The following article is the first in a series of three. ÿIt is an excerpt from a novel the author is writing. The book tells the story of a handful of people that are swept along as a small country undergoes change seeking rebirth and prominence on the world stage. The darker aspects of such aspirations are explored: violence as the nation frees itself from the shackles of its past, displacement of countless laborers from poorer countries seeking opportunity in a hostile land and illegal trafficking in persons.
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Burning trees release an acrid smell that lingers in the space above the nose and behind the throat. The wind brought this smell up from the valley to the garden of the General’s home where he and his guest wait for the sun to set and the wind to shift. Evening’s wind brings the crisper air down from the mountains and with it the sweeter aroma of the trees lining the falaj.
“This is a beautiful country. It is not a free country.”
“That is a shame.”
“No. It is not. You mistake a country that is not free for one which has no opportunity. This is not the case. We are in a land of opportunity.”
“But not for everyone.”
“Again, no. Equal to everyone. There is a limit to how far one can rise but the limit applies to all but one. There can be only one King. The inability to be King in no way diminishes the mobility of a man to achieve or exceed all his aspirations in wealth or power.”
“What about a woman?”
“Do not complicate things. Again, your notions of equality are somewhat incomplete. Trust me. The women here are happy. And they can do as they please. Ours is a different kind of equality. A different kind of love.”
The valley burned below. Peasants have no electricity. For cooking and for heat pits are filled with embers that offer the scent of poverty and happiness to the General’s garden. Denizens of the valley slept well that night, content with their hard day’s work and ever present hope. Their aroma lingered in the garden and tempted the pair to reflect on their own lives briefly; then it was swallowed by the guava, which burst ripe on the branches lining the impossibly green garden.
“I will tell you about my youth. When I was just 14 my country went to war.”
“With itself. I come from a small village. Not too far from here. I was asked to fight and I joined the Army. Just a 14 year old boy, mind you. I was made a sergeant.”
“What was the fighting like?”
“You ask too much, too soon. We have the entire night together, my friend.”
“Of course. I am too eager.”
The wind shifted and showed hints of the cold you can feel in the desert. Roads are new to this place and the development is rapid. For ages the paths across these mountains were just as heavily traveled and known by word of mouth clearer than are today’s roads shown on maps.
The roads have begun to prostitute the desert in the name of development. This is a harsh, unforgiving land and for that sake it is beautiful. The beauty is not adequately perceived through the window of a car. The day’s heat is a nuisance contrasted with the blanket of air conditioning.
Travelers come in and out lured by legends of the past or secrets read in a book somewhere. But a minute or an hour or a day just leaves you with the impression that the land is barren, brown and empty. New knowledge brought the pavement and will lead to towns, cities and hotels but the old routes that sought out shade of day, averted wild night winds in the passes and picked out reliable spots of water are lost. When the next person dies in the desert in this new era it will be seen as a tragedy rather than the natural result of a person who erred in judgment or exceeded the limits of their vanity.