old camel herdman! Sand in his turban!”
He sang the verse out into the sky, then waited for Hasan to chime in on the chorus.
“I don’t remember,” said Hasan, after a pause. “I don’t listen to music much anymore. Sorry.”
Tariq rolled his eyes. He picked up one of the National Geographic magazines, flipped through it, flung it back down.
“You act like an animal in a cage,” Hasan commented, without turning his head. “What happened to your love of freedom? This is as free as you have ever been. Rich Westerners pay thousands of dollars to come to the desert.”
“It’s a desert of shit.”
Hasan glanced at him pityingly. “In the old days, caravans used to take fifty-two days to cross the Sahara. Without phones. Out there, it’s just you and God. The Tuareg say that the journey puts you in a trance, that you can wake up in the evening and not remember anything from the day. They call it Dune Time.”
“This whole country’s in a trance! I should be helping my friends, not hiding down here.”
“You should be as far away from those friends as possible. They’re not looking to make things better, they just want to be martyrs. How does throwing rocks at the police help your cause?”
“The police broke Ali’s fingers!”
“The police are people. Some good, some bad. They need to earn bread for their family. When was the last time you put family first?”
“Everyone putting their own family first is the whole reason the country is messed up.”
Like a reclining imam, Hasan flung his arms out in mock admonishment, “Be maintainers of justice, bearers of witness for God, though it may be against your own selves, your parents, or your relatives.”
“There you go, then,” said Tariq. “It’s clear.”
“So clear, so clear.” Hasan repeated, drumming his fingers on his knees. Then, abruptly—“Did you know that Dad had a visit from the police last month? They threatened to close his business down if he didn’t pull you into line.”
The wind hissed between them for long moments. At last Tariq said, “Why didn’t he tell me that?”
“I’m telling you now.”
Tariq turned away, onto his side. “Well, I’m sorry I’m such a disappointment to you all,” he said bitterly.
Hasan sighed. “You’re not a disappointment, Tariq. Why do you think Dad didn’t say anything? We’re all proud of you. You just need to gain some perspective.”
Tariq held his silence.
“Things will get better,” Hasan went on. “We just need to show the world we’re responsible, that we can do the same jobs as Westerners and the Chinese. The government will adapt to keep the investment flowing. Trust in God.”
“And just hope that happens before we die of old age?”
“Inshallah,” said Hasan.
His family’s favorite way to shut down a difficult conversation. Tariq gave his hammock a few passive-aggressive swings and watched a ball of dead grass blow up against the dune and roll back again.
The sun glinted on the casing of his phone, taunting him. He retrieved it and blew the sand from its screen. This time it showed the elusive one-bar signal.
Hasan forgotten, Tariq started circling the house, waving his arms in the air. The bar came and went. Desperate, he put his foot up on the window ledge and chased the signal onto the blistering concrete of the roof. And there, wedged beneath the solar panel for shade, he could finally reach the life-giving waters of the information sea.
Tariq felt the tension ease from his shoulders as his browser loaded. While the signal lasted, he opened as many tabs as he could. He checked Al-Jazeera and the BBC. There had been more unrest since he’d gone into exile, and the government had backed down on its proposed curfew law. His friends’ Twitter feeds were exultant. He should be there.
A pop-up blinked at him. Freedom21 had come online. Ali. Tariq eagerly called him and leaned in toward the screen.
Ali’s image appeared, pixelated and bleached of its normal color. He squinted at his screen uncertainly for a moment, then relaxed into a grin.
“Hey, the Bedouin is back! How’s the desert?”
There was a bad lag in the visual, giving a creepy de-synchronization effect. When Ali’s voice did come through it sounded hollow and far away, like he was at the bottom of a well.
“It’s as exciting as watching my fingernails grow. What’s happening there?”
Ali spread his hands—so much. “We need you, man! The walls are crumbling, but there’re rumors that the army is going to come back in. Fucking pigs. We need men on the street!”
According to Ali, the walls had been crumbling for three years now. Tariq could see a mound of comic books piled behind him on his bed. “I can’t, I’ve got to stay low,” he said.
“Because of that warrant? Don’t worry about it; we’ll hide you in the medina. And remember, ‘Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.’”
“It’s not that, brother.”
“The police threatened my parents. If I got in trouble again.”
Ali shrugged. “Sorry, man. But it just goes to show that we have to keep going, you know? This is important, Tariq.”
