Carsten Jensen

A CREATIVE LIGHT: OUARZAZATE STORIES
Original writing for the European Investment Bank, backed by the Neighbourhood Investment Facility of the European Union


Noor is a paean to the sun, not as a god, but as a partner.

I never thought to connect a power plant with revelation.

And yet I am captivated by what greets me as I drive into the desert near Ouarzazate in southern Morocco. Here, with the Atlas Mountains on the horizon, the desert stretches out on all sides like a rocky, dried-up seabed. Indeed the locals maintain that the white salt patches gleaming among the light and dark grey basalt rocks are vestiges of the ocean that once covered this spot. I am here at the invitation of the European Investment Bank, which has put over 300 million euros into what will one day be the world’s largest solar thermal power station, supplying a million people with electricity and sparing the world’s already hard-pressed atmosphere 750,000 tons in CO2 emissions.

“Take a look around. Write what you like,” is the invitation from the investment bank’s editorial head, the British writer Matthew Rees.

The crop here is not plants but sunshine.

I take a look around. Sun fields! The crop here is not plants but sunshine. The power station’s name is Noor, which is the Arabic word for light. Thousands of concave mirrors, four-metres high and set in 80-metre long rows, obey the sun’s command, turning their dazzling panes to track its progress across the sky. Water-bearing trucks drive around the mirrors, cleaning them with high-pressure hoses and brushes. Noor is a gigantic selfie for the sun into which no eye can look directly and remain unscathed. Here it is not we that are reflected, but our future.

It is here, in the desert in southern Morocco, looking at the world’s largest solar thermal power station, that I have a revelation. My revelation is not religious in nature, but it undoubtedly evokes the indefinable and intangible concept of faith: a faith in humanity, its unfailing inventiveness and will to survive. Not the survival instinct of a brutal industrial age that finds expression in metaphors of war, but one aligned to human relationships and fellowship. After all, what is a solar mirror but a collaboration with the sun?

It is here, in the desert in southern Morocco, looking at the world’s largest solar thermal power station, that I have a revelation.

At school I read The Pylons, a poem by the English poet Stephen Spender, written in the 1930s as a provocative tribute to the unsightly electricity pylons which heralded progress. On long steel legs they strode across a landscape of crumbling roads, low stone cottages and chestnut trees, dwarfing them with their lofty arrogance. Today Spender is a somewhat overlooked poet. Back then he inspired a poetic movement and his poem lent its name to a whole group, known as the Pylon Poets. I didn’t like this poem. The romantic in me rebelled against its derisive, condescending view of the countryside: cowering, defeated by that progress which Spender likens to “whips of anger, with lightning’s danger”. Not even the poet’s vision of the cities of the future, with buildings so high that clouds would lean their swan-white necks over them, could reconcile me to it.

Romantic teenagers like myself, inspired by the back-to-nature fantasies of the hippie era, may not have been on Stephen Spender’s side, but progress was – which is perhaps why Spender has been almost forgotten. Poets should never be too much in tune with their times, not if they wish to be remembered.

Poets should never be too much in tune with their times, not if they wish to be remembered.

The pylons marched on. But they have never covered the whole planet. Large parts of the African continent are still without electricity. 30,000 heavily armed foreign soldiers were stationed in Afghanistan’s sparsely populated Helmand Province, but they did not leave a single pylon behind them. An Afghan poet could have sided with Spender’s Pylon Poets and eighty years later the marching steel towers of progress would still have been a dream, more impossible than the most poetic vision.

After fifteen years of war and occupation, the derelict Gereshk Hydro Power Plant in the commercial centre of Helmand, where Danish troops were stationed, still has not received the new turbines that were ordered. When I spoke to the managing director of the Helmand Electricity Company, Eng Nasrullah-Qani, in a temperature of 45°C and under a sun that mercilessly dried up local rivers and scorched the surrounding stony desert, he admitted that he still had not been able to find a company capable of erecting the pylons that, at some point in a vague future, would supply the people with electricity.

In the meantime the people have taken matters into their own hands. During my first visit to Helmand, back in 2009, when I heard a Danish colonel announcing that, thanks to a Danish initiative, solar panels were providing the power for the street lighting in Gereshk, my first thought was that this was just an empty gesture, showing a level of ignorance on a par with giving a computer to an illiterate; a Utopian, misplaced act of goodwill, totally divorced from Afghanistan’s tortured reality. Solar panels had to be very low on the wish list of an undernourished population ravaged by war, with an almost non-existent health service and a shockingly low average life expectancy.

