memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for the ‘desert’ Category

The Gospel According To Matthew

 The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo) is an Italian film directed in 1964 by Pier Paulo Pasolini.

It is a retelling of the story of Jesus Christ, from the Nativity through to the Resurrection.

I remember how struck I was was on first seeing this film about forty or so years ago. At the same time I was seeing such films as François Truffauld’s L’Enfant Sauvage and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre The Wrath of God.

Raised on a diet of Hollywood pap these films opened my eyes to the European Cinema.

The dialogue of the film is mostly taken directly from the Gospel of Matthew, as Pasolini felt that images could never reach the poetic heights of the text.

He reportedly chose Matthew’s Gospel over the others because he had decided that “John was too mystical, Mark too vulgar, and Luke too sentimental.”

Pier Paulo Pasolini was an atheist, homosexual and Marxist.

When commentators evinced surprise that an non-believer like him could make a film with such a religious theme he replied that anyone who thought he was an non-believer knew him better than he did himself.

The film, shot in black and white, is set in a stark bleak desert landscape. Using amateur actors Pasolini stages a series of set speeches from Matthew’s gospel.

STONY DESERT

STONY DESERT

The film is devoid of the customary sanctimonious sentimentality of the genre.

Jesus is a stern Marxist Christ who endures his sufferings with a stoical formality.

The score of the film, consisting mainly of sacred music by J. S. Bach (Mass in B minor and parts of the St. Matthew Passion) and the Gloria from the Congolese Missa Luba is unforgettable and indeed for most of my life since, whenever I have listened to the St. Matthew Passion I have thought of that film.

A serious and profound film, I would suggest it merits another viewing.

The salt of the earth

Salt, also known as table salt, or rock salt, is a crystalline mineral that is composed primarily of sodium chloride NaCl, a chemical compound belonging to the larger class of ionic salts.

The time that I spent in the Sahara desert in the late seventies was during the hottest part of the year, between April and September.

Every morning the sun rose suddenly over the rim of the eastern desert. By midday it was implacable, shining fiercely down on all our endeavours. We used to move slowly from place to place like zombies, with our Ray-Bans and our low-brimmed caps. Only twice did I see to the south the rolling clouds of a sand-storm, driven by the fearsome winds of the Sirocco. Sometimes the sun was obscured by a slight haze but usually it was a great white ball of light burning from a clear sky.

At least that was our assumption; the truth is that one never really looked. There’s usually a sort of literary convention in descriptions of the sun in the desert. One of my favourites is from The Seven Pillars of Wisdomand the sun rose to greet us like a drawn sword.

THE SUN ROSE TO GREET US LIKE A DRAWN SWORD

Salt is not only an essential mineral, a sine qua non for the body’s survival but it also forms part of our linguistic heritage, serving as a metaphor for something fundamental – he’s just not worth his salt or she’s the salt of the earth.

During the Middle-Ages noblemen used to carry a small pouch of salt at their belts to feed to their falcons.

Thousands of years ago merchants and traders, tracking through the deserted wastes of Africa and Asia, would be paid in salt (hence the word salary).

At times our bodies would dehydrate to the point where we were urinating only once a day – time for some salt pills!

The camp medic would issue them on demand and anyone with an ounce of common sense would drink a commensurate amount of water to absorb the extra minerals.These salt pills were really heavy-duty, the sort that would give your average horse severe cholesterol problems, and yet some of the men would recklessly gulp them down (presumably guided by the precept that you can’t have too much of a good thing).

Sometimes there were dire consequences:

–          Station C calling Algiers, Station C calling Algiers, over.

–          Go ahead Station C, over.

–          We have a man down, suspected jagged kidney/gall stone, over.

–          We’re onto it Station C. tell the man to just hold on to his britches, help is on the way, over and out.

What happened next was impressive.

