From BARZAKH: The Sandstor

The Sandstorm

Short story



The wind-blown sand was still strong despite the nightfall. The small fire of had[1] shoots, had gone out and the moon dimly lit up the dust-laden atmosphere. The motionless camp had surrendered to the wind.

— “Damn this country!” grumbled Ghostbuster, while trying to spit out most of the sand he had inadvertently swallowed, from the bottom of his brackish tea,

— “This is not a sinecure!” replied Vala, from under her half-buried veil.

The wind and the very chaotic terrain have turned today's phase into a particularly difficult one. The high-reaching dunes were topped with disorderly prominent ergs. The tayarets[2] were cluttered with an inextricable tangle of bright dunes, along with some deep blowouts. All this had turned the region into an aklé[3], which slowed down the pace and made it more difficult to walk. The soft whitish sand was sprinkled with bougmiya[4] and had. Without disturbing them, we had crossed a number of addax herds. At dawn, on the top of a dune, I saw the ominous silhouette of the morning star. This apparition which gave me chills down my back, had faded away at the time of departure. Still, I was worried. Yet the day before I had dreamt of Ghostbuster acting as Belzébuth and putting salt in my eyes to get me lost in the Great Desert;  and Vala who wanted to put me through Allen's law, was turning me into a field mouse. But above all, this succession of days and nights, this slow flow of treacherous time, taught me nothing of value, besides knowing that this sand that stretched everywhere; this sea in fury in which we were completely out of place, where we could get lost, could engulf us any time.


The storm lasted several days during which we didn’t move an inch. It would have been unsafe to get going while it was raging. In this dark gray sea that had buried all, and that freezes by night and boils by day, had it not been for the fluctuations in light and temperature, no one could have distinguished the sky from the earth or the day from the night. Visibility was limited and what didn’t move was quickly swallowed up. Men, animals, and things were tied to the same long rope. On a regular occurrence,  Ghostbuster would shout the same cry out, that sounded like a distant echo carried away by the wind. We then would dust ourselves off and pull the rope, to unearth the buried belongings, camels, and men, only to let ourselves get buried all over again.

In the midst of the storm, I was tempted by the sirens of the Great Desert. I tried several times to free myself of my struggles and let the wind take me away, to melt in the sand and dissolve once and for all. But every time, Ghostbuster felt the wag in the rope, he shouted orders to check all the anchor points one by one. The skirmishers placed upstream and downstream, would then check and tighten the rope around my ankle. If only I had been placed between two half-loads or two camels, I could have possibly deceived their vigilance and escaped.

One day, the wind slowed down to a mere breeze, then died out completely. The storm ceased, and tranquility returned once again. The resurrected camp slowly emerged from the sands, and the rope bounding them together, was untied. People recovered their vain self-delusional freedoms. Before sunset, the air had already recovered its transparency. Our eyes were drowning in the deep bright blue sky, that resembled that of an aftermath of a rainstorm. To make a fire, the skirmishers dug the sand to unearth a few meager shoots of had, while Vala dusted herself off in preparation for a soap-less bath. A brown man brought back an addax he had out-raced. After dinner, the dried meat was left behind. We could drink some sand-free tea that the too often deceived mouths, welcomed with caution. The next evening after bedtime, Ghostbuster called me "to resume our ‘tete-a-tete’". And as if I had a choice, he asked:

- “Do we still trust each other, you and I?”

- “Yes, we do!” I replied.

- “Lie on your back, relax!” he exclaimed. “Look up at the stars. Do not think about anything. You see the shining star over there? Gaze at it, focus all your attention on that star, do not let your eyes stir away from it. You do not see the other stars anymore. You are now in a state of altered attention. You will respond to my verbal stimuli. An alteration is happening in your consciousness and in your memory. You are more sensitive to my suggestions. You will give me unusual answers and ideas. You will enter into an artificial somnambulism state that will allow me to verbally communicate with you. You will sleep, sleep, sleep… You are sleeping by now…”

- “No I do not sleep!” I replied, as alert as ever.

- “Well, ok. It doesn’t seem to have worked. No need to insist. Let us try it another way… Stay on your back, relax, close your eyes. Talk to me freely. Tell me about all that crosses your mind. Let your uncensored words flow without constraint. Free them from the control of your conscience. Speak.”

