Dorit Peleg’s writing always examines the connection between beauty and meaning; it seems to me that no other writer in Hebrew literature lingers as she does on the refined verbal illustration of human and physical beauty, and on the ways in which it enables the experience of meaning. It cannot always be conceptualized: there is something mysterious and boundary-breaking about beauty, and especially about the beauty of unfamiliar landscapes, that calls for an explanation from those who come across it. Many times it engenders an intimate, most clandestine conversation. And this is also the case with “Dune,” which was first published in 1985. The story’s protagonist conducts himself in accordance with a measured mix of Japanese and European codes; he lives in balance—with his work, with his sexual conquests, with his friends. However, a rash decision to embark on a trip to the Sahara, a result of inadvertent bragging and the flipping through a random magazine, gradually removes him from his comfort zone. The journey to its unknown landscapes introduces him to the desert dunes. Its great force, which stems from tiny particles in motion, activates him against his will: he must find meaning in the sculpted space of nature which awaits him with eternal patience. The attempt to arrive at the meaning of transcendent beauty is the action of Eros—for the protagonist of “Dune” as well as for the reader.
Paul Nimoro was Japanese. He was many things; but above all, he was Japanese and he valued the qualities he knew he had inherited‒ precision, self-discipline and along with them, perhaps less visible but still present beneath the surface ‒ a weight of intense emotion tempered by meticulous tradition, which had been passed through generations. There were other characteristics that he valued too. His body, for instance. Unlike most inhabitants of his country, he wasn’t small, but rather slightly above average height; he had broad shoulders that he tanned by lying out on the beach for hours on end, an activity not many of his friends shared. They would look at his bronze shoulders and sigh with admiration and more than a hint of envy, it was no wonder that all of the Pagoda-hunting German blondes wound up in his bed. Nimoro would smile, neither admitting nor denying anything, and stretch out his arms so that the muscles rippled beneath his tanned skin. He enjoyed the admiration of his friends and the generous spirit of the fair haired young women clad in short sleeves that he would randomly encounter at the city’s public spaces. He would graciously point out an entrance or handily provide an explanation about the inscriptions that were etched vertically on the wall.
Of course, Paul wasn’t his real name. But he preferred to use the Western name that he adopted when he came to see that pronouncing his Japanese name was hard for the American businessmen he encountered. Nimoro was an excellent electrical engineer. He had completed several development projects to the full satisfaction of his supervisors and after several years they transferred him to the marketing division of the large electronics factory. When in the company of his European colleagues, his behavior and manner was no different than their own, and he would spend his evenings with them at the Tokyo bars, however, unlike them, he never overdid his drinking.
When with his family, he was faultlessly devoted to tradition, as was fit for a Nimoro, whose lineage included a samurai. Amongst his close friends, his behavior was a unique combination of ancient customs and the new liberties that his generation had adopted. He openly stated his fondness for European culture, however he always added that, naturally, it paled in comparison with ancient Japanese tradition, and therefore it came as a surprise when he announced that he intended to spend his upcoming holiday traveling through the Sahara Desert and not, for instance, in Germany or Spain.
The announcement actually came as a surprise to Nimoro himself, it was inadvertently blurted out, and the idea that he had toyed with for some time now became a reality. He had gotten it in the waiting room of his dentist’s office when leafing through a German travel magazine which featured a fascinating cover story about the desert. From then on, the photographs ‒ which were superb, like any German product‒ and images of shifting white sands and a vast wind-swept terrain, would flash in his mind and then disappear. When his good friend Sakoda asked about his travel plans and suggested that he join a group of friends for a road trip in Europe, Nimoro cringed at the thought of sharing a cramped car with three other men loaded with camera equipment, eager to make conquests they didn’t have a chance to attain. Without planning ahead or thinking it through, he blurted out “Not this time. I’m going to the Sahara Desert,” and Sakoda’s awestruck face prevented him from going back on his word.
The rumor spread faster than a locomotive and a few days later he couldn’t take it back without ruining the glamorous air of adventure that now enveloped him, and making himself out to be a liar. After all, he told himself, the desert had to be an interesting place, he liked the pictures and he could always visit Christina in Frankfurt next year. And so at the end of July (the factory he worked for always arranged vacations according to the American schedule), he found himself boarding an Air France flight with his passport, two good cameras, a tripod, lens case and a small suitcase. The final destination was Algiers.
