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In advertising, image is everything.
Blaine Ramsey has an unusual occupation. He travels to foreign countries and lives like a native. He drinks in the culture with his mind, body, and soul. And he does it all in the name of American capitalism. For Blaine is an Image digger, one of an elite few blessed with the power to "dream" ...
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In advertising, image is everything.
Blaine Ramsey has an unusual occupation. He travels to foreign countries and lives like a native. He drinks in the culture with his mind, body, and soul. And he does it all in the name of American capitalism. For Blaine is an Image digger, one of an elite few blessed with the power to "dream" authentic images from the deep unconscious of foreign lands that are turned into alluring, computer-animated packages used by advertisers to sell their products.
But in a dusty Middle Eastern villa, something goes terribly wrong. Blaine is haunted by the recurring Image of a young Arab beauty suffering a brutal attack. For Blaine, her Image becomes the seductive source of romantic obsession—and a nightmare from which he cannot escape. And as Blaine is about to discover, her appearance in his dreams foretells tragedy—a disaster the likes of which the world has never seen....
That night he slept dreamlessly in the cool air perfumed with jasmine and the nightingale's song, or if he had dreams they were not of the lucid variety; maybe he heard Buthaina's voice from around the corner of a village street, but she didn't wake him with her torment. The niacin had finally kicked in, or maybe there was another reason: maybe it was because he had heard her call, had already, in some deep part of himself, decided to go to her.
It was ridiculous, of course, he realized when he woke up with the fresh breeze of early morning gently lifting his curtains in the pale sunlight, the plan fully formed in his mind. While Cairo was technically exo-area, he was sure it wasn't what Haseeb Al Rahman would have had in mind had he been mentationally present to deliver his recommendation for R&R leave. Cairo contained little of either rest or relaxation these days, between economic collapse, political instability, and impending earthquakes. And it was the direction exactly opposite the one he should go to leave his obsessive dreams behind, he knew, since in that city lived the actress Aida, the alter ego of the dream-girl Buthaina.
If he had wanted to kid himself, he could have told himself he was going to Cairo as part of his dig, to follow a lead given by his subconscious about the source and meaning of his Image. Or he could have pretended he was on a spiritual quest in search of himself, to find out why he had dreamed and hallucinated the movie star. He could even have pretended he was going for pure science, to investigate a phenomenon in apparent contradiction to establishedneurosociological theory. But he was too old to play games; he knew that the real reason he was going wouldn't stand up under logical scrutiny, and it was this: he had heard the dream-girl Buthaina beaten to agony, had seen her broken, bloodied body, held her cold, delicate hands, and he had fallen in love with her like any bumpkin first-year digger falling for his Image. Yet by some incredible stroke of luck or misfortune, this Image lived, in the person of an Egyptian movie star; and since she had a physical existence somewhere in the world, Blaine would go to her.
An exhilaration went through him as he padded on cool floor tiles into the tiny whitewashed kitchen to put on the teapot, the kind of feeling he remembered from his childhood when, waking early in the morning, he had realized it was the first day of summer vacation. He hadn't had that feeling in a very long time.
* * *
Blaine could have taken an EgyptAir or Royal Jordanian flight from Amman to Cairo, but the Image-digger imperative for local atmosphere had accustomed him to sharing the serveese taxis that middle-class Arab travelers used. He caught one in an oil-stained parking lot in Jericho between a low-rent hotel and an orange grove, where dozens of taxis parked in the early morning, drivers calling out the names of the cities for which they were bound, the fresh, cool air holding the fragrance of the trees, the smells of motor oil and roasting peanuts sold by hawkers.
* * *
The heat of the Sinai Peninsula made the remembered temperature of the Jordan Valley seem mild by comparison. The venerable supercharged Mercedes taxi Blaine had caught flew rattling along the flat, heat-rippled Suez road with all its windows open, and the air that blasted in on the riders was broiling. At intervals they halted at rest stop lean-tos built of palm fronds or corrugated iron. As he pissed on the sand behind the lean-tos the sun was like knife blades on Blaine's head and shoulders, the air almost unbreathable, and the vast stillness of the endless yellow plain seemed also an artifact of the heat, as if the sun held all life, all movement in an iron grip. After relieving themselves, travelers drank cold Pepsis from solar-powered coolers inside the rest stops, and then, after paying the nearly motionless proprietor, were on their way again, the rush of wind through the windows drying their sweat.
