Tina Uebel

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


And, for a very short time and without any desire on my part to speak of it, my little heart simply breaks out of pure love for my wonderful, crazy, brilliant, doomed and degenerate and utterly poetic species.

  • 17 November 2017

In the middle of the desert stands a lake. Not a small, palm-fringed oasis pool. A vast lake. Perfectly blue. It lies nonchalant and confident between the barren hills of red rock and anthracite-coloured stone. And yet you think, what is it doing here, in the middle of the desert? Is it alright? Did it think about this properly?

It did not. We did think about it, we humans. It is a reservoir, the El Mansour Eddahbi reservoir, completed in the early 1970s. It supplies fields and date palm groves, a hydroelectric power station and the Noor pumping station, which we can see before us and which we will be visiting. The station supplies the water – processed with the utmost care and every impurity removed – for Noor’s steam turbine. We will discover big fish in the lake and joke that they are presumably the impurities that have to be filtered out for the good of the turbine. But right now, we are not going into detail. We are standing here on our panoramic hill, in the soaring early morning heat, in the age-old awe that comes over people when they are faced with the desert. And in unspoken astonishment at this surreal lake. The desert also keeps its silence, as only a desert can in this dramatic scenario. One wonders whether it disapproves of the lake. At least, it is noticeable that almost nothing grows on its shores. Before we turn away to return to our three SUVs, Liz points to a cairn, a stone mound which someone has built on the hilltop, in the midst of the virtually unceasing riot of rock, dust and rubble. I like the fact, she says, that people do that everywhere in the wilderness, on hills and mountains. Shaping the chaos.

We are six writers from six different European countries, generously invited to spend two days visiting the Noor solar power station in Ouarzazate and writing about it. This can be in any form. I am not the only one who immediately thought of a haiku. Salma and Yousra from MASEN, the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy, are shepherding us.

But my longing soul has been cared for, without this being planned, by Mustapha, our driver. Auke and Álvaro may have ended up in his car by chance, but I, on the other hand, spontaneously decided according to the coolness of the driver and congratulated myself on my intuition for the next 48 hours. During our trips through the desert Mustapha played from his USB stick the most wonderful, yearning desert music imaginable: blues, electrified blues – which is, of course, the approved soundtrack to desert-filled road trips – fused with traditional Tuareg music. The desert, this desert, cannot be captured any better in music. And we do have to capture the desert somehow if we are not to vanish into this exhilarating void, and words are too small. It’s quite funny, said Liz earlier, pointing across stones and rubble, some running to the horizon as a plain, against the peaks of the Atlas Mountains, some raised into mounds like the waves of a solidified sea, that this is a desert; one always thinks of sand and dunes. No, I said precociously. Deserts are defined purely by precipitation levels. Large parts of Antarctica are a desert. I know this because for decades my longing has taken me to deserts and polar regions. My longing does not care about precipitation levels. My longing is interested in the void. The greatest possible absence of anything. I cannot say why. Perhaps in the void even an atheistic bugger like me grows a temporary soul. As with music, when it’s good.

To the sound of Mustapha’s ultra-cool Tuareg blues fusion we glide in low-level flight across the desert to the power station. It should perhaps be mentioned that last night, or this morning to be precise, we didn’t land in Ouarzazate until around half past one. It was gone two when we reached the hotel and barely anyone got to sleep before three or half past three. And at eight we were off. For Salma and Yousra the trip began with a minor mutiny on our part, as we should actually have set out one hour earlier. Lack of sleep, lack of caffeine and the heat – rising sharply towards 30° – interweave between my synapses to produce a pleasantly meditative, psychedelic effect. In front of the entrance to Noor, where we stop for passport checks, two people are planting small, timid succulents in the brutal ground. In neat rows. Crazy, I think; where does such an idea come from? Every single grim, grey, baking hot square centimetre of desert cries out: in me nothing will grow. But we humans lay thin, black, plastic hoses that irrigate each little plant directly at its roots. Shaping the chaos. The cars start up and while I am still wondering if I have simply imagined the little plants, before me spreads out a scene which I must definitely be hallucinating.