He had planned his itinerary to include a two-day stopover in Paris, where he walked along the Seine and the Boulevard St. Michel and stopped in the small bars in Montparnasse. He had visited Paris before and had acquaintances in the city, but since he only had two days, he preferred to spend them taking pleasant, idle walks in the narrow alleyways, enjoying the special atmosphere of the cobblestoned streets and the corner bistros, unaware that all the real Parisians had fled the city for the summer, leaving it to the mercy of the rosy-cheeked tourists from distant places such as himself, their camera straps slung on their shoulders, calling out to each other from across the street, hey John, come check it out, I found a fabulous café. He regarded them with some measure of disdain, but not malice‒ his own cameras were in the hotel room, he had already documented Paris two summers ago‒ and he roamed the streets freely, hands in his pockets.
In the evening, as he stood on the bridge facing the lit-up cathedral he had the not altogether unpleasant experience of a hoarse whisper at his shoulder, monsieur wants a good time, and graciously rejected the proposition; the lady of the night was too old, with faded yellow hair and a heavily made-up face, clumps of mascara stuck to her lashes, and he felt satisfaction that he had no need for her services, unlike most of his friends from Tokyo, who would’ve eagerly accepted her offer. He booked a room at a good hotel next to the Étoile, dined on excellent French food with great appetite, and two days later, boarded a plane with a business card for a travel agency in Algier carefully folded in his wallet.
In Algiers, he rented an air-conditioned American car ‒ the manager of the travel agency, who had a dark, round face that he would occasionally wipe off with a soiled handkerchief, explained that it was inconceivable to rent an unairconditioned car‒ and he went on his way without paying the large city a visit. It was a lively city, but loud and very dirty and after spending close to two hours with the travel agent and planning a route that seemed interesting, he bought a few of bottles of mineral water and set out. The travel agent was not enthusiastic about his route. He couldn’t understand why the Japanese man insisted on going to the blazing, desolate desert, and in summer no less, when he could’ve driven along the Algerian coast to Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakesh‒ the Paris of Africa, the travel agent kept repeating, presenting him with the colorful brochures, the Moroccan cities and all of their multi-colored wares and white sandy beaches dotted with the brown bodies of Scandinavian women sprawled out in the sun. Nimoro politely scanned the brochures, page by page, and replied that Morocco seemed very interesting and that he would surely travel up the coast of north Africa another time, but this year he intended to see the Sahara. The gentleman is a man of seance, inquired the Arab in slick, Brilliantine-scented French, and for a moment Nimaro thought that he meant channeling spirits and almost burst out laughing but he quickly grasped what the agent had meant and said, no, I am not a man of science. I just want to get to know the area. The fat man continued to stare at him with a shiny, glossed-over, practically liquid gaze, which Nimoro noted, many of the locals had too, and he felt the need to justify himself. I’m photographing, he explained. The Arab’s eyes closed with comprehension, the matter had been clarified, the man wants to photograph the dunes. It was still inconceivable, yet nonetheless familiar to him. Occasionally, sweaty groups of red-skinned people would appear at the agency with cameras dangling from their necks, demanding air conditioned cars and a good driver for god’s sake, and they would go out to photograph the sandy, changeless and uninteresting desert hills.
The road was narrow and very bad, filled with potholes and Nimoro thought that if this was the main road in the country he was in for trouble along the way, and it would be best to buy a spare tire in Oran. Every so often, he was forced to stop and wait in clouds of dust generated by herds of scraggly goats as they crossed the road, or drive for a few minutes at the sluggish pace of a herd that was blocking the road. He quickly discovered that honking the horn didn’t help, it was just a matter of patience and if he slowly inched along, eventually he would be rescued from the dense air, heavy with white dust and the din of the bleating goats and his useless shouting, which even the thick glass of the windows couldn’t block out.
