There is a whirlwind in southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives. There is the africo, which has at times reached into the city of Rome. The alm, a fall wind out of Yugoslavia. The arifi, also christened aref or rifi, which scorches with numerous tongues. These are permanent winds that live in the present tense.
There are other, less constant winds that change direction, that can knock down horse and rider and realign themselves anticlockwise. The bist roz leaps into Afghanistan for 170 days, burying villages. There is the hot, dry ghibli from Tunis, which rolls and rolls and produces a nervous condition. The haboob — a Sudan dust storm that dresses in bright yellow walls a thousand metres high and is followed by rain. The harmattan, which blows and eventually drowns itself into the Atlantic. Imbat, a sea breeze in North Africa. Some winds that just sigh towards the sky. Night dust storms that come with the cold. The khamsin, a dust in Egypt from March to May, named after the Arabic word for ‘fifty,’ blooming for fifty days–the ninth plague of Egypt. The datoo out of Gibraltar, which carries fragrance.
There is also the ——, the secret wind of the desert, whose name was erased by a king after his son died within it. And the nafhat — a blast out of Arabia. The mezzar-ifoullousen — a violent and cold southwesterly known to Berbers as ‘that which plucks the fowls.’ The beshabar, a black and dry northeasterly out of the Caucasus, ‘black wind.’ The samiel from Turkey, ‘poison and wind,’ used often in battle. As well as the other ‘poison winds,’ the simoom, of North Africa, and the solano, whose dust plucks off rare petals, causing giddiness.
Other, private winds.
Travelling along the ground like a flood. Blasting off paint, throwing down telephone poles, transporting stones and statue heads. The harmattan blows across the Sahara filled with red dust, dust as fire, as flour, entering and coagulating in the locks of rifles. Mariners called this red wind the ‘sea of darkness.’ Red sand fogs out of the Sahara were deposited as far north as Cornwall and Devon, producing showers of mud so great this was also mistaken for blood. ‘Blood rains were widely reported in Portugal and Spain in 1901.’
There are always millions of tons of dust in the air, just as there are millions of cubes of air in the earth and more living flesh in the soil (worms, beetles, underground creatures) than there is grazing and existing on it. Herodotus records the death of various armies engulfed in the simoom who were never seen again. One nation was ‘so enraged by this evil wind that they declared war on it and marched out in full battle array, only to be rapidly and completely interred.
— Michael Ondaatje, from The English Patient.