Stephen Horenstein
Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society

Hamsin

"Portal to the Stars", Painting by Pascal Colrat
"The Portal to the Stars," Painting by Pascal Colrat (courtesy of the artist)

I awake to the sight of haze while feeling dryness in my throat. The feeling is both familiar and strange.  I have experienced it in previous rare journeys that I cannot quite recall.  The dryness in my throat is a thermometer of sorts, the parched feeling is unmistakably that of the desert wanderer.  No matter how much he/she drinks his/her thirst is never quenched.  The sandy bubble drying up the throat’s saliva is exploding faint heat.  Though windows should be open on this hot day, they must remain closed.  It is a hamsin.

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The blue-grey air will soon turn to faint orange with hints of granular mauve, further enhanced by still air and, like sand-filled doldrums, open a new strange void, quite unlikely for this time of year.

I feel the temperature rising ten to fifteen degrees in the space of a few hours, as if I have been transported to an strange unknown planet.  As much as this feeling is vaguely familiar to me, it oddly conjures up my xenophobia and a soft throb in my belly. The phenomenon soon will shake many of us to our core, reminding us of our vulnerability in this silent cacophonous cloud of weather.

Painting by JacobYona (courtesy of the artist)

Those who know say it will only last a day when temperatures will then fall and “normalize”.  I close my eyes and feel my parched throat with a thirst never satiated.  I feel tiny grains pulling on my eyelids making them slightly heavier and even though it’s early morning I feel like I am sleepwalking while eating dry soda crackers. The small grains of cracker salt linger on my upper palette.  My nostrils feel slightly stretched.  I can breath easily until the air’s heaviness intrudes,  sneakily blocking my airwaves so that breathing becomes more laborious.

I look out and see motionless palm branches bathing in absolute stillness.  I imagine the young sailor experiencing ocean doldrums for the first time, cringing when his ship slows to a stop with no wind or waves to carry the ship forward.  Hamsins are similar.  They are also holes in time and apocalyptical, an epic throw-back to ancient times when all people could do was to huddle up in their tents or caves and wait the hamsin “out”.  Here in the modern world the hamsin is a reminder of our own vulnerability, fragility and the timeless void that is all around us.  Our senses are dulled, all except for one: hearing.

Flocks of delicate melodies have now converged creating a symphony of sorts with the song birds out-mastering the “quackers” (birds blurting out only one sound), bubbling up tens, hundreds, thousands of desert melodies, some short, some curiously long, some never quite repeating in the same way.  This is nature’s miracle, a music that is rare and all-encompassing.

I hear myself coughing and feel my breath getting more laboured; I sense the faint fear of corona, knowing full-well that science has chimed in creating an invisible protective wall like the cities of old with their two-meter wide stone, impervious to the “elements”.  This time those elements are invisible molecules invading our bodies, minds and streams: viruses galore which like the invisible hamsin grains haunt us during the day and keep us from sleeping at night.

Photo by Stephen Horenstein

I see the rising sun’s faint beams cast light on one lonely palm branch quivering in a “low-decibeled” wind.   This anomaly would generally be calming and yet it’s ancient wisdom is like that of the desert night traveler awaking to a mystical morning stillness.  The echoes of the desert are also foreboding and dangerous; the calm is both illusive and seductive. Like ancient sirens calls they dull us into a frozen hot stupor lasting only one hollow day that sounds, feels and tastes like eternity’s pale wind.

The sun is brightening all around us.  The stillness remains.  Is it better to hide out in our primitive apartment “caves” or to wander outside like ancient desert travelers continuing our customary machinations?

I prefer hibernation until we return to normalcy.  The hibernation I choose is actually a hole in time, a dimension so sacred that we can only feel wonder, awe and at times, fear.  Yes, this is a hamsin, the Middle East’s calling card, a voice we hear, like Dorothy’s, “We’re not in Kansas any more!”

About the Author
Stephen Horenstein is a composer, researcher and educator. His repertoire of musical works has been performed and recorded worldwide. He has been a recipient of the Israel Prime Minister's Prize for Composers and the National Endowment of the Arts (USA). His teaching has included Bennington College, Brandeis University, Tel Aviv University, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance; residencies at Stanford University, York University, California Institute of the Arts, and others. He is Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, established in 1988 to bring the music of our time to a wider audience.
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