- “I don’t feel well! Something bothers me. There seems as if there is a big empty space that is present in my mind, I feel like something is missing, or is unfinished, a kind of cul-de-sac in which my conscience is lost. I am torn between what is reality and what is a fantasy; between my conscious and my subconscious, like a coin between head and tails! I am tossed between two equally absurd situations, and in neither of them can I judge the other in cold blood! Each one has its dark areas where the other is covered in an inaccessible dimension. I am the mirror between reality and wonderland, but a single-sided mirror, that can only see one side at a time, and that two valiant Alices fight over and pivot to see each other’s side! Between the two, I am an out of control passive being, that is lost in a somnambulistic wandering. My life is only a dream that is more uncertain than the dreams of my sleep. I see much more clearly in my sleep than when I am awake. I sleep awake and wake asleep. I am simultaneously present and absent! No matter how firmly I give myself orders in dreams, I never submit to them when I wake up, but I feel a force within me that is at work, despite the shortcomings of my conscience… I am tormented by so many things at once! The loquacious who has not said a word, I wonder what he is preparing for me! And the Devil, why did it appear to me the other day? What am I doing with you, in your weird caravan? Why did you take me off the top of my mountain? You think I can drive you to Awdaghost? I know nothing about that ghost town, the name of which I once thought meant something to me, but it turned out, it just sounded like your name…”

- “And my own name, Ghostbuster, what does it sound like?”

- “For me, Ghostbuster represents the Other, the legislator, the founder of the forbidden, the taboo, the marker of the empty place, the father who opens the vacancy, the castrator!”

- “Yet, what kind of place does my name make you think of?”

- “It makes me think of a vast circus full of slaves and vast mansions slumbering in the shadows of their gardens; of a town full of vapors of incense, and prayers, mingled with the complaints of children and old men who are dying of thirst!”

- “So, my name makes you think of Awdaghost?”

- “Awdaghost… Awdaghast... Ghost... Ghostbuster…”

- “Tell me about your dreams!”

-“My dreams… I forget them too often… but some come back so often that they leave some memories behind… Are you going to explain my dreams?”

- “I will not know, the meaning of your dreams, more than you. I will not interpret them for you. I will let you remember your dreams and interpret them on your own. But you must know that silence speaks, and its words are worth listening to. Now, tell me what dreams you remember the most?”

- “I dreamt the other night that I lit a big fire in a deep bowl. When there was only ash, I gathered it in the veil of Vala and brought it to her while she was bathing. But when she saw the ash, she went into a great rage and poured it over my head! There is another curious dream that torments me more than any other: I am dreaming that I split into two beings, like those unicellular organisms that multiply by splitting. It starts with the head becoming two; then the arms becoming four; then the chest, the trunk and the legs. The two run away from each other, and I find myself struggling to bring them back together. But it is a hell of a task! When I gather heads and arms, legs and trunks run away and vice versa. Striving to put my pieces back together, I sometimes find myself in an absurd shape, having for example a round body, with a rounded back and sides; four hands and as many legs; two similar faces sitting on a round neck; and on these two opposite faces, a single head, four ears, two organs of the generation and all the rest in accordance. I walk as straight as I do now, in any direction I want, and when I start running fast, I look like the acrobats who turn in a circle, throwing their legs in the air, leaning on my eight limbs, I spin fast. I try to deconstruct my body into spare parts, so that I can put them back together the right way. But as soon as I finish, each pair splits again leading to two parts fleeing each other! None of them wants the other and they thwart all my attempts to bring them back together. In my desperation of being nothing more than an invisible footprint between the two, I end up finding the magical formula and when I pronounce it my doubles meet and begin to blend again. When nothing remains to melt back but the legs, I wake up and become one again. Sometimes, I also dream that I am with you for a long journey, in an unknown country, on a long road paved with salt. And when I get tired and cannot walk anymore, I stop and tell you that I want to go back home. So you hit me very hard, then you tie my hands together with a rope and drag me while pissing on my face. During the storm, the same dream always comes back: with a strong rope wrapped around my shoulder, I wander in the Great Desert looking for Vala's soap bar. A fox appears at the top of a dune, I am fast enough to catch it and I start to strangle it with the rope, but when it becomes stiff, I am horrified to discover that it is you I have strangled. I bury you in the sand and I come back to the camp to take your place near Vala.”



From BARZAKH, Moussa Ould Ebnou, DIWAN, 2018, pp. 117 - 120.



[1] Compact and slightly thorny desert plant that grows in low tufts. Its salty flavor makes it a camel delicacy.

[2] A dusty stretch separating two sand dunes in the desert.

[3] A steep slope.

[4] Desert plant that goes by the scientific name of Asthenatherum forskalii.