Where Oil and Water Mix


Oil tankers button up the horizon bright as warning beacons. Beneath the blackness of the ocean sky at night, their floodlit decks abut one another such that from the shore the view could be peninsular. That daisy chain of bow and stern stretch for untold kilometres from the port terminal to where anchor is weighed and each vessel drops off the edge of the visible horizon and into the Indian ocean proper. Some will ride the Agulhas current around the South African cape, but for most their laden hulls will cut the water south and east, curving under Sri Lanka until they reach the oil thirsty Orient. Few places in the world but here can give the straight profile of a coastline a proboscis it never had before.

Down at the port meanwhile, the 300km Habshan pipeline from Abu Dhabi has to gush in to something. Set out like mythical checkers pieces stacked three high, oil storage tanks are epic of proportion. Each cylindrical tank bunkers more cubic metres of refined oil than crystal blue seawater lost in the Great Blue Hole of Belize. Perhaps not depth-wise, but diametrically these oil bunkers could be scooped-out sinkholes. The barren, serrated mountains lying behind them seem to shrink in their grandiose presence. There are few bigger statements of a globalized economy paid for in petrodollars than this. Nor is playing dumb an option. Turn your back on them and still they find a means to remind you they are the reason you are ultimately there. For those downwind of it, the air that carries the gas condensate is acrid and unpleasant but otherwise hard to pin down. It smells, as you might expect, like any compost fermenting in the infernal bowels of the earth since the Carboniferous period.

The mountains themselves saw action long before the tankers. They came through like a row of tiger shark teeth ninety million years ago when the Arabian plate was ordered to hump the floor of the Tethys Ocean, but instead slipped under it. The stuff that made the sea floor buckle and the saltwater rush in was so heavy with plutonic rocks that after it rose up it refused to bow back down, so after all this time this petrified lower jaw bites into the sky hard as the day the upper jaw crawled out of that now rearranged ocean to bite the land.

Ninety million years of gentle wind, fitful rain, and desiccating sunlight could not do the work of erosion quite like a bundle of dynamite. At intervals along the steep pitch of the peaks engineers have blown their tops to make room for giant pylons that power towns and villages running on 56 degrees of longitude up to the Straits to Hormuz. The electricity cables form a cobweb over a landscape that had little interference to contend with for all but the last few seasons of its long geomorphic history. If it weren’t a suicide mission, zip-wiring those cables from mountaintop to flat bed would be a thrill and a half. Time changes the work of everything and everything changes the work of time. In which order, our world in flux does not reveal.

The settlement just north of the terminal consists of shabby roadside buildings wide enough to take an oversize 4WD in for cleaning. For all the dust and fine-grained sand that blows up and over from the western desert, settling evenly on everything moving or otherwise, the big cars remain improbably clean. If not for the army of poorly-paid labour drafted in from the Sub-Continent cleanliness would scarcely be the next best thing to godliness. All this spit and polish shines in an ethnocultural context, where religious piety comes in a shroud of either immaculately-laundered white for males or a beautifully-tailored black for females. Ironic when you consider it, the black syrupy source of national affluence – one of a dirty duo alongside coal – stains fabric like nothing else. Yet the white kanduras and black abayas, for all their over the ankle length, never show so much as a minor blemish. Same score with fleets of $80,000 Toyota, Nissan and Lexus 4WD desert tractors that continually roll off the big boat from Yokohama. White is the shade of choice and not only for reasons of Bedouin sartorial tradition. As any driver of a black car will testify, as no woman in a black abaya will, white reflects the phenomenal heat of summer and black does not. Until familiarity breeds contempt, which it often does in an indigenous population spoiled by oil wealth into treating anything of value as easily replaceable, the new eight cylinder heavyweights are as shipshape and immaculate as the kanduras sitting in the driver’s seat.  Are cars and kanduras (dishdashas) white in defiance of the colour of oil, or did oil come out black as a defiant warning to those who would wear white never to get too close?

These are strange days we live in. Fuel is the fuel that sends heads spinning and markets trembling. The blood that makes the world’s economy boil is transfused into everything from heaters that keep the hearth burning against winters that never seemed so cold to boats that deliver desperate refugees to a premature end, from American aircraft carriers plowing dying oceans to Russian jets zipping over a Syria they have neither seen nor cared for.

