We’re celebrating the week of Passover, a holiday filled with stories of our delivery from slavery in Egypt, a holiday filled with crunchy matzas. It’s also the season of dust. The 2011/2012 season was one of the wettest and coldest on record in Israel. The Kinneret sea level is at an all-time high, the meadows are green and the hills of Galilee are lush with vegetation. That’s assuming you can see them through clouds of dust.
Yearly, during this time of year, April and May, Israel is subjected to sand storms. They originate in Egypt (Pharoah’s revenge?), the Sahara and in Jordan. These easterly winds pick up sand particles hundreds of miles away, lift them into the air and carry them across Israel. The result is an orange-brown-gray haze that blankets the land. You don’t have to pack a suitcase and visit Egypt. Egypt comes to visit your nose in the form of a sand booger.
The sand storms, the dry winds, the heat waves are referred to as “Hamsin.” Hamsin means “50” in Arabic, the number of days these winds prevail around here, from Passover to the Holiday of Shavuot. The number of dusty days rarely reaches fifty, but once you’re in one, you hope it will be the last. Some wrongly interpret Hamsin to mean the temperature — 50 degrees celsius (122 Fahrenheit). They’re not far off the mark. During Hamsin there’s no mild or warm weather. It’s like the choices available in a Thai restaurant: Hot and Extra Hot. And then cold. One day you’re bundled in a coat, the next day you’re running barefoot.
Hamsin covers the land and the pages of history. During Napoleon’s advance on Egypt, the French did not heed the warning about the advancing red cloud. Many of the soldiers suffocated to death while the Egyptians stayed indoors. During World War II the Allies battled the sands as much as the Germans. Grains of sand whirled by the wind blinded the soldiers and created electrical disturbances that rendered compasses useless.
The dust cover invades every pore of your skin; it’s unrelenting. The airborne sand sometimes picks up moisture, makes a brown paste in the atmosphere and hails down as giant blotches. All cars, windows, clothes hanging on the line are afflicted with brown measles. Inside the house, tables, chairs, computer monitors are covered with the filmy dust. (I’m thinking of importing Lemon Pledge).
Farmers fear Hamsin. The dust shrivels the crops and shrinks their pocketbook. They gladly mark off each passing day on the calendar, wishing the 50 days will soon be over. Prayers are heard. Once Shavuot arrives, there’s a collective sigh of relief. But not for long.
Then summer arrives and the “real” heat begins. Alaska anyone?