Snow on the Desert

by Agha Shahid Ali

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"Each ray of sunshine is seven minutes old,"
Serge told me in New York one December night.

"So when I look at the sky, I see the past?"
"Yes, Yes," he said, "especially on a clear day."

On January 19, 1987,
as I very early in the morning
drove my sister to Tucson International,

suddenly on Alvernon and 22nd Street
the sliding doors of the fog were opened,

and the snow, which had fallen all night, now
sun-dazzled, blinded us, the earth whitened

out, as if by cocaine, the desert's plants,
its mineral-hard colors extinguished,
wine frozen in the veins of the cactus.

. . .

The Desert Smells Like Rain: in it I read:
The syrup from which sacred wine is made

"The Desert Smells Like Rain"

The Desert Smells Like Rain

The Desert Smells Like Rain, written by Gary Paul Nabhan, was first published in 1982. The full title is The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in O’Odham Country. The book is written as an ethnographic record of the Papago Native Americans, also known as the Tohono O’odham. Nabhan’s account is based on the time he spent with the Papago in the Sonoran desert of Arizona. The book describes daily life in the desert, carefully documenting the Papago's agricultural, ecological, and cultural practices. Nabhan also devotes chapters to sacred rituals, such as visiting a sacred cave in the mountains and performing the saguaro wine drinking ceremony. As a naturalist, Nabhan’s approach is highly detailed and holistic, providing a rich look into the lives of the Papago Native Americans.

is extracted from the saguaros each
summer. The Papagos place it in jars,




The saguaros are a type of cactus found exclusively in the Sonoran desert of Arizona. The typical lifespan of a saguaro plant is 150 to 200 years. While they only grow approximately an inch per year, at full size they are the largest cacti in the United States. Each year over the course of the months of May and June the plant’s creamy white flowers bloom. The flowers open at night but close again before noon. These elusive flowers are the state flower of Arizona. Before the rainy season, the plant’s small green fruits ripen and are ready for harvest. The saguaros are an important geographical and cultural symbol of the desert.

Making Wine:

Saguaros - Wine

In lines 16-21 Ali alludes to the Papago’s traditional wine ceremony. For the ceremony, the Papago use the fruits of the saguaros cacti (pictured right) to make wine. They then ritually drink and vomit the wine to honor I’itoi, the rain god. While drinking they sing and perform ritual dances for I’itoi. The ceremony and consequential purging is considered a cleansing ritual. Gary Paul Nanhan describes the tradition in great detail in the second chapter of his book The Desert Smells Like Rain. He traces the process from the creation of the wine to the actual ceremony to show the symbolic and religious significance of the ritual to the lives and culture of the Papago people.

"The Papago"


The Papago Indian tribe, also known as the Tohono O’odham meaning the “desert people,” is the dominant tribe of the Sonoran Desert of Southwest Arizona. Their alternative name, Papago, comes from the native words “paphh” meaning beans and “ootam” meaning people. Their ancestry can be traced back to the peoples of the lower Gila River in Arizona. Historically their land created territorial battles between Mexico and the United States. Finally in 1937 the Tohono O’odham became sovereign and they created a constitution and elected officials. Their land is divided into 11 districts that are home to about 25,000 people. The main reservation is located between Tucson and Ajo Arizona and is the third largest reservation in the United States. They are closely allied to the neighboring Pima tribe. The Papago women are considered superior basket makers and the art remains one of their sustained cultural practices. Now, the Desert Diamond Casinos constitute their primary source of income.

The Significance of Allusions to Native Americans »

where the last of it softens, then darkens
into a color of blood though it tastes

strangely sweet, almost white, like a dry wine.
As I tell Sameetah this, we are still

seven miles away. "And you know the flowers
of the saguaros bloom only at night?"

We are driving slowly, the road is glass.
"Imagine where we are was a sea once.

