Steven Weinberg
PhD Student at Rutgers University

There is no replacement for traveling to Egypt

Sometimes, it’s not so easy being an American. I’m not sure how this happened, but we are given such oversimplified, over-romanticized, overly-stupid views of the outside world. Maybe I’m the only one who this happened to, but I somehow developed extremely stereotypical views of other countries as a child. I came to view the cultures of other countries through a cartoonish and laughably superficial lens. When I was in college, I studied abroad in the South of France, in Aix-en-Provence. I went because I was interested in medieval European art and history, and France had quite a bit of that. I stayed with a French family. In my ignorance and my simultaneous worshiping of medieval history, I thought that twenty-first century France was still intimately connected to twelfth-century France—or at least eighteenth-century France. And so, during our evening meals, I would ask this French family questions about the great figures of France’s past—Louis XIV, Joan of Arc, Cardinal Richelieu, and Henry the IV, also known as Henry of Navarre—as though these figures were current politicians. I expected this French mother to have some strong and meaningful opinion on Louis XIV, as though all French people eat baguettes, wear berets, and have a secret yearning to play dice with the Duke of Orléans at the Palace of Versailles.

It took me a long time to figure out—and maybe I still haven’t quite yet—that this France does not exist anymore. Because of globalization, and modernization, and thousands of other factors, the France we visit today is, obviously, just a Western democratic country. Do French people eat baguettes? Yes. But are there French people who prefer sushi or hummus? Also yes. Is someone in France right now wearing a beret and whispering poetry into his lover’s ear? Yes. But for that one person there are a thousand more wearing New York Yankees hats and listening to shitty techno. The dream is over. Walk down the Champs d’Elysees if you must, but I promise—all you’ll find are the same bloated corporate retailers you could just as easily visit at your local shopping mall.

But is the dream really over? Can visiting a foreign country, even in today’s globalized, Americanized, touristicized world take us back to the country of old, to the old country, to the country’s ancient essence? The summer after I studied in France, I took a trip to Rome with my family. While we saw the Coliseum and the Pantheon and the Roman Forum and St. Peter’s, I hardly felt like I was rediscovering ancient Italy. We stayed in a hotel, the menus were in English, the sights were swarming with international tourists. Maybe I just don’t have much of an imagination, but I could not envision Michelangelo painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or Pope Clement VII barricading himself in the Castel Sant’Angelo during the Sack of Rome, or even local Romans excitedly discussing the invigorating ideas of the Renaissance with each other on the streets.

Nevertheless, one particular moment from this family trip reaffirmed my belief in the worthiness of traveling to foreign countries to experience their ancient essences. My family and I wanted to visit St. Peter’s Cathedral. We got into a taxi and asked the driver to take us to the Vatican. There was just one problem, however. The driver didn’t speak English. We said things like “St. Peter’s,” “Vatican,” “Sistine Chapel”—none of it registered with him. Then, my mom finally said something which he picked up on. She said “pope.” The driver perked up his ears. “Papa?” he answered. “Yes, Papa!” my mom said with a laugh, and we were on our way. When the driver said “Papa,” it was as though a door into ancient Italy, the real Italy, cracked open for a minute, and I was allowed to peer inside. I understood that, for Italians, the pope is not just the pope—he is Papa, a patriarchal, fatherly figure. The word “pope” was meaningless and empty to the driver’s ear; but the word “Papa” burned as deeply in his soul as it would have for a Tuscan peasant during the reign of Pope Julius II.

What made this moment so stirring was that I realized that I could never have gained this insight into the original Italian psyche without setting foot on Italian soil and interacting with actual Italians. Moreover, this lost world could still be recovered in the twenty-first century; the Italy of history books was not totally swept up and swallowed by globalization. And this moment occurred without our intending it or forcing it; it is not as though we went in search of the real Italy; all we did was hail a cab. Simply being there made it inevitable that, at some point, Leonardo’s Italia would open herself up to us.

Climate change has been a double-edged sword on the human psyche. On one hand, climate change has taught us that human activity, particularly when driven through the dangerous combination of greed, profits, and technology, can change the weather. Climate change has shown us, as humans, that we can’t expect to treat nature as our personal garbage can and get away with it—and not pay the consequences. In this sense, climate change has been a humbling phenomenon.

But on the other hand, climate change has, ironically, further boosted the human ego. We are now led to believe that, in fact, nature is a lot more weak than we had thought it to be. That which had been freezing cold for thousands of years is now, thanks to us, warm and sunny.

The same can be said for culture. For thousands of years, if you went to France, or Germany, or Greece, you could expect to be marinated in authentic French, German, or Greek culture respectively. You didn’t need to do a “behind-the-scenes” tour to discover the real Greece; everything was the real Greece. Today, however, we need to search out authentic cultures like we are dogs following a scent. Because of the iPhone, and the internet, and Netflix, and H&M, all cultures have, to some extent, blurred together. Once more, the conclusion is a boost to the human ego, particularly the American human ego. Culture is not encrusted into societies, even if it had been hanging around there for thousands of years; through human technology and human might, culture can be subdued.