“So’s my family!”
The pixelated Ali looked taken aback. Tariq paused, embarrassed at the way his voice had boomed across the emptiness. He glanced down, but Hasan sat with his hands behind his head and showed no signs of having heard.
“Shit, man, of course they are. Sorry.”
“I’m sorry too. Can you tell me more about what’s happening?”
He saw Ali rub his chin doubtfully and glance at something offscreen. “I don’t know, man, it’s been crazy. Things are moving so fast. Look, I have to go; we’ve got a strategy meeting soon. I’ll let everyone know you’re doing good, eh? Salaam, brother.”
“Salaam,” murmured Tariq. Ali switched off the connection and his image withdrew five hundred miles to the north.
Tariq sat back glumly and let the heat soak through his shirt. From up here he could see long fingers of sand reaching out from the dunes toward the distant road. Someone had erected little palm leaf fences to slow the desert’s advance, but they were already half-buried. There were a few tooth-like clouds in the sky now, drifting aimlessly out into the erg.
With a pang of conscience, Tariq tapped out a short email to his family: Doing well, getting on with Hasan, etc. Then he halfheartedly browsed for another hour until the Internet stuttered out, and he became aware of just how dehydrated he was becoming. He rolled to the edge of the roof and lowered his head below the awning.
Hasan was kneeling at his prayer mat again, bowing to the western dunes. Tariq hopped down beside him.
There was no response for a moment, then Hasan turned his head slowly and looked up at him, squinting against the glare.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I’ve just been on the roof for two hours,” Tariq said. “Where did you think I’d been?”
“I didn’t notice.”
“Sure,” said Tariq. “You know, Mecca is that way,” he added, pointing east. Hasan blinked up at the sky, then shifted his prayer mat around.
“You know, if I have to be here, I can at least help maintain the camera.” Tariq said. “You’re crap at the tech stuff anyway.”
Hasan nodded vaguely, not really listening.
“You’re sandcracked,” Tariq told him, and retreated to the hammock to await the coming of another night.
The weeks stretched out interminably as the days bled into each other. Tariq learned to distinguish the hiss of a sand eddy from the scrape of grains rustling through the thorns of the acacia trees. He took to dozing in the afternoon heat and staying up into the cool night, illuminated by the blue glow of the laptop as he clicked back and forth through the photos of the dunes.
There were enough photos that Tariq could run about ten seconds of film now; the pockmarked sand hills undulating across the screen like a caravan of ghosts. In the foreground the desert surface bulged and rippled like muscle flexing beneath skin. It gave him chills.
The photos were designed to be grouped in their respective time blocks for morning, noon, or afternoon footage, but he preferred to run them all together so that the alternating lines of shadow flickered back and forth like strobe lighting. He looped them to songs, obsessively updating the makeshift music videos every few days to add in the latest footage.
On nights when the hypnotic film had lulled him into a half-sleep, Tariq often thought he saw Hasan pacing the crest of the dunes in the moonlight. Those moments, detached from the time around them, flowed seamlessly into dreams of home. Dreams of his family, of girls, of the terror and exultation of the square. Or worse. He walked through an endless nighttime desert like the bottom of a vast deep sea; the dunes frozen waves poised to crash over him and drive him down among the creatures swimming the depths below. Above him the stars whined like feedback from a broken speaker.
Fatima . . .
Tariq woke with a start into choking heat, his skin prickly and goose-pimpled, as if his body didn’t know if it was cold or hot. A tinny rendition of a dated pop hit was sounding out across the sand; Hasan’s ringtone. His brother was prostrate in the heat a few meters away, head bowed toward the dunes.
“Hasan. Your phone.”
Hasan remained deep in prayer. Fatima . . . Fatima . . . Je me souviens de vous, moaned the stupid ringtone.
Tariq heaved himself out of his nest and ran across the sand, nudging Hasan in the backside. “Hasan!”
No reply. Tariq could hear him whispering something to the ground. The phone began its kitschy little loop again, and Tariq fished it out of his brother’s sun-bleached robe. The caller ID read Michael BBC. Shit. He answered.
“Hello, Hasan?” came a man’s voice speaking English. Young, confident, impatient.
“No, this is Tariq . . . I’m his brother. I am assisting on the project.”
There was a doubtful silence from Michael BBC. Tariq clamped a hand over his free ear to block the whistling of the wind and tried to think of what he could say next to prove his professionalism. “I do the IT work,” he hazarded.