But the road winded along the coast and Nimoro enjoyed the slow ride, every few moments the ocean appeared before him, as blue as an incredible diamond blue, barren, the sun hammering it into a thousand thin strips of white light. There were soft, infinite waves of low sand dunes along the coastline, beyond which, he assumed, was a flat beach that a patient wind covered with gusts of thin, glass-like sand; it looked like fog, or a blanket of spider webs covering an ancient carpet, one day, the same wind would blow all of the carpets into the ocean or in a different direction, only to begin arranging them once more with eternal patience and persistence.
He arrived at Oran at five p.m. He liked the city, immediately taking to the stone statues of the lions at the entrance to the city hall, the white rooftops, the maze of whitewashed walls in the ancient quarter, the sound of the moazin spiraling down from the mosque’s minarets. At the local tourist office he was informed that the best hotel was “The Sahara”. There are several others that are considered good too, said the tourist information officer with a smile, her lips bright red and eyes lowered, but if he didn’t want to take a chance, it was best to stay at “The Sahara”. Nimoro thanked her for her assistance and inquired about her good English. The young lady batted her eyelashes, revealing that she had learned it in school and that she liked conversing with the visitors who came from all over the world, it improved her language skills. Nimoro said that he would be glad to tell her more about his country, which is truly unique and she accepted his invitation to join him for dinner at the hotel.
At the end of their meal, Nimoro felt certain that he had sufficiently described his country, its character, landscape, as well as the customs of ancient and modern Japan, and they went up to the roof of the hotel to see the view. The desert night was bright with stars and the city lights shone beneath them and she let him hold her hand and even put an arm around her shoulders so that she leaned against him, still sitting on the deck chair and they spoke in low tones‒ about Algeria and Japan and her plans to study art in Florence in a year or two, as soon as she had enough money saved up and managed to convince her narrow-minded family that it did not inevitably mean disaster.
The next day he had a good breakfast, not much different than the one in Paris. The service was gracious and continental in every way, and the manager of the front desk approached him in the lobby, asking if everything was to his satisfaction. Nimoro expressed his appreciation of the hotel’s service. We haven’t had many guests from your country, said the manager, in fact, if I’m not mistaken, you are our first Japanese guest, so we would like some good press, ha ha. Nimoro laughed along with him and added that he would surely recommend “The Sahara” to his friends in Japan.
He spent the morning wandering through Oran’s ancient quarter. He loved the Moorish architecture, the curved arches, the painted blue tiles adorning the doorframes and the labyrinthine twists of the white alleyways. He wandered slowly through the shaded curve of the bazaar, curiously inspecting the copperware with ancient patterns etched on it, examining the hookah pipes with their elongated mouthpieces and the goatskin canteens and the embroidered dresses, successfully managing to ignore the children’s cries for bakshish as they trailed behind him. He finally bought a purple scarf that had coins sewed to its hem. He bargained a little for the price, merely as a matter of principle, and managed to lower it slightly. For lunch, he stopped in the dusky dome of a restaurant where he was seated at a table covered with a plastic tablecloth, swarming with flies, and served with an array of spreads and warm Arabic bread, followed by a sizable portion of well-grilled lamb. For dessert he had a cup of coffee, too strong for his taste, and returned to the hotel to take an afternoon nap. It was very hot. He got up at five, took a shower and drove to the tourist office to pick up Nadine. The previous day she had promised to take him to the rooftop of a mosque that had the most beautiful view of the city and the ocean. There were over two hundred and eighty stairs to climb, Nadine reported before they began their ascent, and he tried to count but lost track after a hundred or so, concentrating instead on taking deep breaths, and finally, they reached the flat expanse of the roof from which they heard the call of the mozain. The mosque hadn’t held prayers for several years, Nadine told him. That was the reason they were able to go up at that hour, which was the time for prayer. They stood side by side, leaning against the railing and watching the white mosaic below, which was studded with small figures the size of chess pieces dressed in black or white (Nimoro noticed that the women all wore black for some reason and the men white, and he wondered about it. He later decided that it had to do with women’s modesty and apparently black better concealed them from the inquisitive eyes of strangers). A large red sun hung on the other side of the railing and red light flooded the city and the ocean. Silence descended upon the city; the silence held anticipation, and the figures slowed down their movements. Through a thick screen of fog, rich in dusty red light, the voices of the moazin began calling in unison. There is no god but Allah, Nimoro knew the meaning of the voices that curled like the ornamental writing on the tiles above the arches, and Muhammad is the messenger of God. It’s beautiful, he whispered to Nadine who stood beside him and she nodded. The sight of the dusty city that was slowly drowning in the red mist stirred a sense of peace within him along with a strange longing for something indiscernible. One after the other, the voices stopped. But the red rays continued to flow, hitting the white rooftops with one final reminder before disappearing for the night. Let’s go look around, said Nadine. They slowly circled the quiet rooftop. That is the new hospital, pointed Nadine, and that is the palace which belongs to Abd al-Aziz from the Almohad dynasty. The houses looked as though they had been trimmed with an opaque yellowish belt, limiting the horizon by the very fact of its monotony. What’s that, he asked.
