Dune Time

Dune Time by Jack Nicholls

Book: Dune Time by Jack Nicholls Read Free Book Online
Authors: Jack Nicholls
    The angels and spirits ascend to Him in a day, the measure of which is fifty thousand years.
    â€”The Holy Quran, Sura 70.4
    When he arrived, the dunes were singing.
    It wasn’t just the wind, though there was that too, a steady whine that filled his ears with sand. But laid over that was a low-pitched vibration that rose and fell like the call of the muezzin—insistent and magnetic. It came from the west, where the crests of the orange dunes swirled. Tariq felt a long way from home.
    Hasan was waiting for him beneath the awning of his concrete hut on the edge of the desert. He had grown his beard since Tariq had seen him last year, and thinned out beneath his white robe. He looked like an imam. Tariq’s own jeans and T-shirt were already drenched in sweat.
    â€œSalaam alaikum,” said Hasan, extending his arms. “Welcome, little brother.”
    â€œAlaikum, salaam,” replied Tariq, a little weirded out by the formality. The old Mercedes taxi, his last link to civilization, turned and began to nose its way back along the track to town.
    Tariq crunched across the sand and into the shade of the awning. Hasan drew him into a tight embrace and they kissed four times, twice on each cheek. Then Hasan drew back and ran his hand over the racing stripes Tariq had carefully shaved above his temples.
    â€œNot so little anymore,” he said.
    Tariq slapped his hand away. “It’s only been, like, six months.”
    â€œIt goes fast at your age…” Hasan murmured. They lapsed into uncomfortable silence. Tariq felt the sting of sand grains against his bare arms.
    â€œSo, what do you think of your new home?” asked Hasan, with a proprietary gesture across the sand.
    Tariq looked around. The road from town petered out here, on the shore of the Sahara. The hut was depressingly basic, though at least it had a solar panel rigged up on its roof. Two bunks within; a laptop closed on the table; an independence-era rifle hung in brackets on the wall. A hammock was strung under the awning. Beside the house, Hasan’s jeep was a ghost beneath weeks of desert dust.
    And then there was the desert itself. Humming, impossibly orange and wind-sculpted into shapes more fantastic than anything his friends at home had ever managed with their hair. He had expected the dunes of the erg to rise slowly, but they sprang fully formed from the stony earth and filled the horizon. They looked Photoshopped. It was the strangest and most beautiful place he had ever seen.
    â€œIt’s all right,” he conceded. “What’s that noise?”
    â€œThe Berbers say it’s spirits, calling to each across the desert,” Hasan said. “The land is haunted by the Ghaib, the unseen.”
    Tariq raised a withering eyebrow. Hasan held a poker face for a few moments until the old lopsided smile finally broke through. “Come on, I’ll show you the camera,” he said, picking up a plastic water bottle.
    About a hundred meters from the house, there was a rickety metal tripod concreted into the sand. It was approximately three meters high, with a suitcase-sized black box at its apex that was reachable by a steel ladder. Facing the dunes was a dark lens behind a thin sheet of transparent plastic. Standing beneath it, Tariq could see a fishbowl reflection of his head, with the desert curving up like wings behind him.
    â€œThat’s a Kumai X5 DSLR camera in there,” said Hasan. “Very expensive. It’s how we film the dunes moving.”
    Tariq’s reflection looked sullen and tired after two days of bus and taxi rides. He straightened his posture and waved into the lens. “Sand doesn’t move, donkey,” he said.
    â€œYes it does—very slowly, like your brain. The camera takes a photo every three hours while there’s light. Then the BBC can run them together to make a time-lapse film of the desert at noon, or sunset, or

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