Transit at the Palestinian, Israeli, and Egyptian borders had been slow and suspicious, and Blaine's Icon corporate immunity identification—protecting his palmtop from contraband data searches—had been painstakingly scrutinized half a dozen times. The regimes in the area had never fully recovered from the prodemocracy intifadahs of '02 and '03, which had left a jumble of autonomous and semiautonomous regions in their wake, creating fertile ground for smuggling, gunrunning, and money-laundering, which the governments tried to combat by strict border control. By late afternoon Blaine's serveese was still in the desert beyond Suez, and heading south now: the northern and eastern approaches to Cairo went through shantytowns not under the firm authority of government, and were sometimes dangerous. The driver was pushing the car now to speeds at which it seemed to Blaine to be barely under control, its heavy, dented frame rattling, jumping, and rocking, though the other riders, swaying passively in their seats, seemed unaware of it. Outside, flanked by electric transmission towers, the patched road dwindled to a sand-hazed horizon over a wide, exhausted beige land of rippled sand and rocks and intense heat. Um Kalthoum, the Middle East's most revered singer in the 40 years since her death as well as in the 40 years before it, blared from the taxi's radio, and above her sinuous cries and the labor of the engine, two of the passengers had managed to get into a political argument.
"The earthquakes, the unrest, are a judgment from God," the man in the front passenger seat, directly in front of Blaine, was saying. He was thin and dark, with a narrow face, black hair that curled close to his head, and bright black eyes. While he wore Western clothes, the neat, trimmed beard on his hollow cheeks had excited the suspicion of the police at each of the borders they had crossed: Islamists often wore beards, after the fashion of the Prophet Mohammed. He was turned in his seat to see the man sitting directly behind the driver. "And now the West says it will not give aid to help with the earthquakes. The plans and devices of men have come undone, brother, and no one can save Egypt but God."
The man in the back seat, dressed in the plain gray clothes of a low-level Egyptian bureaucrat, clicked his tongue impatiently. "Brother, the earthquakes come from a feature of geology, a crack in the rocks of the earth. The political unrest is because the people are poorer and poorer, due to the population problem. And the aid—the West will give it in the end. Egypt is their ally in the Middle East. Think of the outrage it would cause if the rich nations let earthquakes destroy a country of a hundred million people. They'll give the aid, brother."
"They will cut it off," said the bearded man. "The Arabs cannot rely on foreign charity anymore. They have to stand on their own feet. Where are the Gulf countries in this crisis, with their billions? Where are the Palestinian scientists and engineers, the Sudanese with their crop surpluses? I tell you, the Arabs have stood on their own feet only once in history: when the whole Arab nation was united under the flag of Islam."
The man riding in the back seat between Blaine and the bureaucrat, a laborer by the look of his rough clothes and hands, sun-darkened skin, and thick forearms, spoke up, to the bureaucrat: "Your presence says the earthquakes are caused by something—biology, or whatever your presence called it—forgive me, I'm not an educated man. But what causes this biology itself? It is God, I say, who has sent this biology."
The driver and the bearded man murmured their agreement.
Um Kalthoum had finished her hour-long song, and the radio began playing Quranic recitations. The riders fell silent, each withdrawing into his own thoughts, the resonant, nasal chanting filling the car with a cathedral-like serenity despite the rush of speed, wind, and rattling. The driver sat relaxed, one hand negligently holding the wheel, the other hanging out the window; the bearded man fondled his prayer beads, lips moving silently; the laborer sat with his rough hands folded patiently in his lap.
They rushed past a bedouin shepherd in ragged black robes and turban, face nearly blackened with sun, tending a group of skinny goats foraging on nearly invisible desert scrub. In that instant the chanting from the radio and the lengthening rays of the still-fierce sun seemed to interpenetrate in Blaine's mind, as if the sunlight was some visible aspect of God's grace, giving the tall, straight bedouin man, as it poured upon him, a dignity and noble individuality worthy of a child of Adam.
By 11 A.M. the morning breeze that had rustled the coarse leaves of the fig trees had quieted to baking stillness. The daybreak sounds of roosters crowing, transistor radios blaring Arabic music, and the voices of the village children, remote but clear in the oasis silence below the mountains, had given way to the crunching passage of an occasional car on the road outside the high garden wall and, from the villa next door, the clank of pots, clack of plastic slippers on tile floor, the slam of a screen door, and the voices of women doing housework. Blaine Ramsey sat sweating on an extruded-plastic garden chair of Israeli manufacture under the waxy green leaves of lemon trees, in a niche of shade where the blue-whitewashed stucco of his rented house came within two meters of the garden wall. It was the coolest place in the garden, though still prickly with June heat. Beyond the tiny house, where the flagstone walk ran between rows of okra bushes, cucumber vines, thyme, and lavender, the sunlight was almost too bright to look at, though still fresh with a dusty morning paleness. At the bottom of the garden were orange and fig trees, and by the concrete garden wall a tall jacaranda with blossoms like crimson birds perching on its fernlike leaves. The gardener had left the hose running since early morning, and Blaine could hear its faint ripple, smell the hot dampness drawn out of the earth by the sun.