“That is the desert,” said Nadine.
After the last rays disappeared and a velvety night covered the small rooftop above the mosque, she let him kiss her, a moist, lengthy kiss. Afterwards, she pulled herself away with a soft sigh, and said that she needed to go and her family would kill her if they knew that she had been alone with him in a secluded place. They walked to the hotel in the fragrant air of the hot desert night, before darkness descended completely. After their meal they went up to the roof and she let him kiss her again, and even place his hands over her soft, supple body. Before they parted, he gave her his Tokyo business card and she wrote down the office address‒best that he didn’t write to her parents’ house‒ and he promised to try and pass through Oran on his way back.
The next day he drove to Sidi Bel Abbès. In the morning, before leaving the city, he drove to the beach and lay out on the hot sand, abandoning himself to the early rays of the sun. Several young tourists with sunburnt shoulders were already there, addictively tanning and paying no mind to such superfluous items as the top half of a bathing suit. Nimoro crossed his arms behind his head, dividing his attention between the girls and the ocean and decided that it had definitely been a good idea to spend his vacation here. A smile played on his lips as he recalled that three of his friends were probably working hard at photographing the Eiffel Tower, capturing it from every angle. After a couple of hours he went back to the hotel and showered, washing the sand off of his body, pleased with his tanned skin. He paid the bill and thanked the manager of the front desk who bade him a successful trip, packed up the car with the two cameras, the tripod and the suitcase, and headed out.
The road inland was, as he expected, worse than the previous one and he assumed that the situation would only further deteriorate, as the roads he had chosen were off the beaten path. He drove slowly, examining the sun-scorched houses that appeared every now and then, the children that suddenly materialized in the sand dunes on the side of the road, like ghosts, holding out their hands and begging in that universally accepted, age-old gesture. He reached Sidi Bel Abbès by noon and asked for directions to the hotel that Nadine had jotted down for him.
It turned out to be a yellowish sandstone building that didn’t look particularly promising. The room wasn’t dirty but it wasn’t much, it had a bed, dusty curtains and a chair that he didn’t want to sit on so as not to cause clouds of smoke to billow in the room. Nimoro showered, washing off the sticky remainder of the journey. He asked the clerk at the front desk to wake him up at four o’clock and when he heard the knock on his door, he got up, dressed and went out to see the city. Once more, an ancient quarter, white arches, whitewashed walls, strange calls in difficult, guttural tones. He entered the palace of one sultan or another, and was impressed by the courtyards with the stone statues of the lions spraying water from their mouths, the heavy arches, the opulent carpets. At the antiquities museum he met a gaunt official in a white dress who explained about the different events that corresponded with each of the silk embroidered costumes behind the glass encasings, and pointed out the ancient weapons on display. When he began to get hungry, he thanked him and returned to the hotel.
The meal was greasy and for dessert he had some slightly shriveled fruit. The hotel’s roof was open and he sat there for a while on a lounge chair, smoking and gazing at the starry space above him. Sidi Bel Abbès was a lot smaller than Oran, there were fewer city lights and much more stars. Nimoro felt a certain sense of loneliness and he noted the feeling, and the subsequent thought that perhaps it was important to feel lonely every once in a while, so that a person could better connect with himself and formulate his thoughts, but he couldn’t come up with any particular thoughts to formulate. He finished his second cigarette and went to bed.
