Grab your Michael Jackson face masks and the decongestant of your choice, close the windows tight and stockpile tissues. The dry, dusty winds of khamsin are blowing across the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa and right into your sinus canals. That image above is the white tile on my balcony one day after being fully swept. Imagine what my lungs look like.
Khamsin means “fifty” in Arabic, a reference to the duration (in days) of this annual weather event where dust-filled windstorms blow sporadically over springtime months. Storms sometime descend like hurricanes, leaving behind an agitated atmosphere loaded with a fine grit that coats every surface, blocks the sun, and clogs your ears and nose. In between windy onslaughts, the air stays choked with sandy particles. The sky turns dingy and the temperature drops.
In Egypt, khamsin usually arrives in April, with windspeeds up to 90 mph carrying vast quantities of desert dust and sand. Those winds typically raise temperatures as much as 20°C as they whip across desert border towns. In Amman they seem to have the opposite effect. The winds have cooled as they reach this city’s heights. The dusty air blocks the sunlight and temperatures quickly drop.
The particles play painterly tricks at sunrise and sunset, tinting the sky orange and coral with streaks of blood red. Fierce gusts interfere with construction projects and halt some aviation operations: I hear President Obama bailed on planned helicopter transport from Israel to Jordan, instead resorting to a motorcade, which in turn made for my most recent Surreal Amman moment. (Play this song link to get the full picture.)
Early morning Friday – everyone in town asleep – I go for a food shop. In a taxi back home, the driver turns on the radio, blasting lmfao’s I’m Sexy And I Know It. He tucks into some remarkable car-dancing and runs his hands thru heavily gelled hair. I’m amazed he can still grip the steering wheel with those goo-covered mitts.
We’re speeding along Zahran Street which is mostly empty except for a long line of soldiers dressed in camouflage with rifles and headsets standing every 20 meters for a solid four kilometers. They’re apparently waiting for Obama, in the early morning dim and dusty air. And as we speed by – windows open – music pumping – more than a few of them start dancing too.
It’s springtime in Jordan.