Seven years later, in 2016, when I return to Helmand along with the Norwegian documentary filmmaker Anders Hammer, I realize how wrong I have been. I had underestimated the Afghans. True, the street lighting that the Danes had so considerately installed is gone: high on the lampposts running along dark streets, the frames that once held the solar panels gape vacantly. But the people have taken control of the power supply by stealing the panels. Now they are mounted on the roofs of the makeshift stalls lining the ring road that cuts through the city. And that’s not all. These efficient solar panels have created such a demand that they are now on sale everywhere. In the great social and economic development vacuum created by nigh on forty years of war, it is up to the Afghan people themselves to take action, and the only trace left by the Danish troops, after a costly and futile military operation in Helmand, is the inspiration provided by those stolen solar panels.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Danish word solfanger – meaning, literally, a ‘sun catcher’. So much more evocative than the prosaic ‘solar thermal collector’. I don’t know the difference between a solar thermal collector and a solar cell, but a net search tells me that solar cells produce electricity, while solar thermal collectors heat water. It seems to me that the term ‘sun catcher’ ought to cover both of these. I think of it as rather like a butterfly net, a delicate device designed for catching one of nature’s wonders, a fluttering flower, the pattern on its wings testifying to Mother Nature’s greatness as a designer. A butterfly net is no mousetrap, breaking the neck of the creature it attracts. Where nature is concerned, industrialism is the mousetrap. Solar power is the butterfly net, allowing the butterfly to blithely flutter on.

When called upon to define its position regarding the natural world, the metaphors used by industrialism are all drawn from war. We describe ourselves as the lords of nature: we have conquered nature, we have subjected it to our will, or we exploit it. Nature is a vanquished foe or a disenfranchised slave, able to take all manner of blows: the scars left on the countryside by coal and copper mining, the invisible rape of the Earth’s atmosphere by fossil fuels, the extermination of a growing number of species.

Too late the threat of climate change has made us see that science has provided only partial, and always slanted insights, and that with our noisy, short-term thinking we have woken slumbering monsters, laws of nature, the consequences of which we have never understood. Our own innovations are turning on us. In delving ever deeper underground we are digging our own graves. The solar thermal collector is the absolute antithesis of this, although as a metaphor the image of a sun catcher is not quite right either. Because the Danish verb fange also means to capture and imprison, and we cannot imprison the sun, nor do we wish to. We work with Nature. Like children of winter, finally escaping from the darkness, we accept the gift of sunshine.

Desert or no, the country around Ouarzazate is steeped in history. Not far from this advanced high-tech complex peasants still live in wattle-and-daub cottages, with straw sticking out of the dried mud-bricks. Some villages are surrounded by ancient ruins, richly decorated towers and buildings from a not too distant past when Jews still lived here. Morocco is the product of a mix of cultures: Arab, Berber, Jewish and European. Does it make sense to apply the term culture to the huge solar thermal power station now shooting up over an area of 3,000 hectares? A Moroccan enterprise, European money, Saudi Arabian entrepreneurs, Chinese workers. Put it all together and what do you get? A multi-cultural undertaking? Or something to be labelled with that meaningless catch-all epithet globalization, a new hybrid culture, one which is regarded as a derogatory term one minute, an irresistible, world-changing force the next, and sometimes both at once?

If we must put a cultural label on it, is a solar thermal power plant not, rather, a culture that has cast off the restraints of time and place to become instead a symbol of humankind’s inventive power? Is it not the culture of innovation that determines the rhythm of history, its setbacks and advances? One moment our ingenuity is leading to disasters. The next we’re rescuing ourselves from those same disasters. And with every rescue, even though in the grand scheme of things we are no bigger than ants, we become a greater and greater burden on the planet. Our breath becomes the planet’s breath. We have turned the Earth’s atmosphere into an enclosed space in which carbon dioxide takes up more and more room and oxygen less and less. We have always denied our kinship with every living thing. But it has now become clear that we all share the same fate. From now on their lives and deaths are in our hands. If, as a species, we unwittingly commit suicide, we will take the other species with us. Go out into the countryside on a summer day and just listen. The humming of the insects is gone. What was once a chorus of birdsong is now reduced to a last couple of solo voices. The death of species is already going on right before our eyes and ears.

The seemingly dead desert was never dead. In the passageways under the burning sand it teemed with life. Teemed too, out there among the dunes, with something else. The desert has always been a source of inspiration to visionaries and fanatics. Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights and was tempted by Satan. Saint Simeon the Stylite stood on his pillar in the middle of the North Syrian desert. The shimmeringly hot air gives rise to mirages, not only on the rippling horizon, but also inside the heads of those who expose themselves, unprotected, to the hammer blows of the sun. Concussion is our word for what happens when a fragile skull is dealt too hard a knock. But are visions not also a sort of concussion? Historically, most desert-induced cases of concussion have been of a religious nature. It was here, in the middle of the barren, heat-hazed desert that the dream of Eden’s lush garden was born.