The following day he continued inland. His next destination was the town of Ain Sefra, which he had marked on the map. The view from the side of the road was dusty and monotonous and seemed fairly dirty to him, though he realized that it must be its natural color. The sandy hills along the roadside were dotted with low thorny bushes. Around noon, a convoy of camels suddenly appeared far beyond the hills, their long necks drawing upwards, walking slowly in a dignified manner, their progress nearly imperceptible, patient, endless. Nimoro stopped the car and observed the convoy for a few minutes. It was too far for him to make out the appearance of the people. He wondered whether they were drug traffickers, as he had heard in the travel agency in Paris. When his eyes got tired of the monotony of watching the unchangeable, dotted figures on the yellow sandy backdrop, he restarted the engine and drove on. A few minutes later he got a flat tire in the front right wheel.
When Nimoro noticed that the car wasn’t adequately responding to the turn of the steering wheel, he immediately realized what had happened. He cursed, pulled over and stepped outside. The difference between the cool interior of the car and what was going on outside was unbelievable. The heat was terrible. He shrugged his shoulders, reached over to the backseat and pulled out the white baseball cap he had purchased in Oran. He put it on and then popped the trunk and began changing the tire. It was fortunate to have bought another spare tire, he thought. Though it was unlikely he would get another flat soon, in any case, it was good to have. When he finished and sank back into the driver’s seat, he was dripping with sweat. He blotted his face and neck with paper napkins and rested for a few moments before starting the car and continuing to drive.
The yellow light that beat down on the windshield now gained new meaning. He thought of the twenty minutes he spent outside and shivered. More than an hour or two in this heat meant losing his senses, he thought, and for the first time it crossed his mind that perhaps the trip to the desert was not a wise one after all.
The route that he had planned for that day was long and when afternoon arrived the sandy hills began blurring before him into spiral waves; he couldn’t differentiate between the curves and the concave lines, they poured together. His vision was clouded with a yellow hue and every so often he needed to rub his eyes, so as not to confuse the lines on the road with the sands on the side of them. I wouldn’t want to veer off the road and sink in the sand, he thought, shivering once again.
And then the large dunes appeared. Up until that point the scenery didn’t resemble the photos in the German travel magazine, the desert surrounding him didn’t seem as impressive as the vast open space that the pictures had depicted. But the dunes were wonderful. They curved in rich, abundant waves, creating sharp, precise concaves defying the existence of anything that could disrupt their smoothness, defying the existence of any form of contact, whether human or other. The sandy curves had a sensuality that surpassed anything he had ever encountered. They were spread out before him, seductive in their submission, overpowering his senses. He felt a strong urge to stroke those smooth curves, to feel the yellow sand sink between his fingertips like fog. I must photograph them, he thought. He wondered how many years it took to amass the large wave of sand that rose up before him, it was as tall as a wave in an average storm, and mused that by tomorrow perhaps it would no longer be there. He thought about the minute movement, the hills crawling millimeter by millimeter, the thin screens of microscopic sand spreading out like fishing nets, falling, woven back into their predecessors.
The afternoon wore on and the sun’s low rays colored the waves of sand a deep, almost honeyish shade of ochre. When he looked to the distance, it seemed to Nimoro that he was watching it all from the height of a satellite, gazing at a multi-dimensional map with protrusions and hollow concaves. It was safe to go outside now, he supposed. The road rounded slightly to the right, he turned the wheel and after the bend, she was revealed to him. Her curves were contoured to a degree of perfection he had never witnessed in any woman, flawless. She was lying down, sprawled on her side over a stretch of sand over ten meters long, her thigh forming a wide arc above the dip of her hip and her two heavy, bountiful breasts were slightly pressed together and extended outwards, beckoning him. He could almost feel the secret gaze that was being sent to him from behind her lowered eyelids.
