Beyond the Mountains of the Moon: Reflections on Two Months in Egypt, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo

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In the summer of 2017, I embarked on a trip to every source and outlet of the Nile from Egypt to Rwanda. The following are the updates I posted to Facebook along the way and a sampling of my photographs. See more on Instagram, where I’m spqrkimel.

Part 1: Egypt

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“What does a white man go looking for in Africa?” asked my grandmother when I finally told her the truth about my summer plans. “The answer is trouble.”

“No. The answer is adventure, and myself.”

Reluctant to inform Safta of my prospective itinerary along the outlets of the Nile, I delayed conveying the news to her as long as possible. Some scruple prevented me from withholding the truth indefinitely, though. I wasn’t surprised by her dubiety, as I myself wondered if I would have the wits and stamina to complete the adventure. Maybe that’s why I decided to embark on this journey in the first place. If I possessed half the energy I did in high school, its marriage to knowledge and experience would be a potent combination.

Instead, my identity had long since eroded—having delayed ending graduate school as long as possible, I was no longer the President of my own publishing company, no longer the coach of the debate team, no longer anything, really. Facing the prospect of embarking for God knows where in 2018, I tried to enliven 2017 by doing so on my own terms. I told myself that following in the footsteps of Speke and Livingstone would rejuvenate me.

But I didn’t find what I was looking for in Egypt. The country had tragically declined since my visit last summer. I was the only man in the Great Pyramid. The vendors surrounding the site pleaded with me to buy their wares, with more than one whispering as if confidentially, “I want to kill myself.” The economy had evidently imploded—inflation had driven the value of the pound into the ground, and salaries had not adjusted to the plummet. Vendors distributing free snacks and water along the road aside, the spirit of Ramadan was ruined by the ubiquitous sense of tension. Along the Suez Canal and all along the road toward the Delta, military checkpoints dotted the landscape.

Sleeping in a houseboat by the Kitkat mosque, I found a guide to bring me to the Faiyoum and the mouth of the Nile at Rashid. Tarek spoke to me at length about how the tourism industry had waned since the twilight of the Arab Spring. The collapse would have been worth it had true democracy come, he said. Then there was a long silence.

I saw the bones of prehistoric monsters in the Sahara, whales so ancient they still boasted rudimentary arms and legs. I saw boats glide along the Suez Canal. I breathed in the spray of the Nile where it mingled with the Mediterranean, saw the river’s waves crash northward at war with the southward currents of the sea. I met strangers and invited them back to the boat. We profaned the holiday in sundry ways. I woke up alone and stared at the river. Encountering children and animals beaten on the street and ubiquitous misogyny, I reflected on the limits of cultural relativism. A man by the side of the road held a dozen exhausted birds by the feet, shaking them violently until they were half dead, peddling them to passersby before snapping their necks. I bought the liveliest looking pair and told him to release them for the sake of Ramadan. He told me that they were too enervated to fly now, but that he would release them before he went home. I wondered if he was telling the truth. Tarek said the vendor had honest eyes.

Then I left Egypt for Zanzibar, where adventurers embarked into the unknown when there were still places left to discover in this world.

Part 2: Tanzania

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Between its moldering stone fortresses and steaming markets of elbow-to-elbow traffic, Zanzibar seemed to me like the kind of town that Tintin would have visited. But having purchased a T-shirt illustrating his presence in Stonetown, I was subsequently informed by some well meaning chefs in the Forodhani Gardens that he in fact never made an appearance there in any of the original comics —the T shirt which I bought was meant to swindle muzungu tourists, they explained. I assured them that the fact the picture was original only made the shirt more valuable to me. They laughed in response. I echoed them, and this proved to be prelude to a smoke in the ruins of the old fort. It was one of the first times I’d interacted with locals in Tanzania without the specter of capitalism haunting us. The friendliness of my guides was always tempered by desire for tips; that of shopkeepers by hopes of exorbitant prices; that of local children by hunger for charity. But it was only by night during my last evening on the island, bewildered into a sense of intimacy by billows of fumes, that the locals and I spoke as humans rather than actors in a commercial transaction.

They asked me how I felt to be a member of a racial minority for a change. I thought of a Facebook post I wrote a couple of years ago when I expressed the idea that all the brouhaha over color on the Yale campus was misguided. I recall I’d wondered then whether anyone had read Foucault and realized that racial identity was only one social construct among myriad others. I will never forget that one of my students explained that, realistically, race made a formative difference when it came to how people were treated on a day to day basis, and so had an inescapable quality that rendered attempts to look beyond it evidence of privilege rather than insight. I spoke to the chefs about my time in Korea, the only other extended period of my life in which the majority of the people looked differently than I did. I spouted some clichés about the tragic power of superficial differences, and the fact that one only realizes its extent when he is in the minority. An old man opined that my education was limited, since whites were welcomed on the island and there was no negative stigma associated with them; the sting of prejudice, he said, was the only way to truly understand the experience of being a minority. But a younger man shook his head; muzungus were cheated on Zanzibar because they were uniformly considered wealthy; this, he said, was an education in itself. I found his insight to be revelatory. Somehow I’d not made the connection between my race and the fact that I was charged 300 dollars for a repair to my camera I was subsequently assured would have cost a native 20. Still, I understood that poverty is often a more compelling force than hospitality when it came to determining the texture of one’s interactions in a developing country.

The entire first portion of my journey to Africa was cursed by nausea. I’d thrown up in Egypt when our car got stuck in the Sahara and we were forced to push it down the road for kilometers in the midday sun. Then I’d thrown up again with equal violence while searching for dolphins on the Red Sea; by the time we reached them I was too exhausted by retching to jump in the water with them. I fully expected to puke on Kilimanjaro too, but was delivered from this fate by the kindness of my guides, who constantly reminded me to go slowly and helped me to bear my physical and emotional loads along they way. I spoke with them about their families and probed some of their hopes and dreams; I was more reticent about my own. The mountain taught me its lessons—to focus on each individual step and not be daunted by the distance to the destination; to realize that the tortoise beats the hare when others fitter than I became ill from exhaustion who were once faster than me on my first days on the mountain; to step in the footprints of those who knew the path better than I. A woman at the peak asked me if climbing Kilimanjaro was on my bucket list, a lifelong dream. I told her honestly that I’d never even thought of climbing it until I realized I’d be passing in its vicinity, and since it was there, I might as well test my limits. I regretted parting from the guides; I also regretted not being able to tip them more, as did they.