Can the desert also induce cases of practical concussion, visions dreamt up by fantasists of a technical bent and an image, not of Paradise but of a map showing how to get there?

I don’t mean to idealize things. King Mohammed VI, who has ruled Morocco since 1999, is no democrat. By dint of skillful political pressure he managed to avoid the disastrous consequences of the spring storm that erupted in the Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle East under the optimistic epithet of the Arab Spring. There was no disaster in Morocco. Mohammed VI is not lacking in foresight, however. His plan is for 52% of his country’s electricity consumption to come from sustainable energy sources by 2030. That is why Noor is rising in the desert.

The Saudi Arabian development company ACWA Power which, along with the partially state-owned Moroccan company Masen, is responsible for the building of solar thermal power stations, is here only for the money and the profit. The company’s spokesman, Deon Du Toit, a big, burly South African, makes no bones about it. “Money,” he says. “Investments. Financial benefits!” “I used to work in the the oil industry,” says engineer Tarik Bourquouquou, who shows me round the site. “But the oil industry’s a sinking ship. Now I’m here.”

The 3,000 Chinese contract workers who are building the power station, working an exhausting three-shift rota, don’t look like they care much about sustainable energy. Lean and gaunt they shamble reluctantly from the buses that bring them from their dormitories to the site. Deprived of all private life, with families thousands of miles away waiting for their meagre wages, these are the modern world’s casual labourers, a disenfranchised, unsung proletariat, carrying globalization on its drooping shoulders. Large signs show how many millions of man-hours have been worked, others indicate how many working hours have been lost due to accidents. At Noor 2, which has been under construction for 493 days, 4,464,794 hours have been worked. Noor 3 has been under construction for 637 days, a total of 4,920,475 hours. Fierce banners in Mao-red bark out commands in Chinese on avoiding accidents on site – not to save lives, but because accidents lower productivity. “Safety at work boosts productivity!” No, people do not come first on this site.

The technology is, for the most part, beyond me, but I take notes out of respect for the inventiveness to which I am witness. The energy created when the sun strikes the mirrors is absorbed by a synthetic oil known as Heat Transfer Fluid, which is heated to a temperature of almost 400°C. The heated oil is pumped into huge tanks containing molten salt, where the temperature is as high, if not higher. I’m given to understand that these salt tanks are the great technological advance. Now the solar energy can be stored and continue to supply electricity after nightfall, when the city lights are switched on.

The most impressive thing about the serried ranks of mirrors at Noor 1 and 2 is not their height. And yet, mounted there on their steel racks they seem gigantic, even when compared to the enormous trucks driving around them on the churned-up gravel of the vast building site. The scale is staggering. But not as staggering as the thought that these glass panels, weighing tens of thousands of tons in all, are light-sensitive, their movements dictated by the slightest change in something as insubstantial as the angle of the sun’s rays.

The scale is staggering. But not as staggering as the thought that these glass panels, weighing tens of thousands of tons in all, are light-sensitive, their movements dictated by the slightest change in something as insubstantial as the angle of the sun’s rays.

Noor 3 is quite different in construction. Here, the mirrors are set horizontally on platforms supported by ten-metre high columns. These platforms, each roughly the size of a tennis court, also follow the light, bouncing it in a concentrated beam to a so-called solar tower – a 250-metre tall structure in whose clear glass top it is stored in a white-hot afterglow. I can’t begin to imagine how it will look when this station is finished and the solar tower starts to glow. But the drive under the 7,900 platforms gives me the sense of being in an enchanted toadstool forest, in which I have shrunk to the size of a beetle. And when I think of these platforms, all turning to the same point on that huge tower, destined to be the tallest in Africa, the image that springs to mind is of the ladies at the French court, curtsying to the Sun King. It has a strange grace to it, this whole project, like seeing the brutal era of industrialism restaged as a ballet. Noor is a paean to the sun, not as a god, but as a partner.

Noor is a paean to the sun, not as a god, but as a partner.

An archaeologist from outer space might interpret his discovery here, in the middle of the south Moroccan desert plain, as evidence of artistic or religious activity – if, that is, there are such concepts as religion and art in outer space. And yet it is nothing but a practical measure, designed to ensure our survival on this planet. The main point is that Noor symbolizes a dawning comprehension that we are not the lords of creation. We only have the earth on loan, which is why it is so important that we do not leave too big a mark on it. Footprints on the tideline, not ruined landscapes and ecological chaos.

