Álvaro Arbina Díaz de Tuesta

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


Come on, it is time to live

Between Casablanca and Ouarzazate, Morocco. UTC ± 00:00. Local time 1:15 AM

The night processes calmly beneath us, in time with the melody being hummed by the plane. Perhaps the night is listening, because its rhythm, its movement are perfect, despite the distance—3000 m—beneath the belly of the ATR 72, a turboprop operated by Royal Air Maroc for regional flights. It is a ruse of my imagination of course, as I listen from within the fuselage and look out of the window, imagining a perfect symbiosis between music and night, a harmonic dance, but the night is not listening to the music and the music is not playing for the night. This often occurs to me, as I walk with Bruce Hornsby, Tracy Chapman or the soundtracks of Thomas Newman on my headphones, and passers-by, cars, and even trees seem to join in, dancing to the music that I am listening to. I am the one who reaches out my hands, who becomes a link, a bridge, and begins this dance between the deaf and mute.

I am not sure why I place the night down there, as if it were only found on the surface of the earth. The night is here too, just a few centimetres from my face, surrounding the fuselage, brushing against the double-glazed window. But here it is nothing because I cannot see it, but I can see it down there, where it is stripped of its black invisibility by a festival of lights. The real dancers.

I watch deep in thought as they disperse, as they gradually cease to be galaxies, crowds of stars, before being lost alone in the blackness of the universe, in deepest Morocco, the Atlas Mountains and the shores of the Sahara. Sharp points and blurred points, worms forming shapes, rigid lines, long lines, short lines. They form all manner of shapes, as if I was looking through the lens of a microscope and the world beneath me was a Petri dish, a tiny cosmos of cells or houses, of worms or cars, of lines or highways. The lights below me are still, but those beyond them, the ones gathering on the horizon, and the ones left behind, they really are a festival, they really are galaxies, with names such as Casablanca or Rabat or Marrakesh, blinking like stars, too far from my eyes now for me to see them perfectly, with no turbulence and no pressure changes to make them tremble.

This is what I am thinking, and I write it down in my Moleskine, guessing that this will be a journey of lights, and an absence of light. I cast my gaze over the seats, I think I recognise Luigi, tapping on his mobile phone a few rows away. We follow one another on Twitter. And then right in front of me appears a yellowing book, infested with notes and Post-its. Not everyone reads books like that. Perhaps he is another one of them, I think. It is a fun game, imagining who are my travelling companions, the other five European writers. I started playing at Casablanca airport, the Mohammed V, while waiting on the rows of metal seats, with one eye on Del Rif al Yebala by Lorenzo Silva, and the other on the passengers taking their seats around gate 15, destination Ouarzazate. I observe their faces and spy on their gestures, absorbed in their reading, in the bright screens of laptops and tablets. I build fragments of their lives, I imagine them with merciless insolence, giving these players roles that perhaps they do not deserve. Sometimes I turn into an explorer of other people’s lives, sweeping away the others with my gaze and the lies of my imagination.

Six writers. One British, one German, one Dutch, one Italian, one Danish and one Spanish. Like the start of a joke. We are flying to Ouarzazate, the city of the desert, behind the High Atlas, on the other side of the invisible mountains, where the Sahara and the heart of Africa begin.

Noor. Light in Arabic. This is the name of one of the largest solar thermal energy projects that has ever been undertaken in the world. Located in the Drâa-Tafilalet region, 10 km to the south of Ouarzazate, the Noor plant is a 2500-hectare giant that in 2018 will have enough capacity to generate peaks of 580 MW, providing energy to more than half a million Moroccan homes. The EIB, or European Investment Bank, one of the main investors in the project, invited us to visit the complex. After that, absolute freedom to write about what we see. They are not after journalistic reports, at least not from me, an architect, official writer for the last year since I published my first novel and unofficial writer since—who knows when? Perhaps the day I was born, or the day my father read me my first story, or the day I started dreaming about writing stories, or the day I felt like a hardened writer after months of daily toil on my first novel, or the day I finished it. Perhaps not that day, but certainly a few days later, when I felt empty, with no story to complement my own, and I understood that I had become used to a life of writing.

Absolute freedom. This is what I am doing, feeling as happy as a kid at playtime, when the melody is interrupted by the voice of the captain informing us that we are about to land in Ouarzazate.

Nine o’clock in the morning. We plough through the city, which is nothing like the city we saw last night when we left the airport for the hotel. Unwelcoming in the blackness, empty beneath the yellow lights, invisible behind the buildings flanking the streets, waiting by night to be reinvented in the morning, delivered to my eyes, which are glued to the window of the Land Rover, and to that unfettered imagination I use to build lives. Ouarzazate at two in the morning, for the traveller who does not know the city, is a scratched surface, a new face, just a look, which for a writer is a tempting proposition: the image of a table, a pencil and a nearly blank page, just the beginning of a story.

The dawn is calm. It wakes slowly, under a white but cloudless sky, white from a molten, blinding sun so large that it covers everything, like a dome of light. The temperature is pleasant, bringing to mind those perfect summer days. Perfect in Europe, ordinary and unnoticed here. At least around this time of year, May, because in two months this perfection will be gone and the temperature will be unbearable from mid-morning onwards.

The housing gets shabbier on the edge of town. The houses are stripped naked, showing concrete and bricks, holes and black arches, like a city recovering from war. They crowd around alleyways that lead off the highway and stretch sparsely populated into the distance, strewn with rubbish and washing hung out to dry. I guess that the bell curve is king here when it comes to town planning, just like in Europe. Property prices fall as you move away from the centre. Although there are always exceptions, especially in a colonial city that grew up under the French Protectorate as an administrative centre and customs station. We soon leave Ouarzazate behind. The music playing in the Land Rover is by Tinariwen, a Tuareg group originally from Mali whose name means “deserts” in Tamazight, one of the many variants of Amazigh, the Berber language. The wind blows in through the windows and makes the whole of the inside of the car shake with warm waves like jets of water. The tasbih or rosary hangs dancing from the rear-view mirror. Auke the Dutchman is in the passenger seat, turning the Post-it infested pages of his shaking book. I am discretely nodding along to the rhythm, and I notice that Tina, sitting next to me on the back seat, is also enjoying the sounds of Tinariwen. She smiles at me with unexpected complicity. The Malian group seems to know the desert well, or at least the desert as seen from a Land Rover in the morning, on a perfect day for a European with coffee, glucose and all of the initial excitement of a journey running through his veins.

Ten kilometres to the Noor solar thermal energy station. The landscape is an interlude between the Atlas and the Sahara. There are neither dunes nor mountains here. It is a rusty red colour, with hills and stone walls, with brief dust clouds of sand that are whipped up by the breeze—still gentle—because the ground here is compact and stony. It extends desolate into the vastness, only occasionally interrupted by dry riverbeds, coloured green by acacia and wild vines. The sky is punctured by electricity pylons, giants with steel lattices and tangles of cables that break up the horizon, disappearing sadly into the distance of the desert, like a caravan, like a line of convicts. The landscape is so red, so stony, that it brings to mind some prehistoric Mars, still living, languishing without water or greenery, which could not go on because everything eventually dried up.