Nimoro stopped the car. He went outside and opened the door to the back seat, dragged out the tripod and set it up a few meters behind him, where the effect was perfect. He attached the camera to the tripod and began taking photos, but soon he felt too limited by the tripod and took the camera in his hands, turning it in every angle, trying to catch the entire length of the body that was draped in seductive nonchalance, the legs‒ one poised, slightly bent over the other, the shoulders thrown back, the chest. After just a few minutes, he knew for certain that he had been wrong about the sun. Though it was past the peak of the afternoon, the sun still pounded forcefully, his shoulders were aflame, the rays beat in his head like the undulations of small waves. But he couldn’t leave the figure that was cast before him on the sand, her nonchalance was heavy with invitation. He put on the white baseball cap and continued to shoot, getting on his knees to capture her from below, running to the far corner to take a shot from the legs up towards the head.
He ran out of film, and stopped. He sat in the car with the door open, looking at her. To his surprise she remained motionless, he almost expected her to get up and stretch after the photo session but she continued lying there with her hand under her head, one leg over the other, slightly bent, in the same artificial, alluring position, looking at him and far beyond him, at the desert. He sat for a long time. The sun turned a deep red and when its rays touched the supine figure he could feel the delicate texture from which it was woven, the grainy fabric that was thin as silk. And as soft as silk, he thought, and was struck with the uncontrollable longing to touch it, to sink his hands into it, his arms, to dive into those voluptuous curves with his entire being, to sense them, surrender to him, sink beneath him.
He got up and began running towards her, climbing the lower belly upwards towards the perfect hollow of the hip. The soft sand gave way and slid beneath his feet and he tried to hold it but was left with fistfuls of sand. He couldn’t get a grip, everything he tried to capture escaped his grasp and when he stopped the breathless digging and looked around him, she had disappeared. She was gone as if she had never existed, and the only thing he could see was a large hill of yellow sand with a few protrusions and indentations and a large hollow at its center. He felt cheated. Like someone had taken something away from him. Slightly foolish. He rubbed his hand slowly on the back of his neck, removing the grains of sand that had stuck to it. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t recreate the voluptuous woman who lay willingly before him a moment earlier, the woman into whom he wanted to sink. His shoes were filled with sand which pricked his feet and when he reached the bottom of the hill he sat down in the driver’s seat, took off one shoe and gave it a thorough shake, removed his sock and waved it in the dry air until the tiny grains fell from it, and later took off his other shoe, emptying it as well.
When he lifted his eyes again, she was before him. It seemed as though her knees bent deeper towards the earth, and a scar ran down the width of her stomach, from the navel all the way to the hip. He didn’t leave a lasting mark on her. The expression on her face remained the same: empty, distant, wiped of emotion, to her, he was no different than the desert. Nimoro couldn’t take his eyes off of her. He had never felt such a strong urge to conquer a woman, or to conquer at all. When preparing for his engineering exams he was determined to succeed. He read all of the books listed on the syllabus and spent long hours studying, grabbing a sandwich at his desk, memorizing formulas and solution methods. Whatever was happening to him now was entirely different. A single-minded form of madness had taken over him and he felt that he must mount this woman, lie on top of her, stamp his seal on her body.
He began climbing once more, attempting to deepen his step, to keep a steady, uniform pace, but immediately sank again, the slope was too smooth, his feet plunged in up to his ankles, and with every step he took, he slid halfway down. He tried to keep his balance but he stumbled, mechanically grasping at the slope, toppling over backwards. When he got up, wiping the sand from his eyes, he saw that he had lost her again. Helpless fury rose within him. He abandoned the cautious, calculated steps and began blindly attacking the slope, digging at it with his fingers, his mouth filling with the dust that he was generating. He fell again. He pounded his fists in the sand but it did not resist, it simply sunk beneath his hands with soft submission, not even granting him the satisfaction of delivering a blow. He stopped and let himself slide down to the bottom. He began walking towards the car but before he reached the halfway mark, he quickly turned around and she struck him, appearing before him once more, even more seductive than he remembered, more than he could possibly resist and he began running towards her with the understanding that she would fade away and disappear again, with the knowledge that he had to climb to her and sink inside of her, drown in her, lose himself inside the ample bosom that would surely vanish, that he could never obtain, and he climbed and slid and climbed and stumbled and rolled and fell facedown and lay there, his head buried in the sand and he wept with short broken sobs, like a child, into the warm sand.