Sahara sands and other’s lands

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, May 2014.] 


Fine, red-brown dust covered every flat surface across Europe and the south of the UK just four weeks ago. If it was ever needed, it gave the strongest physical evidence that nature does not respect borders as well as telling our eyes, noses and throats that continents can exchange things through the air as easily as we can go on our holiday flights.

Apart from local pollution and pollen, the major source of this all-encompasing powder was North Africa’s Sahara desert. Powerful wind storms there whipped up the particles making them airborne well into the north where they were brought down by light rain.

Personally, I like the idea that someone living in Catalunya (or even London) can be affected by natural forces from a desert that we have usually thought of as being "a long way" to the south. (I’m often reminded how close it really is by the Arabic traffic sign on the autopista near El Papiol.)

This desert, like the others I have visited in the USA and Australia, is both enchanting and beguiling. The apparent emptiness, the sheer width of the open space, the calming shimmer of the sand, the soft curves of the dunes, the barren beauty of the raw plains and the friendly proximity of the stars in your face at night, and (if you are lucky) all from the back of a placid, gentle-paced camel with extra long eyelashes.

To me, the desert is infinitely more preferable than trying to look at the irritatingly ceasless, repetitive and ultimately moronic monotony of the ocean, which for all it’s supposed romance and admittedly great bounties, is to me just something that makes me seasick.

But this recent weather phenomenon, including the reporting of it, has another aspect to it.

Many of us are at least subconsciously pleased that it has come from outside where we live or have grown up. It is easy, convenient, mentally lazy, to categorise something that has created a minor health concern like asthma as a problem caused by an "oustide" influence or created by an "external" source.

We can, without even vaguely realising it, make a casual association with other "African problems" like immigration/refugees/hunger/starvation/poverty and this allows us to wash our hands of any possible moral responsibility simply because it was not "us" who made it so.

We can quietly form the idea that it is those from outside our own homelands who bring in trouble/disease/political extremism/desperation or even "false" religion and this means that we have logically gone most of the way to dismissing the needs of negros with "other continent" problems. And we have barely exercised a brain cell in the process.

Because of the luxury of viewing Africans as others, and not "one of of us" we also set up a chain of thought (or is it more like a lack of thought?) that links "their" difficulties as somehow removed from "our" difficulties. This permits a kind of unconscious, indifferent racism.

By creating the idea of "us" we create the idea of "them." Even the word "foreign" is objectionable to me. A foreigner therefore, is an "outsider," Auslander in German or an extranjero (which has the suggestion of someone being "extraneous," to an English-language ear, meaning: " irrrelevant/not forming an essential or vital part.)

So, weather can reach out over frontiers. When any person does the same we should be complelled to consider the Latin writer Terentius’ words from around 160 BC. He stated that " I am a human being, so nothing human is foreign to me."


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