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I headed to the wilderness next. The parks of Northern Tanzania are justifiably famous: Tarangire and its swarms of elephants; the Serengeti and its countless miles of hideous wildebeests, Ngornongoro crater and its menagerie of creatures trapped in the largest pothole on the planet; Lake Manyara (Hemingway’s favorite) choked with birdlife. Since Tanzania was my first experience on a game drive, I didn’t realize just how rare the sheer density of wild animals was. The effect was not equally impressive on all visitors, though. I saw a jaded kid yawn when he saw a lion. “We could have gone to the zoo,” he said, going on to lament the unstable Wifi at his lodge.

But it was different for me, caught up in a days-long version of Where’s Waldo seeking out animals against the silhouettes of baobab and acacia trees. More than one lion turned out to be a tree stub, but the skill of my driver amply compensated for my well-meaning incompetence. (Perhaps I’m too caught up in my own imagination to be a very good spotter.) This driver pitied me when I invented the story that my long-term girlfriend had broken up with me to avoid explaining why I was traveling alone—it was too complicated to explain that most of the kids my age had kids of their own and couldn’t afford two months in the bush, to say nothing of untangling the tortuous vagaries of my private life. But my story was grounded enough in truth to prove poignant, and he felt so badly for me that he drove me to the north Serengeti to see the Great Migration even though technically it was off our itinerary.

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Somewhere along the way, we saw an eagle snatch up a mongoose. A troop of monkeys subsequently chased after the pair screaming bloody murder. The raptor plunged from the sky like a bolt of lightning; the violence was too instantaneous to film. This would prove to be the most action I’d see in the Serengeti. Spoiled by National Geographic documentaries, we are, I suppose, conditioned to believe that the wilderness is one great adventure, with mating, murder, and life-or-death chases visible at every angle. Only in the wild do you realize that nature is a state of war—and like all wars, the majority of time is spent sitting, waiting, and watching. I thought to myself that the trip was teaching me discipline and patience again after the dizzying hedonism of grad school. I wondered if I had anything more to learn.

Then I left Tanzania and headed for Uganda by way of three stopovers, arriving in the middle of the night and heading to bed for just three hours before visiting an orphanage on the outskirts of Kampala.

Part 3: Uganda

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Two weeks into my trip to Uganda, I found myself hanging onto a 70 degree incline on a glacier on the Mountain of the Moon, clinging to its grimy surface by nothing but my ice axe and a single crampon. The one on my left foot, improperly adjusted, had plummeted down the sheer face of Mt. Stanley. As I sensed the energy draining from every tendon, my guide began the long clamber below me to retrieve and reattach the other shoe. I had no choice but to cling to the frozen surface of the mountain for over half an hour listening to the crackling of the melting ice, a casualty of climate change. I was secured by nothing but a carabineer and a flimsy rope attached to the man dozens of meters beneath me, with little but his strength to save me if I plunged below his unsecured position (after al, fixed stakes are impossible given the rapidly shifting and increasingly steep surface of the glacier, which will soon become impassable). I found it odd that I felt no rush of adrenaline. I was reminded of a debate trip where a car almost careened into my side of the van and I did nothing but sigh, “Well, that was unpleasant.” One of the students said he could imagine me as a Roman general nonchalantly surveying the carnage of an ancient battlefield, an observation I found a great compliment at the time. Now, I wondered whether growing up with cats had addled my mind (they evidently secrete a parasite that makes men more daring and women more nurturing, or so I had read online.) Gradually succumbing to enervation, I stared at the pale band of the Milky Way in a strange combination of exhaustion, anxiety, and wonder. No country had ever tested my physical and spiritual limits as Uganda did. Even Kilimanjaro was a cakewalk by comparison.

On my first day in the country, I’d felt the most acute sense of culture shock I’d ever experienced when I saw more than one van plastered with Osama Bin Laden bumper stickers. Having only slept three hours, my frayed nerves drove me to a greater sense of intolerance than that to which I’m accustomed either when abroad or otherwise, and I found myself truly insulted by the tasteless display. I dwelled internally on what kind of a combination of ignorance and malevolence would lead to such a choice of decoration until I reached an orphanage. Then anger gave way to self-consciousness when I met a dozen children ranging from three to 14 who had lost their parents to AIDS, many of whom were suffering from HIV themselves. When I arrived, they spontaneously surrounded the car and began to embrace me. I reciprocated the gesture after half a moment of hesitation, reminded of when Princess Diana startled the paparazzi and the world by hugging ill children, confounding the rumors that this was enough to spread the virus. I was later informed that not every tourist was so accommodating, and could only imagine the psychic wounds the young might have incurred in the wake of people physically recoiling from them.

I had expected to meet older children and lecture about debate, but many of these kids were toddlers with limited English skills. I served them soft drinks and told them each “Shikamoo,” an honorific Swahili greeting usually reserved for one’s elders and superiors. Eager to connect on at least some level, I sang Rogers and Hammerstein songs to them. This proved to have an almost magical effect, and soon, they were singing for me as well, even breaking into indigenous dances far surpassing my rudimentary abilities at rhythmic movement. When our time was up, a little girl who was initially afraid to embrace me scampered in my direction and threw her arms around my neck. My own self-consciousness had given way to a very different feeling, though not, as might be expected, a sense of appreciation for how lucky I was relative to certain people; after all, pity implies condescension, which I did not feel toward my equals, and true sympathy was beyond my power because I could never understand and access anything like their worldview and body of experience. Rather, I felt a sense of non-judgmental comradeship bound to our common love of music, which transcended age and culture. I promised to send them holy water from Israel and was silent on the car ride home.

