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Emergency and Emergence

Seeing Man

On the mantlepiece a stuffed quail looms

that once relied on an infinity of forest

– Joseph Brodsky


Siwa, the Great Sand Sea. In 1885 the adventurer Luigi     Robecchi
Bricchetti called it Oasis of Jupiter Ammon. The tour guides     parked
my camel near theirs, near silver humped Ferraris which fuse     like
burial mercury in the heat. I would never have guessed still     life

survived inside that slippery Mountain of the Dead, caves     which
predate tourism as well as pilgrimage. In antiquity did the     wind
lounge by the windows of that human formicary, eyes with     nothing
to gaze on, no bodies to blow waywardly, no skulls waiting to     be

snapped by the feeble flash of greyscale Orientalists? In life I had     seen
enough to drink an omen wherever it springs. Later, the violet     clouds
opened above a silver lake; and the martyred sunset burst     outwards,
out of its sky-skin, like flesh from an overly ripe date. Yesterday     you

told me about the news of a suicide bomber in a market in     Sinai.
Paradoxically, what’s the difference when someone kills via     drone
button versus the hero who kills with their own body, his     quest
leaving no citations. Mbembe says: To kill, [the suicide bomber]     has
to come as close as possible to the body of the enemy. To detonate the     bomb

necessitates resolving the question of distance. In the end little     reflects
the glint of war and all it distantly ruins. I spied a gang of     golden
daffodils plotting by the polluted pools of the Oracle. Were     they

once German soldiers seeking shade, skinny dipping their     epic
bodies in those waters? I met our weekend cabal at our     luxury
hotel. Metropolitan citizens to include one heiress of a     Chinese
African-media mogul; one descendent of Robin Maugham (‘…all

the habits of today come from what happened in the past…’);     two
Ivy-league digital nomads, newly graduated, upper-middle     class
children of immigrants; three sun-burnt but tenured     academics
cloddishly trading abstracts on dead ethnologists; some     off-duty

foreign aid workers on R&R; and a gay military officer     whose
uniform bears a rainbow flag stitched below a flag of his     authoritarian
nation. He spends his time fantasising about a haven slash     base
here, where ‘…such agreements continued, but in great secrecy,     and

without the actual writing, until the end of World War II…’      Then
at a second camp, kept far enough from ours, a conference     of
reconciliation groups, advocates for transitional justice,     reparations,
truth commissioners for survivors of genocide and ethnic     cleansing

they too have earned a little time off, some cool leisure after     their
veiny tribunals. I stared at us; I stared at our corpse-lives. And     I
began to picture the pain of others, how the ground we rested     on,
loved on, paid for, was so pristinely haunted and occupied by     those

eidolons adrift from time. The Long Range Desert Group,     hungry
to fight the Empire of Japan, or the Afrika Korps, or the     136th
Armoured Division Giovani Fascisti all these actors     centre-stage
in a theatre of sand, in someone else’s souvenirs. At dinner we     knelt

beneath an asylum of fake palm trees like understudies vying     for
history’s shade. A metal net trapped the light above the foliage,     lost
empires glinted on the canopy, red dust hummed on winding     sheets.
Welcome! our noble five star-rated host, evening Oracle,     proclaims.

Young men then carry out, so we are told, an authentic dish of     ram’s
head buried in hearts of palm. Is it still tradition to tip here?     Stay
forever! Eat until you explode, a standard host joke. Like a globe     whirls
after it is spun he then goes around our tent one by one to prove     he

can small talk in as many languages as there are time zones;     later,
he will twist his tongue, rip us off, earn commission for every     mass-
produced specialty copper coffee pot we adore to drink out of     and,
as if bewitched, cannot resist purchasing. He declares that I must     be

Japanese. I choose not to correct him. To push him for a     further
discount I will tell any minor lie: Just a memento for a friend I     love.
No, not a girl. Two friends. Twin beds. To you, the only other     British
national, he recites a standard line from Wikipedia: The first     European

to visit Siwa since Roman times was the English traveller William     George
Browne, who came in 1792, to see our ancient temple, who was     murdered
in 1813 on his attempt to travel to Tehran. Was I paranoid to read     our
lucent omen in that future he professed like a chance invocation,     a

divination to be ashamed of every night, every year, until when,     until
this water runs dry. Unlike ordinary goods did I believe words     accrue
power to solidify their custom futures the more they are     declared?
I recalled a sentence from Henry James I copied down on the     plane:

You have the imagination of disaster and see life indeed as     ferocious
and sinister. That night, postcolonial revenge via violent     gastroenteritis.
Luckily my new phone model functions as a potent searchlight;     but
if one grain of sand gets into its charging port, you warned, it’s     all

over for this trip, our images, our queer memories. So I went back     to
bed and, as if carrying on the heaving duties from our host, I     invited
strangers and their stranger dreams inside. I dreamt of a     songbird
massacre I must have once read about, one slaughter gantlet in the     air

where branch knots warbled like restless calluses, and every     meshed
acacia trapped a tail or quaver chest, now welded onto the hot     lime
anointed bark of earlier. All the fowls on fire in this Old     World.
Supposedly, Alexander the Great brought his conquest here by     following

birds across the sand. Did feathers drift like ash on the wind     then?
Electronic mating trills, wire-rooted, looped out of stereos disguised     as
wood, blurting odes to lure another flock. Crossing birds came to     rest
just to die in this oasis. Silent skies emptied as our manic     poaching

fingers rubbed their bijou hearts like cocked bayonets.     Every word
was as light as eating a wing. Human. Divine. Carrion. My     academic
conscience kept saying I would rather suffer evil the natural way, but     I
did it anyway. After the act was done the scent of plum trees,     boiled

to make a gummy snare, wafted all across the night like a bag of     wind.
I made one cairn whistle with the spat out bones of crushed     thrushes,
skulls blown in by the kiss of metal, impotent throats from     quails,
orioles, chaffinches but I could not erase the feeling that these     were

also human bones. In my dream I refused to stare into the eyes of     the
Amazigh child who watched us eat our parts only to offer a     bitter
epilogue: Better birds fallen and not bombs in the end. Yet I     awoke
feeling like I was not so far from that quiet cenotaph I built but     only

a few seconds or centuries ago to worship at. What were the     lines
etched on its stele which I brought back on my tongue, the old     verse
I re-translated under our netted tents, wondering which life     was
real, whose dream I dreamt: I arise and unbuild it again. As     dawn

arrives at the oasis we have nothing left to sacrifice or get wet     but
empty pages in our passports; the raw light turned our bodies     into
transparent glass, weeping, impenetrable. I asked our Oracle if I     could
buy a skin’s second gambit, a holograph to grow, to make mine, if     I

tried and really desired two. Every day traded the same. Sand     seemed
to alter so little. In this life I know my organs float on bodies of     water
consistently, regardless of their owner; I have travelled enough     times
to know that no act can stay dry, pure, without implication,     forever.

I know you must have dreamt queerly last night too because in     the
morning you said nothing, only sketching anarchic tidewaters     where
a bullet of ice mutates into a silver eel before stabilising on a     wedding
ring. Ahistorical interference in the natural ebb, in what is deemed     as

commonplace. There were many blue bodies on the oasis foam     that
day, many variations of organising glass. In the end the great pool     was
so shallow we sat in it like imperial debris plucked from     underwater
archives, salt-rusted statues reanimated just to play pretend at     ancient

customs. On wide ceremonious deckchairs as white as lotuses     we
complained about the price of iced drinks, vector-borne     diseases,
faraway wars now no longer so faraway, and the drought which     might
not end by natural means. Last night, rumours that a     mythological

beast invaded or escaped the gardens of this bio-reserve. Were     we
fast asleep, too busy in our domestication to capture changing     river
tracks, to document those rituals all around us, those symbols     of
rising seas, punctuated chronicles, a sun swelling in a song to     solicit

the new tourist season. On the last day before we flew home I     slipped
our Oracle an extra note in search of a terminal forecast. His     answer
was as clear as a pack of tepid bottled water. I was to ask you next     time
we were alone and true: Do you really think we can live on like     this?