Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Perfect Job

A few years ago I saw an advertisement for a job, which involved working with Google. I was on a sabbatical at the time and thought that it would be an excellent opportunity to gain experience in working for a prestigious company - whilst doing something very different from teaching. The job was to be a driver on the Google Maps project; what was exciting about the project - or this part of it, was that the area I was to map was the Sahara Desert! It was too good an opportunity to miss and so I duly applied and, to cut a long story short, was fortunate enough to get the position. One July morning, about seven weeks after my interview, I found myself at the wheel of a large Toyota Jeep, alongside my navigator - Al, parked just outside Tamanrasset, on the first morning of the project. 'Al' was not his full name; his name was Arabic, but the latter part was unfamiliar-sounding and he was not able to make clear to me how it should be pronounced - and so I made do with 'Al', which basically means 'The' in English. Our job was to cover every square mile of sand of the Sahara, capturing it on film, to complement the satellite shots that had been taken by Al's counterpart in Google's Space arm GSA - a chap by the name of Mustafa. This was a BIG job and our training was not quite what I would have expected for such a task - 10 days at base camp in Camber Sands with a delightful man, called Barry, who had once read 'Beau Geste' and worked for a little Chef in the Dorking area. Well, you may be expecting to hear tales of near-death from lack of water, or over-exposure to the sun or our getting disoriented and going endlessly over the same route blindly and desperately - like the Thompsons in the Tintin book 'Black Gold' or the narrator at the end of Tom McCarthy's 'Remainder', where the plane he is in traces the infinity symbol in the sky in a delightfully iterative motif. Well, fortunately or unfortunately, it was not to be. No sooner had I turned the key and fired the ignition, than 'Al' began to cry -at first sniffling, and then letting out big sobs, his shoulders heaving with emotion and his fingers working frantically to wipe the tears from his eyes. Ironically, many of the tears were cascading onto the Ordnance survey map of the Sahara Desert that was spread out on his lap, symbolically rehydrating the barren expanse of sand in which we were to have been spending the next year of our lives. I say 'were to have been spending' - not only because, as a teacher, I can, but also because that was the start and end of the project. As I learned later in an email from Barry, 'Al' or Al ṣifr, to give him his full name, had been discharged from the Mali Naval reserves (they have a small reserve force that is charged with protecting Lake Faguibine from potential military threats). Al had been discharged following a breakdown brought about by his sense of humiliation at having to wade, with his trousers rolled up to his knees, in water that - because of processes of increasing aridity mean that the average water depth is only 50 centimetres. This was something that must have been awful for someone as proud as Al apparently was, and frustrating for him, being in sole command of a brand new, state of the art rubber dinghy - with oars hewn from Lebanese Cedar wood. It emerged that the vast expanses of sand, stretching symbolically for miles in every direction on the map that covered his knees like a blanket on a pensioner on a cold winter's day in England, mockingly recalled to him that humiliation - and foretold of a thankless task ahead where, what we would be photographing for the next year (at least), would most likely be of no greater interest to most people than the photographs of sand taken by Mustafa, 400 km above the Earth's surface. Needless to say, that was the end of the project for me - I returned prematurely to England - without even the opportunity to add this position to my CV. I heard some months later, that Al had recovered from his breakdown and had opened  a small sandwich bar in a village not too far from Lake Faguibine (which recalled for me the old joke about why you can never go hungry in the desert - 'because of the sand which is there'!) It seemed that the business was doing quite well - enough for him and his family to keep their head above water - so to speak. Perhaps the strangest thing to emerge from the whole fiasco was the meaning of Al's name - the second bit, I mean. It turns out that ṣifr, from which the English word 'Cypher' is derived, actually means 'nothing'!

The Sahara seen from Space

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