Over the course of the subsequent days, I ventured to the source of the Nile and white-water rafted on Grade 5 rapids there, figuring that the risk of bilharzia was worth the adventure and ultimately benefiting from the ballast on the boat supplied by the hulking English rugby players who constituted the remainder of its crew; I stumbled on an endangered Shoebill Stork on a canoe in the bogs of Lake Victoria; I clambered over the Murchison Falls and saw the Nile squeezed into a gorge barely wider than my body, resulting in a magnificent display of power shooting spray and rainbows into the air; I tracked elusive leopards and tree climbing lions in the savannas of Queen Elizabeth Park; I spent an entire day working with researchers to habituate a troop of wild chimpanzees until the animals trusted me enough to descend from the canopy and join me by a puddle for a drink of water. The experiences and strangers I met along the way are too numerous to fully remember, let along capture in a Facebook post. I can only hope that some of the pictures do them justice.

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But the Mountains of the Moon tested me as no other destination did. My crampon re-secured to my leg, I eventually reached Margarita Peak straddling the border with the Congo at about 5200 meters above Sea Level. After my photo opportunity, I succumbed to a combination of weariness and altitude sickness and made the decision to descend back to the base camp as quickly as possible, facing two days worth of 15 hour hikes. I braced myself for my next destination, which had inspired my entire journey in the first place: the Congo, a world teetering on the brink of the unthinkable. I planned to climb the Nyiragongo Volcano and track gorillas in the Virunga Park, the oldest natural preserve in Africa and its most imperiled by a harrowing combination of climactic and political turmoil.

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Part 4: The Congo

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Check the timeworn myth that the Congo is the heart of darkness. I’ve never been to a country more luminous—the russet glow of lava in the Nyiragongo Volcano, the rainbow colored squawkers of the tropical forest, the teal and vermillion gowns of village-women, the canopies of dense jungles so green they might as well be blue, the glimmer of stars so numerous one can’t tell at times if the sky is black or white at night. It was the DRC which had inspired this trip in the first place. I reread Conrad and for some reason was inexorably drawn to the hellish landscape he described—I wondered if there was more to the country than the misery he immortalized. On the cusp of my journey, the news filled me with dread. All I found were warnings about Ebola and cholera, butchered do-gooders in Kasai, ambushed rangers, guerillas encroaching on the territory of gorillas; in short, a country on the brink of collapse. Remember, warned a friend, that everything and everyone there wants to kill you. What I discovered defied such prophecies. I can’t deny the Congo is cursed by political fragmentation, disease, poverty, and corruption. But it’s also the soul of Africa, a sprawling landscape the size of Western Europe, home to millions of peace-loving dreamers, the breeding ground for the continent’s most magnificent art and music (forbearers of abstract art and rock and roll), and a testing-ground for heroes who defy the darkness and stand all the brighter for the shadows surrounding them.

It was only in the Congo that I had the time to breathe deeply for a moment and consider the full scope of this impractical odyssey I can in no way afford, promising to imprison me in credit card debt for the foreseeable future. Did I really climb Kilimanjaro and the Mountains of the Moon, raft the foaming rapids at the mouth of the Nile, traverse the scorched plains of the Serengeti, and all on my own too? Did I actually track tribes of gorillas in the Virunga mountains and stare at the bubbling molten rock inside the calderas of volcanoes until mists obscured the lava and all that remained were bursting ribbons of color of the kind you see when you squeeze your eyes closed with all your might? Did I dance with pygmies before carving through the waves of the poisonous Lake Kivu? Had I galloped on a horse through the dusty villages and undulating emerald hills of Masisi (the locals had improbably promised me a ride on “sheep,” but apparently mistranslated the word)? It all seemed like some kind of feverish reverie, but it was a dream which I had made my reality for a fleeting moment, living for the present rather than the past and future where my thoughts are accustomed to linger as an ancient historian and transhumanist.

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When I left the DRC for Rwanda, I met a couple from Canada who told me about some associates they’d met who’d just returned from Goma. These friends had regaled them about an unusual traveller they’d encountered who’d climbed Mt. Stanley despite the danger of the melting glaciers and made the trek up Nyriagongo without a sleeping bag, and who, back in the real world, went to Yale, writing his dissertation on Roman orgies; they wondered whether he hadn’t brought the sleeping bag deliberately so that he could engage in research for his thesis. My heart skipped a beat when I heard myself described by strangers as if I were a stranger. I sounded like a cool guy, and when I examined myself in the mirror, dressed in filthy khaki, face bronzed by mud and sunshine, for the first time in a long time, I actually felt like one. I’d begun the trip considering that I was about to graduate with no idea of what to do next, that I was no longer the debate coach, or the president of a publishing company, or any other specific social-role. But now I discovered that I was more than an actor going through the motions defining his public persona. It was sufficient for me to be myself—a lone adventurer and the author of his own novel. I’d originally considered the trip a kind of escape from a world I’d outgrown, but it unexpectedly braced me to face the uncertainties of the future as an adventure in their own right. For this, above all other places I have traveled, I will forever be grateful to the Congo.

I crossed the border overland at Cyangugu and headed to Rwanda and Ethiopia next, the final destinations on a journey of a natural-born storyteller with an enraptured audience of one.

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Part 5: Rwanda and Ethiopia

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When I was a little boy, I recall reading a book called Uncle Wiggily’s Fortune in which the eponymous rabbit discovers at the end of his adventures, Ulysses-like, that the greatest treasure is a long awaited homecoming. As a child, I remember considering that this was hokey, so I fixated on the crop of oversized carrots that had grown up in his absence as his real fortune. Yet my thoughts turned to the novel when I finally returned to Israel after one last week in Africa exploring the sources of the White Nile in Rwanda and the Blue in Ethiopia. My father and sister met me at the airport and drove me to my grandmother’s house. There, I found a framed photograph of me at the summit of Kilimanjaro hanging over my bed. After my safe return, Safta’s doubts about my trip melted away, I suppose, in the face of admiration for its successful completion and happiness that I’d lived to tell the tale. Of all my relatives, it was only she who expressed any interest in seeing my full album.