Right to the horizon, evenly level in mathematical precision, extend almost endless rows of something for which I can find neither analogies nor words. Next time perhaps they should send musicians. Row upon row of enormous, gleaming, razor-sharp, preternaturally clear reflectors; rectangular, slightly concave and arranged with the precision of a North Korean military parade. The perfect blue of the sky swashes in their arc with a lightly refined silver lustre. The adjective futuristic can go home and feel ashamed that it has previously been wasted on the terribly profane. I wonder whether I have had too much sun and/or whether someone slipped something in my coffee this morning. As we have been sent here as writers, for our eloquence and mastery of words, I have one that captures it well: wow!

The adjective futuristic can go home and feel ashamed that it has previously been wasted on the terribly profane.

I travel a lot – it is almost a mania – but I do not research my travel destinations to death in advance and I never check out pictures on the web beforehand. What would be the point of the trip, the time, effort and devotion that are invested, or at least should be invested, if the experience were robbed of the amazement, the astonishment, the surprise, the awe. The wow.

Our amazement is interrupted by Tarik, the Planning and Methods Manager here, who first gives us safety instructions in the information container (we are wearing hard hats, fluorescent yellow vests and borrowed solid footwear) about chemical, electromagnetic, explosive and steam/heat hazards, which can be summarised as follows: don’t touch anything, follow instructions, don’t drink any liquids hotter than 400°. Then we step outside the door and Tarik begins to explain Noor to us.

I have travelled through deserts and polar regions, I have sailed remote seas, I have wandered through the steppe, I have lingered in jungles and climbed mountains, and I must confess that I am most happy when very far from civilisation, perhaps because it is there that the illusion of a soul grows in me, perhaps because I believe that, in our physical being, we are still simply predatory mammals, hunters, our neurotransmitter and hormone balance made reliant by evolutionary development on struggle, the natural world and physical exertion. But I am certainly not one of those over-civilised romantics who, in a temperate, tamed environment, spout off about evil civilisation, bad technology and dangerous science. There is a word for that: bullshit. Nature is not sweet and gentle. Nature is our enemy. On every majestic Alpine peak a snow storm is ready to finish us off at any opportunity. Even in the Baltic Sea boats capsize in storms. And in an enchanting flower meadow we are bitten by a tick and die from Lyme disease. And in case the tick misses the mark, our own appendix suddenly decides to stop, simply to kill us off. From time to time I am asked in interviews if I take a lucky charm with me on my travels. I always reply: yep, a good knife and a broad-spectrum antibiotic.

I am not always certain whether I love people, but I am certain that I love science and technology. The best moments of my life have included the alpine tour on my first difficult four-thousand-metre summit and my visit to CERN. I have been a quantum physics groupie since I was a teenager. In the next few hours I fill a notebook with technical details about Noor and once home I will chat about it with anyone I come across. But here I will restrict myself; I have not been engaged as a journalist, but as a writer. I have never dealt with the subject before and experts like Tarik can explain things so much better.

Tarik explains like a god. If I believed in a god, I would not find it disagreeable if he wore a hard hat, a fluorescent yellow safety vest and sensible footwear. It is a privilege to learn from Tarik. Noor is a solar thermal plant. In the course of my sailing trips and my expeditionary journeys so far, I have only come across photovoltaics; in the last few years there are many people on whose roofs solar cells have grown up.

Noor I to III – Noor IV will be photovoltaic – simply use heat. The endless rows of reflectors combine their focus into one silvery pipe, through which a liquid poetically named HTF, heat transfer fluid, flows and is heated to 400° in the focal points of the reflectors. This is the stuff you shouldn’t splash around, should there be an accidental leak. The unreal levelness of the plain is as it is in order to guarantee precise reflector focus alignment. The HTF delivers thermal energy in heat exchangers, on the one hand, to the water from our lake, by which the steam turbine is driven, and, on the other, to a liquid made from molten salt, which stores the heat and thus acts almost like a battery in a gigantic tank; so far, so grossly simplified, and Bob’s your uncle.

