Well, just forty-four hours to go and I will be in the air, flying northward forwards the Jordanian border.
This will be my 42nd flight of 2011 and 106th flight since my arrival in Saudi Arabia, in November 2009. Yet, for me at least, the fact that I have flown frequently does not make it any easier. In particular the moment when the aircraft begins to accelerate down the runway and a few moments later, the moment when it becomes clear that we are air-born are invariably terror filled. There is a curious moment a few seconds into each flight, when the plane seems to wobble a fraction as though making a minor gyroscopic adjustment. It is a horrible feeling accompanied, by a primordial fear that something is wrong and that we are about to carrier sideways into an adjacent terminal or hangar.
As a child I felt no such fear of flying, which is not to say that I did not feel fear. At the age of nine, my father hung two Malaysian Kites above a poster of Concord on the wall facing my bed. In the daytime, Malay Kites are colourful, with wavy batik patterns, but at night, these colours are rendered black against the white wash wall and their characteristic shape resembles a sinister smile, not unlike those on a mask at a Viennese Masked Ball. Together, these mocking, contortions of evil instilled a simple terror in my child’s imagining which taunted me nightly.
I took to sleeping in a protective ball, a habit I only broke in my thirties, unwilling to cast my eye in the direction of these monstrous contortions of facial features. In daylight hours I would look upon them and wonder why I felt this irrational nightly fear of so innocuous a toy. These simple, beautiful, cane and fabric flying machines could not represent a more innocent or gentle pass-time. Yet, the rational played no part in my fear. I could rationalize ad nauseam, but it made no difference what-so-ever come dusk.
I am no longer troubled in my sleep by stylized images of evil. Yet, I am reminded each time I take off that, if irrational fear is childish, that I have yet to put away all childish things.
Still, if terror is the child that accompanies me on each flight, he is not, if truth be told, the most demanding of travel companions. Like me, terror hates take off and is not too fond of landings but quickly settles down and enjoys free food, magazine and the in-flight entertainment, leaving me to once again be enthralled by the view of our amazing world from the sky. For no movie I have ever watched or conversation I have ever had can compare to the sheer beauty of our planet from thirty-five thousand feet. From that height, it is possible to see whole nations, some, such as Cyprus, seem to contradict their troubled ethic divisions by appearing to be whole and unified; the characteristic shape of the island, visible in a way that its peace-line is not. Other lands, The Lebanon or Slovenia, for example, are only hinted at, in part because I can make out the coastline, the neon stamp of a city such as Beirut or the path of the river Sava glinting in the sunlight.
From the air, the familiar political landscape is subverted. Some great natural borders such as the English Channel appear colossal, insurmountable barriers. While others, such as the Rhine appear to unify the land around them. There is no hint that western Europe’s most mighty river could ever constitute a limit to either French or Germanic cultures.
In summer, the high temperatures in the Middle East encourage the wind to whip up the loose sand, so that what can appear a clear day on the ground, resembles, looking down from an aircraft, the surface of Venus, a stone grey featureless orb obscuring the scarred and often beguiling landscape below.
At this time of year, the winds are reduced and there is a good possibility that the landscape of Saudi Arabia will reveal itself in breathtaking clarity. North of Riyadh, vast green circles of crops, irrigated with water extracted from deep within the porous sandstone, 25m or more beneath the desert seem to denote modern civilizations relentless capacity to tame and dominate nature, before it becomes clear that a slowly shifting sand dune, is slowly passing across some of these circles, their symmetry still visible, poking out from beneath the unstoppable wall of drifting stone particles.
Further north, and east, the landscape appears more permanent, with the winding familiar shapes of what I suppose to be waddies hinting at an older, wetter time, when the landscape was shaped by the passage of water rather than by the passage of sand, and further north still, bare rounded rock appears in places beneath vast waves of wind-driven sand barriers, which shift over them to their own millennial rhythm, exposing them to the relentless sun for hundreds of years, only to shroud them again for an equally long period. The exposed, flat landscape is ground smooth by the over passing sand, reflecting the sun and reminding us that the time scale of landscape is dictated by far greater powers than those we can exert:
“Look upon us, rocks worn smooth from the ageless passage of time. Look upon us from your airborne aluminum tube, and the comfortable certainty of your modernity and dominion; and remember that the ancient history of your Prophets and Gods, is but a snowflake amid a field of such. Look inward and you shall see its infinite complexity and delicate structure, but look out and see its ephemeral triviality to this eternal place which you profess to call your own.”
From there, my flight will likely take me over Jordan and Syria, briefly touching the corner of the Mediterranean Sea before traversing the rocky protuberances of Anatolia. If I am lucky, a clear sky over the Black Sea will afford me a view of the Bosporus and Istanbul before the brown greens of Romania herald arrival over Europe. Typically the flight then takes in the landscapes of Hungary, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, but this being December, it is likely that these ethnic, political, linguistic, cultural and gastronomic entities will share, from my perspective the single, unifying feature of impenetrable cloud.
Finally, descent, the plane typically spending an enthralling few seconds skirting the top of the cloud cover, affording a rare glimpse of our true speed before we dive into the opaque moistness ofBritain’s own wee parcel of atmosphere.
Without warning, the cloud will break and we will be only a few hundred feet above the ground. Below me, west London will pass swiftly and obviously by before giving way to the grass of Heathrow, for the first time a breathless sense of release, that we are so close to the ground: a wind sock, a hangar, a bump and rapid breaking, the wings and engine housing opening like a chrysalis to aid our deceleration; the sight of raindrops for the first time streaming across the glass of my portal. Then, the bland bureaucracy of arrival, the queues and indifference to your formal entry into the British polity; the sullen wait for your suitcase and the featureless netherworld of passages and tunnels, advertising hoardings and underground trains piping serene mood music.
Yet, London does grand, epic entrances as well. The squally throng of transient individuals beneath the 19th Century ironwork of Paddington’s Vaulted Arches, has an impatient vibrancy and colour that has been purposefully drained from Heathrow. It offers too, a world of options; the tantalizing allure of the Great City at your disposal or the mystic tonic of home, the subject of a million wistful lyrics.
All of it just two dawns away. And, then, just four dawns away, the flight to Warsaw, to my love and to the prospect of a New Year, new possibilities and reaffirmation of mankind’s capacity to disguise our terror at the world by reinventing it according to our own, very modest, very epic timescales.