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.
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.