They Shake the Desert Sands is a realistic story focused on a nomadic people and culture lost to the political strain of war. A young woman, Soraya, emerges from her tribal life in the modern Middle East to life as a young American and part of a historic Navy family in Annapolis, Maryland. Her place in the world transforms from a cautious perspective to one of passion as she leaves behind the world she once knew for the intensity of modern America. Lailee McNair Bakhtiar, formerly van Dillen, is a poet and novelist. She is a co-founder of Mending Nations, a program examining healing with words- the belief that literature helps bridge contrasting cultures. She has received 18 awards for her poetry, short stories, novels, and speeches.
Excerpt from Chapter One
The reed played its final notes of lingering peace. The turquoise
twilight turned to deep purple, and a silvery white moon looked as
though it was coming down from the sky to the earth. The twinkling
lights, the stars, were set inside the dark sky like rich glitter on
the chalice of a king. The desert sands glinted under the faint wind
that had wings. Desert roses closed their blossoms, and the tales of
the Zagros Mountains took me back to my roots, to the changing times of
history, to the epic desert. I heard a solemn warning under the gilded
sky as the tapestry of my life was going to change forever.
High in the mountains, in Chelgarde Village, a storm was coming. The
camels knelt, curtsied to the coming sandstorm; their beige knotted
coats nestled in the deep sand. The nomads on the plains unfurled their
carpets and shook off the dream-filled sleep from the night before.
They rushed into their black wool tents, unlatched the ties,
disassembled them, as children huddled together. Everyone was noisily
roused in warning to gather their few belongings. They secured what
little they had, then left it all to the vagaries of the storm. The
animals were far more important to save.
The scent of camels, powdery sand, and fat-tailed sheep, surrounded me
as the sky blackened. The hot dawn transformed into a savage wind that
filled our nostrils with loamy dust; the dust where the lions and the
lambs had walked on vertical peaks and deep ravines between the sum-
mits of the Zagros. I was thirteen years old, Soraya Firuzeh Bibi
Bakhtiari, and the only daughter of a great il-Khan, the confederated
leader of our tribe, who had married an American, Elizabeth Kippler
Donahue. My father’s legendary name was Cyrus Haydar Kur
Bakhtiari. In West Persia, in the year 1946 and at the close of World
War II, we lived and were the oldest tribe in the Zagros Mountains.
Tales of our earliest leaders prevailed on our honeyed lips, of the
Achaemenes whose altruistic creations included flesh sons who despised
oppression and loved freedom. Such was the nomadic society of the
founder of the Persian Empire, who occupied the valleys in the
Bakhtiari foothills west of Shustar and northeast of Susa near the
Elamite region of Anshan. Here the bones of the ancestors were buried
in hidden tombs. Our tribes from Media and Perse fathered the rulers in
the line of Ariaramnes who cherished the sky.
As the candle melted in my father's tent, he was awakened by the sounds
of the approaching storm. He reached for his dagger, his coat, and his
rifle then left his tent and unlashed his Arabian stallion. His dark
form was covered in the cosmic dust as he hurried to prepare against
the impending storm. Thousands of nomads and their pack animals were
led to shelter against the rocks, and the women and chil- dren hid in
the nearby caves. I heard a gunshot sound alerting us to move. I leapt
from my earthen bed feeling alone and afraid without my father.
The short-haired, long-eared donkeys stubbornly refused their heavy
loads, and the goats butted each other in disorderly panic. The tribes-
men led us to the footprints of the jackals between the sharp rocks.
Bracing my wobbly legs against the shaking tent pegs, I saw the advanc-
ing pace of a stallion. The flock moved as one, finding their rhythm
through the sounds of the bells around their necks and the voice of
theie leader, the sheepherder. The last tents were being dismantled,
the donkeys were untied and led partially toward the Bakhtiar Road by
the ridge of the mountains.
"Be in ja!" Come here! An old grandmother shouted to her family as she
beat her hand on her hip in a gesture of emergency.
"Pedar!" Father, "Kojast?" Where is he? I cried to my Khanum Sita who
cared for me.
"Wait!" Sita shouted.
Uncle Zargharm was agitated. “Stop it, until your father
comes! We’re helpless!”
Khanum Sita’s hooked nose and craggy henna-tinted hands saw
the shadows in the sky. Fear crept over her wizened face. Her black
hair, parted down the middle, fell down like vines on her neck and onto
her back. She grabbed a shawl and wrapped her face against the storm,
pulled me to her and expertly spiraled a linen fragment over my face,
leaving a slit for my eyes.
Barking camp dogs in brown and black scurried forward with voracious
wild yelps, nudging the sheep forward against the cliffs. The dogs
howled danger, and I knew it was not against night marauders, bandits,
or thieves, but a fearful cry warning of the terrible storm breaking
over us. The greatness of this tempest imposed itself on life. I saw
throughout the tribe, in the distance, the crippled, the one-eyed, and
the malariainfested sick nomads struggle to gain freedom, but, falling
in the sands and trampled by the flock, they screamed for deliverance.
Death was around me. A nomad with his baby helped his ailing mother,
but, dejected and completely humiliated, he couldn’t get her
to leave a missing child. While they were still screaming at each
other, the frightened horses assaulted them, trampling their meager
bodies. The tempest grew stronger.