The impression that we are strolling among intestines composed of myriad pipes, both vast and slender, bulging heat exchangers the size of a town house, the sinister block of the turbine housing, while the two tanks for the molten salt tower over us – one for the cool, the other for the heated – brings even more wow. The only thing more beautiful is Tarik’s enthusiasm for his power station. While we saunter in the shadows of the salt tanks, he explains that he has only been with MASEN since 2014. Before that he had been in the oil and gas industry. Oh, says Liz, you came from the dark side, and I hope, she was alluding to the same Star Wars association that struck me when I first cast my eyes on Noor. Not just he, says Tarik, but also a number of his colleagues had the feeling at the time that the boat was sinking. He stresses that this means not only the environmental side, but also the economic side. How much hope there seems to be when the environment and the economy hold hands and skip along. Tarik’s devotion to the fantastic technology is surpassed only by his euphoria when he explains how much of the energy demand can be covered by Noor I even today, how Morocco is aiming to become a global pioneer in renewable energies, how much Noor II to IV, currently under construction, will supply, how 52% of Moroccan energy needs are to be covered by solar, wind and hydroelectric energy by 2030. Later, when we visit the construction site for the future Noor plants, Deon from South Africa will become lost in praise. Africa is still a dark continent, he will say, enthusing about the opportunities. And in a way they are right. Quite a lot of desert stands empty, so let’s see what we can do there.

How much hope there seems to be when the environment and the economy hold hands and skip along.

I noted down the figures, but I recalled nuances. Twice during his calculations, Tarik mentioned the needs of the Moroccan final consumer, not of the western consumer. Is the 52%-by-2030 calculation based on the present modest Moroccan requirements or is greed for energy on a western scale being factored in? And what growth in industry? Have Tarik and Deon taken into account Morocco’s birth rate – one of the lowest in Africa – or Africa’s birth rate – horrific at 4.7 children per woman? Have they distilled these birth rates with the rate from the youth bulge and reconciled them with the “war index”, recently appearing in the media without quotation marks, that is, the ratio between the number of old men and the number of young men wishing to take their place? To what extent a peace index would mean that nothing but moderately middle-aged, child-poor people fill their peaceful lives primarily with more and more power-guzzling amenities? The fact that there are 7.5 billion of us right now, and 8.5 billion by 2030? The fact that, with all the void of the desert, there will never be enough desert, enough sun, enough fucking planet for us? I did not broach any of these points. We had established such a nice groove together, so much hope, so much euphoria over the god-like technology, laid out in brilliance and beauty across the desert, planted in neat rows like the ragged succulents in front of the gate. Perhaps they weren’t actually succulents, but palm sprouts. I have since thought about sending Tarik these questions by email – I did take down his email address – but I haven’t done so yet. I would somehow appear to be a traitor to my hope-filled species.

I am not always certain whether I feel that much solidarity with my species. Our mantra, we have destroyed the planet, is complete rubbish of course. I remember a cartoon from my 80s childhood. The earth says to another planet, I’m not feeling well, I have mankind; the other says, oh, that will pass. A rise in temperature by a couple of degrees, a rise in sea level by a couple of metres, the coming and going of a few thousand species – a planet which has seen Pangaea drift apart and gently amused itself with the dinosaurs 170 million years ago wearily shrugs its shoulders.