I could assure her now that she was quite right when she suggested several months ago that many whites had historically gone to Africa looking for trouble—“scratch the surface of any catastrophe here,” one Congolese man had told me, “and you’ll find a white man profiting.” I now knew more than ever about the Machiavellian dealings of Portuguese slave traders, the depredations of Stanley’s entourage across central Africa, and the horrors of Leopold’s rubber-hungry minions in the Belgian Congo. But I also learned of Dr. Livingstone’s crusade to end the East African slave trade, Mark Twain’s sponsorship of humanitarian organizations to check the excesses of the imperialists, Dian Fossey’s ultimate sacrifice to habituate mountain gorillas, and Emmanuel Merode’s decision to relinquish his wealth and status as a prince in Belgium to lead the rangers of the Virunga Park. I was neither so villainous nor heroic—just a mundane tourist peeking over the edge of the cradle of humanity in search of Experience with a capital E, which I was privileged to discover before the trip receded into the indistinct annals of my memory, memorialized only on Facebook.

I wasn’t in Rwanda and Ethiopia for long, but was moved by the experience of traveling among some of the most resilient people of modern history, survivors of famine and genocide. Ethiopia defied my expectations. Conditioned by the Western media, I expected a parched wasteland and instead discovered a nation so lush and green you might have told me I was in Ireland. The country was a sensory overload, from the unmistakable taste of injira pregnant with yeast, the magnificent glare of the ivory garb of Orthodox priests, and the pungent scent of frankincense and myrrh wafting through rainbow colored churches. I was particularly struck and, to be honest, somewhat flattered by the appropriation of Israeli history on a national scale, with the royal family said to have descended from Solomon and the Ark of the Covenant to be hidden in a northern monastery. “We are cousins,” I was told more than once, though this enthusiasm usually waned when they pressed me about Jewish opinions about Jesus in modern Israel.

As for Rwanda, Kigali was at least superficially the most developed city I’d visited on my travels, boasting modern infrastructure and spick-and-span streets, plastic bags even banned by law. But I came to consider that these shows of modernity were just that—glossy scar tissue over deep and persistent psychic wounds incurred by the unimaginable slaughter of the 1990s. The country is exemplary for the proven capacity of its population to forgive each other and cooperate toward a better future, at least superficially shunning the former alliances exacerbated by European colonial overlords that led to catastrophe. But Kagame’s rule, however welcomed by the majority, seems founded as much on fear as love in many circles, and Tutsis (whether members of a “tribe” or a “social class,” as opinions seem to vary passionately and widely on this most politically incorrect question) seem to monopolize positions of power. Many, fearing the harassment that the visibly impoverished face from police officers, limit their daily wardrobe to a single unsullied suit. I appreciated, though, the urge to push beyond “tribal” identity politics in favor of embracing a nationalist ideology, particularly given the xenophobic arrogance with which the word “tribe” was often misused in academic and political circles alike.

I learned a great deal from Africa: to be disciplined, to be patient, to be observant, to be tolerant, to live for the moment, to be daring, to be resilient, to be silent, to be alone, to be proud. Sometimes late at night, though, as I struggle to replay the adventure in my mind, I wonder, what did Africa learn from me? I don’t mean that I poetically ponder, as Karen Blixen did, whether the lion casts a shadow that resembles my head, or the wind rushes through the branches of the acacia tree with a whisper like mine. Rather, I wonder, was my halting eloquence enough to disprove theories about reptilians and the Illuminati, the detritus of Youtube mashed together with traditional animist beliefs and taken for the flower of truth? Was I at all convincing when I defended the equality of women and men, told more than once that the former’s proper role was to look after the home, that short skirts were invitations for assault, and that rape was a surefire cure for lesbianism? Did my words have any impact when I opined that God was wherever love and peace were, and that literal belief in ancient testaments caused more suffering than joy? And were my thoughts at all memorable when I tried to counter the adage “If you want to hide something from an African, put it in writing” with references to Achebe and Emecheta and Marechera? For all that inspired me, there was also a great deal that shocked and angered me, beginning in Egypt where I recoiled at physical violence against children and animals. I realized the truth in Tennessee Williams’ suggestion that deliberate cruelty meant solely to uphold the power of the strong at the expense of the weak was unforgivable in any time or place, and considered that battles won in my own neck of the woods by the Susan B Anthony’s and Martin Luther King’s and Audre Lorde’s of the world would have to be refought from scratch by the heroes of an as-yet anonymous generation raging against the dying of the light.

I will surely forget a great deal of my odyssey, and will have no one with shared experiences to resurrect the fading memories either. But above all, I will try to remember the Nile in all its glory, where the tide of the Mediterranean was at war with its northern current, where it clung as snow to the Mountains of the Moon, where it poured out of Lake Victoria and tripped and fell over rapids which I challenged on a raft, where it dripped one droplet at a time from its most remote source in Rwanda and I swallowed the totality of the river, and where if flowed gently from Lake Tana in a great muddy puddle before spilling over the cliffs of the Blue Nile Falls and carving through the highlands with all the insistence of fate. As a boy, I swam here when I sailed on a felucca through Upper Egypt. Now I returned and found inspiration: the realization that writing was my calling and that the sense of malaise haunting me at the beginning of the trip was largely grounded in having no audience. But every river, even the greatest, I learned, begins with a single drop.

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Putting My Whole Life on Instagram for a Year

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I’ve decided to document a year of my life on Instagram. After joining the platform a couple of weeks ago, it struck me that it had a great capacity for narrative storytelling that was seemingly underutilized by the majority of its patrons. Untold numbers of amazing photographers posted images of great beauty to the site, but there was scarcely ever a clear chronological narrative to anyone’s portfolio. I considered the fact that this was a shame; if art is an imitation of life, then a photo-journal of a whole year’s worth of experiences would seem to be a project well worth undertaking. At the same time, it seemed like a cool and interesting challenge to learn a new art form and craft what would essentially amount to a comic-book version of my daily adventures, for what they’re worth. And when the year was up, I figured that I would have constructed an incomparable monument to a little slice of my personal history to which I could return forever.