It would have been a relief to go indoors to the frigid blast of the air conditioner, but that would have defeated the purpose of his presence in Kraima. His job during the day was to absorb local atmosphere -- in this case the burgeoning peasant megavillage stretching along the highway between the desert mountains and the Jordan River plantations. It was a hot, dusty, monotonous atmosphere.
Footsteps shuffled on the flagstone walk, and Abu Saleh came around the comer of the house. He was wiry, short, and mustached, skin burned almost black by the sun like most of the local people's, work clothes and forearms dusty from his slow, methodical weeding. He carried a tiny tumbler of tea brewed on his kerosene primus.
"God give you strength, Abu Saleh," said Blaine, using the proper Arabic salutation for people at their work.
"May He strengthen you," Abu Saleh replied reflexively. He squatted against the wall in the shade and sipped his tea, studying Blaine. Blaine knew he looked like an American -- tall, rangy, and clean-shaven, wearing jeans and a cotton shirt -- but he didn't carry a translator palmtop, and he spoke Arabic with almost native skill, the result of a university major and the fact that his father had been an ethnic Arab. His mixed ethnicity was also why Icon used him for Middle East postings: local genetic affinity was supposed to increase the nervous system's sensitivity to local atmosphere, while his foreign roots improved the chances that any Images he dug would have cross-cultural appeal. Though neither his local nor his foreign affinity seemed to have helped much on this job.
"The water has been turned off," reported Abu Saleh, sipping his tea.
"Again?" The quiet ripple of the hose was no longer audible, Blaine realized. Though the Jordan River was only a kilometer away, the dispositions of the local pumping stations and the authorities who ran them were unpredictable. "Everything is in the hands of God." Blaine sighed piously. The fact that he could buy plastic bottles of drinking water at the tiny shop down by the highway made it easy for him to exhibit the resigned surrender to the divine will prescribed in such situations. He would probably be gone in a week or two anyway, whether the water came on or not. And without having pulled down a single Image after two months in this supposedly fertile area.
Everything is in the hands of God," agreed Abu Saleh, sipping his tea and squinting at the sun-washed garden.
Despite the heat it was a relief at lunchtime to have an excuse to go out. Blaine put on his straw hat -- which he knew made him look even more like a foreigner, but without which he would get sunstroke -- unlatched the green metal garden door, and stepped into the sun-blinded dirt street. At the corner of his seven-foot-high garden wall he turned right onto a wider dirt street that ran down the gradual slope toward the Shuna-Tiberias highway five hundred meters away. He could see a wide swatch of the local village area from here: dirt streets, one- and two-story houses of bare cinder block or prefab concrete with clotheslines, dusty solar panels, and satellite dishes on their flat roofs, everything washed pale by the intense sunlight except for an occasional palm or jacaranda arching out of a walled garden. An aboveground water main ran up the rocky shoulder of the street, leaky joints feeding tiny, riotous oases of mint, pigweed, and nettles.
Blaine trudged down the street, the sun like molten iron on his shoulders, the noon call to prayer, amplified from the three-story minaret of the local mosque, echoing somberly over the shimmering landscape. Down close to the highway the houses were tiny, without window-glass or screens, low walls of cinder block or piled stones enclosing yards of dust and camel-thorn where donkeys were hobbled and chickens pecked.
The highway was four lanes of potholed asphalt divided by a concrete median painted with faded black and orange stripes. The river was an invisible presence beyond the lush citrus and banana groves across the highway, palpable in the smell of irrigation and a hint of humidity, oppressive in this heat. Villages like Kxaima had burgeoned along this strip of asphalt in the past twenty-five years, growing together at their edges so that now the road was flanked for most of its ninety kilometers by a profusion of unplanned, unzoned construction: houses, shops with roll-down garage-type doors and wares hung from their awnings, small coffeehouses, the walled gardens the Arabs called "villas," tiny official buildings faced with cut stone, an occasional small mosque or church, an occasional cinema strung with colored christmas tree lights. The fruit groves limited expansion west in the direction of the river, and the desert mountains rose abruptly to the east, so most of the population of the Eastern Jordan Valley Semi-Autonomous Region lived in view of the highway.
