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Anne Al-Bassam
An allure in sandstorms despite a dash of danger

LIKE all countries of the world, Kuwait’s weather has many moods ranging from the bright sunshine of spring and summer to the cloudy, overcast days of what we expatriates like to think of as ‘winter’. Not so pleasant, however, are the days when the country is swept by the penetrating dust of sandstorms. Sandstorms, however, vary and bad though they might sometimes seem, they fail to measure up to accounts of many vicious storms of the past. 
In the early days of exploration, oil company engineers driving between wells and gathering centres, had to have their car windscreens replaced every two years because of sand blasting. Sand storms seemed to be much more frequent in those days with little to stop the dust laden winds as they swept across the desert. Indeed, one of my earliest memories of the ‘Arab Times’ is a front page photograph of a man’s arm and hand sticking out of the desert. An oil company employee, it is thought that he had disobeyed strict company rules by leaving his car to seek the safety of some bedouin tents but, losing all sense of direction, had eventually perished in the heat and become buried in the driving sand.
Colonel Harold Dickson arrived in Kuwait in 1929 with his wife and family. They lived in what is now known as the Dickson House but, in the cool months of the year, spent much of their time in the desert. They spoke Arabic fluently and, indeed, had their own bedouin tent made from traditional materials. In his wonderful book, ‘The Arab of the Desert’, Colonel Dickson remarks that ‘in spite of the unpleasantness there is a unique grandeur about a sandstorm about to break over Kuwait, and an indescribable magnificence in the desert storm. First is seen the small black cloud no bigger than a man’s hand. This grows and grows until it extends right across the horizon and swirls up in immense billows into the sky. Sometimes you see flashes of lightning in the centre of the oncoming mass, but you rarely hear thunder.’
The most magnificent sandstorm Colonel Dickson ever saw occurred at the end of April, 1932 when he was camping with bedouin friends at the southern end of the Dhahar ridge some thirty miles south of Kuwait town. He had turned to walk back to the encampment with his wife when he saw several of the bedouin staring strangely towards the northwest. Mighty black swirling thunder clouds, tinged with red and pierced by flashes of lightning, extended across the horizon and, even as they watched, the wind rose as the towering mass of sand rolled over the desert towards their camp. By the time they arrived back, the bedouin had already lowered the tents, covered all the pots and cooking utensils and, leaning the poles at a steep angle towards the wind, held the ropes firmly until the storm blew over.
‘I myself,’ he recounts, ‘remained outside with my wife. Down came the storm. Obviously now it was a mighty storm whose dust was the colour of red English brick. It struck us and passed over in half an hour. But what a sight, and what sounds! Everything was covered with a fine scarlet-red sand in a few seconds, and continuous electrical discharges accompanied by sharp crackling noises, and followed by one long roll of thunder, seemed to presage the end of all things.’
When he and his wife returned to Kuwait that evening he recalled that ‘our wheels cut tracks in the red desert surface ... it was like driving through snow.’ His opinion was that the storm originated in the red earth country around Aleppo, some 900 miles away, or possibly it came from Petra. Indeed, it was so outstanding in character that the bedouin called the year of the sandstorm ‘sanat al hamra’ ie the red year.
By Anne Al-Bassam

By: Anne Al-Bassam

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