About six hours after the radio-signal to Algiers about the pill-guzzzler who’d been found behind the sanitation cabin (shit-house) lying in agony in the sand clutching his stomach, a neat little air-ambulance, a Swiss Red-Cross Lear jet, landed delicately at our landing-strip (in a cloud of dust) and disgorged the pilot, a doctor, a blond nurse and a stretcher and, while we were gaping at the nurse, transfer-documents were signed and exchanged and lucky, lucky, thicko Joe was stretchered onto the little aircraft which then took off, turning back north, it’s lights winking in the sudden desert dusk and whisked Jammy Joe into an operating theatre in a private clinic in Switzerland (all covered by the expensive Company insurance plan).

When the going was good

MY YORKSHIRE HOME

Still a sad glamour clung to Travel in those days

The coal-fire in the cold-stone waiting-room

Of a draughty Yorkshire branch-line station

The 8.00 pm boat-train from Victoria

Rocketing through the dark Kent fields

Arriving at gull-shrieking salt-air Dover.

Orly at dawn waiting in the transit-lounge

For the tense flight across the glittering sea

And on to the hot sands of Africa.

I took advantage of my freedom.

I went when the going was good

And arrived at a dry stony place.

SAHARA DESERT

Dates (1)

 

OIL FIELDS – HASSI-MESSOUD

Algeria – Oil fields in Eastern Sahara, 1980

I’m driving along in the Sahara Desert (you know, as one does) in the company of young Abdel Kader. It is an early afternoon in December with the sky a pale washed blue and still warm at midday. He has just shown me a deserted French Foreign-Legion fort – a desolate place which is gradually being reclaimed by the desert sands.

FRENCH FOREIGN-LEGION FORT

I explore the place, climbing up to the ramparts and indulging in the usual clichés, Beau Geste desperately repulsing the Berber hordes etc. Actually what I found most evocative were the prison cells with the graffiti presumably scratched on the walls by the miscreant legionnaires.

CELLS IN THE FORT

Back on the sandy track with me again at the wheel, Abdel Kader mentions diffidently that his village isn’t far away and asks my permission for him to visit his wife for a while. I say yes of course, but ask where his village is because, as usual, all I can see is sand. Abdel guides us along the winding tracks until we find the village with its characteristic white windowless dwellings nestling in a whaddi. At the end of the village is a small date grove which, it appears, belongs to Abdel’s family. He asks me if I wouldn’t mind waiting there while he pays a visit to his wife and baby and again I agree.

DATE GARDEN

I enter the garden and look round for a place to settle among the tall stately palms, sitting down eventually with my back to the trunk of a towering date-palm.

Perfect peace – all I can I hear is the gentle murmur of the irrigation streams which are watering each individual palm tree.

The harmonious beauty of the setting argues the existence of a divine plan.

I fall into a contemplative trance and allow my beating heart to slow right down and fall asleep.

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough                                                        

 A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness.

I awake to find Abdel and his father Mohamed eyeing me expressionlessly. I look at my watch – it’s time to get back to the camp. Before we leave I am offered a small hempen sack of dates.

Some of the dates have been harvested from the very tree under which I have been reposing and are therefore a special gift from God, Mohamed assures me and opines that I will have a lucky life.

He shows me how to assess a good date: first it should be dry and light brown in colour and when held up to the light it should be translucent; the ripe fruit should be firm and sweet.

I like dates and keep the bag in a drawer of my desk partaking of several each day.

(To be continued)

A day trip to Oran

DESERT ROSE

We had been having problems with securing exit visas for our people in the Field from the obdurate local authorities who seemed determined to frustrate all our efforts with a pedantic and tortuous insistence on a bureaucratic system inherited from the French. In desperation my boss chose the time-honoured method of cutting corners with judicious payments of money: so many Algerian Dinards for such and such a number of passports.

He called me into his office one morning in late spring and instructed me in his soft drawl to fly to Oran the following day with all our US and UK passports and a considerable wedge of cash in my briefcase. Once there I was to rendezvous with an ex-official of the Oranese administration, who would smooth the progress of the whole situation. I soon perceived that I was being set up to be the fall guy.