Blaine turned left along its shoulder. Occasional cars and trucks rattled and swayed past at perilous velocities, raising dust while tiny children played close by among the rocks and thorns. A couple of robed peasants sat on the median, calmly watching the traffic. A local teenage scion with an American-style brush cut cruised by in a vast Buick, booming illegal Euro gut-thump that momentarily disarranged Blaine's internal organs.
The roll-down door of the local shop was pulled a third of the way closed to keep out the sun. Blaine stooped to enter. The windowless dimness within smelled strongly of cumin and allspice. Behind a plywood counter the walls were covered with rough shelving reaching to the ceiling, stacked with everything from canned vegetables and jars of local olives to Palestinian-made radios to soap and faded boxes of Dutch cookies. On the floor open canvas sacks displayed beans, lentils, rice. An electronic fly trap next to the door crackled almost constantly. Perched on a stool behind the counter was a dark girl who looked about eight years old, wearing a clean, frilly pink dress. She shyly brought Blaine bread, a can of sardines, and two local eggs, and accepted the scrip he printed from his wallet bank terminal.
"God bless you," Blaine said to her, and trudged back up to his villa.
It was a day like any other in the two months since he had come here.
That evening the scent of jasmine and a nightingale's song came softly on cooling air through the barred window of Blaine's small, whitewashed bedroom. He sat on the narrow bed and drank the bitter decoction of herbs that helped bring on the Image dreams, murmuring the archaic invocations to Hindu deities that the Icon neurosociologists had found somehow magnified the herbs' potency. He did it distractedly, with the automatic poise of five years' practice, wondering meanwhile where his next assignment would be.
Probably not Morocco, which had already been hot for a year. He had seen some of the commercials based on Images dreamed in the ancient cities of Meknes and Fez: they were beautiful, primitive, and powerful, but that vein had to be about exhausted by now. Images from any particular series only stayed hot for a short time; after that they lost their power to grab attention, inspire fantasies, and compel people to buy the products associated with them by the admen, exposure to the mass consciousness of the consuming public draining away their numen. That was how they worked. While psychoanalysis sought to dissipate disturbing unconscious material by bringing it into consciousness, psychologically active advertising employed the same dynamic to sell products, using mesmerizing Images from the collective unconscious. Each one had to be discarded as soon as it lost its potency, which was why Icon and the other big multinational advertising firms had huge R&D budgets supporting hundreds of Image-diggers all over the world dreaming for new material that tapped powerfully into the human psyche.
Maybe it would be Cairo next, Blaine thought, putting his empty teacup on the wobbly rattan night table. There had been Company rumors of recent strikes there -- and other rumors, some of them strange. He hoped it wouldn't be Cairo -- even the Jordan Valley with all its heat and monotony was better than a collapsed Third World city of 35 million people jittering with earthquake tremors.
But it was time to move on somewhere. In two months here he had turned up only personal dreams and fantasies, not even one lucid Image dream. Either he was having tie-in problems or the Icon scouts who had marked the Jordan Valley as a potentially rich source of unconscious material had misread their tea leaves.
He turned off the ceiling light and climbed between the rough, sun-dried sheets, then flicked another switch, this one on a console attached to a frame of wires stretched over his bed like the skeleton of a mosquito net. A tiny green light showed that the electroneural anchoring device -- wired to trees, rocks, and earth in the garden outside -- was activated.
In a few minutes, the song of the nightingale trickling over him, Blaine fell asleep.
He woke gradually in the early dawn, the nightingale still singing. The deep blue twilight was cool as he slipped out of bed, the floor tiles chilly on his feet. He put on clothes and went outside, the kitchen screen door slapping quietly behind him. The air was just a little damp, perfectly still. A vague pinkish glow dimmed the stars above the eastern mountains. Other than the pausing, meditative song of the nightingale, the world was silent.
Blaine went down the flagstone walk past the fig and orange trees, stretching and yawning in the deep blue, faintly purplish light that filled the garden like cool water. At the bottom of the garden a seven-foot concrete wall separated his villa from the next. He had stood for a minute rubbing his eyes and breathing deeply of the delicious air when there was a sound beyond that wall.
It was a quiet, slapping shuffle, the sound of the cheap, brightly colored plastic sandals worn by peasant women in this part of the world.
The sound struck Blaine with a strange excitement. He knew there were women in the next villa: he had heard their laughter and housework conversation many mornings. He had once seen three of them coming out of their garden door carrying plastic shopping baskets; by their long dresses and headscarves he had perceived that they were fundamentalist Muslims.
He said in the direction of the wall: "Sabah el khair. Good morning." He said it quietly, but in the perfect stillness it could not have been mistaken in the next garden.