To be honest, by most accounts, my life these days is pretty boring. It involves teaching a class at Fairfield, composing a novel, blogging, and preparing my dissertation; the imaginary and historical worlds that I type about are much more interesting than the banal comings and goings of my reality as a writer. I’ve learned that the most beautiful frames of my existence can be manifested as a stream of selfies, snapshots of cats, portraits of food, images of the changing seasons, and various pictures of the people and architecture of New Haven. I’m sure talented photographers with more exciting existences than mine would be truly enthralling to follow, but to flatter myself, even in the case of my humdrum life and in the thematic shadow of my incompetence and inexperience as a cameraman armed with nothing but his iPhone, you can’t help but be at least somewhat interested by someone when you see the world through their eyes for a while, and learn to understand what they consider to be beautiful.

In many ways, Instagram is a perfect platform for a project like this—strangers meet there every day to laud each other’s photos in glowing terms, and it’s possible to build a large and enthusiastic audience of followers from around the world relatively quickly. At the same time, though, most Instagram users are on the hunt for rapid beauty and the swift consumption of photographs rather than the musings of a verbose stranger whose life they can study in detail. My captions are too long, and because I’m trying to utilize several photos a day to explain an unfolding narrative, not all of my pictures are as beautiful as they might be. I have likely alienated some of my friends on the site by my oversharing—I understand that they want to see pictures of Fiji and sundry cute things, and are not too interested in my eating Fruit Loops and heading off to the library.

Still, I persist. Since joining Instagram, my vantage point on mundane reality has been transformed. I’ve come to appreciate that all around me at any given time, there is a great deal of beauty and interest if I’m only alert enough to be sensitive to it. A butterfly or squirrel passing by can be interpreted as a game of tag; a long wait at a coffee shop can be seen as an opportunity to take a close look at the bouquet on the counter. I’m inspired to visit art galleries and parks and friends in other cities so that I can have more diverse photos on my account; incidentally, this also brings greater interest to my daily life. I suddenly have a reason to go to Mystic Seaport, and plan a trip to Newport.

At the same time, Instagram creates pressure on me to do my work, because I feel like I’m performing for an audience. My experiment has transformed what proved to be a terrible month into something a little bit more beautiful. Most of my friends have graduated, and I’m less well known on the debate circuit than I used to be; these days, when I announce a new blog post on Facebook, I’ll be lucky to receive one or two likes. But on Instagram, a cute picture of Mousepud is sure to get dozens of reactions. I don’t have many followers, but those who have stuck by my page seem sincerely supportive and friendly. In many ways, I now have a Greek chorus following me around all day. It’s extraordinary.

On the train to work today, I kept looking out the window trying to find things to shoot. Just after we left Bridgeport, I saw a herd of elephants. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were five or six of them in what seemed to be a penned-in parking lot. We passed by so quickly, I didn’t have time to take a picture. Yet no one else seemed to see the elephants but me. Nobody was even looking. There was the difference.

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(My account name on Instagram is spqrkimel.)

Memories of Eleven Rocket Attacks from This Summer in Israel

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At the end of June, I visited Israel for a month to attend a brother’s graduation and finish up a novel about daily life in Israel during the second intifada; the surprise ending is that a Palestinian hunger strike on the Temple Mount results in a two state solution in an alternate universe.  Over the course of my stay, after the murder of the three kidnapped children, the imprisonment of hundreds of members of Hamas, and the torture and murder of the Palestinian boy, rockets eventually began to rain down from Gaza. I went through eleven air raids and wrote down my experience after each one, neglecting to record the dates.

1. Kefar Sava: The wail was louder and higher than the siren of an ambulance or police car. My father, two brothers (one a pacifist, the other a regular fascist), stepmother, and sister all looked at each other dumbly for a moment. None of us felt inclined to enter the shelter. My militant brother insisted on going outside; he said that he wasn’t afraid of the Arabs, and would prove it. I considered to myself that America was a more politically correct country than my birthplace. Half an hour later, my father took my thirteen-year-old sister out running, and I joined them nonchalantly enough. The town was totally empty. We heard two thunderous sounds when we reached the abandoned racetrack, but did a good job pretending not to be thinking what we were all thinking. Eventually, we drove home and met my militant brother in the elevator. He explained that he felt no sympathy for anyone in Gaza, just as they felt no sympathy for him. My father and I told him that he didn’t
realize how foolish he sounded, and asked him if he thought he would speak the same way if he were born a Palestinian. The next day, a couple of my sister’s friends refused to leave their houses in fear for their lives. And my grandmother got into a fight with her jogging partner for inadvertently laughing at her when she said that she was too afraid to walk along the beach anymore.

2. Qiryat Ono: When I woke up at my grandmother’s house a couple of days later after having a dream about a rocket killing my father, I thought to myself “I’ll hear an air raid siren now,” and I literally did. Realizing that the odds of a direct hit were astronomically low, I stayed in bed, exhausted by the nightmare. I then heard an explosion violent enough to shake the whole apartment. I later learned that this was the sound of the Iron Dome destroying missiles in midair.  The official line was that Israelis were supposed to wait for this sound before leaving their shelters. It was hard for me to fall back asleep now, so I got up and ate breakfast. My grandmother made me freshly squeezed orange juice and fried up some bacon, a rarity in Israel.

3. Sde Warburg: I walked with my pacifist brother to his grandmother’s house out in the countryside beyond Kefar Sava. When we reached her farm, we all began to argue about the stalling peace process. She insisted that average Gazans were living in greater prosperity than my brother and I guessed, and that the international media’s insistence on Israel’s brutality but silence on the atrocities committed by Arabs against Arabs every day in the Middle East was veiled anti-Semitism. Just as she was explaining that Hamas’ extremism was the rule rather than the exception in Gaza, sirens sounded. She insisted that we rush to the shelter, and accidentally closed the door on Lucky the dog’s little head when we entered it. My brother and I wanted to leave as soon as we could, but we didn’t hear the Iron Dome’s effects this time, and stayed a full twenty minutes in the stuffy place out of deference to her orders. The room doubled as a closet, and I
spent most of the time observing the various polka dot patterns of her dresses.