Mars. The red planet. They say that ours is blue. And it is true. But I cannot help thinking of that satellite image, where there are three colours competing: blue—the undisputed leader that draws its frontiers clearly—, green and cream, sometimes dry red, both fighting it out for second and third place, with their blurry lines, as if they were spray-painted. I think of the hundreds of scientific studies published by experts who have dedicated their lives to research, warning us in the most varied ways—some in the Arctic, others with excessive record temperatures, others with disturbed bird migrations, and others with rising sea levels—of the evidence of global warming. And then I think of that handful of illuminati who wield too much power and whose word is worth as much as hundreds, nay thousands of research projects:

—It is freezing and snowing in New York. We need global warming.

I smile, nearly laughing, as I imagine I can hear the steel ball rattling inside this spray can as it is shaken. I can even smell the paint. What I cannot see is the colour, but I can guess, already indifferent at just 26 years of age.

We reach the plain and are soon upon the solar installation. Noor Ouarzazate Solar Power Station. Written in English, Arabic and Amazigh steel letters nailed to an artificial rock with monumental pretensions. The first in the Arial font, grand and simple. The other two written in their own calligraphy, the same that was born centuries ago, undying despite wars, conquest and changing fashion. There is something timeless about Arabic calligraphy, like good art, despite comprising different styles such as Naskh, the Kufic of the Qur’an, Persian Farsi, Diwani, the Magrebian and the Andalusian. Perhaps this is why calligraphy means the art of the line in Arabic, or beautiful writing in Persian. Whoever invented it—if such a thing can be invented, as the idea of inventing seems to erroneously suggest a light bulb-moment, and not gradual evolution—had a clear sense of the aesthetic. Berber calligraphy, Amazigh, is less sensual, rougher, and just as mysterious as Arabic calligraphy.

We are stopped at a rigorous control point that feels like a border crossing, as if we were entering a new country. Two purple concrete towers, matching the landscape and the adobe buildings, two entrances and two mechanical barriers, security cameras, and other unseen security measures that I can only imagine. There are Moroccan soldiers in olive green uniforms, security guards, rows of cars, demands for papers, passports and brief interviews. Nonetheless, the affair remains relaxed and routine. Our driver, Mustafa, even jokes in Berber with the guard approaching us. They both laugh, with an ease shared by those who know one another and who see each other regularly, together breaking the monotony of always meeting in a professional capacity.

We go in. Our group is made up of three Land Rovers that progress in strict order, like the personal escort of a president. The road stretches forward, straight and endless into the immense flatness of the enclosure. I note without hesitation: Noor is a desert enclosed by wire fences. I make some calculations. 2500 hectares. Five kilometres on each side. My city, Vitoria-Gasteiz, with 250,000 inhabitants, would fit inside.

Noor is a desert enclosed by wire fences. I make some calculations. 2500 hectares. Five kilometres on each side. My city, Vitoria-Gasteiz, with 250,000 inhabitants, would fit inside.

We continue for a few minutes. Noor 1, the first station, lies to our left. I am still thinking about Mars. Now it is a futuristic Mars, not prehistoric any more, after the Spray Can War on Earth has been decided. A Mars colonised by human beings, full of strange reflective structures, like in the last scene of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Half a million half-moon-shaped solar mirrors looking up at the sun, arranged in 800 rows. I am overwhelmed by the sight. It is so big, the repetition so systematic and perfect, that under the light and the mist of the sirocco, it seems to become a virtual image, a drawing in three dimensions, like a videogame.

At university, they taught us to summarize things graphically. To symbolize them, like illustrators. I cannot help it. A half-moon turned towards a star. It is a symbol of the Ottoman Empire, whose hegemony was such in the Muslim world that it is sometimes associated with Islam itself. It is the symbol of the Middle East, of the desert and the land of the sun par excellence. And here we are, looking for it.

Further away, also to the left, lie Noor 2 and Noor 3, the other stations, still under construction. Before the visit, we are diverted to the right, where the enclosure extends for several kilometres, empty but for a modernistic building, the Masen Centre. The offices of the Moroccan agency for solar power (Masen), the main leader of the project and of the ambitious plan to make Morocco the leading country in the sector worldwide, are gathered around a majestic vestibule, with an architecturally outstanding auditorium. It is crowned by a tower, with views over the immense enclosure. We are prepared for the visit, with split-leather safety shoes, a white helmet and reflective bibs marked with the acronym of the Agency.

We return to the cars, where Mustafa and the other two drivers are waiting for us. After a few minutes, we reach the entrance to Noor 1. Two more towers, two fences, cameras, guards and soldiers. We get out of the cars on the other side, as soon as we have entered. Our guides are managers at Masen, Salma and Yousra, who have been with us since we landed in Ouarzazate and who are the real brains of the group. They are as young as I am, efficient, attentive and obliging, with that special ability to adapt to a multitude of situations, that ease of the worldly-wise, who have seen a lot and lived a lot. It surprises me, perhaps because we are the same age, and I cannot help but feel a certain admiration, maybe even a little envy, not just because of the magnitude of their mission, but also because of their extremely precise—yet so flexible—planning of the trip. A small request from one of us, such as to begin the day by leaving the hotel at nine instead of eight, which we proposed yesterday at two in the morning, just after landing:

‘It is very late. Tomorrow we need to have clear heads,’ said Tina. The rest of us agreed, grateful for her honesty.

And then Salma smiled—no problem—and times were adjusted with calls and changes of plan, all very seamless, all very easy for the European guests who were off to bed.

We are greeted by Tarik Bourquoquo, the head of planning and methodology at the station. He is also young, speaking English clearly and steadily, which I appreciate. But that is not his only oratorical skill, since his job here is to familiarize us with the secrets of the station, technical basics that require specialist language, which he adapts naturally and simply for our benefit. For Tarik, the Noor project is like the palm of a third hand. He knows it to perfection, and he is well at ease not only delivering his own discourse, but also handling our barrage of questions, fired like arrows from different directions. Recorders and notebooks are drawn. I am overwhelmed; I am the youngest and greenest of the party, both by some way. There are journalists and travel writers here, and they know how to behave. Rather naively, I came with the intention of listening, looking and taking photographs. I react and grab my Huawei mobile, as an emergency measure. I turn on the recorder. I think it is the first time I have done so.

We reach the guardrail by the road that runs through the station, splitting it in two and joining it to the control centre. Before us lies an army of parabolic mirrors, cylindrical parabolic reflectors, to be precise.

‘They receive the solar radiation and concentrate it in the pipes, hence the parabolic shape,’ explains Tarik.

He points to the absorbent pipes, made of steel and glass, that run through the middle of the reflectors with HTF inside, Heat Transfer Fluid, a synthetic thermal oil that flows until it reaches 393°C.

‘The HTC snakes around the plant through the pipes, collecting the radiation from the reflectors. It is then pumped through a series of heat exchangers that transfer it to the water to produce the superheated steam. From there it goes to the control centre and the low- and high-pressure turbines, which are turned by the steam, actuating a generator and injecting energy into the electricity network.’

The 800 rows of mirrors track the sun through the skies, like the faithful praying to their god. There is a solemn silence, a slight breeze that caresses us in the light. We can hear the repetitive humming of the motors, lost in the distance, as they rotate the structure of the mirrors. It happens every few minutes, explains Tarik. In the distance we can see the silhouette of a lorry and four workers, spraying jets of water onto the reflectors to clean away the sand and other waste left by the sirocco. Water consumption is high: 1.7 million cubic metres per year, which is extracted from the El Mansour ed Dahbi reservoir some 10 km away, where water control is located. I am astonished again, doubly since it is not the first time. The human scale, the tininess of the workers next to the parabolic mirrors, make me acutely aware of the enormous size of the plant. The reflectors are bigger than I thought. Twelve meters each one, notes Tarik. Twelve metres, 500,000 times over.