So there I was the next morning at the airport all psyched up and waiting for the eight-thirty Air-Inter flight to Oran, nervously trying to convince myself that this was all in a day’s work. On board the aircraft all was disorder and confusion as people scrambled their way to their seats. I was sitting beside the only other foreigner, an American engineer with glasses and a baseball cap who, during the short flight, explained to me that the Air-Inter pilots were usually trainees for the Algerian air force completing their training by flying airliners around the country. The sky had been clear in Algiers but Oran was shrouded in thick fog and, as we descended into it, I noticed that none of the other passengers seemed at all concerned, no doubt fatalistically putting their faith into the hands of Allah. Not so me or my companion – we strapped ourselves in and gazed intently out of the window as the big plane, going too fast, bounced on the tarmac and then finally slammed down, the plane bouncing and swaying and the wings dipping from side to side, before the retro-thrust brought the shuddering aircraft back under control. Yes, I thought, those Air-Inter boys could certainly do with some more training. The American, who had also been mesmerized by the dipping wings, hoped that I would have a nice day.

I arrived at the arranged meeting place, a large café in the city centre in front of a sort of mini Place de la Concorde with traffic frenziedly swirling round a little monument. I sat at a table outside and ordered a coffee, paying for it in advance and nervously trying to concentrate on my copy of Newsweek. After a while I noticed a tiny little Fiat detach itself from the surrounding traffic, mount the pavement and, to my horror, head towards my table. The driver who was flamboyantly dressed in a brown leather jacket and long white scarf called out: Monsieur Tom … Monsieur Tom … allez, montez montez! Well so much for discretion I thought as I clambered into the small car beside him. Ali, as I shall call him, was a jovial friendly little chap with grey hair who seemed to know the score. He suggested going to his house for lunch, which was served rather eerily by his wife from behind a lattice screen; every now and then a slim brown arm, covered with bangles, would extend to the table with a new dish of food. Ali chatted away merrily, with me answering in monosyllables. It seemed that he had often done this kind of thing before, always for foreign companies. Apparently some of the scenes of Lawrence of Arabia had been shot here in the desert and he’d done a similar service for the film crew. He proudly showed me a much-creased letter, which he kept in his wallet, signed by the director of the film David Lean thanking him for his cooperation and so on and so forth.

After lunch we went into his office to do the business. I produced the passports and he produced his rubber-stamp and an ink-pad. With a flourish he stamped the precious visas firmly into each passport, one by one, and in less than five minutes voila all our expatriates were authorized to leave the country – nice work if you can get it. He then smoothly spirited away the wad of cash into his desk and I snapped shut my briefcase. We both stood up and shook hands. He offered me a lift to the airport which I politely declined, saying that I’d take a cab back to the city centre to do some sightseeing.

In the cab however I changed my mind and asked the driver to go straight to the airport. There, having time to kill before my evening flight back to Algiers, I headed for the bar to sink a couple of beers and read the little volume of Under the Greenwood Tree that I had in my briefcase. I noticed that the only other inhabitants of the bar were the very same crew, pilots and air hostesses, of the plane that morning; they were evidently crewing the flight back that evening. Oh well, I thought, if you can’t beat them, join them and ordered the first of a couple of whiskeys. Hours later as I was nodding off on the flight back I was thinking of my impending leave which I was going to spend in Paris. I landed at Algiers with my flaps well down and took a cab straight to the hotel. I heard voices from Jonathon’s apartment and went in.

Hi Tom they said how was your day-trip to Oran?

(I thought of the near crash that morning, of lunch at Ali’s house, of his wife’s arm extending from behind the screen, of David Lean’s letter).

Rather unreal, I replied.

Ramadam

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic year, is the month of fasting and prayer. During this period Moslems allow nothing to pass their throats (food, drink, or smoke) nor are conjugal relations permitted, between sunrise and sunset.

They eat before sunrise and after sundown, with a snack at about midnight, so the net result was a lack of sleep rather than a lack of food.   I remember how one day, I roamed around the desert villages in the jeep with the camp-boss because he had run out of fresh milk for the midnight meal – he took a pride in his job.