4. Jerusalem: I insisted on visiting the Holy Sepulcher for a film project despite my family’s universal pleas that I not go. My pacifist brother backed out at the last minute, and I ended up travelling alone by bus. The Old City was full of Eastern European tourists, Orthodox Jews, and the Israeli police. Some Arab shopkeepers asked me if I was Israeli, and when I said yes, they literally turned their backs on me. I eventually began to feel nauseated and took a taxi ride back to the central bus station. The driver warned me not to puke in his car because it was Ramadan. He tried to drive me to a different location from the one I had requested, allegedly because “the central bus station might be bombed,” but really, I guessed, because he didn’t feel like driving all the way across town. Changing his tune about having exact change, he ended up cheating me on the price of the trip. When a siren sounded, some people left their cars and threw themselves belly-down on the street. On the bus, I leaned against the window and took a long needed nap. When I woke up, an old rabbi asked me what America would do if Mexico were shooting rockets at it from Tijuana. Rather than answering him, I pretended to fall back asleep.

5. Tel Aviv: I went to an ill relative’s apartment for dinner. She was a Holocaust survivor. Her bed was turned toward the television so she could see the news, a ubiquitous and depressing fixture these days in all Israeli households. I asked her if she thought that the world was a better place now than in the 1930s and 1940s. She said that it was no better, but at least now it was the Jews who were driving their enemies into the sea, and not the reverse. I couldn’t believe that she actually said that. When the sirens sounded, most of the party scrambled into the shelter. But my ill relative couldn‘t move. I volunteered to stay with her in the living room, categorically refusing to leave her alone there. My confidence affected the others, and many of them stayed behind as well.

6. Tel Aviv: After returning from a play, I visited my aunt’s house to find the family huddled around the television. Hamas announced that it was going to fire an “unprecedented new type of rocket” at Israel at 9:00. We whispered that this wouldn’t be one of their home-made contraptions, but a proper Iranian missile this time. As soon as 9:00 came, sirens began to blare. My father chose just this time to drive my stepmother and two of my siblings home on the open road rather than enter the shelter. I retreated with the rest of the family in and out of the safe room; pizza bagels were cooking and leaving them alone for too long could result in a fire. Eventually, there was a knock on the door, and my stepmother joined us in the shelter. She’d evidently told my father to turn back. He remained outside with my pacifist brother, though, trying to make out the progress of the rockets in the sky.

7. Qiryat Ono: Sirens sounded just as my grandmother and I were returning from the candy store. We listened for the telltale explosions of the Iron Dome, but failed to hear them. After a time, we shrugged and carried groceries into the elevator. We began to argue about bias in the Israeli press. I insisted that the state-run media’s constant attention to falling rockets but relative ignoring of the situation in Gaza was tantamount to propaganda. She explained that it was natural for the news to focus on “our side,” blamed Hamas for imbedding themselves into civilian infrastructure, and said that Israel was setting new standards for trying to spare civlian lives. We learned later that day that Israel had suffered its first casualty when a piece of a rocket crushed a man who’d been supplying troops with food.

8. Qiryat Ono: Air raid sirens woke me up in the morning. This time, the telltale BOOMS took place during the shrieks themselves rather than directly afterward. I was able to fall back asleep without too much trouble, though, and dreamed about taking a trip to India.

9. Kefar Sava: The sirens sounded just as my father and I returned home from a shopping trip, evidence that a short lived cease-fire had ended. We went out onto the balcony and looked to the southern sky. I saw the long streaks of the rockets just over the horizon, and two bright white clouds where the Iron Dome had evidently done its work. My father and I drank coffee together, even though I hate coffee. Then we spoke for a while about the pitiable situation in Gaza. This instigated my militant brother, and we all got into a screaming match. At the end of the debate, my pacifist brother said that these days, he found himself leaning more and more toward the center politically. Later that night, the ground invasion was underway.

10. Kefar Sava: About to leave for a goodbye party at my aunt’s house, I heard sirens begining to blare again. The family all procceded to the balcony and saw the trails of four rockets high above us. Down below, the excitable and the cautious walked dutifully toward shelters in their apartments, and the reckless and non-conforming went about their daily business as if nothing were happening. The Iron Dome destroyed all the rockets, but it took a few seconds for us to hear the thunderous impacts even after seeing the explosions themselves.

11. Tel Aviv: My aunt held a farewell dinner for me. Just as we were eating cake, an alarm sounded. All fifteen or so of us retreated into the small shelter. The sense of togetherness was nice, in a way. It’s rare that I spend time with my family, and I was about to leave again. My father joined us most reluctantly, and then got into a heated political argument with the rest of the family defending his right to do as he pleased. My grandmother took it badly, and drove home frowning. She explained that though none of us usually bothered to go into the shelters, refusing to do so in somebody else’s house was bad manners.

Using Math to Explore the Fall of the Roman Empire

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I am firmly committed to the idea that there is great value in exploring change over time in Roman history using mathematical models. Since antiquity itself, scholars have debated broad questions concerning the forces responsible for the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.  But in the status quo, fundamental elements of the debate seem relegated to the realm of the pseudo-scientific, since it seems impossible to either confirm or deny broad claims such as “barbarian pressure along the frontier was more responsible for the ultimate decline of Roman civilization than the long-term effects of civil war.” In fact, historians making precisely opposite claims can point to compelling data from archaeological and literary records to bolster their hypotheses. Preferring one explanation over another sometimes becomes a matter of personal taste or academic politics rather than an empirical exercise, which is only exacerbated by the fact that so much information from the ancient world itself is lacking. The fact that medievalists and classicists often interpret and answer major questions about antiquity and the early Middle Ages so differently is the clearest indication of this trend. Indeed, in the tradition of certain historians like Irene Barbiera and Gianpiero Dalla-Zuanna, some have even gone so far as to question whether the very disintegration of the Roman Empire should be interpreted as a fundamentally regressive phenomenon at all, with historians of the Early Middle Ages increasingly challenging simplistic models of decline and fall.