“Is Hasan there?”
Tariq covered the mouthpiece and crouched by his brother. “Hasan!” he hissed, giving him a savage poke in the ribs. Hasan straightened slowly and gave him a blank, sleepwalker’s stare. There was sand encrusted on his cheek.
Tariq straightened again and said, “Hasan is on-site, examining the equipment. We’re getting some lovely shots here. Panoramic views.”
“Very panoramic,” Tariq emphasized, walking back to the house. “We don’t have much Internet out here, but I’d be happy to bring them into town and email you the pictures. Or to Mr. Attenborough—is he there with you?”
The voice was amused. “No, Mr. Attenborough is in London. Yeah, if you could get Hasan to send some footage my way, that would be great. No other problems at your end? You don’t need more crew?”
Tariq glanced back at Hasan, who was whispering something to the horizon. “Uh, no. Thank you. Things are tip-top.Tip. Top.”
“All right, great. Tell Hasan that I’m not going to be able to swing by as planned, but we’ll try to schedule something for next month. Cheers, mate.”
“Cheers,” said Tariq rotely. The phone went dead, and he wiped the sweat from his forehead. After his panic subsided he felt a surge of fury at his brother. He grabbed a water bottle and strode back outside. Hasan was sitting cross-legged on the mat, eyes unfocused.
“What’s wrong with you, donkey?” demanded Tariq, handing his brother the water. “You leave me to do the business? You want them to think we’re amateurs? That you’ve brought your family down to squat here?”
Hasan rubbed his faced and took a slow gulp. “I was praying, Tariq. Something you should do a bit more of.”
“Praying?” Tariq glanced at his phone. “It’s 3 p.m.!”
“There are some things more important than money,” Hasan said dully, staring out at the horizon. “Can’t you feel God’s presence here?”
“Weren’t you the one who told me we needed this job? Hasan? Hasan!”
Hasan didn’t answer.
“I don’t think you should sleep out here anymore,” Tariq said. He looked at the sun. It balanced on the distant line of dunes, poised to roll away into night. “I don’t think either of us should.”
After a lengthy pause, Hasan said slowly, “Thank you, Tariq. I’ll come back inside soon.”
The cursor flickered.
His lips were dry. So dry. The roof of his mouth felt scoured and ribbed. When he breathed the inside of his throat shrank from the hot air.
Forcing numb legs into action, Tariq staggered to their stash of water bottles. He drained one, opened another and sipped it. How long had he slept? His phone was dead, but outside the sun was only just past its height.
It was the screen door, swinging on its hinges in the wind. A dented line in the paintwork marked where the frame was hitting the table. Long fingers of sand reached across the step, brushing against Tariq’s sneakers. On the table, the pages of Hasan’s Quran ruffled back and forth.
Tariq stepped gingerly outside, fumbling in his pocket for his sunglasses. He pulled the door shut behind him, scraping a wave of sand back onto the porch. More sand weighed down the wipers of the jeep.
The camera tower shimmered in the distant heat. Tariq jogged over to it and looked for a sign of his brother. He found something half-buried in the sand and nudged it with his foot—it was Hasan’s phone. There were no footprints and if there had been the dancing grains would have obliterated them in minutes. The dunes swirled and hummed.
The camera lens reflected his own frightened image back at him. In the reflection of his sunglasses was a miniature image of the camera again reflecting him reflecting it, tumbling down through eternity.
Tariq shouted Hasan’s name until he was hoarse, but the wind whipped his cries away. His nerve broke and he turned to run back to the hut, childishly terrified to peer back over his shoulder.
Back in the hut he felt dizzy. He had to lean against the table to steady himself. He couldn’t call the police; he was on their hit list. And how did he even know how long Hasan had been gone?
The BBC camera. The photos were time-stamped. Thankfully, the laptop was still plugged in and charged. Tariq blew the sand from its keyboard and opened the photo folder.
He clicked incredulously through the series. He’d fallen asleep on the evening of the 11th. There were eight photos since then, the latest stamped for midday on the 13th. He’d been unconscious for forty hours.
But he’d found Hasan.Twelfth September, nine a.m. Hasan was kneeling on his prayer mat, looking out across the erg. His arms were raised in supplication; he teetered as if the camera had caught him at the moment of falling into his own shadow.