I do not know whether it is because I have no soul or because I have travelled too much, as I wearily shrug my shoulders at the self-absorbed German rituals of ecoshamanism. Recently we have banned plastic bags, thinking this can help sort out the Great Pacific garbage patch. I have seen the Great Pacific garbage patch. I have sailed along its edges with less than a metre and a half freeboard. I have seen landscapes in Africa and South America covered by thin, semi-transparent plastic bags, up to the horizon like a fine covering of bright fresh snow. I can also imagine, and I know, that the common German plastic bag will never again end up in the Great Pacific garbage patch. Too high transportation costs. I know how private electricity consumption and CO2 emissions relate to those of industry and how much carefully sorted German garbage is ultimately incinerated all together. How energy-saving bulbs, which were once prescribed, pose an underestimated problem in terms of hazardous waste. How the water painstakingly saved by low-flow showerheads has to be flushed through the sewage system because the German sewage system is reliant on a certain volume of water, if it is not to rot away. Germany truly does not have a water problem, as the residents of Hamburg, rain-soaked on a daily basis, can fretfully attest, but water simply cannot be exported to the Sahara.

Shamanic acts, I think, as I ponder my tribe, prayers to a substitute god, and I do not know if I should laugh or perhaps love my species for that very reason.

That evening we will talk about racism, at dinner round the hotel pool, candle-lit and chilled by the desert night. Liz spoke with me beforehand. I was on the way to the pool. She had wanted to swim, but turned back when the water reached her thighs. But if I was going to swim, she would do it too. I dived in. Fuck, was it cold! But after a couple of widths it was fine and after a couple more widths Liz joined me and we swam together through the bitterly cold water in the twilight and chatted about writing. Why I write, when I generally don’t believe in my species, which is nevertheless my audience; I don’t ask myself this question. At dinner – there are self-illuminating LED menus, for goodness’ sake – Liz raises the issue of racism. I say that in my experience everyone is a racist. The whites against the blacks, the blacks against the whites, the Russians against the Caucasians, the Arabs (traditionally no less active in the slave trade than the whites) against the blacks, the Hispanic South Americans against indigenous peoples, the Norwegians against the Saami, the Chinese and Japanese, whatever. And the biggest racists that I had ever personally seen were a Bantu family in Cameroon who kept pygmies as working animals. Liz looks truly appalled and asks me, in that case, what chances I actually see for humanity. I say honestly that I, who have no children and never wanted to have any, am not certain whether I feel that much solidarity with humanity. Perhaps, says Liz, that is something that marks us out as writers: we have never felt that we belong entirely.

I have a friend, Andrea. We got to know one another two years ago on an Antarctic expedition. He was our photographer and the person who has perhaps said to me the wisest thing about life: in the end, I don’t give a damn where I go, he said, what matters is who I’m doing it with.

Everything about that expedition was bigger, better and bolder than anything I had ever done before, but the best thing was the people. Us, our team. Can I love people like that, as I am able, but keep a distance from our species?

Andrea has converted an old Swiss barn into his home. He supplies power using a solar system, which he showed and explained to me. Now he has bought a Tesla which he cannot actually afford. Why, I asked him recently? Andrea evaded the issue slightly with Swiss taciturnity, but eventually said that it was about saving the world.

Could the world be saved if there were more people like Liz and Andrea and fewer like me? Liz has children, Andrea does not, so that cannot be it. What about all the people in Congo, 77 million, who have problems other than recycling? I have been there and I can testify to this. What about the 180 million Nigerians? The 34 million Moroccans? The billion Africans, who will become 2 billion by 2050? More than a billion Indians? Almost 1.5 billion Chinese? Will 7.5 billion water-saving showerheads save us?

If you have time, says Tarik, you can watch as all these reflectors slowly move with the sun.

If you have time, says Tarik, you can watch as all these reflectors slowly move with the sun.

We take our lunch break in the main building at Noor, which has everything: an auditorium, a future exhibition space, long corridors with offices that can be accessed only using a fingerprint scanner. Everything, that is, except coffee. Of all the fascinating things, this is the most unbelievable, I say, as I stare languidly into my lunchbox. 150 MASEN staff work here, according to Tarik. Work – how can they do that, work, without coffee. It’s a mystery.

After lunch we travel to Noor II and III. First of all, the rows of reflectors, aseptic and noble amidst construction site entropy; as if this all was nothing to do with them, they dream, inclined towards one another in pairs, in perpetual dialogue, reflecting only one another, only one another. An outer row faces the track on which we are driving. Heaven and earth are blurred in the reflectors. For half a kilometre we drive through a mirror-axis world, where we are accompanied by three psychedelic, long-drawn-out SUVs. To the left of us, mundane pipes, scribbled with a load of chalk-white and very human instructions on their connectors.

