Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Makhtesh Incident

Let me start at the beginning. My name's Avi- I'm a master's student studying in the Desert Center here in the Negev, and I'm working on the spatial ecology of Oryxes. I spend most of the time in the lab- our department was able to buy expensive satellite time to track Oryxes in the Negev. With individual digital signature tracking, I don't even need to go into the field to see an Oryx. But there have been Sat coordination problems of late and I can only use the Satfeed in spurts. So I grab the video frame for a couple of hours everyday, for around 30 of the Oryxes but I also have to go the desert to verify and carry out some experiments. Sometimes I spend many weeks in the deset, and I'm usually cut off from all communication during those days- I don't have a Sat-enabled pelaphone, and somehow I prefer the lack of communication: living with bedouin nomads does that to you. I even forget I'm carrying a beacon sometimes.

It was in the year 7 of the Return of the Mashiach (Hebrew year 5810), and there was a crisis brewing. The armies of Hind were growing ever aggressive and more and more countries were coming under their sway. Of course, calling them countries is a bit of a dated term, but the other option-city states- sounds even more dated. Anyway, the whole of South asia and Southeast asia were now ruled by the fundamentalist Hinds. This was really of no concern to us here in Israel, because most of the world considered Jerusalem as the capital anyway. The Mashiach was responsible for this: every christian country, every muslim country and of course, us, swore allegiance to the Mashiach. Jerusalem was now re-carved into a great city state and not a thing happened in the westernized world without going through the Mashiach. It was hard to consider all these ancient enemies venerating the same G-d, but it seemed obvious that the three great monotheistic religions shared the same G-d, and indeed the same area of genesis. The Arab states took their time to follow the Mashiach, especially because his given body was that of a 12 year old boy, also because the Quran had no reference to a returning messiah unlike Christianity and Judaism. But eventually they did. Despite the mocking efforts of the songster Hanoch, the Mashiach indeed had come. And promptly the reconstruction of the Third temple had begun. All the materials hidden by the orthodox was brought out, but the Mashiach disdained and rejected all expectations. The Third temple looked exactly like the Kaaba, but in white. I've heard that it was a massive engineering effort, and when the dust settled, the gleaming white marble cube stood in the centre of Jerusalem. No one was admitted in to the inner sanctum, except by explicit order of the Mashiach. I remember the first few days when the TV networks almost came to blows over the right to interview the Mashiach, but all of of it was in vain. Nobody ever saw the Boy, except those who were called. There was only one meeting of the so called world leaders, and that was it. The entire world bent to His will, and that too willingly. I've heard it said that anyone who even approached the temple was filled with a sensation of lightness and a sense of perspective. The old order was crumbling before our eyes. There were even cranky orthodoxers who protested that the Mashiach was not the true one and there would be another one, simply because He didn't do anything as predicted by the bible.

Meanwhile I continued my research, and due to the resurgence in ecology caused by the Mashiach's statement that those who worship His creation, worship Him, we got lots of grants that year and I started my work on the Oryxes. The problem was an old one: fission and fusion of herds in Oryxes. Oryx herds are a freewheeling collection of individuals and sometimes they forage together and sometimes they don't. There's a sort of hierarchy but it's very loose and transient, and groups dissolve and merge with great frequency. I was trying to understand how and why. In my first year. I usually spent all my time in front of the comp playing with the tracking software, but it was difficult to get an idea of the scale of these things without going to the field site itself. The best place to work was in the now dismantled Israeli Defense Forces' base in the area behind the Makhtesh Ramon. But oryxes did venture into the erosion crater itself, and that's how I was able to establish a very good base- near the lava bricks known as the carpenter's shop.

The Hind armies had now taken over most of the war devastated areas of Iran and Iraq, but that was a hollow victory and meant only as a threatening gesture. G-d knows if there was anything left there to take over. Everyone expected the Mashiach to do something, but despite the frantic efforts of the world leaders, nothing happened. The Mashiach refused to see them and no one dared to do anything to oppose His wishes. But there was a confrontation looming. The Hinds did not consider the idea of living in a world ruled by a monotheistic G-d appealing, and if they took Jerusalem, by default, they took the world. All it needed was a single symbolic victory and the world would be theirs. Hinduism had changed a lot. I remember, during my visit to India after I got discharged from the army, that it used to be a peaceful religion. I spent a lot of time reading the scriptures, especially the Bhagavad Gita, and going on semi-pilgrimages to various important temples. I had come to believe that the religion had no history of conversion, but like all religions what is true is often obscured by people with their own agenda. Hinduism had almost no history of aggression till the Hinds came to power and from then on it was a relentless nationalistic campaign that brought so much change in Indian society and affected a large part of the world.