A dark stallion ran like a mighty river, like the Aayandah, the Karun
or the Diz, and I feared it would overrun me in the high mountain storm
where I was unaccustomed to braving such violence. I felt as though
deep, dark waters twirled about me and nature was angry and unpacified.
I grew pale with fright before the despairing sight of my Khanum Sita
crying for me to go out into the storm, demanding I run toward the
stallion in the grey atmosphere. She recognized by instinct and with
her eagle eyes my father’s horse. He carried on his back her
embroidered saddlebags, a rifle, and a dagger under his arm that would
dig deep into the heart of an enemy. But this enemy spoke a language no
empire could rebuke. He must have seen me in the swirling dust, and I
cried to him.
“Baba! Baba! Baba!” I screamed.
“Soraya!” he called.
“Save your life,” Sita cried.
“Come here! Let me hold you to his horse!” Zargharm
In the whine of nature, my father heard my voice. My nomadic father was
tall, olive-skinned, and had piercing brown eyes. His hair was coarse
and thick, and his hands were as strong as a bear’s claw. His
upper body reached out away from the stallion. He swooped down his
winged arm, gathering me over the saddle, then turned back to the
migration. He led me into the protection of the epic Zagros Mountains,
with our Bakhtiar tribe from the desert and plains of Chahar Mahall and
the winter lands of Masjid Sulayman. The horse’s gallop and
the ancient, Aryan, hurtling gait was endless, as I inhaled the dust of
Persia, gasping. The storm hiked. I grasped my father’s
turmeric-colored, worn hand on top of the saddle. I felt his stable
shoulder as I gazed under my raw linen clothes to see the wild tribes
“I’m falling!” I shouted.
“Hold on, Soraya!” he insisted.
His horse sweat profusely, the saddle slipped and I fell. As he lurched
off the stallion, we rolled onto the desert floor nearly stampeded by
running animals. A wild dog leaped on me and bared its fangs; it had
gone mad. I feared for my life. My father swiveled, pulled his dagger,
and gutted the throat of the dog. He shook off the blood adhered to his
eyelashes, led me back to his faithful stallion, and we jumped back
onto the horse with relief. The clamor was at a pitch as we channeled
toward the mountains. A wave of sand was going to overtake us as it had
hundreds behind us, striking down victims in its gulping wake. Ahead,
sheep were in confusion, and we were perilously losing time. He aimed
his rifle straight into the file of sheep, scattering them.
The storm did as it pleased with us, annihilating so many. We passed
some who were defenseless and who stood as the storm left them, hanging
with sand and buried alive. The weak, those with typhus, malaria, or
sores on their feet died with sorrowful hearts. In the density of the
sand, I heard the sound of the reed, and the vagaries of the storm were
silenced by the thumping of the dombak drums in my mind. We raced into
the cave and joined a few crowds of women and children. I swallowed
sand and gasped for air. My father cleared my throat.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes,” I stammered. “But Sita and Uncle
“I’m going back. Stay here.”
The sand was his enemy this day. I searched the nomads in the cave who
knew I was the daughter of the il-Khan and would protect me.
But there was danger everywhere in a storm. A mutilated man held a sack
behind his back, and I ran from him, fortunately to the arms of a
familiar cousin, Hassan, among our clan of thousands.
“Soraya,” he said. “Come with
“Oh Hassan,” I said.
A crackling voice asked, “What are you children
Hassan whisked me away, forced me behind him, and gave the man a rude
tongue-lashing. The man threatened strangulation as he gestured with
his hands. Hassan raised a knife from his hip, let it shine in the old
man’s face for a good look at what he was going to feel in
his soft torso, and swore he would torture the man, blind him, or,
better yet, cut off his ugly ear, and when the il-Khan returned he
would be thrown into a cauldron of boiling water. The man disappeared
quickly into the obscurity like a dead bird. I fell limply into
Hassan’s arms. My mother was not with the tribe. She had
remained in our home in Firuzabad in the tribal lands, recovering from
the infectious chicken pox.
The sun sank in a black sky. In the firelight of the cave, Hassan took
me to his mother who prepared tea over a small flame and prayed with
her blue beads. She drew two hard-boiled eggs from her cloak and shared
them between the three of us.
“Eat something, Soraya dear,” she said.
“What about you?” I asked.
“I’m fine. Eat,” she told me.
Hassan’s father had died recently in an ambush against the
king’s central government in Tehran. Hassan never slept, but
kept a vigil over me, and we watched with serious eyes how the numbers
of dead mounted during the sandstorm’s conquest of us. Most
were buried alive, unreachable.
In the obscure cave, the elders explained the situation during the
spiraling noises. Animals died, pinned against the rocks. We rested
among the tiny fires as my father, Cyrus, returned with Khanum Sita. I
was sleepless until I saw her face.
“Sita,” I exclaimed.
“We’re fine, sweet Soraya. Uncle Zargharm
“It’s terrible out there,” Zargharm said
in a jittery voice.
My father heard the story of the bad man through Hassan. Those who knew what happened next told me that my father put his heel on the twisted
evil man, and then loped off his head. Justice was swift in the wild.
My father understood death. He was known as an astute military commander. He rode among the people, demanded obedience, squelched the wrong, and sacrificed his life again and again through the storm to save the nomads.
A rare musk fragrance blew over me, a tincture that Khanum Sita warmed by the fire. I closed my eyes and slept to the prayers of Khanum Sita.
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