Three hours on, the shot was almost identical. Hasan was still frozen in exactly the same position. But his shadow had pooled around him now and he was shrunken, a dwarf.
Tariq cupped his face in his hands, breathed deeply, then looked again. Hasan wasn’t smaller, he had just receded from the lens—he had moved into the background. There were no tracks in the sand behind him.
Click. Click. Six p.m. Now Hasan knelt on the lip of a background dune, a tiny shadow against the setting sun. His silhouetted arms still flung wide as the desert sucked him outward.
That was it until this morning, a gap of twelve hours. The desert in the photo was empty. Tariq had to magnify the image to its maximum to find what he was looking for—a tiny, bright cross in the distance. Hasan, swept far out across the sand sea.
The most recent photo showed only the dunes.
“There is no god but God,” Tariq whispered, and began to cry.
He pressed the arrow keys back and forth, scrolling hopelessly through the few frames. Hasan had been lost for more than a day. He could already be dead from dehydration.
They had no printer. There were no features in the photos from which to take a bearing except the curves of the sand, and Tariq wasn’t going to put any trust in that. He could only make the most general estimate as to which direction Hasan had vanished.
He opened the desk drawer and rifled through old food wrappers and loose playing cards until he found Hasan’s compass. He pocketed it, snatched the rifle, and ran back to the tower.
In approximately the spot where the first image of Hasan had been visible, facing the dunes, Tariq laid the compass on the swirling sand. The needle spun idly once or twice and he felt a fresh surge of nausea. But at last it settled on north.
Sweat trickling down his temples and sides, Tariq dragged the butt of the rifle in a wide arc where it would be visible from the camera’s nest. Once the line was distinct, consulting the compass, he carefully crossed it with dozens of lines radiating out at all angles to the west. Beneath each line he marked its bearing. 255 degrees. 260 degrees. 265 degrees.
The heat and exhaustion dried his tears and his breath was ragged by the time he was done. When he was satisfied that the marks were clear, Tariq sprang up the ladder to the camera aerie and opened its case. Then, with his finger on the button, he manually photographed the scene.
The wind chased him back to the house, lashing sand across the back of his calves. Back at the computer desk, he refreshed the folder and opened the new file. It had worked—he had an identically positioned photo of the erg, but with rough compass bearings like a child’s writing scratched into the foreground.
Now, at least, Tariq was in control. He opened Photoshop and layered the frames of Hasan on top of each other, with the compass shot uppermost. A few tweaks of the fade and transparency settings gave him an eerie multiple exposure of four Hasans, shrinking like babushka dolls toward the horizon. He dragged a red line through them. They aligned perfectly, and he had his bearing: 266 degrees.
Water. Hasan would need water. Tariq filled a backpack with bottles, wrapped a scarf around his head, and froze. Something had changed while he’d been working.
It was the silence. The door hung still, the wind dropped.
He crept out into the bleached landscape. The sand was pristine again, his compass lines vanished.
He stalled the jeep in under thirty seconds, its wheels spinning uselessly against the slope. There was no hope of getting it over the dunes. Compass and rifle in hand, the water bottles bouncing against his shoulders, he chased the sun into the desert.
The stillness was absolute. Not a grain of sand stirred across the erg, and the whispers of Tariq’s footsteps floated up into the azure sky as he threaded his way between the great dunes.
Coming to rest in the shadow of a long, low hill, Tariq heard the tiny clicks of individual sand grains rolling against each other. A lone scarab beetle was marching lengthwise along the dune. Its wavering six-footed track extended as far along the sand as he could see. Tariq watched it pass and then lifted his gaze to the wall of sand towering above him. He had to climb it. He’d never be able to find Hasan without a proper vantage point.
He climbed slowly, leaning on the rifle for support. The crust held firm under the compression of his tread, then collapsed into shallow holes as he lifted his foot away. He wanted to run, but as soon as he tried his legs sank up to the ankle, so he toiled step by slow step. His thighs burned and his sneakers grew heavy with sand. He was still just in view of the camera, and he imagined himself as it saw him, a scarab-sized speck inching up an orange wall.
At last he reached the knife-like rim. It disintegrated as he grasped it, running like liquid gold between his fingers. From here he could see that the dune was a crescent, its arms reaching out ahead of him to the desert. Its moon shape repeated itself endlessly to the horizon. Unchanging.
Tariq closed his eyes, willed himself to remember his schooling. “And He withholds not a knowledge of the unseen,” he whispered. He looked again to the west.