We return to the cars. Mustafa and his colleagues are waiting for us, chatting and smoking their cigarettes, leaning against the bonnets of the Land Rovers. They open the doors for us obligingly, flashing genuine smiles.

‘Good?’ asks Mustafa.

I sit down, smiling too, while the air-conditioning roars and the engines hum. We drive on, and get out again just a few hundred metres further on. The control centre is an island stranded in the middle of a tide of mirrors. A square island, an intricate island, with all the complexity of a disembowelled human body, under the sunlight. I instantly rethink. Perhaps it would be more accurate, and less violent, to say android, because the visible tissue, pipes rising and twisting, chimneys, trusses, beams and pillars, the brooding of the machines, the turbines, the valves and the pressure vessels, have the odourless metallic sparkle of the artificial. But nonetheless with the indecipherable complexity of the human body, hence the gruesome image.

Tarik soon explains. This is the heart of Noor 1. He points out two large cylindrical tanks rising from amongst the tangle of pipes, coils and gas exhalations. They are insulating giants designed to retain the heat in the nitrate salts (the heat passed from the HTC is sometimes stored in salts before being passed on to the water, the turbine and the electricity network), which are much more efficient than any other liquid for retaining temperature, as well as having the advantage of contracting as they cool, unlike water, thereby reducing overpressures.

‘They retain the heat for three hours. This enables the turbines to keep generating electricity after sunset.’

The heat is extracted gradually, when the sun is no longer out, flowing through the heat exchanger and into the water, which is evaporated and drives the turbines.

‘The CSP system, or concentrated solar power, is less common than photovoltaic,’ continues Tarik. ‘It is more expensive, but it has the capacity to continue generating energy after the sun has gone down. When demand is greatest.’

We take notes, nod and ask questions. Then we return to the Land Rovers. Another 200 meters and we get out again, to visit the control room. 200 meters. I used to run competitively, at youth level, and I would complete that distance in 22 seconds. 22 seconds of effort, of sprinting, of watts generated. The German cyclist Robert Förstemann, a track specialist and famous for his extremely powerful legs, carried out and videoed an experiment that turned into a viral hit due to the conclusiveness of the results. He connected his bicycle to a toaster that required 700 watts for 90 seconds to do its job. The effort from the cyclist was titanic, his heart pumping as fast as it could go, his monstrous limbs drawings sparks from the crank set, providing energy to the toaster. He finished up exhausted, collapsed on the floor, after pedalling for a minute and a half. I was astounded by the image: one of the most powerful cyclists on the planet stretched out and panting after toasting two slices of bread.

My stomach is rumbling, perhaps because I am thinking about those slices of toast. It is 2 PM. As Tarik talks, I am imagining a million Robert Förstemanns, pedalling together to achieve the peaks of 580 MW that the station will generate in 2018. Soon we get back into the cars and return to the Masen Centre. Noor 2 and Noor 3 await us, after lunch.

Bahadurpur, State of Punjab, India UTC +05:30. Local time 7:30 PM

Yamir likes the night. The night arrives early in Bahadurpur. The mountains darken the valley, their shadows pushing the light like two warring armies, and the line moves slowly, rising and falling, twisting carefully through the alleyways, courtyards and houses and through their wattle and daub nooks and crannies, until the entire village is covered, until every little window has been penetrated, announcing its arrival.

But Yamir’s fondness for the night is dishonest, like his tendency to switch from one team to another, to feel changing desires for the Delhi Daredevils or the Mumbai Indians or the Rajasthan Royals from Jaipur, winners of the Premier League of cricket. It is not that he did not like the night before, he was just logically indifferent, given its omnipresence every day, which he never thought about, although it was more of a nuisance than a pleasure for Bahadurpur.

During the night, the bazaar progresses peacefully along the main street, with a gentle murmur punctuated by the voices of the market sellers. Amongst bleating sheep and tapping cowbells, the wind from the mountains ruffles the canvas awnings, still cold as if blown by the snow itself. The stalls rise in the blackness of the street, yellowing traces of goods and barrows, dirty lines floating in the void beneath potbellied adobe houses that lost their shape a long time ago. Swarms of flies buzz around the candles and lamps of kerosene and diesel that, as well as providing light, smell of refined oil, which they like. The flies are also dishonest, and would swap odourless light for oily light, and oily light for decaying light. The smells of the bazaar are manifold, and so intertwined that it is difficult to tell them apart. Roast lamb, garlic, onion, saffron, cardamom, soap, leather. They come to Yamir in waves, but only at the beginning of the day when they are first beginning to spread. After a while, he does not smell them any more.

There is never a crowd in the Bahadurpur bazaar, except during the festivals of Diwali and Teej. The people arrive in dribs and drabs, half-seen silhouettes, colourful saris, venerable dhotis, faces drawn by the light from the stalls. Some wander musingly, eying Yamir’s goods without taking any decisions, and others—the regulars—approach with a determined look, a respectful salaam or namasté, brief words of politeness, before making their selection from the bags of dried fruit, spices, chillis, paprika and ginger. In the Bahadurpur bazaar, the life of a vendor is contemplative. And so Yamir observes, just like the other vendors, and he thinks of the people walking past, transactions, the specialties and offerings of each stall. He imagines them as endless numbers, probabilities, pieces on the board where the tricks of the vendors and the interests and needs of the client are played out. Sometimes he feels like a silent strategist, a chess player, although he knows nothing of the mathematics, the rooks and bishops, the kings and queens. They taught him to play once, during the first few years of school. Master Raktim produced a small folding board with plastic pieces, and brought together all the children in the class.

‘Vishy, the great Indian player, has just achieved the title of Grand Master,’ he said, and they celebrated by discovering chess.

The prancing ‘L’ of the knight. That is what Yamir remembers. He only played that day, and that was a long time ago. Now he contemplates the Bahadurpur bazaar.

He nurtures and seduces. He nurtures his loyal customers. Smiling, he asks questions, remembering the small details of their lives, trying not to pay too much attention nor too little, neither rude nor detached. And he seduces potential customers. Because some of them are like pirates, mercenaries who fly no flag, who could choose old Anjali’s stall today, or Hasari Bhan’s, or Kalu Rai’s. Sometimes tourists come, and the bazaar is filled with khaki hats, Ray-Bans, trekking shoes and pink skin. The coaches send them out in waves to race up and down the alleyway and visit the mosque, before being pulled back in as if tied by fishing wire. With no warning, like an explosion, there is an ecstasy of cries, overlapping voices and haggling brought to urgent conclusions. For twenty minutes, tourists are harried, dollars handled and prices multiplied by ten. But not everyone joins in the commotion. Some—like Yamir—opt for the opposite strategy: turning their stalls into oases of calm. Tourists like to shop at their own pace, without being harassed. And then, after twenty minutes—no more, no less—silence and monotonous calm return to Bahadurpur.

No one knows for sure the best way to get dollars. But what everyone unanimously agrees on is that tourists do not like shopping by night. They say that the night in Bahadurpur seems too black for them, and that the black night scares them.