How can all of these narratives be reconciled, let alone evaluated against each other in an objective context?

Originally, I hoped to engage in a novel approach to these questions, making use of tools traditionally employed in fields outside of the Classics. Imagine we were looking at a map of the Roman Empire, divided into many quadrants.

These are the elements that would be tracked:

1) the locations of iron deposits and other natural resources that can be pinned down with a fair degree of accuracy, including the locations of major mines (these are, of course, static)

2) the locations of where the Roman emperor was declared, and where he was physically during each month of his reign, which can be tracked with great accuracy over several centuries

3) The locations of recorded battles

4) the locations of the Roman legions themselves; their movement can be crudely mapped out over the course of five centuries

5) the location of the city of Rome itself, major roads, and other geographical features (Mediterranean sea and the Rhine-Danube frontier)

I tentatively hypothesize that times of plague, rebellion, and civil war should show statistically significant changes in the relationships between the static and dynamic data sets as such periods would lend themselves to efforts to seize control of local mineral deposits and resource-distribution-centers.  By contrast, in times of relative internal stability, the Rhine-Danube frontier is more likely to attract dynamic movement in response to external pressure along the borders. Permanent changes in spatial relationships can suggest watershed moments in Roman history.

The upshot of all this is that using the right mathematical tools, the relationship between these variables can be systematically evaluated, and we can investigate what various causal forces (internal or external) seem to have been responsible for violence at different points in time. For example, considering a specific span of time, do major battles and troop movements statistically clump along the Rhine-Danube frontier, or do things like the locations of local resources and the physical location of men proclaimed the Roman emperor play weightier role as a source of attraction? The former would suggest the long term influence of external pressures during this era, and the latter internal dynamics. At the same time, do relationships among major variables change after major events in Roman history such as the advent of the Antonine Plague, the establishment of a new capital, or the rise of Christianity? What is statistically likelier to attract battles at any given point in time—cities, mineral deposits, or geographical features along the border? The answer to this question reveals something fundamental about the texture of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Once all of this work was done for the Roman Empire itself, it would be fascinating to employ similar methods to explore Mediterranean history in the period of the Republic, when I predict that the major causal networks determining troop movements would be quite different, perhaps oriented more around features of the Mediterranean coastline and the locations of major mineral deposits as opposed to the case of the Empire, when unity was achieved and the focus turned to defense rather than offense. If the data were compared to information from Han China, I hypothesize that the “particles” representing armies and battles would move synchronously across the continent at certain times in response to pan-Eurasian forces such as plague, the spread of technologies, and the movement of barbarian tribes. This would provide strong support for the idea of macrohistorical forces at work in determining causal outcomes in history.

Nevertheless, after a great deal of soul searching and wavering, I have decided to focus my dissertation on orgiastic display, violence, and politics. There were several reasons for this.

  1. As I said above, I think that exploring change over time in Roman history using mathematical models would be incredibly interesting. However, because the nature of my work in this field is experimental, I am worried that the success of my dissertation would be largely contingent on whether or not my mathematical hypotheses in fact bore fruit. I can’t guarantee anything of the sort, however, until I actually examine the data. It may be that mineral deposits attract battles, for example, or it may not be. It might be the case that Han and Roman data line up nicely, but again, there is nothing to guarantee this.
  2. Writing the quantitative dissertation might have alienated me in the eyes of others in the field and on the job market. The topic seems iconoclastic, to say the least, and I think that there would exist great skepticism about my new methodology. At first glance, my idea seems simultaneously too traditional and too futuristic. Because it seems to touch upon universalizing schematizations about the nature of historical change and is focused on military history and troop movement, it seems like a throwback; at the same time, because it deals with mathematical regressions and computer modelling, it seems too out there.
  3. I would prefer to leave the option open to me of co-authoring a tight, focused article using quantitative methods with colleagues who are already familiar with the available software so that we could learn and work together on the project; by contrast, I think that the dissertation should necessarily involve strictly independent research. At this point, guaranteeing that I could master the mapping software quickly enough to write a great dissertation seemed too risky a prospect.
  4. The dissertation should be immersed in and enriched by existing discourse on the subject, making a specific informed contribution to an ongoing conversation. However, there is in fact very little existing discourse on the mathematical relationships between the locations of battles, emperors, and geographic features/natural resources and the significance of these changing correlations over time. If I did something like make the dissertation a broader study of “decline and change” in Roman history and relegated the quantitative methods to an appendix, it would be a shame—the quantitative methods require a great deal of work, and probably deserve to shine in their own paper.

Ultimately, staking the entire dissertation on something so novel seemed riskier to me than utilizing my quantitative methods in a separate project.

All Was For the Best

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I woke up early today to have brunch at a pizza parlor with an old friend from the debate circuit who now teaches philosophy at Yale. We talked about Leibniz’s theory that this is the “best of all possible worlds.” I’d assigned Candide to my class at Fairfield, and was interested in discussing the way that Voltaire parodied Leibniz’s optimism in the person of Dr Pangloss, who is basically portrayed as a nincompoop. It seemed to me that Voltaire was being unfair to Leibniz by constantly misinterpreting his philosophy to imply that just because this might be the best of all possible worlds, it must necessarily follow that this is the best of all possible worlds for each individual person.

Now, I’ve never actually read Leibniz, but I told my friend that I imagined the philosopher’s argument must have been that if God is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient, then nothing would preclude Him from creating the best world possible—only this state of affairs would be in harmony with his knowledge of the Good, his love of the Good, and his ability to bring about the Good. I also guessed that Leibniz argued that the Good might stand beyond human reason, so that turns of events which seem unjust to mere mortals might ultimately be bound up in a nexus serving a higher purpose—for example, it is tragic that humans die of disease from an individual perspective, but the urge to triumph over illness inspires medical advances, which enhance happiness in the long term, etc. As Voltaire himself suggests in Candide, our knowledge of God’s purposes might ultimately be akin to rats’ awareness of the intentions of the sailors on the ships on which they travel.

