Sandstorm Blows In

The sandstorm obscures the view of the bright orange building cranes two blocks away

I had spent Tuesday morning inside the apartment, and thus was unaware of the weather. But around 1:00 I had to go out, and then it hit me in the face. I felt like I had walked into a preheated oven. Not a convection oven, either. AccuWeather on my phone told me it was 96o F, but the “real feel” was 101 F. The heat felt more oppressive than that.

When I got to Herzl Boulevard, and could see across the valley, it looked like it was very foggy. Except it didn’t feel damp, the way fog does, and it didn’t swirl around like fog. Besides, who ever heard of fog on a hot summer afternoon?

The conclusion was obvious — a sand storm had hit Jerusalem. And not Jerusalem alone. Along with much of the rest of the Middle East, Israel is experiencing its worst sand storm in fifteen years. Although sand storms are not unusual in this part of the world, they generally blow in from North Africa and the Sinai in the Winter and Spring. As the storm peters out, one can expect a good rain to wash the residual sand and pollution out of the air.

But this storm is different. It has come to us from northeastern Syria. And because it arrived in late summer, we can expect it linger for a while. We don’t expect rain for at least another four to six weeks.

The dust and heat are a near lethal mix. Tuesday afternoon, both the Health Ministry and the Environmental Protection Ministry advised everyone to avoid strenuous activity. Sensitive populations — children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with heart or lung disease —were advised to stay inside. The particulate matter in the air is more than five times the level that is classified as worthy of an alert. The warnings are needed. Magen David Adom, the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross, treated 300 people for dust related problems. No doubt more people simply reported to hospital emergency rooms without using the emergency medical service.

Few  people are out on the streets. Some people who go out take the precaution of wearing a surgical mask to filter the air. I saw a young woman on the bus wrap a scarf over her nose and mouth before descending at her stop.

The eastern part of the country has received the thickest dust. That includes the Golan, Galilee, Jordan River Valley, Jerusalem, and eastern Negev. It was interesting to read news reports on the dust storm from different places. An English language newspaper published in the Emirates reported on the terrible storm that has clouded the air with sand and dust in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. If only! I doubt any storm could be so discriminating as to envelope all our neighbors without affecting us.

The dust doesn’t just hang in the air outside; it filters in through closed windows as well. Everything in our apartment is coated with a layer of fine dust. 

My finger traced a line through 24 hours of dust on the Talmud

Allen had put his Gemara book on the table in the living room Monday afternoon; by Tuesday evening it was coated with fine sand. The dust sits on the black top of my computer and the dark red kitchen counters begging to be wiped off. The computer keys and my phone screen feel gritty.

We turned on the air conditioner in the late afternoon, as much as for its air filtering ability as for its cooling power. But first I had to clean the filter on the intake grate. Yuck! I wondered if the previous tenants had ever cleaned it. But when I checked the filter on my CPAP machine, it too was disgustingly full of dust. And that filter had been perfectly white when I inserted it two weeks ago.

Sandstorm turns the sun into pale disk hanging in a pale sky at 4 PM on a summer day

Looking out the window is confusing. The dust in the air is so thick, the light looks like dusk most of the day. The sun is just a pale disk in the pale sky. My body knows it’s not yet evening, but my eyes tell me it is. It seems silly to turn on the lights in early afternoon in September, but without them, it’s hard to read or concentrate on small details.  

Rosh HaShanah is in three days and we’re all busy trying to make our homes sparkling clean while the dust settles on every surface faster than we can wipe it off. We’re shopping and cooking for the holiday trying not to exert ourselves, wondering if that is even possible.

And we wait for the storms in Syria to calm down and stop blowing sand in our direction.