Perhaps because it hides things that tourists do not know. When Yamir was a boy and knew nothing, he felt the valley as a mysterious, vague presence, that somehow had legs and a voice, and that would go out by night, a wandering soul in the deserted alleyways of the village, when everyone else was sleeping. He would curl up in his bed while the valley whispered its dreams to the wind, which would whistle through the cracks and chimneys, or in the rain hammering the windows, or in the bleating and mooing and tapping of cowbells that drifted in from the mountains. Twenty-eight years in the valley. Now, as he contemplates the bazaar, Yamir knows all of the things that are hidden in the night. He also knows the tricks of the imagination, which casts children as artists, and the night as canvas. Perhaps tourists are the children in Bahadurpur.

Yamir serves a customer. A pirate flying no flag. He seduces him with an offer of saffron, despite no offer to pay in rupees, but in a portion of puffed rice and three bidi, cone-shaped cigarettes rolled with tobacco and kendu leaves. His face smiles, and he disappears beyond the light hanging from the shabby shop, the light bobbing like a flag, light that illuminates but does not smell and does not attract swarms of flies, and is so inoffensive that it can neither catch fire nor kill people as they sleep in their houses.

Yamir has liked the night for five days now. He waits anxiously for its arrival, like an elegant suitor, as if he and the night were courting. And then, when everything is dark and the loudspeakers announce the muezzin’s call to Maghrib prayers, he turns it on. His latest investment. A solar lamp with LED lights, aluminium reflector and 8.4 volts. They gave him a 50-dollar loan to buy it, but he calculates that it brings in 200 rupees—about four dollars—more every night. Yamir knows that he is an innovator in the Bahadurpur bazaar. They will be copying him soon. His light does not draw yellowy, muddy lines to float in the night. His lamp blows a bubble of clean light, an oasis with no tricks of the imagination, where the tourists are no longer afraid.

Ouarzazate, Morocco. UTC ± 00:00. Local time 3:30 PM

There are no purple-plaster towers, yet. There are wire fences and red-and-white barriers, faded by the dust. And there are two signs:

Noor 2: Second CSP power plant. Hours worked: 4,464,794. Safety is everyone’s responsibility.

Noor 3: First CSP energy tower. Hours worked: 4,580,530. Think safe. Work safe. Be safe.

The gravel crunches under the wheels of the Land Rover. On the other side of the window, clouded by dust, crowds of workers file past, mostly Chinese and Moroccan, with their fluorescent yellow and orange bibs, with their helmets and safety boots, their thermos of coffee, their ear defenders and their harnesses swinging hammers and leather gloves. They get out of old coaches, sign in and disappear into galvanized steel huts. The track disappears, straight, into the vastness, like everything here. Noor 2 to the left. Noor 3 to the right. We stop in front of the checkpoint. Acwa Power in Ouarzazate, announces the entrance. Acwa, based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is a leading company in renewable energies and desalinisation processes, which are essential in countries with serious drought problems such as Morocco, and it operates and manages 32 plants around the world. It is not the only giant working at the station. Apart from Masen and Acwa, there are Spanish companies such as Sener and Acciona industrial, which are responsible for construction, Dow with its heat-transfer fluids, TSK and SEPCO. I have also heard that the reflectors, with glass and silver sheets, are made by Siemens. Tarik explains this to me, like an anecdote, and I get the impression that these names just scratch the surface, and that even the screws are produced by a specific company. I imagine all of the companies in the world, gathered together at an annual festival. And the same phrase repeated in the different conversation groups:

‘Oh yes, we are also involved in Noor.’

Apart from Masen and Acwa, there are Spanish companies such as Sener and Acciona industrial, which are responsible for construction, Dow with its heat-transfer fluids, TSK and SEPCO.

And then there are the investors, which also form a list of international institutions, providing the $9 billion I am told have been invested here. I am overcome by a feeling of universality, of global relations, of resources brought together from around the world. You can feel an emotional greatness here, a greatness of humanity, and for an instant I understand the magnitude of this word, which centres its forces on something concrete, something visible, something that we can appreciate, a project for the future. Just like in Interstellar (sorry to go on about it) and loads of other futurist science fiction films, where countries and races blend together after some shared mission, usually saving the planet. They talk to us about this at the checkpoint. They do not just tell us, they transmit it to us. There are engineers, a frenzy of keyboards, drawings, calculations, screens covered in data and diagrams indecipherable for the uninitiated. There is a serious, responsible, work-like noise. We are received in the meeting room around a vast table with comfortable leather chairs. The air-conditioning roars above my head. Salma, Yousra, Tarik and us six writers, some of whom are also journalists, are here. An older lady appears, bent over, with the hijab covering her face. She serves us tea and coffee. She is timid and obliging, and does not speak our language. She disappears once she has completed her task. An unexpected presence in this virtually cinematographic project, which could be being directed by Ridley Scott or Christopher Nolan.

And then we are greeted by Deon, head of environmental safety at Acwa Power. He walks round the table and shakes everybody’s hand. He is tall, corpulent and around 50 years old, with experience managing projects in South Africa, Vietnam, Dubai and Morocco, used to moving around the world, generating the energy of the future, while the world consumes without thinking too much about it. Perhaps I am imagining it, but his blue gaze shines with the sparkle of that humanity, that universality, that greatness of what is being done here, which he tries to transmit to us from the moment he meets us, with his smile and affable approachability, until he sends us on our way to visit the complex.

‘Morocco has committed to ensuring that 40% of its electricity comes from renewable sources, rising to 50% by 2030. This will not only reduce greenhouse emissions (3.7 million tons of CO₂), but will also reduce energy dependency, which is one of the highest in the world, with 95% of the energy consumed being imported from abroad.’

The country wants to be a flag bearer for the development of renewable energy in Africa. Indeed, many suggest that the future of the continent lies in its solar, wind, hydraulic and geothermal resources, which will not only give them a product to export, but will also enable them to eradicate the energy poverty that blights them, an electrical famine, a modern epidemic.

The Land Rovers await us, with their patient staff. Mustafa smiling, doors opening. The expedition is swelling; now we are preceded by two 4x4 Dacia Dusters from Acwa Power, and the feeling of presidential motorcade intensifies. We blow up clouds of dust as we dive first into the streets of reflectors in Noor 2. The big sister of Noor 1, with the same CSP system as the first, but covering 680 hectares instead of 400, and generating 200 MW of power instead of 160. The molten salt storage system is also more sophisticated, lasting for seven instead of three hours after the solar radiation has gone. Trucks and caterpillar-tracked diggers appear, submissive like little pachyderms puffing beside the enormous reflectors. We reach the heart of the plant. The control centre, the enormous island with its tanks, its windings and its steel structures, still in an embryonic phase. We drive around it slowly. It is bubbling with activity: hundreds or thousands of operatives working 12-hour shifts under the sun, with the High Atlas mountains rising in the distance like the red vertebrae of a reptile fossilised in the Triassic. There are black tents, shady refuge for rest and lunch, steel connectors, trusses, cables, cranes stretching so high into the sky that I have to push my face against the window to glimpse the very top. The undertaking is enormous, as if someone were trying to build a whole city all in one go.

There is an engrossed silence in the car. Even Tina, who was so spontaneous and joyful, just observes, riveted. We leave in our Land Rover expedition, in single file and at 20 km/h, with the feeling of having visited a somewhat surreal theme park, a Herculean, Jurassic-Park-style undertaking.

