January 17, 2014
Anyone who has stood in the middle of the desert and lost all sense of direction understands why the human eye grabs on to whatever it can to make sense of an overwhelming situation.
While mirages are, in popular culture, treated as an emotional response – for example, the thirsty and disoriented traveler seeing water where there is none – a mirage is in fact an optical phenomenon.
Rays of light are refracted through the air at different temperatures. In the desert, where the effect is magnified, that means the heat from hot sand rising into cooler air. The result is a trompe l’oeil that the human eye perceives as an image, such as a body of water. The bending of light rays may be real, but what humans see in the mirage is purely based on their own life experiences.
T.E. Lawrence makes frequent references to mirages in the “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” For the ever-practical Lawrence, mirages are a “dreadful business” that cloud the vision at critical moments.
On the march through what is today north Jordan, Lawrence is delayed in the desert waiting for the rest of his convoy after the dust cloud it kicked up separated them.
“We sat down to wait, gazing back into the dappled waves of the mirage which streamed over the ground,” Lawrence writes. “Their dark vapour, below the pale sky… shifted a dozen times in the hour, giving us a false alarm of our coming friends.”
It is a turn of phrase particularly apt for the supposedly upcoming Geneva peace conference, which at the time of this writing, was unclear whether anyone from the Syrian opposition would even attend.
One of the problems with the conference is that each major player around it sees its own mirage: For the U.S., it is that unique blend of magical thinking (“if we close our eyes and will it, a political solution will happen”) and high-school politics (“Iran can’t come to our party until they accept the dress code.”) For Russia, it is a chance to further enhance its growing role, unchecked, as a power broker in the Middle East. For the Assad regime, it gets a seat at the table that it will use to cling to power. For Iran, Geneva II provides legitimacy and diplomatic edge amidst nuclear negotiations, and for Islamic Front leader Zahran Alloush, it provides an opportunity to possibly target and kill anyone who participates.
The thing about a mirage is that as you get closer to it, the image you think you see either sharpens its focus and becomes clear, or fades into the haze of the desert.
The fate of the Geneva II conference will depend on whether the parties involved can see past the mirages that to them still seem so real.