Ramadan was during the heat of the summer that year, from July to August. A series of images are printed on the screen of my memory:

–          A huge truck pulled up beside the Trans-Sahara high-way, the driver in its shade kneeling on his little prayer-mat and bowing towards the East as we hammered past on the straight black road:

–          My pay clerk having a furtive smoke in the gap between the cabins:

–          The rows of sliced water-melons laid out on a long table in the mess hall, waiting for the 6 o’clock siren. What do you take to break a 12-hour fast? Answer: that which is both food and drink – a water-melon (or of courses a handful of that reviving wonder fruit – dates).

The camp doctor told me that one or two of the workers would rather shamed-facedly go to his little first-aid post to ask him for a certificate stating that, for medical reasons, they be exempt from the fast; he signed most of them but drew the line at attesting that a person «was addicted to coffee».

But on the whole I came away with the impression of a religion which was alive and vital, in sharp contrast to the lassitude of Christian religions of Europe, albeit prone perhaps to extremism.

But then which religion is free of fanaticism, manipulation and hypocrisy?

 

The salt of the earth

Salt, also known as table salt, or rock salt, is a crystalline mineral that is composed primarily of sodium chloride NaCl, a chemical compound belonging to the larger class of ionic salts.

The time that I spent in the Sahara desert in the late seventies was during the hottest part of the year, between April and September.

Every morning the sun rose suddenly over the rim of the eastern desert. By midday it was implacable, shining fiercely down on all our endeavours. We used to move slowly from place to place like zombies, with our Ray-Bans and our low-brimmed caps. Only twice did I see to the south the rolling clouds of a sand-storm, driven by the fearsome winds of the Sirocco. Sometimes the sun was obscured by a slight haze but usually it was a great white ball of light burning from a clear sky.

At least that was our assumption; the truth is that one never really looked. There’s usually a sort of literary convention in descriptions of the sun in the desert. One of my favourites is from The Seven Pillars of Wisdomand the sun rose to greet us like a drawn sword.

THE SUN ROSE TO GREET US LIKE A DRAWN SWORD

Salt is not only an essential mineral, a sine qua non for the body’s survival but it also forms part of our linguistic heritage, serving as a metaphor for something fundamental – he’s just not worth his salt or she’s the salt of the earth.

During the Middle-Ages noblemen used to carry a small pouch of salt at their belts to feed to their falcons.

Thousands of years ago merchants and traders, tracking through the deserted wastes of Africa and Asia, would be paid in salt (hence the word salary).

At times our bodies would dehydrate to the point where we were pissing only once a day – time for some salt pills! The camp medic would issue them on demand and anyone with an ounce of common sense would drink a commensurate amount of water to absorb the extra minirals.

These salt pills were really heavy-duty, the sort that would give your average horse severe cholesterol problems, and yet some of the men would recklessly gulp them down (presumably guided by the precept that you can’t have too much of a good thing).

Sometimes there were dire consequences:

–          Station C calling Algiers, Station C calling Algiers, over.

–          Go ahead Station C, over.

–          We have a man down, suspected jagged kidney/gall stone, over.

–          We’re onto it Station C. tell the man to just hold on to his britches, help is on the way, over and out.

What happened next was impressive.

About six hours after the radio-signal to Algiers about the pill-guzzzler who’d been found behind the sanitation cabin (shit-house) lying in agony in the sand clutching his stomach, a neat little air-ambulance, a Swiss Red-Cross Lear jet, landed delicately at our landing-strip (in a cloud of dust) and disgorged the pilot, a doctor, a blond nurse and a stretcher and, while we were gaping at the nurse, transfer-documents were signed and exchanged and lucky, lucky, thicko Joe was stretchered onto the little aircraft which then took off, turning back north, it’s lights winking in the sudden desert dusk and whisked jammy Joe into an operating theatre in a private clinic in Switzerland (all covered by the expensive Company insurance plan).

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