Noor 3 is no sister. It is a distant cousin, although it shares a boundary with Noor 2. Its system is different. Concentrated solar power, or heliostat power plant. The image of divine adoration is intensified here: 7400 flat mobile reflectors that also rotate with the sun, but that redirect their radiation to a single point, the top of the great tower. The highest in all of Africa, 250 metres, Tarik tells us. They are aligned in concentric circles, all facing the tower, 7400 heliostats united as if in Mecca. They are articulated on large concrete pillars up to 15 metres tall. The structure of each one is complex: trusses, beams, girders, cabling, sensors and infrared cameras. The temperature in the tower reaches 580°C, heating the molten nitrate salts, the heat transfer fluid. We get out of the cars. The Sirocco wind is blowing between the pillars, which together appear to form a technological plantation because, wherever you look, they are aligned in perfect order, in harmonic, impassive flight towards the vanishing point. Tarik’s words feel like a goodbye. There is a group photograph and words of thanks are spoken. His work has been fine-tuned, accessible. He has shown us the codified mysteries of Noor, its human-body complexity. He has made them comprehensible, overcoming the common ignorance of mere mortals.

The Sirocco wind is blowing between the pillars, which together appear to form a technological plantation because, wherever you look, they are aligned in perfect order, in harmonic, impassive flight towards the vanishing point.

District of Vallecas, Madrid, Spain. UTC +01:00. Local time 6:00 PM

The scissors at La Fuente infant school are all snipping round. The children are cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue. Taxis, ambulances, dogs, pushchairs, old men with sticks, fridges, televisions. Each child has their own notebook. ‘Editorial Anaya’ read the cover and the card sheets, which are uncoloured, so the work will go on the following day with felt-tip pens and Alpino colouring pencils. The pictures are not arranged at random in the notebooks. They are arranged in large blocks, explains the teacher. Blocks, like blocks of ice. She went over them at the beginning of the class, aloud: house things, street things, children things, adult things.

The children are relaxed as they cut around the pictures. No screaming, no raucousness. Just a pleasant murmur of the voices of children chatting, hypnotized by the whispering of the card being cut, which sounds like teeth biting softly into an apple.

‘My father has a glass eye.’

‘Mine too.’

‘My father takes it out at night and puts it in a glass of water, so it does not dry out and he can go to work.’

‘My mother and I play candles.’

The teacher supervises the children’s work as they stack up the pictures in groups, like the collectable stickers and cards from Panini. Silvia comes over, chatting excitedly with her friends.

‘Do you still play candles with mum, Silvia?’

The girl cuts out a city bike with a basket on the handlebars full of vegetables and two sticks of bread. She nods.

‘We played yesterday, when the lights went out.’

‘Do the lights go out many nights?’

‘At Easter, they went out for five days. But mum never lets me light the candles.’

The bell rings and the calm is broken, as if the bell were a ball and the calm a pane of glass. A window of the classroom got broken once, the one that looks out onto the garden, where the children play football. It was playtime for the children and no one was hurt, but everyone heard the glass crashing down. Chairs scratch against the floor, the elastic binding folders snap, notebooks close and the pictures are all jumbled up, despite the urgings of the teacher:

‘Tomorrow you will have to put them all in order again.’

First the children get up and then they collect up their things as if their spring-loaded legs were connected to the bell. Screaming, they run for the door, the noise intensified by the corridors. Silvia has already gone out with her friends.

The parents are waiting at the entrance to the school. They are chatting to one another, some of them seem to be in a rush. Beyond the railings, in Avenida Albufera, there is a line of double-parked cars. The children scatter under the gateway with their bags on their backs, looking for their parents. Silvia finds her mother by the hedges that surround the garden. She smiles and Silvia shows her the city bike, her favourite picture, her little trophy for the day. She lifts it up proudly with both hands to show. She has not put it away with the rest yet. Her mother smiles when she sees it, but not much more.

‘Shall we colour it in at home?’

‘No,’ replies Silvia. ‘Tomorrow, in class.’

Silvia’s teacher appears in the gateway, her arms crossed over her brightly coloured, checked apron. She is searching, like the children, although she is looking higher up and her expression is serious, not frantic. When she finds them amongst the crowd, she walks down the steps. It is a pleasant afternoon and there is a happy hubbub of children and parents. Silvia puts the city bike in her backpack, carefully so as not to crease the basket, which is very delicate with its vegetables and loaves. Tomorrow, once she has coloured it in in class, she will stick it with sticky tape to the door of her bedroom. Her mother and her teacher are talking above her, with the small, inaudible words that grown-ups use sometimes. Alejandra passes Silvia by, holding her mother’s hand. She smiles a victorious, gappy smile punctuated by a few milk teeth. In her hands she is clutching a Super Wings sticker. It is Dizzy, the helicopter girl. Silvia opens her mouth, first in surprise, and then with a little envy.

‘Have you finished it?’

‘Yes, the whole collection. I am the first in the class.’

‘Who did you swap it for?’

‘Roy. I had a swap.’

She shows the sticker to Silvia, who admires it, and then they say goodbye. Silvia watches her leave, holding her mother’s hand, looking at the sticker of Dizzy. As soon as she gets home, she will stick it into her album, and it will be finished. Silvia also likes to collect things, but only rarely and slower than her friend. She asks for stickers for Christmas and her birthday, sometimes instead of other presents, just to feel like Alejandra, who always has swaps.

‘Don’t you want a kit to make flower perfume?’ asked her mother at Christmas.

Alejandra is her friend. In the playground today, while they were playing Stuck-in-the-Mud, she asked her about her father. Or rather, in front of all of the other children, said: Silvia does not have a father. And she did not say anything back, because she does not know either, and she had not thought about it much. But it had annoyed her a bit, although she did not know why, and it did not make her cry, but it nearly did. Then Iker said that Tamara did not have one either.

‘Yes I do,’ replied Tamara. ‘But he does not live at home.’

Silvia feels her mother’s hand pulling her towards the entrance to the school. She hurries along so as not to fall behind, and her plaits bounce up and down against the straps of her backpack, which also bounces about with her exercise books inside. Her mother unwraps the kitchen paper from a mortadela sandwich and gives it to Silvia. Silvia begins to nibble at it as they walk along the pavement.

‘Nutella tomorrow.’

‘We’ll see.’

There is a roar of traffic around them. Avenida Albufera is all horns and engines. The cars buzz past the pavements like brightly coloured arrows. Silvia feels the gusts of air, one after the other, continuous, fleeting, mixing together. They smell like petrol. They cross Vallecas, coming and going from the centre of Madrid, which is like an endless Lego construction of sand blocks, with apartment block after apartment block. Blocks of apartments, not of ice, nor of what is in the notebooks. You can always see the television tower sticking up above the rest. It pricks the sky, which is a dirty yellow at first, then gradually seems to turn to a cleaner blue.

Her mother tugs her to cross the road. The traffic lights are flashing to videogame music as the people pass and the cars wait. Zebra crossings are like mountain bridges. The white bits: wooden planks. The black bits: a drop into the rocky river. Silvia dances to the traffic-light music, without touching the black, without letting go of her mother.

‘Mum, why haven’t I got a dad?’

She looks at her, but her face is too high up, hidden behind her hair, which is also bouncing on her shoulders. The pavement widens, there are arcades, terraces, dogs sniffing around the trees, owners poking around their mobiles. Silvia has let go of her mother’s hand and is walking behind.