I was near the rim of the makhtesh when the news came that the Hind army had released a horse in the manner of the olden times. Ancient kings of India used to perform a yagna called the Ashwameda yagna wherein a horse was allowed to roam about wherever it chose. An army followed it. If anyone stopped the horse, they were honour bound to fight the army. Kings expanded their kingdoms dramatically with this device. But the Hind horse was no ordinary horse: it was a genetically bio-engineered monster of a horse. It stood as high as an elephant, with steel armour and a real flaming mane. They must have been planning this for a long time. You could hear the horse's hoofs miles away in the desert. And it was marching towards Israel, followed by the thousands and thousands of Hind soldiers. We expected the Mashiach to do something quickly, but He remained His usual enigmatic self. The horse wended its way unchallenged across Syria, took a detour into parts of Iraq and then down to Jordan. It reached the mountains, crossed across the Arava valley and entered Israel. Slowly tension was mounting in the world: politicians threatened to send fighter planes and start strafing, but without explicit permission from the Mashiach it was impossible. Everything in the world ground to a halt as the world watched the progress of the Horse

I was sent an emergency warning on the beacon and then I realized that I was going to be more involved than any other person: the Mashiach had decided to meet the horse in the makhtesh!! Three days after the warning, there was a Khamseen. The wind whipped up the sand like crazy and I couldn't open my eyes for more than five seconds. The Khamseens usually last around three days and I knew that it was almost pointless trying to see Oryxes in this weather and coupled with the Mashiach coming here, I decided that it would be a good time to start heading out. I climbed into the jeep and started driving towards the road. I had climbed around halfway up the crater walls when I heard the Horse. It was an enormous thumping, and the echoes made it harder to tell where the Horse was. I don't know if it was because of the Khamseen, or the crater walls, but when I heard the Hind Army, I thought that this was it. Armageddon. A monstrous noise assaulted my ears. Considering that normally the sound of the wind is the only noise one hears in the Makhtesh, the sounds were too dramatic to get used to. I could see tanks and jeeps stretching for miles, all maintaining a respectful distance from the terrifying horse. The makhtesh was so big that it took some time before it started filling up, but it did slowly. I was so preoccupied with watching the army and the horse that I didn't even notice the TVbots and the defense helicopters battling the winds to hold their place. I didn't even notice the single car going the other way till it passed me: a small white car.

I looked back at the makhtesh walls: hundreds of cars stood at the rim, and people were peering down to see the greatest spectacle in human history. What would the Mashiach do? Would there be a bolt of lightning and the army vanquished, would there be a deluge of biblical proportions? It would be a story worth telling for generations. Another entry in the bible even. I was one of the few who were actually inside the crater and I could see exactly what was going on. The Horse walked slowly up to the middle of the crater, as if knowing that it was facing a potent enemy. Or maybe it was being controlled by radio or something. The white car stopped at the bottom of the winding road and a figure in white got out. Even with my binocs I could only make out a fuzzy white figure, but I didn't need my eyes to tell me that it was the Mashiach.

They say that it lasted only ten minutes, but it seemed like forever. The Mashiach met the Horse in the center of the makhtesh. The Horse neighed, but it sounded more like a shriek, and it reared and pranced. The Mashiach didn't move. Soon the Horse calmed down and there was no motion. The Army watched, but didn't interfere. The skies suddenly opened up and the gloom lifted a bit. We all waited for the calamity to strike the Hind army. But all the waiting was in vain. Nothing happened. After an interminable wait, the Horse shrieked once more and slowly started steeping away from the white figure. It turned and retraced its steps back. The army parted to let it through and soon the horse disappeared from sight. The Mashiach walked sedately back to His car, accompanied by a super herd of Oryxes, which had suddenly emerged from somewhere. i started scanning the color coded ID tags of the Oryxes, and to my surprise the herd consisted of several individuals who would have fought before running in the same herd. My only thought at the time was- this is going to screw up my data. The Mashaich got into the car and headed back, presumably to Jerusalem.

Much later, when all the speculations on why the Horse had turned back, and why the Hind soldiers had accepted the hegemony of the Mashiach, had died down a bit, and after countless interviews with the TVbots, I realized what had happened. The entire scene had given me a massive deja vu, and I realized where I had come across it before. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna develops an acute case of conscience when faced with the army of his opponents, most of whom are his kinsmen. And Lord Krishna in the process of explaining why he must commence the war, shows Arjuna His true self- the Universal Form. Of course I could never prove it, or even be sure that it was the right explanation, but it sounds right. But one thing I know, the Messiah sure messed up my data, and the Oryxes' patterns of group formation have changed completely.

Most of the non-english words should be understandable from context, but just in case...
Makhtesh- (Hebrew) Erosion crater
Makhtesh Ramon- World's largest erosion crater, found in the South Negev Desert
Mashiach- (Hebrew) Messiah
Pelaphone-(Hebrew) Cellphone
G-d- God, in Judaism, the uttering the name of God is forbidden
Khamseen (Hebrew/Arabic) Kind of sandstorm
Yagna- (Sanskrit) sacrifice/ offering to the Gods


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