My friend explained to me that Leibniz’s argument was actually that given a Newtonian idea of absolute space, there must be some sufficient reason that the universe is located where it is and arranged the way it is rather than, say, in another permutation five meters to the left; this reason, Leibniz concluded, must be bound to God’s arranging matters for “the best.” But as my friend wisely pointed out, perhaps Leibniz was wrong to assume that this is the best of all possible worlds—for example, it might be that God operates according to the principle that all universes in which net Good outweighs net Bad should be allowed to exist, though all of them are technically imperfect. Then my friend and I talked about the implications of quantum physics on these kinds of questions, especially the theory that there might be “multiple worlds.” After that, we discussed his dog for a while, and recipes for eggplant Parmesan.

Then I taught Roman history and Latin to a group of ten home schoolers. It went very well; the students had so much fun, one of them threw his pencil across the room in triumph after winning a game that I’d invented, nearly impaling one of his classmates. After two and a half hours, I left the class and walked toward the library to return a microphone that I’d used to record some new raps earlier this week. On the way, I met Patricia, an elderly woman who panhandles on York Street. She asked me to help her cross the street and to walk her to her house. She often asks passersby to hold her hand and accompany her down the block; she is very frail, and moves quite slowly. I always say yes to her, because I imagine that this awkward ritual is one of her only opportunities to enjoy physical contact with other human beings. The last time I took a walk with her, she told me, “I wish that the Lord would take me. I mean it. I have no friends, and no one loves me. I bring no happiness to anyone, and I am always in pain. I wish that the Lord would take me.” I didn’t know what to say to her when she told me that, but the memory of her quavering voice still haunts me. Today, though, she seemed in better spirits, and talked enthusiastically about the weather. We usually talk about the weather on these walks.

Suddenly, I realized that I was no longer holding the briefcase containing the microphone. I scrambled back to the classroom, then to the pizza parlor, and then back to the classroom again. The people at the Lost and Found were most unhelpful (though I appreciated that the secretary had a basket of candy necklaces on hand for visitors to enjoy; I hadn’t eaten one of those in ages, and stole about three of them and a couple of lollipops when she wasn’t looking.) I assumed all was lost, and Emailed the library offering to pay for the vanished microphone. Then I rushed to a lecture on climate change in the Roman Empire, thinking more about the several hundred dollars I’d now have to pay to replace the microphone rather than the details of the lecture. When it was all over, I met with a statistics professor and talked about my proposed methodology for examining the fall of the Roman Empire using mathematical models. He suggested that I would be better served by talking to experts in mapping software.

By this time, it was eight at night. As I walked home, I passed a heavyset African American woman on the street in her late forties. She was crumpled on the steps of an apartment building and sobbing very loudly. Everybody was ignoring her. I asked her what was wrong, and she explained to me that her husband had run off with her daughter, taking all of her money. She didn’t even have enough cash for a train ticket back to her home town. No one would help her, she said; everyone was laughing at her. I gave her a hug and all the money I had in my wallet. She began to thank God, and we hugged again. I turned to leave, but she stopped me with her hand. “Why is life so hard?” she asked me, as if she were expecting an answer. I looked at her sadly, but she insisted more loudly, “Why are people so mean to each other? Why is life so hard? I want to know.”

“I think that most people in the world have experienced disappointment in life and are unhappy,” I said. “They’re too focused on their own problems to remember to be kind. But there is kindness in the universe. Remember that.” She pressed my hand as if I’d said something meaningful, and then we parted. I’d never see her again in my life, I thought.

When I got home, I saw an Email from the library in my Inbox. It explained that the camera had been found on the street by a police officer and returned to the stacks. The librarian asked how it got  there, explaining that the university takes “negligent misuse” of its rented equipment seriously. I thought hard about the situation for a few minutes, and then I realized what had to have happened. I must have absent-mindedly placed the briefcase on the street when I helped Patricia cross the road earlier in the day. What an embarrassing lapse of judgment. But I guess I lucked out this time. All was for the best.

Let the Games Begin

On earth as it is on 1:11, October 8, 2014, I’m a fifth year graduate student at Yale finishing up his PhD in Roman history. Until last year, I was going to write a dissertation explaining how the Roman Empire fell involving a lot of math. But then, I realized that this aspiration would prove to be difficult, considering that I actually know very little about math. I had no experience with statistics or mapping software; to make matters worse, if my experimental approach failed, it might have imperiled my finishing the doctorate. So I decided to scrap that plan for the moment and stick to writing about what I know best: Roman orgies.

You see, I’d done some intensive work involving orgies as an undergraduate at Harvard. My thesis was even called “Sex and the Eternal City.” My opinions on the topic have evolved since I was a senior in college. I now have some unique insights into the subject. All joking aside, the topic is actually fascinating, and the secrets of the Roman orgy may hold clues that provide insight into some of the most abiding mysteries in Roman history. I’m embarrassed to say that my old paper was little more than a regurgitation of the scholarly consensus on the subject. My dissertation will be something very different, though. Beyond my work on ancient Rome, I teach classes  as an adjunct professor,  coach the Yale Debate Association, and write novels, raps, and ESL curricular materials. I just finished writing a novel about Israel, where I was born, and am trying to get it published; it culminates in a hunger strike on the Temple Mount, and the rise of a Palestinian Gandhi. I’m also about to start a transhumanist society at Yale. In my spare time, I watch a lot of MTV.

I’ve been meaning to start a new blog for a long time now, but I hesitated for several years to do so. As you can tell from the previous paragraphs, I have a lot on my plate. More fundamentally, I’m very shy about sharing my work, and am pretty cowardly in the face of criticism. Most of my writing is done in private, and often only for the consumption of a few close people. For example, only a handful of friends have seen the rap I filmed this summer in Jerusalem, and virtually no one has seen much work on my dissertation on Roman orgies (including, I’m afraid, my dissertation committee…)

But as the end of my career as a graduate students looms ever larger, I think that having a central place to consolidate my efforts, to say nothing of an audience to see what I do, will inspire me to write with greater discipline and enthusiasm. And who knows—I might even make some new friends here.

Let the games begin.