How can you not love a species that builds such stolid, glorious, noble futurism in the middle of a desert and, across the rough track, notes on trashy old pipes, in white Edding pen, what probably means Connect pipe section A11 to A15 and do not drink 400° hot liquids?

Then on to Noor III. Everyone mentions Star Wars, according to Salma. I would like to confirm this and add WOW, in capitals. First we drive through areas covered with pillars, rising out of the desert like a fire-stricken forest. Then, a few hundred metres further on, the stumps have grown crowns, square crowns, almost the size of a tennis court. Thousands of these technological trees are arranged in concentric circles and if you look along the rows, they seem to bend only in the far distance. Their name befits their beautiful appearance: heliostat.

There were times when we thought the sun to be a god. We called him Ra, Viracocha and dozens of other names, including Helios. There were times when we thought that the heavens were held up by Atlas, and later that they were a protective dome thrown over the earth and that the stars were peepholes through which the angels peeked from heaven to watch over us.

Before this trip, I re-read Paul Bowles’ book The Sheltering Sky. For Bowles, the sheltering sky which looms over the desert is the bulwark which keeps the gaping void lying beyond it from swallowing us up. Bowles’ protagonists go to their death in the desert.

The heliostats – individuals, yet, like us, forced to follow the herd instinct – are all oriented towards the sun, separately and autonomously controlled. Every single one of the 7 400 will reflect the sun, which we could call Helios or Ra or a medium-sized star in the outer third of the Milky Way, onto a tower at the centre of their concentric circles. They are busy at work on the tower, 247 metres in height, which will one day be the highest structure in Africa, at least for a short time, and shine as brightly as a self-made sun. Here we will take a group photo, the only one of this trip, in hard hats, vests and borrowed footwear, in front of the growing tower, flanked by heliostats. The sun will expand into a red giant and then shrink to become a white dwarf. How long do we envisage surviving? Until then? Or do we just intend, out of sporting ambition, to beat the dinosaurs and take it to 170 million plus one?

My more idealistic travelling companions do not seem to trust people entirely either and ask many questions about the security of Noor against terrorist attacks.

I think, hell, anyone who would bother attacking a highly theoretical scene from science fiction like this could kill two dozen tourists on a beach or in the Jemaa el-Fnaa. I know this as a layperson as well as any half-intelligent terrorist.

In the evening, says Tarik, as we take our leave on the observation tower of the visitor’s centre, it is wonderful. I will never tire of looking at this. When, at sunset, all the reflectors simultaneously turn back to their starting position. I wish you could be here in spring; at that time of year there is snow on the Atlas Mountains and in the early morning and towards the evening the reflectors are filled with the light of the low sun and the glistening, snow-decked peaks.

And, for a very short time and without any desire on my part to speak of it, my little heart simply breaks out of pure love for my wonderful, crazy, brilliant, doomed and degenerate and utterly poetic species.

On the Noor model, which sits under glass in the visitor’s centre and is exhaustively photographed by us all, as the whole project is so enormous that it can be grasped only through a model, at the bottom-left edge, in the middle of the reddish grey plaster that represents the void of the desert, there is a small village. No model roads lead there, but there is a label: Tiflit. I want to visit the village, said Luigi during the afternoon; me too, I said, and only later will I work out that we are talking about different villages. He is talking about Tasselmante, in the bottom-centre of the model, adjacent to Noor. A road leads through it. The itinerary for Day Two is a very touristy programme, visiting the surrounding area, and Day Two also starts with a minor mutiny, instigated by Luigi and supported by me. Before we take a look at the tourist parallel world, we would like to take a peek at the real world. Salma arranges it the evening before. Luigi and I talk about parallel worlds. Perhaps, I say, that could also have been my story – the parallel worlds that we build for ourselves, in which we operate. Which possibly never touch one another. We are a curious, whimsical species whose worlds are formed in our heads. We must see this village, says Luigi. I know that Aït-Ben-Haddou is beautiful, but it has long been a tourist trap. We must see what this village, this real village, right on the boundary of Noor, looks like. Agreed, I say, but my village, Tiflit, would be even more beautiful. No eye has ever seen it. No white man has ever entered it. We laugh and joke. At home I have an entirely non-ironic metre of shelving, holding books by explorers from the heroic age of polar expeditions, men who, in that era, set off for years at a time for an uncharted continent, the Antarctic, the desert of complete absence, where there are not even colours or smells. It is the fullest incarnation of longing that I know. Men went there, many perished and the ones who survived went there again, and again. When Mallory was asked why he was attempting to climb Everest, he replied, because it is there.