In a country that reserves the severest punishment for drug dealers, these storage tanks are meth labs on an industrial scale. High is the feeling from the fumes, empty is the feeling when the tank runs dry. Pure as crystal, dirty as the thoughts we ascribe it. How many more drug runs before the peninsula sinks under a rising ocean?

Happiness Might Be A Warm Gun


Epicurus in an epistle to Menoeceus:

We must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it.

I appreciate that you shuffled off this mortal coil about two and a half thousand years shy of being able to reply to this question via email, but because the whole truth lies broken into a million different opinions on the matter, a fractal question this remains. So Mr Epicurus, from your resting place in the pantheon, what, pray tell, brings happiness?

“Health of body and tranquility of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a blessed life. When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.”

Then what you’re trying to say, old boy, is that providing the body and mind are in decent shape, then happiness can come about through a succession of wild nights on the piss and a healthy dose of free love thrown into the bargain?

“No, It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of the fish.”

Fish? I generally round the night off with a kebab, though I’d have to admit ordering extra meat on the side is a guilty pleasure. Trouble is, this lifestyle plays havoc with my acid reflux. Makes me dyspeptic, and how can dyspepsia amount to happiness? I beseech you o wise one, is it so wrong to abide by the pleasure principle?

“Since pleasure is our first and native good, for that reason we do not choose every pleasure whatsoever, but will often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them. And often we consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as a consequence a greater pleasure.”

Speaking of submission, something happened while you were dead. It was called Islam and spoke broadly on the theme of happiness. Among its many facets, happiness in Islam wove pleasure into a security blanket (this in time came to be used a prayer mat). Contentment came from the feeling of security and security came from knowing that the Big Man was looking out for us. The security imperative was broadened to family, duty,  and the means to put bread on the table. Shakespearean existentialism never surfaced in this worldview of happiness because the life Macbeth bemoaned as but a walking shadow (a nothingness in so far as the scale of the wall against which the tiny shadow of human life is cast is so frighteningly vast) they saw as a shadowing presence, divine and eternal provided you submit to its will.

Full of sound and fury? On occasion, yes.  But signifying nothing? Not to them. There’s a plan and it was set down in writing long before you or I came along. Rejoice in the security of the Word, for it will take you where it takes you. It won’t let us down, we are assured. Thus in all that simplicity there has to be a recipe for enduring happiness.

Their prophet was reputed to have said,

“Whoever wakes up and feels safe in his flock, feels healthy in his body, and owns his daily sustenance, it is as if he owns this worldly life.”

Except you Greeks put healthy body before healthy mind. That’s called a predicate if I’m not mistaken. His followers, on the other hand, put sleep first, followed by the sheep. And then came the physical wellbeing. Then breakfast. Only then did happiness assume its rightful place. Sounds logical to me. Apart from safeguarding that feeling of certainty, the combination of keys to happiness unlocked freedom from the fear of death contaminating the unbelieving mind. Just knowing that it is all going to turn out A-okay if we simply jump through a lifetime of ritual hoops – a bit like having our devotion tested in a great long slinky – must bring reassurance and consolation, itself a probable cause of all that lazy arrogance of certainty alive and kicking in more than a few inhabitants of Arab Gulf countries.

O the anguish of uncertainty that is my making and my unmaking, Epicurus.

“When we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”

Ah! The sweet sound of reductionism. Sounds like an easy ride to happiness with simplicity at the wheel. What is the use of a key without the driver? Analogy: Pharmaceutics contain active agents that create biochemical change in the body. Excipients are inactive substances, gum or honey for instance, that combine with active agents in the delivery of those agents to the locus of pain or infection. To borrow from Mary Poppins (more of a pioneer than she’ll ever know) the excipient is the spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down. The active agents bringing about happiness, by correspondence, need excipients to arrange delivery with ease and with a smile. The solution, therefore, to the problem of how do the causes of happiness transform happiness from a notional to a felt experience? has to be both simple and soluble. Take anti-inflammatory drugs, for example. That the active substance, diclofenac sodium, has to be transported by – among other excipients – the talc on your baby’s bum, the cellulose in a plant cell, and the gelatin in your Fruit Pastilles straight to the root of the inflammation is both simple and genial. Pharmacists would no doubt concur. Simplicity is a kind of excipient, benign but effective in carrying to happiness the active substances happiness needs.