Just imagine!" The sky is relentlessly
sapphire, and the past is happening quickly:

the saguaros have opened themselves, stretched
out their arms to rays millions of years old,

in each ray a secret of the planet's
origin, the rays hurting each cactus

into memory, a human memory –
for they are human, the Papagos say:

not only because they have arms and veins
and secrets. But because they too are a tribe,

vulnerable to massacre. "It is like
the end, perhaps the beginning of the world,"

Sameetah says, staring at their snow-sleeved
arms. And we are driving by the ocean

that evaporated here, by its shores,
the past now happening so quickly that each

stoplight hurts us into memory, the sky
taking rapid notes on us as we turn

at Tucson Boulevard and drive into
the airport, and I realize that the earth

is thawing from longing into longing and
that we are being forgotten by those arms.

At the airport I stared after her plane
till the window was

again a mirror.
As I drove back to the foothills, the fog

shut its doors behind me on Alvernon,
and I breathed the dried seas

the earth had lost,
their forsaken shores. And I remembered

another moment that refers only
to itself:

in New Delhi one night
as Begum Akhtar sang, the lights went out.

"Begum Akhtar"

Begum Akhtar

Begum Akhtar is one of India’s most famous performers of traditional music in the 20th century. She began performing at the young age of 15 and quickly found her way into the film industry. After spending most of her time in front of the camera during her 30s, she focused on recording during the second half of her life. She is best known for singing ghazals, an Urdu poetic form that Shahid uses in his later volumes. The traditional ghazlal consists of a regular meter, repeated refrain, and rhyming couplets. She elevated the poetic art form through song and played a major role in preserving the form as culturally relevant. The deep rich sound of her voice made her songs sound uniquely melancholic and haunting. After reaching national and international fame, Akhtar suffered from a heart attack after a performance and died at the age of 60 in 1974.

Another Ali Poem on Begum Akhtar »

It was perhaps during the Bangladesh War,
perhaps there were sirens,

"Bangladesh War"

Bangladesh War

The Bangladesh War, also known as the Bangladesh War for Liberation, established Bangladesh as an independent country. After the partition of British India, Pakistan became an independent country consisting of two geographically and culturally separate parts, referred to as West and East Pakistan. Though under the same government, the divided sections had distinctly different cultures, national interests and even languages. The political power and state funds were harbored in the West, causing widespread discontent in the East. The unrest came to a peak in 1970 when Sheikh Mujibu Rahman, leader of the East Pakistan’s largest political party, the Awami League, won the national elections yet was denied his rightful seat as Prime Minister of Pakistan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, proposed having two Prime Ministers, one for the West and one for the East. Outraged, Rahman began to mobilize the East Pakistani people. In response, the Pakistani government launched an offensive attack to curb the East Pakistani nationalist movement. The Bangladesh War officially broke out on March 26th 1971. India sided with East Pakistan and came to its aid. They used airstrikes as an offensive tactic, while also allowing East Pakistani refugees across the border into India. The Pakistani army eventually surrendered on December 16th 1971. Rahman became the first prime minister of a sovereign Bangladesh in January of 1972.

Bangladesh War

air-raid warnings.
But the audience, hushed, did not stir.

The microphone was dead, but she went on
singing, and her voice

was coming from far
away, as if she had already died.

Begum Akhtar's Death

Akhtar died in Ahmadabad (Gujarati) India on October 30th 1974 after a final performance put too much stress on her body.

Click below to read a related poem Ali wrote on Akhtar's death "In Memory of Begum Akhtar" »

And just before the lights did flood her
again, melting the frost

of her diamond
into rays, it was, like this turning dark

of fog, a moment when only a lost sea
can be heard, a time

"A Moment"

Click below to read an interpretation of the signifigance of "a moment." "The Significance of a Moment That Refers Only to Itself " »

to recollect
every shadow, everything the earth was losing,

a time to think of everything the earth
and I had lost, of all

that I would lose,
of all that I was losing.

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