Magsie Hamilton Little is a writer, academic and translator who has written for The Times, the Daily Telegraph, The Daily Beast and The Lady. In 2006 she caught a plane to Afghanistan and subsequently wrote Dancing with Darkness, Life, Death and Hope in Afghanistan, an account of her experiences there. The suffering she saw in Afghanistan inspired her to set up a charity printing books in Kabul and distributing them to Afghan street children. The Thing about Islam followed in 2012 and contributions to various books and publications about the Middle East, including Afghanistan Revealed edited by Caroline Richards. The Sky is on Fire is an account of her time spent living among the nomads of the Kel Ahaggar in central Saharan Africa. Her forthcoming novel, If, is a love story set in WW1. On the rare occasions she finds herself at home she enjoys drinking fresh leaf teas and, upon occasion, has been known to tango.
This is her prize-winning entry to the Wild Writing Competition:
One afternoon I sold my flat. I unplanted myself, like a bean. I closed the front door, gathered up my heartbreak splinters and bought a plane ticket and just like at a crowded, sweaty party where everyone is absorbed in their own separate conversation London did not notice me leaving.
Two days later I was in Tamanrasset in a remote region of Algeria. I saw red light behind my eyelids and felt the crunch of rubber on dust. I breathed it in, this universe of yellow, like a newborn.
The Sahara lay like one of the planet’s limbs, pulsating, throbbing, blanching. Rocks lay like fallen vertebrae, eroded, as if searching for something irrevocably shattered.
The sky’s stare was a white fire that melted rhythm and space. A haze covered the earth. The quicksilver I was wading through was the river inside me. Only the crust of my skin kept me separate.
A figure of an insect took shape, alone in the vast spotlight. A few twigs poked out like punk hairstyles. A tin can clattered across the dust as if someone playing percussion in an orchestra had suddenly rattled the castanets. We were all of us players in this drama of desolation.
On I walked, and my past walked with me, filled with those things I had done and not done. Beyond, the horizon felt unreachable, the distant peaks of the Ahaggar stark and impermeable, a stone curtain separating the two sides of my life – before, when there was hope and after, when it had gone.
Late afternoon the sun’s heat began to wane. The light trickled in liquid caramel and an eerie silence descended, a betwixt and between-ness, as in a lull before battle.
Suddenly, without warning, everything vanished, as if someone had switched off the sky. The power of the darkness was absolute. It commanded the sun to leave and a trillion firefly stars stood to attention. I was vulnerable as a pea.
The tent did not take long to put up. I undressed inside my sleeping bag, relieved to have survived unscathed. The torch made circles on the canvas, a pale ring outside a darker one, a childhood kaleidoscope.
At last the wind’s cry became more pleading, the wailings urgent, stirring the grit and lifting it in gusts, wiping away the tales of the night carved in the sand and cleansing the footprints of creatures that had scampered there, now returned to their secret refuges.
As the first rays pushed up from the plateau, shifting the blues playing in the sky before sunrise tumbleweed flitted in feathery bundles, buffeting half-withered shrubs like lost souls. The luminous globe edged up and light crossed the land, illuminating small details - a red ant sitting on a shimmery, a mother-of-pearl pebble, a prickle of green on orange sand.
One by one, I took the fragments of my past, noble, and dissolute, and buried them in the sand. I glanced back at the immensity of where I had been and felt the white-hot certainty of a life without fear. I was home.