It was an ordinary morning. The holler from a multitude of azans and the increasing rumble of the traffic from the Sheikh Zayed Road roused me into the day. Josh was still sleeping; my mother and grandmother were down by the pool. I went to join them.

Nothing was unusual.

I swam. I positioned a lounger to benefit me with optimal shade. I read. (Empire, by Niall Ferguson.) I chatted. I read some more.

I swam some more, but got out when the water became unsettled. The wind seemed to be picking up. It also appeared to be clouding over: I didn't have to reposition my lounger. The air had changed, and it felt peculiar. A film of gritty dust was covering the pages of my book. My eyes were beginning to sting a little. We decided to go back to the flat, and prepare lunch.

An hour or so later, we sat down to lunch. Through the balcony doors, I was no longer able to make out the shimmering reflection of the Persian Gulf. The minarets of the city's mosques were invisible. The skyscrapers on the other side of the street were indistinguishable. The lights from the eight lanes of traffic below us were barely noticable. We had been enveloped by a grey, swirling mist.

The shamal had arrived.

Shamal means north in Arabic, and wind in Farsi. It is a north-westerly wind that blows down through the Tigris-Euphrates valley, and into the Gulf States. It is mostly associated with summer: Al Dabaran, or the 'Forty Day Shamal', comes in June and July. Then, it brings relief from the oppressive heat of the Middle Eastern summer, but it still brings dust. It always brings dust.

However, it is not only a summer wind. The shamal comes at any time during the year. It normally blows around 30 mph, and can last between one and five days. Sometimes, the wind will be strong enough and the dust thick enough to bring life to a stand-still. Doors and windows stay locked, businesses close, and fishing boats don't leave port. Then the dust will settle, the sky will be blue, and life will carry on as normal until the next shamal.

Heading South

  • Shamal, Dubai, December 2004.