(Al Jafr Desert, 1996)
“If there is a divine purpose in Jafr, it is that God has placed it on earth as a warning of what hell is like.” – Howard Kent, publicist for Lawrence of Arabia.
It hasn’t rained in five years.
If it weren’t so dry, this burnt orange topography would weep from the sheer weight of its own isolation. The desert is motion in suspension and a set of quarantined coordinates whose desolation is inversely proportional to the outrageous expanse of nothingness.
Periodically – and apropos of not much – the winds gust and the sands pan across the hereafter; this is the Universe’s small way of letting this uninhabitable Outback know it hasn’t been forgotten about entirely.
But a lack of cosmic movement is the cruelest gesture of all. The silence confirms this sentiment.
Wild camels stare down spontaneous dust storms. After the winds die down, the next interruption to the parched and tedious desolation is the motorized fluttering of Bedouins crossing the desert in battered white Japanese pickup trucks. The murmur and obliquely reverberant rhythm of the camels is barely audible under the gear grinding and fishtailing of Muslims in mini-pickups. The marauding rumbling fades as the camels slowly scatter and the desert dwellers disappear into the their own dust.
When the commotion settles, the only sound remaining is the lonely brooding of bleached phosphate rock and the sulking of stone in what is the universe’s driest and least efficient echo chamber.
A Russian Antonov cargo plane unloads its burden at a military air strip not so many miles away. The Antonov is the size of an interstellar mothership. Its 75 tons of freight is an absolute Noah’s Ark of arcane hardware and machinery: diesel 6-wheeled Supacats, a fire-fighting Jaguar XJR, a portable Airshelta hangar, microlight aeroplanes and Thrust SSC, a twin-engined jet car that weighs 10 tons.
It is an ant farm of forklifts and traffic control. It is a military operation where nobody dies. In this part of the world, nobody dying is a refreshing change.
Terra firma dissolves into a horizon of dust. It buttresses a heavy, two-toned sky nine times taller than the playa itself. The dusky blues and grays of the sky hint at how cruel and unforgiving this place really is… in the center of the sky, a billowing sun is burning orange. The grays and oranges of the sky and landscape co-exist as a sort of dialectic with the two-tones hammered into a third element. A synthesis.
Despite an integration of color, there is no syllogism here, nothing to be inferred or projected, no cubed or exponential meaning extrapolated from the two elements of harsh light.
It is. It just is. The synthesis is zero. The sum, product, and exponent of the synthesis is zero. It is an anti-syllogism. Which sounds like silence, of course.
A renegade truck out of Iraq breaks the quiet. It scurries across the desert like a cockroach on a bleached snooker table. The trucker’s freight is contraband of one sort or another… it could be guns, black tar heroin or black market petrol. More than likely tobacco is the payload. Whatever the substance, it makes no never mind to the Sun as it continues its cynical sentry. Black globs of diesel exhaust puff and then dissipate, swallowed by a swollen sky.
It gets quiet again.
Off in the perimeter white smoke and dust complement a subsonic thrum breaking the silence while slowly changing pitch. The noise source is the jet car.
Eventually, flames pulse and belch out of a pair of Spey 202 jet engines. The engines are mounted on either side of the fuselage giving the race car the appearance of a spaceship on wheels. The vapors that buoy the flame are eye-watering. It doesn’t sting, so much as it sours. The fearsome and leviathan silver engine burns a cheap fuel with a smell like cooked cough syrup. The jet spools up and up and up, reaching a whine that would shatter the wall of Jericho. The higher the pitch, the higher the decibels and the sicker the smell.
A group of mechanics and engineers crowds around the spaceship with wheels and performs a series of synchronized leak tests on the jet engines. The vehicle is 54 feet long, tips the scales at 10 tons, and has a surface composed of steel, carbon fibre and titanium. The men and women are sharply attired – matching khaki trousers, a variety of team polo shirts (red, yellow, gray, black), blue coveralls, tan colored boots, identical post-industrial sunglasses and green and red bomber jackets – and are a calm contrast to the chaotic pressurized air that billows out of the beastly, demonic jet engines’ exhaust opening. In all the futzing, occasionally one of the engineers checks the time on a wristwatch with a SSC Machmeter as the face. The needles on the timepiece point to Mach 1, which represents high noon, natch.
They purge the afterburners on either of the jet engines. PPPHHHWWWWUUUUHHHHHH … (beat) … PPPHHHWWWWUUUUHHHHHH goes one… 22,500 fucking lbs. of thrust at each belch of either afterburner … PPPHHHWWWWUUUUHHHHHH … (beat) … PPPHHHWWWWUUUUHHHHHH goes the other… 110,000 fucking horsepower total… “This is one horny machine,” one crew member mutters… On the horizon, a fleet of Land Rovers retro-fitted with machine guns zooms toward the makeshift but immaculate compound in a flying wedge formation. The automobiles attract minimal dust, as the swirling pool of disturbed air puts the Rovers in a high pressure cocoon. It is like the winds know that inside one of these vehicles are some very important Muslims and the dust parts accordingly. Flags mounted to the skin of the automobiles buffet in the turbulence. The closer the cars come, the more frenzied the disturbance. The vortex summons Biblical stories, lost cities and civilizations, and Lawrence of Arabia. T.E. Lawrence was the last romantic vestige of British Imperialism here, but the caustic purging of Spey 202s conjures up the Empire’s latest and perhaps final attempt at National pride. Thrust SSC. The Supersonic Car.
It is utterly atavistic.
The jet exhaust and the choreographed human commotion, the dust of the caravan and its flagellation of flags swirl into a single entity.
Before the military Muslims depart, the senior officer offers to cordon off the British Operation with the Land Rovers… and to shoot anybody who might get in the way.