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Singing Sand

with recordings and photographs by KEACH HAGEY and WESLEY HARRIS

LIWA, United Arab Emirates — The desert is a bewildering soundscape. Marco Polo wrote during his journey through the Desert of Lop that “it is asserted as well-known fact that this desert is the abode of many evil spirits, which amuse travellers to their destruction with most extraordinary illusions.” These spirits, or djinn, “at times fill the air with the sounds of all kinds of musical instruments, and also of drums and the clash of arms.”

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Sound edited by Peter Kowalchuk

From ‘Travels in Arabia Deserta’ by Charles M. Doughty

In the Nefud, toward El-Hyza, are certain booming sand hills ... such as the sand drift of J. Nagus, by the sea village of Tor, in Sinai: the upper sand sliding down under the foot of the passenger, there arises, of the infinite fretting grains, such a giddy loud swelling sound, as when your wetted finger is drawn about the lip of a glass of water, and like that swooning din after the chime of a great bell — or cup of metal — Nagus is the name of the sounding board in the Greek monastery, whereupon as the sacristan plays with his hammer, the timber yields a pleasant musical note, which calls forth the formal colieros to their prayers; another such singing sand drift, el-Howayriah, is in the cliffs (east of the Mezham) of Medain Salih.

The spirits whispered names and played ominous music — sounds that scientists now believe to be the vibrations of sand particles in unison on dunes of a certain slope and make-up. The phenomenon, known as singing or musical sand, has been found in about 30 sets of dunes in the world, and each has its own accent. One scientific tract said that the sounds, produced by “seismic-like surface waves,” had been “compared to moans, hums, roars, drums, tambourines, thunder, cannon fire, the rumble of distant carts, foghorns, the buzzing of telegraph wires and the drone of low-flying aircraft.”

Singing sand tends to be found in amphitheatre-shaped dunes on the steeper side that faces away from the wind. In Arabic, it is called za'eeq al raml, or “the shouting sand.” It starts as you walk over the edge of the crest, a swelling hum that picks up with each step. Before long the face of the dune is a single, vast musical instrument made up of millions of tumbling granules. The sand even quakes near your footsteps like the rapids on a river.

“It’s this wonderful symphony of sands,” said Farouk El-Baz, a scientist who helped design the Apollo missions in the 1960s. “It’s one layer of sand slipping over another. The grains touch each other in motion."

The effect can be likened to listening to a conch shell, with the sounds suggesting an ancient account of when dunes were formed on riverbeds and seafloors. Dr El-Baz has a theory that underneath deserts are giant stores of water that seeped into caverns thousands of years ago. “We are taught the desert sand is created by wind, but that is completely wrong. The rounding of sand is originated by water erosion, in the turbulence of river beds. It tells you something about the history of the plant. There could be lakes there that have persisted for thousands of years.... If you are in a desert region and you want to find water, seek the dunes.”

Where you find desert, you will find water. These two extremes seem two poles of a catastrophic future — a desert world founded by a meteorite blast or a water world unleashed by rising temperatures. The British author J.G. Ballard saw them as nearly one and the same, writing two end-of-the-world novels playing out them as scenarios. As Levi Stahl writes in an essay, “We are, Ballard reminds us, perpetually living on a knife edge — or, perhaps more apt, on the banks of a fickle river. Sand and water may be antitheses, but it is the latter that defines both; its absence is what makes a desert. Alter our relationship to water, and the form of our cities and our society — and, Ballard posits, our very minds — is revealed for what it is: merely one option among many.”