The sound of sandals stopped. He had scared her, Blaine thought, at the same time wondering at himself for risking the wrath of his conservative neighbors by talking to their women, even over a wall.
There was a scraping, as of something being dragged, and then a couple of thumps and a light exhalation, and two hands appeared at the top of the wall. A girl pulled herself up and straddled the wall easily, so that her long black robe was pulled up to the knee of a smooth white leg.
Her robe covered her to the wrists and throat, but her head was uncovered. She was breathtakingly beautiful -- so beautiful that with an electric jolt of shock and exhilaration Blaine realized that this was an Image, that he was dreaming -- dreaming at last the lucid dream, the deep astral fantasy of the collective unconscious that the Icon scouts had sensed buried somewhere in the Jordan Valley.
He tried to relax, to release the aesthetic rush of the Image so it wouldn't wake him, so he could scan the dream, memorize every detail: the beautiful Muslim girl smiling down at him, twilight the color of violet smoke etching clearly each exotic leaf in the garden, its stillness holding the liquid song of the nightingale.
"Sabah el noor," said the girl softly, using the proper response to his greeting. "Morning of light."
She was slender and erect, with dark eyes and thick, dusky hair. Her smile was a child's, though she herself looked in her late teens -- delighted but tentative, shy, as if unsure whether she should be smiling at him at all. The small, bare foot thrust over the wall was high-arched and perfect.
"Who are you?"
Her voice -- soft, guileless, inquisitive -- gave him chills. He couldn't tell whether she was mentally undeveloped or simply innocent with the wide-eyed innocence of a cloistered village woman.
"I am your neighbor, my sister. Who are you?"
"My name is Buthaina. Oh! Your garden is so beautiful!" The breath caught softly in her beautiful throat, her tresses falling over her shoulders as she gazed back and forth, the dark eyebrows below her broad, high forehead raised.
This was good, Blaine realized, trying to keep his excitment in check -- this dawn scene in the Jordan Valley with a Muslim child-princess was as good as anything they had pulled down in Morocco.
"I have a gardener who tends it," he said to keep her talking.
"A gardener?" she gasped, fixing her wide eyes on him. "Oh Peace! How lovely that must be!"
Blaine's eyes were tracking back and forth now, his trained dream-senses registering every detail: the smell of damp earth and jasmine, the nightingale's song, dawn highlighting the girl's stray tresses pink, the sky still dark blue behind her. And vaguely, from the garden behind the wall, the slam of a screen door.
On an impulse he took a step forward and caught the girl's foot in his hand. It was cool and smooth as silk.
"What are you doing now?" she said, laughing. Blaine laughed too, the touch of her bringing a full, happy feeling into him.
Through her foot he felt a sudden jerk, as if something had yanked at her from the other side of the wall.
She looked around so violently that she almost lost her balance.
Then another terrific yank jerked her foot out of his hand and she fell backward.
He heard her fall heavily to the ground behind the wall, and then mingled with her gasps and the sound of desperate struggling in dirt and gravel was the thick, bubbling hiss of someone else's breath.
Then a heavy, sickening blow.
The girl screamed.
Blaine stood rooted to his spot, head swimming with horror. It was a dream, he reminded himself -- not real, just a lucid dream; yet an Image dream, and never before had anything like this happened to him in the programmed euphoria of an Image dream. The girl was screaming incomprehensibly and there were more blows, the bone-breaking thud of fists and boots on a living body, the sounds receding as if she was being dragged away.
Blaine tried to call out but the words choked in his throat. Was it an intruder, a rapist? One of her fundamentalist relatives punishing her for immodesty? But it was a dream! There was nothing to fear. Yet something was wrong; Image dreams didn't do this, didn't turn suddenly into nightmares --
A man's voice screamed with insane rage from inside the house beyond the wall, and there was the thick, sharp lash of a whip, then again, and again. The girl's cries had broken into animal shrieks of unutterable agony interspersed with great gasping sobs and something like laughter, as if she had lost her mind.
And suddenly he was standing no longer at the bottom of his garden in Kraima, but in a filthy, rubble-strewn yard in a hazy, dark gray, acrid atmosphere that went up between canyons of decrepit high-rise tenements; and as he watched, the tenements with a booming started to shake, started to crumble and fall, tumbling down in slow motion, raining down thousands of tons of concrete --
Blaine's scream woke him, shot him bolt upright in bed trembling and slick with sweat, heart pounding, yellow light of dawn coming in the window, a few birds singing and a rooster crowing somewhere nearby.
Copyright © 1999 by Jamil Nasir. All rights reserved.
Posted July 14, 2001