Sometimes devotion to my species makes me giddy. How can evolution have created something as beautiful and pointless as us? How can we mortal mammals, burdened with consciousness, be capable of these things? To put our life, our one and only life, on the line for a summit, a pole, an idea, a senseless passion, the interior of uncharted, deadly lands? Men go out into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by the love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others are drawn by the lure of “little voices”, the mysterious fascination of the unknown. That is my favourite quote from Sir Ernest Shackleton, my favourite polar explorer. Shackleton really shone in the Antarctic when it came to survival. In “real life” he was good for nothing. I have listened to the little voices all my life. The only thing that remains unclear is whether I am good for something.

Tasselmante is good. That much is clear; real, says Luigi. I awoke early this morning and leapt into the icy pool at sunrise. Peculiarly, a hundred thousand hysterical birds chirp in a flowering tree at the side each dawn. After that I had enough coffee. It is just the psychedelic limbo that I cannot get rid of. Maybe it is Mustapha’s music (since this morning he has been wearing a really cool Berber turban). Maybe it is Tasselmante. On the road, to the left, there are two or three very modern bungalows. On one it says Association Tasselmante pour le développement. From another come children’s voices. But people are nowhere to be seen. Nowhere. To the right, a jumble of tired clay buildings, dissolving clay towers, a fading memory of buildings and spaces and grandeur, now inhabited only by pigeons and heat. If you lose yourself in them and meander through the archaic structures, you come across a watercourse around which clusters a surprising amount of greenery, you come across an old man and his veiled wife, who immediately retreats behind the next corner. I also come across Auke somewhere and presume that somewhere else Salma is getting concerned whether she will ever find us all again. Later I will tell her, drawn from my deep pool of wisdom from the heroic age of polar expedition, that she should not get concerned. On expeditions like this not everyone will make it and 10-20% losses are acceptable. We will turn this into a running gag.

I understand a great deal about our species. I can explain it from our evolutionary origin, our genetic disposition, our neurochemistry. I am aware how my feeling of jubilant happiness is connected with all the awesome hormones and neurotransmitters my body secretes when I get it into trouble: adrenaline, noradrenaline, serotonin, all that the likes of us call a soul. What I do not understand is humour. What evolutionary purpose is performed by humour? There is just one explanation for our capacity for humour: a god who has maliciously endowed us with both mortality and consciousness and, at the last minute, took pity and gave us a single weapon against this unreasonable imposition: humour.

From Tasselmante we drive for a long time through miles and miles of desert. Hot air sweeps through the inside of the vehicle. Auke is now also Berberised and is wearing a turban, which I presume was expertly tied by Mustapha. The wind mixes with the music, which is, of course, the second weapon that the god in whom I do not believe has given us: music.