Expectation ranks high in the dharma of Buddhism as both a tyranny if too high, or a denial if too low. The Goldilocks principle applies to the wanting mind of expectations: get the temperature right by expecting no more and no less and happiness may flow. This active agent, expectation, when set to the right dosage targets happiness but only when simplicity is running the show.

Happiness ensues from turning negatives into positives. How? Case in point: cruciate ligament damage has brought my glittering prospects on the football pitch to an end. Not your average goalmouth ignoramus, while I was in rehab I learned so much about bodily articulations that I went back to school to get qualified. Now I face an ever brighter career as a physiotherapist specialising in ACLs. Unlike the last, this career should endure for more than a few seasons.

The causes of happiness now flow freely. Learning to let go of things not meant for you; learning to grasp the things that are. To paraphrase Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, have the wisdom to know the difference. Ditherers need not apply for this expedition to happiness.

Cultivate a philosophy of life. This represents a conscious and mindful approach that goes on the basis that while happiness needs working on with consistency, recognition needs to be given also to the inconsistent nature of knowing and growing, living and learning. This is affectionately known as going with the flow. The problems of epistemology mean that another predicate for happiness is to use DIY philosophy as a brake on the dizzying speed of change out there in the external medium. Philosophies can be refined, but their essential commandments should not lurch forward in a series of nervous breakdowns. Such psychic planning minimizes the emptiness and betrayal of knowing that what you believed then to be true is now what you know to have been built on bullshit. But i was sure the universe had my best interests at heart. Now i know it’s a cold and heartless bastard. It doesn’t care about me or anyone.

Learning to forgive is another borrowing from the dharma. Forgiveness is thankfulness and thankfulness brings accord. Accords bring peace, and peace with oneself brings happiness to the world. D’accord? Mai, oui. Bien sûr.

Opening one’s eyes to whatever is happening now, herein we have another. If we could all just live in the now we would become honorary surf dudes and therefore able to ride the waves without getting wiped out alongside 99.9% of species that have ever lived. Smelling the ephemeral roses while enjoying the sunset as if it were our last is an admirable cause of happiness. However, the fragrance of the rose lingers on, as does the crepuscular light of the sun long after it has set. This can lead to attachment and unduly influence expectations.

By now our set of keys is getting a bit laden down. What we need here on in is lightness of being, for which we need to jettison the superfluous parts of ourselves. This is where selflessness comes into play: to counterbalance the egoism needed to tackle the weight of expectations. Having a good cause is a wormhole to happiness. The quasi-holy status of charity and good cause is a bye to the next round. Saints in the making, if adopting abandoned animals doesn’t buy you happiness, nothing will.

Notably, satisfaction with what we have creates a virtuous updraft of I am good enough; what I have is all I will ever need. Is it apparent now why Mick Jagger kept pacing anxiously up and down the stage when satisfaction was something he couldn’t get?

In the case of who or what stirred happiness the jury finds the accused, simplicity, guilty of causation in the first degree.

It is said, in the English tradition of Benthamite utilitarianism, that happiness is a cigar called Hamlet. We know this to be a crock of s**t, as happiness in the English secular tradition, by any measure, is more in accordance with John Lennon who said it was a warm gun. Well, actually, he didn’t. He was merely perturbed into writing a song of that name through reading an article on the pleasures of killing helpless animals with hunting rifles, a feat categorically classed as not a cause of the greatest happiness to the greatest number. Be that as it may, the author is more inclined to cite Lennon’s stateside contemporary, Stephen Stills, in the cause of happiness;

“And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey
Love the one you’re with….”

So there you have it, happiness is right there if you can only reach out and touch it. Now if that be not beauty in simplicity, then let us all wallow in misery till kingdom never come.




Hell Is Other People


Just what the f**k is it with people? Tell me how it is that those who purport to be our friends, our Romans, our Countryfolk, those who appear oh-so well-adjusted and oh-so perfectly civil at the point of first contact, turn out in point of fact to be savage head hunters? Disguised in loin cloths or Laura Ashley cardigans it matters not a stitch, give ’em six months of protracted exposure in your company and sure as eggs are eggs they’ll be using any old pretext to either disseminate ill-founded rumours about you or else delight in launching sneaky broadsides from their good ship HMS Holier-Than-Thou, sending shrapnel through your integrity on the port side of you, as well as splintering the carefully-constructed personality nailed into your starboard side, just for good measure. O Lord! We do love a good drama now, don’t we?