‘Mum.’

Then suddenly she stops, sits down on a bench and crosses her arms, waiting for her mother to turn around. A mongrel comes up and sniffs her sandwich.

‘Mum!’

Her mother turns, comes back and picks her up.

‘Shall we go to the library?’

‘Not today. We do not have time today.’

Silvia dances to the traffic-light music, without touching the black, without letting go of her mother.

They show films for children in the public library. Just like at the cinema, but with no seats, no boosters, no box office, queues or tickets. The children make themselves well at home here, and there are no numbers to search for amongst the gutta-percha chairs. In wintertime, after class, her mother takes her to the library to do her homework. Outside it is night time and it is raining, or it is windy, or there is a freezing fog that makes the streetlamps suspicious, as if they were hiding some secret that disappears in the daylight. Silvia surveys them through the windows of the children’s section in one corner of the library, between the shelves, as she flicks through Marvel comics, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The radiator underneath the window is kept on. She likes to sit on it, without her coat or hat or gloves. Until she feels like her trousers are burning, although it never gets that far. The radiator in the library is always on.

Her mother, meanwhile, does translations on the public computers. And she translates without her woollen gloves, the colourful, fingerless ones that clowns wear. And she does not wear her coat either, or the two jumpers and the alpaca poncho she puts on when she does translations at home, during winter nights.

Silvia likes her mother’s gloves.

‘Why have they got holes in them?’

‘So my fingers do not slip on the keys.’

According to the dictionary, translate means expressing the meaning of something in one language in another language. According to the dictionary, express means say. As she gets older, Silvia feels like she is getting better at translating, like her mother. Sometimes she hears the small, inaudible words that grown-ups use. She looks some of them up in the dictionary, and some of them she forgets. The ones that she finds lead her to others, as if they were the branches of a never-ending tree that is always shooting out new branches. One day she told her mother that she was translating, too.

‘And what are you translating?’

‘Grown-up language.’

Her mother smiled, like she often does when Silvia tells her something.

‘And what language are you translating into?’

‘The language of Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

At home, on her old Toshiba, her mum types with fingerless gloves. Ten little clowns running around the keyboard. Ten flexible clowns like snakes, not ice pops. And the old computer roars, like a tired rhinoceros. She uses it at weekends, when the library is not open, or after eight o’clock on weekdays when it closes, if she still has papers to translate. The record player in the living room at home is usually on, playing the voice of John Lennon. Her mother likes to work to music, but only sometimes. Some days she does not even turn on the computer, translating by hand so that she can type it up later at the library.

‘Put on A Day in the Life, Mum.’

‘Not today, Silvia.’

She is on the sofa in the living room, wrapped up in duvets. She likes reading the books she chose from the library under the duvet when it is cold outside, which she knows because she can see the cloud her breath makes, like outside in the street. When the duvets are not enough to keep out the cold, her mother heats up bags of sesame seeds in the microwave and puts them on her tummy.

Today is not a library day, but Silvia does not know why. They are walking fast, they left Avenida Albufera behind some time ago for the narrow streets of their neighbourhood, where there is no traffic noise, just the engines of single cars parking or leaving their garages, children shouting and dogs barking. Silvia feels like she is being dragged along. Her mother greets a neighbour who lets them pass in the hallway. Their house is on the first floor. The clothes on the hanger drum incessantly on the translucent window of the kitchen. Bright colours dancing outside, as if the neighbourhood was having a party. Alejandra says that her house smells funny, but Silvia cannot smell anything weird. She does smell something funny at Alejandra’s house, though. The living room is three metres long and three and a half wide. The bedroom is a little smaller. They sleep together in a bed that is so big that sometimes they do not even touch.

Silvia is eight years old. Her mother is 32 and she is not unemployed.

Silvia watches her open the door of the fridge, which has not been on since yesterday and is not cold. The bottles, jars and pots tinkle at the sudden intrusion into their white kingdom, which Silvia imagines to be like the North Pole where it is always night and there is never any moon, until someone opens the door. Her mother picks up the bottles of insulin, which Silvia needs ever since she started to get hungry and thirsty and to wet the bed, ever since she went to the doctor and they started to do loads of tests on her.

Insulin. She looked that up in the dictionary, too, but that tree was too big, with loads of branches, so she decided to leave it for later.

Her mother puts the bottles in a bag and leaves the house, leaving the door ajar. Silvia watches her through the gap. A doorbell sounds and she watches her waiting at a neighbour’s door, Mercedes, an older lady who is always shuffling around in her slippers, dressing gown and apron, with rollers in her grey hair. Her mother waits very close to the door, a little tense, with the bag in her hands, as if she were uncomfortable with the idea that someone might see her through the peephole. There are four doors leading off the landing. Mercedes opens hers and, after a short explanation that Sylvia cannot hear, her mother hands over the bag. She seems a little bent over or shrunken, and her neighbour, who is much shorter, seems just as tall as she does. The words are serious, solemn, words of thanks, but small and inaudible like many of the words that grown-ups use.

Sylvia’s mother comes back to the house.

She goes into the bedroom and closes the door. She does that sometimes, and Sylvia has learnt to interpret it, and to translate it, although she does not have a dictionary where she can look it up, because in this language there are no words. She looks for something to do: reading, playing with her Octopal Squirters, doing her homework or colouring in Anaya books. And when her mother comes out, she goes to her and follows her around the house as she prepares dinner and tidies up the living room. She follows her quietly and patiently, waiting for her turn round to find her daughter with arms open wide, asking to be picked up. Her mother sighs, and picks her up. And then Sylvia whispers nice things in her ear or gives her a kiss or plaits her hair or gives her bunches or a ponytail, or just strokes her hair. She likes to feel that sometimes she is the one looking after her mother.

Ouarzazate, Morocco. UTC ± 00:00. Local time 6:00 PM

by night there is nothing but sky, which in the desert is as beautiful as it is wounded, as if pierced by a hail of arrows.

Six o’clock in the evening. The Berbere Palace Hotel is a fortress, a fortified oasis with solid turrets and crenelated walls, bringing to mind European medieval castles, but for the imitation pink pisé, a mixture of adobe, clay and chalk. A tall lobby, a reception obliging in full livery, coffered marble, tiles and mosaics in lively colours, the tinkling of fountains. Inside there lies a placid and intricate network of sham passageways swayed by palm trees, where you could never get lost despite the labyrinthine feeling of the clay huts, courtyards, galleries, corners and fresh-water pools, imitating Berber kasbahs. 405. This is my door. A bedroom covering 20 square metres, doors decorated with sebka, a small high-walled courtyard, where by night there is nothing but sky, which in the desert is as beautiful as it is wounded, as if pierced by a hail of arrows. A lounge with a sofa covered with an Islamic print, with pieces of fruit and canvases of women dressed in the traditional affagou. Two bathrooms, two televisions and two enormous air-conditioning units, that roar like the mouths of dinosaurs.