Aït-Ben-Haddou, a Ksar, a fortified town built from clay, is Hollywood-picturesque, rising out of hill, and, Luigi knew it, an exhausting tourist trap. Because it is so Hollywood-picturesque, Hollywood has shot roughly 2 500 movies here, at least if Mohammed is to be believed. He is our new additional guide with ADHD issues, continuously rattling off film titles: Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, Gladiator, Prince of Persia, Game of Thrones, The Sheltering Sky; when he is finished, he starts over again. There is one beautiful moment when he points to a clay bump and says that it belongs to the Prince of Persia and someone from our group asks how he got here. But the most beautiful thing of all is the gate, ruinous and picturesque, standing at the edge of the wadi from which Aït-Ben-Haddou begins to grow up the hill. Synthetic resin, says Mohammed, clad in clay. A leftover from a movie. I am spellbound by this piece of staging, which looks no less believable than the town itself that, like so many world heritage sites, has been consumed by souvenir shops like eczema. It is a pleasant “reality vertigo” I am grinning about during the lazy lunch on the roof terrace of the real place on the hill opposite. I am still grinning about it three weeks later. We have lunch overlooking Aït-Ben-Haddou and the fake plastic gate. How can you not love a species that is as bizarre as ours?

It is late when we set off to the final point on our itinerary, Fint Oasis. It nestles in a wadi with a narrow strip of lush vegetation. We get out and continue on foot. A few steps through date palms and blossoms, Mohammed catches a slender snake from the irrigation channel and scares the life out of some children with it. Through an unassuming clay doorway we enter a guest house and recline on beds. Sunbeams come down through a skylight and we are served tea and dates. It is beautiful and calm and peaceful. Beauty, calm and peace dominate for all. Only I am too restless. Always. I cannot say why. I am just going outside and may be some time, I tell Salma, and if you don’t see me again ... 10-20% losses are acceptable, she completes my sentence.

I go outside, notice the unassuming door, walk through two or three alleys, and shake off two or three children. The village nestles on a slope. The gravel slope rises up to cliffs. A path emerges heading to a pass. There is nothing more beautiful than a pass. Behind every pass there is a world. And behind every world another world.

Before our departure, Luigi will ask us all to say something, purely for his private purposes. He films us with his smartphone. I hate this kind of thing. He starts with me. I talk nonsense. Nonsense is the only sensible thing that God has ever given me. Carsten, Liz’s husband, says into the smartphone camera of Luigi, kneeling before him, that he has had an almost religious epiphany at Noor. He had become so pessimistic over the years, as far as technology and our future was concerned, but this experience has given him hope. He explains this and we all hang on his every word. Thank you, says Luigi eventually. You are an inspiration to me. And to me too, I would like to say, if it were not for all these figures, all these images, all these experiences and thoughts, that say to me: we don’t stand a chance.

The pass is nearly 300 metres above the village, I would estimate. I go into the mountains a fair bit and I’m pretty good at estimating distances. Yet it is only at a relatively late stage that I realise that I am on my way up to it. I must be on automatic pilot. I clamber straight up the scree slope, before it becomes clear to me that I want to get up there, to this pass. I want to know what world might lie behind it. I cross to the path which winds its way up. I have a bad conscience, as I presume that Salma would not write off a one-sixth loss so easily, but on the other hand, way, way down – I haven’t realised how high I already am – I have the SUVs in view and when my herd gathers I will see them. It is still hot and a desert wind is blowing with a perpetuity and an indifference that can only be mustered by winds which come from far away across all kinds of desert. I am almost happy, because of the wind, but I don’t have time for happiness. I bloody well want to get up to the pass. Enormous boulders sit and ponder at the edge of the path. The sun lies deep and throws golden light and long shadows. It is not possible to grasp an oasis while you are being carted around in an SUV, only when you see it from above, a fragile slice of life, sprawling on the bend of a dry wadi. On the slope opposite, in the distance, something is shining that looks like a shrine. Another 10, 15 minutes, and I will be up to the height of the pass and I will see what world lies behind it.

