Desert Dark

Dr. Farouk El-Baz & Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 9/18/2003

Mesopotamia means "the land between two rivers." However, the territory of modern Iraq includes a vast stretch of desert in the west and south, which is not generally understood.

The desert surface is strikingly zoned by wind segregation. The finest particles are winnowed out and whirled into the atmosphere as dust. They settle out of suspension beyond zones of high wind energy. In contrast to suspension in the atmosphere of the finest particles, sand-sized grains bounce readily in strong winds.

By the bouncing process, the wind segregates sand grains and shepherds them into dunes. Particles of sand not lifted off the surface by the bouncing grains may gradually and erratically move or roll along the surface. With high winds the whole surface covered by such grains appears to be creeping slowly along the wind direction.

Segregation of particles by the wind results in the formation of vast, flat plains that are veneered with granules or pebbles. The well-sorted and usually one-grain thick layer is called "desert pavement." It forms an armor that stays in equilibrium with the strongest winds; its removal results in immediate erosion of the suddenly unprotected, underlying fine particles.

Both Gulf Wars commenced in this environment (in 1991 and 2003). The movement of great numbers of tanks and mechanized vehicles on this surface adversely impacted the desert pavement. During the two military conflicts columns of vehicles from both sides of the conflicts tore up the surface. The heavy vehicles and tanks scattered the cover of pebbles and excavated large amounts of fine-grained soil.

More importantly, during the preparation for (and pauses in) military action, armed forces spend much of their time digging trenches in the desert. Beyond the trenches, pits are dug as hiding places for military equipment and storage areas of ammunition, etc. Furthermore, berms or sand embankments are built to slow down the potential advance of forces or to protect troops. The resulting exposure of sand leads to its mobilization.

Dust and sandstorms in this region are particularly frequent in spring and summer due to strong winds, locally called "shamal" from an Arabic word meaning "north." From April to August each year, large clouds of dust and sand are carried by the northwesterly winds. The dust storms that we have witnessed during March are caused by wind that is locally called "kaus," which originates from the south. Thus, it returns the dust that was moved southward by the shamal back whence it came.

In the case of sand dunes, they continue to move for as long as there is wind. They cause serious damage by encroaching on roads, airport runways, farms, and houses. Thus, dust and sand produced by military actions represent long-term environmental hazards. To limit their effect, the land surface should be leveled flat when the conflict ends.

Dr. Farouk El-Baz is Research Professor and Director of Boston University Center for Remote Sensing. He was asked by the Government of Kuwait to evaluate the environmental effects of the 1990-1991 war, and he co-edited "The Gulf War and the Environment," published in 1994.

Sandstorms and The Cloud of Mystery

Where is God in the desert of Iraq?
Our God is YHWH/Yahh, the One Who Breathes —
Whose Name is simply breathing,
The Holy Wind that Breathes all life,
Who breathes all peoples and all life-forms.
The Holy Wind is breathing in the desert.
Our Torah teaches:
The messenger of God
that had been walking in front
of the army of Godwrestler
Walked on and went behind them.
The pillar of cloud moved ahead of them
and stood behind them,
coming between the army of the
Tight and Narrow Space
and the army of
Here! — the Cloud of Darkness,
Yet it gave light throughout the night.
The one army came not near the other army
all the night. (Exod. 14: 19-20)

What is the CLOUD OF DARKNESS, and how doe
it stand between the armies?
We saw it; it is no myth, this Cloud of
The wind of God mixed air with Mother Earth,
and sandstorms blew. The armie
could not see to kill each other.
The Darkness in these sandstorms kept the
light of life alive in the eyes of
earthy-humans who had been sent
to kill and die.
The sandstorms blew,
machines grew gritty
with the dark so thick
you could not help but feel it.

The armies downed their weapon
because they could not see.

We pray, we plead, we yearn, we act:
May the dark storms of sand continue to
separate the armies.
May the Dark Cloud of Mystery continue to
keep the light of life alive.
May we affirm and heal the Mystery of life.
May we open our eyes to the darkness that
keeps us from killing and
saves u
from dying.
Blessed are You, Holy Wind Who breathes life
and spirit into all the world,
Who shapes light and creates dark, Who make
shalom and creates the w/hole.
Barukh attah Yahh elohenu ruakh ha'olam, yotzer ohr u'voray choshech, oseh shalom u'voray et ha'kol.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is Director of The Shalom Center.