Post-civilisation is pre-civilisation in reversal. At least Amazonian hunter-gatherers got their priorities spot on. They’ll have a pop at you on that first, potentially fateful, encounter through a confusion of leaves, vines, and otherworldly distrust. If you, l’etranger, manage to avoid being speared and beheaded at first contact, chances are that you will be welcomed into a community of fair and simple-minded souls where bitching, backbiting, mood swings, personal attrition and office politics don’t really play an integral part. You are one of us now, white man. Next comes the initiation process: bone-through-the-nipple christening ceremony, and all for a shot at being the man called Horse. Or the old Inuit one-two: first they get you inebriated on the -80 proof air, then before you know it you’re cuckolding the Lord of the Igloo by hopping under the reindeer skins with his favourite wife. Once in, always in. A plain, uncluttered relationship evolves thus. But the here and the now – the modern world of the shirt&tie&cloak&dagger – is neither high Arctic nomadism nor a Sioux nation that has been suffering an irreversible stock crash since the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.

One of life’s great travesties? How indigenous peoples the world over, existing for millennia in natural harmony off what Gaia provided, ended up on the brink of extinction when it was their modus vivendi that was the one built on a sound footing. They held it together; we’re tearing it apart. We’re raping it; they have favoured marrying into it. They’re going with the flow; we’re diverting it for hydroelectric power to burn more office lights in order to cast the light of aspersion on some other poor sucker’s life under the glare of modernity and its associative neuroses. They fire first and fuss later; we flatter then proceed to f*&k over. For the fortunate survivor, acceptance into the tribe would entail a social nexus that one can imagine with ease was relatively free of neurotic, shit-stirring, gossip-mongering, hormone-driven, interfering busybodies who claim they have your best interests at stake. Sure, there can be nothing more intrusive than tribalism – fifty families to one Batak longhouse, waking up with a different group member’s arm stuffed in your mouth each morning – but that pales in comparison to the kind of emotional oscillations one encounters in the large-scale organs of the modern society, where we all labour under drop ceilings and strip lighting to keep the body bureaucratic from going cold and stiff.

Nothing dilates the postmodern pupil more than the sound of intrigue. Why does he spend such time alone? What i would give to know what she gets up to outside the office? There’s only one reason i can think that he’d go so long without a girlfriend. Know what I mean? So-and-so reckons that you and you-know-who had a kind of ding-dong the other day? I’m not prying or anything. It’s just….It is just that our alienation with empty consumerism has plumbed such lows that we’ve got nothing better to talk about. Come on, can you all not just f*&k off and leave me to wallow in my own misery, my royal aloofness?  For when you apply a bit of reasoning to the whole damn conundrum of how hurt people hurt people, there’s not other conclusion than…

…L’enfers c’est les autres. Hell is the others. Merci pour tout cela, M. Sartre. Welcome to a hell made from other people. Welcome to the world of the shared profession. Welcome to the unstable elements against which we measure our self-worth (in the most fleeting and myopic of senses because people constantly come and go from our hopscotch modern lives anyway). Do we really need to first know what they think of us before we can determine what we know about ourselves? Can we implicitly trust them to set our self-image at the temperature they see fit to set? Without constancy in their knowledge and awareness of us, can we depend on them to fix the quantity and quality of what we feel and think our ourselves? Which brings us back to the original contention: namely, all but the best of our friends and lovers are intrinsic flakes, emotional shapeshifters of varying magnitude. Les autres think they know us better than we know ourselves. Who are les autres to bung our self-worth in a Queen Anne vase then bid for it? Les autres who think they can detach themselves by attaching themselves to your supposed dead spots more firmly than a frigging hagfish on a whale carcass. If les autres cannot practice constancy, if les autres cannot keep a straight opinion of us, how in Allah’s name are we to strive for a balanced view of ourselves, far less anyone else?

In the workplace, first they came for the coffee wallah, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a coffee wallah. And then they came for the taxi driver (who drove them in), and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a taxi driver. And then they came for that fella sitting four cubicles away next to the photocopier, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a photocopier. And then they came for me, which is why I’m finally speaking up.