So yes, let’s leave Noor, other solar thermal power stations and the windmill cavalcade to the space archaeologists of the future, but not entire countries turned into seabeds and evacuated cities, their empty buildings left to stand as resounding question marks regarding the purpose of our presence on this planet, while the indifferent clouds lean their swan-white necks over them.

Not far from Noor lies the ancient fortified town, or Ksar, of Ait-Ben-Haddou, its steep, stepped streets climbing up the side of a mountain. Like the solar thermal power station this is a place associated not so much with the surrounding countryside as with more universal lines of communication. Ait-Ben-Haddou was not only a key post on the trade route that for eight hundred years linked Africa south of the Sahara with the North African coast, Europe and the Middle East. Once it had a Jewish queen; one of its old synagogues still survives and in the desert at the foot of the mountain a Jewish cemetery lies behind sheltering walls. And what is more: 500 years ago, Ait-Ben-Haddou may have had to abdicate its position as a trading centre, but the nearby Atlas Film Studios have assured it of a new reputation as one of the most frequently used film backdrops in cinema history.

There’s not a film lover in the world who hasn’t at some point found themselves transported to the desert and the mountains around the Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou: while watching Lawrence of Arabia in a darkened cinema over 50 years ago or sitting on the sofa at home today, streaming Game of Thrones. As extras, the residents of the ancient trading post have lived through just about every period in history, in many civilizations on many continents; they have seen the Egypt of the Pharoahs, Jesus in Jerusalem, the first and last days of the Roman Empire, the Crusaders in the Middle East, Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign and the great wars of the twentieth century. The desert has always been one of mankind’s great battlefields and a source of inspiration to visionaries of all sorts, whether they happened to be standing on a pillar or behind a film camera. Meanwhile, out there in front of the cameras the people of Ait-Ben-Haddou have become true citizens of the world.

I leave Ait-Ben-Haddou with the feeling that we have all become like the residents of that mountain trading post in southern Morocco. Noor is neither Moroccan, European or Saudi Arabian, but a symbol of common human endeavour, a battlefield on which our future will be decided, not in a war against one another, civilization against civilization, or against nature, but in a last attempt to avert our own end, in collaboration with that natural world which we have so abused.

Dare I go even further? While visiting the Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou I hear the muezzin burst into song up in the minaret. I say “burst into song” quite deliberately, because his voice is so different from that of muezzins I’ve heard on other occasions. There is nothing commanding, exhortatory or dictatorial about it, not a call to bow down to an inscrutable or vengeful god. Instead, this voice praises God’s creation in the most beautiful, melodious tones, and to me it is as if, through the muezzin, the desert, the surrounding mountains, the river that runs from the foot of the city, all the plants and crops, and the people moving among them are given a voice and burst into a song of praise.

No, I’m not a religious person, I don’t believe that God created the world, whether in six days or four billion years. But at this moment that is irrelevant. The muezzin’s voice invites me into that work of creation. I think of the engineer at Noor, Tarik Bourquouquou, who explained the technology behind the solar thermal power station, and it occurs to me that the engineer and the muezzin are speaking and singing of the same thing.

A couple of weeks later I happen to be in Spain, in Granada, where I visit the Alhambra – a palace which represents the last vestiges of Moorish influence. The beauties of the Alhambra have been much extolled, so I don’t need to repeat all that. But in the halls of the Nasrid Palace I experience something of what I felt at Noor. The domes in the two halls, the Sala de las dos Hermanas and the Sala de los Abencerrajos seem to offer a stunning glimpse of the cosmos: geometric patterns of such delicate and profound beauty that one cannot help thinking of mathematics as perhaps the most advanced of artistic expressions.

There is nothing grand, in physical terms, about the Nasrid Palace. Its voluntary restriction of the space is perhaps more an expression of ‘the aesthetic of the diminutive’, which the Grenadine poet Garcia Lorca hailed in his writings hundreds of years later, inspired by the Alhambra. This aesthetic, to which there have been no architectonic successors, springs from the mind-set of a people who saw themselves as being under siege and knew that their days were numbered. At the time when the Nasrid Palace was taking its final form, the Moors were on the retreat all over Spain and the Alhambra was a last surviving enclave. Its unique culture was not born out of a lust for power or the urge to expand; rather, it was through a worldly-wise recognition of the finiteness of all things that the diminutive became an aesthetic and led to the last flowering of a unique civilization.

Under the threat of climate change, as a global civilization we too are under siege. The age of power struggles is over. Rather than bemoaning our abdication of our role as lords of creation, let us celebrate it. Act wisely now and we may never have to witness the end of our civilization. Instead we could witness the beginning of a new one, a joint venture, one which unites rather than divides, and which cultivates, not overbearing grandeur, but the beauty of small things.

We can start with mirrors, turning like sunflowers to follow the sun.