The Dutchman in the desert

He’d begun to act out their moves, gestures and emotional pauses till he could sing the songs in his imperfect voice just the way they did.

Dutchman in the desert521 (photo credit: RHAT GILBOA)
Dutchman in the desert521
(photo credit: RHAT GILBOA)
‘I found the solution to absolute boredom,” Ton said out loud. “And a new hobby: Israeli pop music.”
All the controls showed that everything was in order, so here he was hundreds of miles from the African coast and thousands of miles from Leerdam in Holland in charge of the machinery that turned tons of sand into gigantic blocks.
This was “the project of the century”; the desert equivalent of Holland’s dam system for reclaiming land from the sea. Bit by bit, huge blocks had encircled areas, protecting them from the hungry sand mountains of the Sahara and allowing them to become fertile islands of human habitation that slowly advanced into the millions of acres of ever-shifting dunes.
The very generous salary had been the main reason that Ton applied for the job, but there had been personal reasons that he’d kept to himself. Now his running away from family and his life at home seemed to have boomeranged as he confronted the desolation surrounding him.
He had assumed, and been led to think, that he would be operating adjacent to other dams and areas being made ready for habitation, but it turned out that a different project was planned and his island of renewal was truly a desert island, separated as it was by hundreds of empty miles from the nearest settlements. He imagined what would happen if Dutch engineers put an island of dams in the middle of the North Sea, and felt a thrill of terror at his possible fate.
Meanwhile the blocks were moved into place by ponderous cranes to form miles-wide circles, the sandstorms were moderate and boredom was his greatest concern. By chance, he had come upon Israeli pop music on YouTube and been entranced by the singers and the variety of songs. While most were in Hebrew, not a Dutch speaker’s language of choice, there were English translations to most songs and he’d memorized his favorites. So he would sing along with Yehudit Ravitz, Shlomo Artzi or Harel Skaat. Then he’d begun to act out their moves, gestures and emotional pauses till he could sing the songs in his imperfect voice just the way they did. He could do a quiet Ivri Lider or belt out a Miri Mesika standard. He toyed with the idea of learning all the composers’ names as well, but it was beyond him.
So he would check the slow progress of the gigantic building blocks, hum the music, wait for the always threatening sandstorms and try not to think of bicycling through the green-shaded paths of Leerdam along the adjacent canals. He’d thought about Beatrix and their life together, now only a mirage, realizing that it was finally over, and he began singing. He’d begun dreaming and sometimes daydreaming of his life in Holland even as it began to be infiltrated by the music scenes of his Israeli videos; he’d see the family sitting down for Sunday breakfast to the ’70s tunes of Yehoram Gaon or just Beatrix’s image behind Eyal Golan singing a 2005 hit.
After a while, the videos were the main subject, and only his family’s photograph on a table was there to shock him out of his reverie. He was bemused by the thought that the contents of this musical life from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean could fill the emotional gap left by his former life.
As the noise of the wind increased, he was reminded of the wind blowing through the trees in Leerdam and he remembered the fresh smells there instead of the choking, crisp smell of the desert sands. He sang louder and louder finally realizing that a giant sandstorm was approaching. It was what he had feared all the time he’d been at this station. He started to lock down the equipment, but it began closing down by itself, either automatically or due to the controls jamming from the granules being pushed by gale-force winds.
It was time to push the Mayday button, he realized, yet he hesitated. They would send a helicopter eventually, he knew, once the storm abated, and take him away, rescuing him from being buried with the half-finished island. He thought that Adam leaving the shelter of the Garden of Eden couldn’t have been a sadder sight.
He removed his finger from the button and started walking down the corridor toward the stairwell that led to the subterranean shelter. He heard the glass crack and splinter in the control room, closed the door and began to descend the stairs, humming something whose name momentarily escaped him. He couldn’t recall the words or the singer or the emotion of the song, but he’d have time to remember it later, he thought.