Travels with Herodotus

I’ve just finished reading a curious book. On the surface, it feels like a rather incongruous volume: on one hand a collection of memories and reportages, on the other hand, a digest or a précis of Herodotus’ Histories. But there is a reason behind this design, as you can discover by following Kapuscinski along his journeys — the journeys he undertook as a reporter in the 50’ and 60’ across Asia and Africa, as well as the journey into the past, one that he was lead on by the ancient historian and “the first globalist”.

Both men, Herodotus and Kapuscinski, set out to investigate other cultures and to understand the reasons that propel peoples to war against other peoples. And they both share a wonderment at the diversity of customs and worldviews that they encounter along the way.

When Herodotus describes the manners of the Egyptians which, according to him, “are the opposite of those of everywhere else”, you can feel his wonderment:

For instance, women go out to the town square and retail goods, while men stay at home and do the weaving. […] Women urinate standing up, while men do so squatting. They relieve themselves indoors, but eat outside on the streets. […] Everywhere else in the world, priests have long hair, but in Egypt they shave their heads.

The list of curiosities goes on and on. But no less astonished is Kapuscinski when he discovers worlds foreign to him, be it that of the people he meets in the lecture hall of the University of Warsaw in 1951:

To my left was Z. — A taciturn peasant from a village near Radomsko, the kind of place where, as he once told me, a household would keep a piece of dried kielbasa as medicine: if an infant fell ill, it would be given the kielbasa to suck. […] To my right sat skinny W., with his emaciated, pockmarked face. He moaned with pain whenever the weather changed; he said he had taken a bullet in the knee during a forest battle. But who was fighting against whom, and exactly who shot him, this he would not say.

Or be it the world of western Europe, by which he is dazzled on his first trip to Rome:

First, that the stores were full of merchandise, were actually brimming with it, the goods weighing down shelves and counters, spilling out in towering, colorful streams onto sidewalks, streets, and squares. Second, that the salesladies did not sit, but stood, looking at the entrance doors. […] The third shock was that the salesclerks answered the questions posed to them. They responded in complete sentences and then at the end added “Grazie!”

Sometimes it feels like the world Kapuscinski describes is lightyears away, for instance when he talks about being “Poland’s only correspondent in all of Africa” and about the difficulties he had in transmitting his dispatches back to Warsaw. How different is that to the world in which everyone can tweet from anywhere at anyone and the difficulty lies not in obtaining information but in staying away from it or in sifting through it to come at what is relevant or true?

And yet many of Kapuscinski’s observations remain very relevant. Borders, for instance, was one of those themes that I found particularly timely. Those arbitrary, abstract perimeters, which only yesterday seemed on their way to oblivion, suddenly are back in full force, growing new walls, employing ever more bureaucrats to man them. And so it’s more paramount than ever to cross them. Crossing the border, any border, is an “almost mystical and transcendent act”.

In a way, Kapuscinski’s book, again not unlike Herodotus’, is about the clash of civilizations. The immediate purpose of both of theses books is to investigate¹ and then to relate. The ultimate purpose is to banish provincialism, to inspire humility, and to provide a mirror:

These other worlds, these other cultures, are mirrors in which we can see ourselves, thanks to which we understand ourselves better — for we cannot define our own identity until having confronted that of others, as comparison.

Travels with Herodotus, as well as Kapuscinski’s other long-form reportages, are wonderful to read. He had a talent for observing individual moments which translated into bigger pictures. and also he also had a talent for writing with a great balance of the harrowing and the humorous. A recommend reading for all travelers and other humble globalists.

¹ In Herodotus times the word ‘history’ meant ‘investigation’.

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