Before the tiredness gets to me, or before I let it, I take advantage of the day’s momentum and get changed to go running. A shirt, shorts and trainers. Nothing else. I do not even have to take off a watch, a bracelet or chain, as I do not usually wear them. There are no marks on my body, no tattoos, no piercings. This absence of adornment, which some might attribute to chastity, is not the result of some firm principle, some personal code that has become an instruction, a self-commandment, a rule of life. I wish to live as I came into this world. No. I have just found myself here, like this, at this stage in my life. It was not  planned and I was not aware of it happening. Perhaps in the future I will become a surfer, scattering tattoos and exotic plaited-leather bracelets over my body. Or a punk, with pierced ears. In truth, there are times in my life when I am overcome by a feeling of fullness that is almost virtuous, like some cleaning of the soul, when I feel like I felt when I came into this world. But it is not when I am naked; it is when I am running, on hot days through forested mountains, with the breeze and the freshness of the trees, with no shackles on my skin. When I am running without a shirt, in just shorts and trainers.

I trot gently along Avenue Mohammed VI, where the hotel is located. Wide, long, dry, no traffic, no people, with that placid air of residential and hotel zones away from the hubbub and chaos and smell and humanity that are so intense in Morocco. At the end of the Avenue rises the Taourirt kasbah, erected at the gateway to the desert, a meeting point ideal for trade, where goods and traders from the Atlas and the valleys of Draa and Dades have converged for centuries. Modern Ouarzazate was established as a French garrison in the 1920s and as an administrative centre of the Protectorate. Then came the cinema business and the Atlas studios, and Ouarzazate’s CV swelled as a body-double for Tibet, Rome, Somalia and Egypt. Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Babel, Kingdom of Heaven and Jesus of Nazareth have all passed this way.

My legs and my strongbox, which is what I like to call my heart and my lungs, are awake and active, and I feel like they will let me run freely, with no need to warm up. A warm breeze is blowing, the sun has burst and is reddening, the atmosphere is perfect. I am running by inertia with no idea of where I am going. I have not looked at a map of Ouarzazate, I am just paying attention to what I am running away from, so that I can retrace my steps.

I plunge into the city. I was not plunging before, but I am now. Because here starts the hullabaloo of the streets and the traffic and the bangers and bicycles and the motorbikes carrying two or three, with no helmets and a rider browsing his mobile. Plunge because it is like getting into a swimming pool, but not bathing or swimming a calm breaststroke in the undulating waters. It is like diving straight in, feeling the hit and momentary bewilderment, the sudden water, broken up into streams shot like torpedoes that crack around your body. Bathing is going for a walk. Plunging in is running.

Houses of clay adobe with lintels and palm-tree pillars, narrow windows like battlements, shady porches, pavements packed with passers-by, vendors hawking their wares, their shapeless vegetables and tarnished tomatoes lacking that brilliant, artificial supermarket perfection, with all the ugliness of something found in the ground and not a laboratory. Women wearing burkas, women wearing chadors, women wearing hijabs, women wearing their religion on the inside and women with no religion. Men having tea after the Asr prayer, sitting in terraces with steaming cups filled with mint leaves, sipping the boiling brew straight to their stomachs. Strong younger men in the prime of their years, looking on lazily—aggressively, maybe—, leaning against porches and watching the world go by, as if waiting for it to do something. Although deep down they are not waiting anymore. Hittistes, they are called. People who hold up the walls. And that is just what they do, like props holding up palm trees. They remind me of the young people of my country who emigrate, leaving their youth behind, but an extreme, dilapidated version.

Children are playing football in shirts from Madrid, Barça and Bayern Munich in little sand-and-gravel squares with homemade goals: two planks and a crossbar made of scarfs and old vests tied together, sagging in the middle. I stop to watch them for a moment, admiringly. They play with skill, as if they have magnets on their feet, seriously and with commitment, arguing when there are incidents, in the absence of a referee. They kick up dense clouds of dust that stop me from clearly following the progression of the game. And I think about all this dust, all the dust that they are inhaling, not just this evening but yesterday too, and every day of the year. And then I think about Mustafa’s insistent coughing. Perhaps he likes football too, perhaps he played in gravel squares as well. And then, before I leave, when the children notice my presence—a young sporty-looking foreign man, who could even be a European football scout—I think about all of the children playing right now in Africa, all of the potential Messis and Ronaldos doing amazing things on gravel pitches with goals with crossbars made of material, never knowing the smooth feeling of football on grass. I think about all those children who leave behind their childhoods to hold up walls and watch the world go by, the next generation of hittistes.

I start running again. And this time I kick on, heading back to the hotel. I run on, thinking about the children. I run until I stop thinking about them, until I am only doing one thing: running. And slowly, gradually, I up the pace. A climb, 200 metres to the Taourirt kasbah. Cars are roaring past me, close to the pavement. I run past a Moroccan man struggling up on a bike, axles squeaking. I smile at him. He smiles at me.

‘Come on, Come on!’ I encourage him. He smiles even more and keeps pedalling, trying to keep up with me.

I shorten my stride, increase frequency, stoop down and take on the hill. I push hard, leaving it behind. My quadriceps are burning, reminding me that they are there, and that they will be giving up if the pushing continues. I reach the top and start down the other side, and my legs breathe again. The Moroccan man catches me up with a double smile, freewheeling past me on the pavement, between cars buzzing like giant diesel mosquitos. He raises his fist in victory.

‘Power!” he cries.

I laugh, and raise my fist too, before watching him disappear into the bustling roadway. Soon I am on Avenue Mohammed VI, running fast now, about 20 km/h. At this speed, three minutes and I am shattered. Now my lungs are really going. I can feel them like overinflated balloons, like bellows. I can feel them breathing—me breathing—and the blood, which is also my blood, pumping hard, swelling my veins, pushing out sweat that drips down my temples. I can feel myself, I can feel myself working, I can feel my gears turning like a natural android, like the heart of a solar thermal power plant. This is running, getting away from the invisible inertia of living, of breathing, of beating, of operating without knowing it

It is easier to laugh when you are running. It is easier to cry. Getting angry, screaming, whatever. Feeling is easier, as if it were a question of pulses, of rhythms, of blood drenching your feelings and refreshing them, shaking them, waking them and lifting them up.

‘Come on, it is time to live.’

I feel drugged, as if I have had a fix of what drug addicts call happiness, without going deeper into details. But not drugged in the sense of dazed, or comatose. No. Drugged in the sense of stimulated, fresh, purged from the inside as I stand under a hot shower, a powerful jet like a hose making my back and my neck and face tingle. Beams of red light shine through the window onto my head, illuminating the clouds of steam that have been filling the bathroom for some time now. I am so relaxed that I do not know when to stop, when to move to turn off the tap. Finally, spurred on by some vague thought process in the unseen flow of my consciousness, I turn the knob. I get out and wonder for a moment about which towel to use, whether this morning’s will be dry or whether to take one of the other two I can choose from. I do not know what time it is, I do not know how long I have been in the shower.

I feel relaxed, and I will keep feeling that way during dinner in the hotel with my fellow writers. An Italian meal on the terrace, with a gentle breeze, candles, palm trees, illuminated pool and waiters waiting to refill your glass. Dinner for 230 dirhams, about 23 euros per dish. Everything is paid for except for the drinks, a select French wine chosen by our Danish companion Carsten, who has an experienced palate. A pleasant meal during which we discuss the events of the day, share experiences, during which I spend a lot of time listening, firstly because the conversation is full of bits of lives much more widely travelled than my own, and secondly because my English really is not much to write home about. And so I learn more about writing, about the world of writing, about Liz’s projects, a British writer who has a son of my age and who talks to me about her worlds and her characters with the authority of someone who has had a lot of them, and a shine in her eyes belonging to a fifty-something writer.