Far away, a few solitary pixels of white against the yellow. A flaw in the image. Hasan.
Tariq sat like a child on the corrugated ridgeline and pushed off with his hands, sliding diagonally downward in a shower of sand. Around him, a whole sheet detached from the dune. The cascade of grains sang him down its slope and moments later the nightmare hum echoed back to him from the surrounding ridges.
The sound cocooned him. Like the picture of the impossible staircase, it climbed and climbed in intensity without ever changing. Or were there patterns there, but too slow for him to notice? Even as he thought it the pitch seemed to rise—a hysterical sustained whine that blanked his mind and pulled him onward.
The next line of dunes was far, and then it was close. The rifle was a heavy burden on his shoulder, then it was a distant mark in the sand behind him. His big brother was lost, and then Tariq was beside him.
Like an ancient statue, Hasan knelt half-buried in sand, head bowed across outstretched arms. His skin was blistered from sunburn. Sand had piled in waves around him, sucked down his legs, submerged his fingers. Only his face was free, breathing into the hollow made between his arms.
“Hasan!” Tariq grabbed his brother by the shirt and hauled. The material tore like paper, but he managed to heave Hasan’s head up. His beard glinted with crystalline grains.
Tariq forced Hasan’s mouth open, splitting his cracked lips. He jammed a water bottle into his brother’s mouth and poured until Hasan choked and spluttered it back onto the sand. The moisture instantly vanished between the grains. He looked up at Tariq, recognition flaring in his bloodshot eyes.
“It’s not God,” he croaked.
“We’re going home,” Tariq told his brother, lifting him to his feet. “Lean on me.”
Climbing the dunes by himself had been bad. Trying to walk with Hasan’s weight on him was almost impossible. Once he reached the first slope, each step plunged his legs calf-deep into shifting sand; it was like trying to crawl the wrong way up an escalator. He climbed in a dream. He moved in Dune Time.
His shadow wavered, then began to elongate in front of him. It stretched out, staining the sand like a stream finding its bed. Afraid to watch it, Tariq turned his gaze away, and behind him saw the sun fall to the horizon like a stone.
“So verily, I swear by the planets that recede, by the planets that move swiftly and hide themselves, and by the night as it departs and by the dawn as it brightens.” Hasan whispered hoarsely.
“Shut up!” groaned Tariq, trying to quicken his pace up the crumbling slope. But above him the cold sky darkened, and moments later the stars burst out in their full radiance, the dunes around him now only visible by the void they cut in the starlight.
Tariq grew disorientated. Beneath his thin cotton T-shirt, he felt like he’d been doused in ice water. His mouth felt full of glass, and his skin was raw from the scouring of the sand. Sinking to his knees, he couldn’t stop himself from draining another full water bottle while ahead of him the sky lightened again. The gap in the dunes he’d been aiming at was gone—the sand had closed around them in the night.
Hasan stirred against him, and turned his head to look behind. “They are moving,” he whispered. “The Ghaib. The smokeless fire. The djinn.” He gave a gasp. “They’re beautiful.”
They swam through the sand like ripples through a lake. Faces boiled from the dunes, and sand ran from their sockets as they turned their gazes to the seven heavens.
“Don’t look,” Tariq begged, hauling them forward another step. The horizon flickered and the dunes shrieked. He fumbled in his backpack for the last water bottle, and his hands closed around something small and hard. His phone. Sanity.
With shaking fingers, he drew it out. It still had a charge in it. He spun the selection wheel on his favorites and pressed play on “Buffalo Soldier.”
There was a burst of white noise in his ear, and then the song select screen appeared again. The battery had dropped to half full. His shadow was slithering toward him as the air heated again.
“No, no,” groaned Tariq. He selected the song again and closed his eyes. Strained to listen to the patterns. The same few seconds of squealing—this time he discerned a loose pattern to the intensity of the sound. Rise-fall-rise-fall. Verses and choruses.
Restart. Select. Play it again. Tariq kept struggling up the hill. Hasan had fallen back into semi-consciousness.
There was so much life in the world! In the streets of the cities and the banter of chat rooms, in Coca-Cola and kefta, in music and television. Human time.
Restart. He sang as fast as he could, running the syllables together, dropping consonants, just trying to keep up. As soon as he reached the end he gasped and looped back to the beginning. Focus on the words, hear the gaps between the words, stretch it out.