Yet, as my story of the Italian taxi driver may have showed, culture does not die so willingly. The same, I would argue, can be said about geography. Human activity has definitely made the planet warmer and is an existential threat. But in the media, we hear so often that the polar ice caps are melting; we see these images of thermometers with orange-red tips amid snowswept backdrops. If you’re not paying attention, you might think that visiting the North Pole is like going on a vacation to Florida. But guess what: it’s still pretty darn cold up there.

Franz Kafka wrote a very short story which seems to deal with this question in 1918. The story is so short, that I can read it to you in full.

Prometheus. There are four legends about Prometheus. According to the first one, Prometheus was tied up to the Caucasus Mountains because he betrayed the gods in favor of humans, and therefore the gods sent an eagle to eat up Prometheus’ ever-regrowing liver.

According to the second legend, Prometheus, because of the pain caused by their hacking beaks, pressed himself ever deeper into the rocks, until he became a single unit with the rocks.

According to the third legend, in the course of millennia, his betrayal was forgotten, the gods were forgotten, the eagle was forgotten, and even Prometheus himself was forgotten.

And according to the fourth legend, one simply because tired without reason. The gods became tired, the eagle became tired, and the wound tiredly closed itself up.

What remained was the inexplicable mountain. The legend tries to explain the unexplainable. Because the legend bases itself in truth, it must itself end in the inexplicable.

In Kafka’s “Prometheus,” what to me stands out the most is this final line about the mountain. Kafka shows, in this story, how, through the course of millennia, gods came and went, people came and went, animals came and went, stories and legends came and went. Yet, through all of this, what remained constant was the mountain. And ironically, the mountain was the least noticed, the least conspicuous “character” in the story. As it turned out, nothing else in the story really mattered other than the mountain. Prometheus, the gods, the legends—they all would eventually vanish. But the mountain stayed.

There is even a meditation which summons this idea. It is called “mountain meditation.” The purpose of the meditation is to cultivate the idea that thoughts, sounds, emotions, and habits come and go. Everything passes over the mountain. But the mountain remains. In this meditation, you imagine yourself a mountain. You sit there like a mountain. And you recognize that as thoughts pass by like herds of animals wandering over the mountain, you remain solid and upright in the face of these changes.

The haftarah reading for this week comes from the Book of Ezekiel. In this reading, Ezekiel discusses Egypt. But it is not the Egypt of Moses and the Pharaohs which we have all come to know. One-thousand years have gone by since then, and now, Israel and Egypt are actually allies against Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian Empire. Yet, Ezekiel’s message to the Israelites is that, even though a millennium has passed since the days of Moses and the Pharaoh, Egypt is still Egypt. And the Israelites should not trust them, should not ally themselves with them. In order to convey this point, Ezekiel focuses on the most timeless image of Egypt—the Nile River. Again and again in the prophecy, Ezekiel returns to this image of the Nile, even occasionally discussing the alligators which have long roamed its waters. The prophecy comes to a climactic point when Ezekiel declares, in chapter twenty-nine, verse three: “Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh, King of Egypt, the great alligator which lies in the midst of his rivers, which has said: My river is my own, and I have made it for myself.” Ezekiel’s point is that the Egyptian Pharaoh foolishly and pridefully believes that he owns the Nile, whereas, in fact, the Nile cannot be “owned” by any human or even any country.

Ezekiel seems to wish to express that, Egypt will always be Egypt because of its geography. Geography is destiny. No matter which government runs Egypt, no matter how many iPhones it imports from China, no matter how many Starbucks open up on the streets of Cairo, the Egyptian essence will remain. Why? Because of the Nile River. Just like the Caucasus Mountain, the Nile River is not going anywhere. And as long as the Nile is there, then Egypt will be there.

Even with all of the technology we have created to make the world interconnected, life is still local and always will be. We continually read about the Egypt of the Ancient World—the pyramids, the pharaohs, the hieroglyphics, the papyrus reeds, and, of course, Moses, and Hebrew slavery, and the ten plagues. Yet, many dismiss the idea of actually going to Egypt. The pyramids have become cheapened tourist sights, Egyptians write in Arabic now and not in hieroglyphs, the Israelites have moved to Israel, papyrus has been replaced by text messages, and Ramses II is long dead. So, what’s the point? The point is that Egypt can only change so much in a few thousand years. And if something in the air, in the mentality, and the ecology caused these ancient people to build pyramids, then that same “something” still must exist in Egypt today. And the only way to access this essence is to set foot on Egyptian soil, get into a cab, and tell the driver to take you to the Mer (the ancient Egyptian word for “pyramids”).

About the Author
Steven Weinberg is a PhD student at Rutgers University in the German Department. His dissertation is on Franz Kafka and the Kabbalah. He grew up in Philadelphia, but moved to Israel in his late twenties, where he studied literature at Ben-Gurion University. Currently, Steven lives in Berlin, but travels to Israel and America as often as he can. His blog is based off his podcast, The Schrift, a weekly lecture series on Torah, German literature, and meditation. The Schrift is available on Apple and Spotify platforms.
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