I head for bed. My relaxation has turned into tiredness. I walk alone along the passageways of the hotel, under the stars. I think about Noor, the electricity towers marching away from it like shackled giants, towards the desert, towards the Atlas Mountains, towards the sea. I think about the energy and the heat and the light that they carried with them today, I think about the buzzing and about where it will all go, and about where it will not go, and about where it has never even been.

I get into the envelope, as my grandfather used to say, happy to shut my eyes, and when I turn off the light, that thing that always happens, happens. There is a light still on, one of the many that illuminate hotel rooms. I get up to search for the switch.

Maracaibo, Venezuela. UTC -04:00. Local time 11:15 PM

The circuit breaker clicks. Instantaneously, barely perceptibly, another beat that suddenly stops. The electric has had another heart attack. Gone again.

Sighs, curses and oaths against the governments rise out of the silence that has engulfed the hallway. There is confusion again, something small and embryonic, until patients and family members again get used to the dark and the absence of that sound, the omnipresent mosquito hum. Power cuts are barely audible, a second and everything is silent, but it seems to Maria like the sound of electricity melts away, like an ambulance siren running out of battery.

She gets out of her seat in the half-light of the hospital, opposite the maternity ward at the end of the corridor. She folds her arms across her belly, used to its flatness now, not realizing that something is missing, a smooth delicate balloon. She feels a shiver of worry, her initial blindness fading as she gets used to the absence of light.

‘They made us poor, now they want to turn us into bats. A country full of bats.’

Someone makes the observation. A young man stripped to the waist and covered in tattoos, hooked up to a drip. His voice, hoarse and muted, speaks to all of us, rising above the whispers and murmurs that have invaded the passageway.

Red lights are flashing here and there. The lights of mobile phones flick on. The words Emergency Exit remain, an island of light at the end of the passageway. The abandoned beds start to emerge, along with wheelchairs, patients sitting up or lying down, leaning against racks with serum and drugs bought by their own families, on the black market or at bare-shelved pharmacies. They all crowd together like rubbish around the banks of a river, leaving the middle of the corridor clear, for use only by nurses in short scrubs and latex gloves. They refit drips, help solitary patients, making sure that everything continues as normal.

Someone opens a window at the other end of the corridor, and the cool of the night seeps in. The streets whisper, horns sound and dogs bark in the night. The city without light seems motionless. A crippled, radio city that can only be heard, isolating the hospital with blind man’s sounds. A certain normality quickly returns to the corridor.

‘We should go in.”

‘Wait for them to say.’

Maria peeps through the door of the neonatal ward. The windows seem to look into a dark, moonless, starless night. She tries to make out the incubators, the equipment, the cables, the nurses. She cannot see anything on the other side. Other mothers crowd around her and their presence, the concentrated concern of mothers with premature babies, some connected to respirators, forces her out of the group, her chest tight as if she were short of breath too.

Hugo watches her, seated, a lit cigarette in his hand.

‘Wait for them to say,’ he repeats.

And he calmly breathes out his cloud, turning his gaze away to the corridor. He has always found it easy to adapt. He gets into the routine, even before you could call it a routine. He finds it easy to get used to things. Recession, unemployment, empty shops, political disputes on the television, daily protests and the repression of Chavista collectives, shortages of medicines and diesel to power the generators at public hospitals, in a country where crude oil seeps out of the ground.

Hugo’s is a deep-set indifference that Maria admires, accepts and loathes, all at the same time. The loathing is done in secret, of course, although her feelings are at times betrayed by a cross look or an angry excuse. He gets them, then dismisses them in his usual desultory way, although Maria thinks that he saves them up for his explosions of rage, which are rare and arbitrary, sometimes making no sense at all. She stopped seeing him as a protective shell some time ago, hardened by the punishments and trials of life that in Hugo, a country boy who grew up with four sisters and no daddy, seemed charming. Perhaps she has not seen it since they were courting, when everything seems charming.

Now, after a wedding and a seven-month pregnancy, as she watches him with his cigarette, his shoulders hunched beneath a stripy shirt, small in the half-light of the hospital, more than a shield she feels like she is carrying a crust of resignation.

‘Last time they lost three kids,’ she tells him.

‘They all needed a respirator. Our Fredy can make it on his own.’

Maria turns her gaze away and sucks in the dense air of the hospital, a mixture of disinfectant and geriatric urine, so thick that it feels like you are ingesting it, not breathing it. She cannot bear to see him like this, defeated, dulled. She cannot blame him; the wait would kill anyone. Including him, although he smokes as if he were out with friends, and does not get out of his seat. But sometimes Hugo is too much for her, wearing away her patience like no one else can: not her parents, not her girlfriends, not even the screaming, disobedient children at school. No one. Sometimes she feels like she has had an allergic reaction to living with him. Maria sucks in more air, and again shoves away that fear of the future, that conjugal vertigo.

There have been five power cuts so far. Two of them, the latest this morning, lasted more than an hour. Five power cuts since Fredy was born, after thirty weeks, weighing 1.9 kilos, just 40 cm long.

‘Ladies, you can come through.’

They are addressed by a thickset nurse that the couple know from the night before. Behind her, the door to the neonatal ward is still swinging. Maria breathes, but this time it is different: she lets the air go, instead of holding it in. Some of the mothers stumble as they push to be the first into the room, but common decency prevails and the situation goes no further. Maria is also hurried, lifting her head and looking towards the black opening to the room. The queue advances with baby steps, little pushes, and she turns around before going in. She is surprised by Hugo’s look: open, focused on her. Shining in the darkness. He has woken up.

The neonatal ward feels like a heat pod. Placid, serene, silent. Anyone would love to go in there. But their nervousness, haste and concerned gazes searching for their little ones prevents them from thinking too much about it. They scatter amongst the incubators, all turned off, some with the glass broken and a sign reading Out of order. The vital signs monitors seem confused; no heart lines, no temperature, no blood pressure, just the black of the screen and the flashing of the emergency lights.

The children who are connected to respirators are being attended to by nurses. Maria again sees them with the apprehension of the first time: fragile, slight, eyes closed, alone in their glass boxes like quarantined animals, their bronchial tubes so tender, so immature that they could be paper bags. The nurses are pumping by hand, pressing the insufflators to inject oxygen-rich air into the pipes. They work rhythmically, constantly, taking it in turns to rest, tense and serene. Glistening brows show that they have been doing it for a while.

Maria finds Fredy, isolated in his incubator, with closed eyes and a woollen hat. His hands are moving in doll-like spasms, as if they were motorized. Perhaps he can sense the hustle and bustle, or the lack of heat, or the increased humidity in the capsule, which is no longer comfortable because it is no longer his mother. A nurse appears and opens the sterilized eiderdown. Her hands invade the glass case and take the tubes out of Fredy’s nose.

‘You can take him out now, miss.’

Maria wells up again, even though it is the fifth time she has been called in, to hold him in the dark and share her warmth. The kangaroo method, they call it. She feels his featherweight body, his weak floppy muscles, his skin so fine that it seems transparent; you can see the blood vessels running underneath. She does not know why she is crying, but she feels something deep and warm rising up to her eyes. Post-partum hormones, they say, upsetting her, making her laugh and cry on the same day. Perhaps she discovers it right then, as she moves towards the boy and wraps him in her arms, as she feels him curl up, brushing against her tummy, burrowing into her, as if he wanted to get in. The power has been cut, and he needs to feel his mum.