The sun stopped its precipitous rise. The buzz of the dunes fell back toward its normal register.
Then the screen of his phone went dark. And like a roller coaster which had crested its peak, the sun began to accelerate back down toward the sand.
“No . . . please,” Tariq sobbed, tapping uselessly at its screen. The surface of the desert sucked at his blistered feet. The song was slipping away.
“Old camel herdman . . . sand in his turban . . .”
It was Hasan. Eyes closed, voice croaky. He pushed Tariq forward up the dune.
Tariq picked it back up: “There was an old camel herdman . . . walking through the Sa-ha-ra.”
“He gettin’ so thirst-ee . . .”
“. . . He drinkin’ his own pee!”
They sang together now, stepping in time, focused on their breathing and the beat.
It was working. The sun slowed . . . was still. And then Tariq’s foot crested the dune and he could see the camera tower on the horizon. Keeping their eyes fixed on it, still singing, they staggered home.
The car’s engine could be heard for long minutes before Michael BBC appeared out of the haze. Tariq and Hasan stood formally among their wind chimes and loudspeakers, ready to receive him to the bunkhouse. A pot of mint tea steamed on the table, and the sand had been swept well back from the door.
The car was a little Renault, not really suited to the rutted road. When he sprang out of it, Michael BBC turned out to be tanned, fit, with a balding head wrapped in a scarf. He grinned at them and clasped his hands together for a friendly salaam.
“Hasan. And Tariq? Mike. Good to meet you. Lovely country here, isn’t it? What a drive. Sorry it’s taken me so long to get down, the visa was a little rough with everything that’s going on. Wow, you guys have really kitted this place out, haven’t you?”
Mike glanced at the wind chimes, the rows of cheap plastic clocks, and at the Quranic verses Hasan had nailed to the doorposts. Months of spiritual fortifications.
“It’s cultural,” said Tariq.
Mike nodded understandingly. Of course.
They went inside, poured the mint tea in long cascades, made small talk about the documentary. It was strange to hear another voice after so long. When the cups were down to their dregs, Mike glanced meaningfully at the laptop on the table and asked if they could have a look at the completed footage.
Hasan excused himself for a cigarette, leaving Tariq to load up the computer. A gust of hot wind outside set the wind chimes jangling atonally, fragmenting the sounds from outside.
They had about thirty seconds of stop-motion footage for each time block. Tariq selected the noon batch and set it running, watching the Englishman’s face rather than the now-familiar imagery.
“Beautiful,” Mike murmured, the flickering screen reflected in pupils. “Such bizarre patterns. We’ll get a bloody BAFTA for this. You two will be credited, of course. Assistant cinematographers.”
Tariq did not respond. If the Englishman could not see them, he wouldn’t point them out. He wondered what would happen when the footage screened on TV.
Mike copied the photos onto three thumb drives before pronouncing himself satisfied. “I guess you’ll be off now, too,” he said. “Or have you decided to make a go of it here?”
Hasan laughed hollowly from the porch.
“We’re going into business together back home,” said Tariq. “At the moment everyone is divided: young and old, cities and regions, traditional and modern. Everybody argues, and everybody only hears what they want to hear. We’re going to set something up so all those people can hear each other’s voices.”
“Like a radio show?”
“Or a website, or a newsletter. Somewhere people can speak about what kind of country we want, loudly enough that the government can’t ignore it.”
“You sure you want to get mixed up in that? I could talk to the bosses about immigration visas if you’d rather be out of it.”
“We’re not running away. Even if we can only change things little by little, the country will move eventually.”
“One grain at a time,” suggested Hasan from outside.
The Englishman nodded his understanding. “Best of luck with it. Seriously, if there’s anything I can do . . .” He stood and made his apologies. He had a plane to catch, needed to be home. Within minutes his dust trail was dissipating over the horizon.
“Come on then,” said Hasan. “Let’s go.”
“Coming,” said Tariq. He clicked the video one more time.
Once you knew what you were looking for, you couldn’t miss them. Blank-eyed faces emerging and receding, the stirring of hands in glacially slow waves. He watched the djinn make their unhurried pilgrimage through the sand.
“Where do you think they’re going?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Hasan, taking his hand, “but I suppose they’ll get there in the end.”
“Dune Time” copyright © 2016 by Jack Nicholls
Art copyright © 2016 by Mark Smith