That is how we are, we humans. Men go out into the void spaces of the world. We have no bounds, never have had. Hundreds of years ago we rode through these deadly deserts, on our camels, for months at a time, because beyond them lay worlds. Beautiful and lucrative worlds. We sailed the oceans in unsuitable vessels, risking falling off the edge of the world, and instead found the edge of a new world. We climb mountains whose peaks rise into the jet stream – at the flight altitude of aircraft invented by us because we want to fly – just because they are there. Because it is there, the matter around us, from which we are made, we build kilometre-long particle accelerators, break the world down into elementary particles, into quanta, into Higgs bosons, and ask ourselves what lies behind it. We fly to the moon and from there gaze longingly to Mars. We are drawn by the lure of little voices. At the South Pole there is a polar station, inhabited by people all year round; conditions in winter are akin to those of a space station. We do it because we can. Because we even want to capture the sun, we build gleaming solar power stations, more noble and more impressive than any pyramid in honour of Ra, their heliostats turning to the sun like plants, like us, like we have always done. We plant things that could not thrive, were they not compelled to do so by clever irrigation systems. If we need water, we create a lake, deep blue and nonchalant, no matter that it lies in the middle of a desert. We ignore futility. We know that there are too many of us, but we will not leave any of us behind. We will vaccinate every child, if we can, treat every cataract, so none of us goes blind. We will feed every hungry person, cure every sickness, we will dam the rivers, tunnel through the mountains, and bring the gods to heel. We are shaping the chaos. That is who we are. What’s more, we will not tire of telling stories, stories of heroes, adventure and danger, stories of boundless greatness; if the greatness is not enough for us, we build majestic plastic arches amidst majestic history. And we sing, because for inexplicable reasons music is as much a part of us as laughing at ourselves for no reason. What a privilege it should be to belong to such a crazy, dysfunctional, doomed and utterly wonderful species as ours.

Because we even want to capture the sun, we build gleaming solar power stations, more noble and more impressive than any pyramid in honour of Ra, their heliostats turning to the sun like plants, like us, like we have always done.

Below, far below, I see figures at the vehicles. Above me lies the pass. I would need 10, 15 more minutes. But it would not be fair to my herd. I turn around and leap down the slope as quickly as possible, evening sun and desert wind in my face. The percentage loss joke is a joke. We do not leave anyone behind. When I get down to the bottom, the other two vehicles have already departed; Coffee, asks Álvaro? Nope, mountain, I say. Another one of my manifold obsessions. We surf back on waves of evening sun and Mustapha’s magical music. A while back I inquired about and noted down the name of the band – Tinariwen from Mali – but I am concerned that I will not be able to get hold of their music back home. Do I have a USB stick on me? I say no. Oh well, too bad, says Mustapha. Next morning, I will rise early, jump into the pool amidst the clamour of the dawn chorus, then visit the film museum, something which clearly, given the affront taken by the staff there, no one has done before. There I will indulge and amuse myself among the plaster and papier-mâché realities, before, with some difficulty, I buy a USB stick. Parallel asynchronicities. Film museum papier-mâché temples compared with the Kasbah at Ouarzazate. The Kasbah at Ouarzazate looks no different to the Ibis Hotel, which has been built in the Kasbah style 500 metres further on. Polyester arches as the entrance to Ben-Haddou. Tasselmante on the boundary of Noor. Does it matter? Something is real if we have decided to consider it real.

This is the new town, says Mustapha. We drive through square kilometres of desert, scattered with streets, power distribution boxes and street lanterns. A lot of street lanterns, keeping watch over the neatly asphalted roads that wind their way through the desert to give the street lanterns a purpose. Shaping the chaos. It’s not a city for people, I say, it is a city for street lanterns. The street lanterns throw very long shadows in the evening sun and get to like the idea. Mustapha laughs and the next morning will swap my empty USB stick for his own, which is full of music, so beautiful and longing, as only deserts and people can be. I will fly home, via Casablanca and Paris and at the expense of global warming, as always, and love people while at the same time keeping my distance from them, as always. What can give me consolation about us is perhaps the solar reflectors, which do not look to the sun, but are immersed in one another, and the town with the traffic-free streets, populated solely by street lanterns. They have time, here in the desert, where corrosion is no more frenzied than erosion. When will they begin to tell stories? When will they ask what lies beyond the mountain range on the horizon? When will they begin to sing?