Around the World in 2,000 Words

A reading of Dan Daor’s book of essays and journeys is an experience of traveling the world in the company of a scholar. Even the red-light district in Amsterdam stirs in him deep musings, in this case on the Dutch history of tolerance.

Harim Veneharot La’olam: Reshimot Masa (“Mountains and Rivers Forever: Travel Memoirs”), by Dan Daor. Am Oved (Hebrew),
263 pages, NIS 88

By Yaad Biran

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” wrote the Greek poet Archilochus in the 7th century B.C.E., and the philosopher Isaiah Berlin adopted the epigram as a criterion by which other members of his fraternity could be categorized.

This book by Dan Daor, a collection of essays that appeared in various magazines over a span of two decades, is mostly fox-like. It abounds with details, and moves from one side of the world to the other, sometimes in the same sentence. At the same time, it feels as if hidden behind it all is a hedgehog that is seeking something some Tao to which it cannot put a name. Indeed, Daor cites the following excerpt from “The Book of Tao”:

“There is something mysterious,

Without beginning, without end,

That existed before the heavens and earth.

Unmoving; infinite; standing alone; never changing.

It is everywhere and it is inexhaustible.

It is the mother of all.

Something formless yet complete,

Existing before heaven and earth.

Silent and limitless,

It stands alone and does not change.

Reaching everywhere, it does not tire.

Perhaps it is the Mother of all things under heaven.

I do not know its name,

So I call it ‘haderekh’ [“the path,” in Hebrew].”

The subtitle of this volume, “Travel Memoirs,” does it some injustice. These are not travelogues in the simple sense, but posthumous essays on culture and place. Similarly, the title of the book is itself somewhat deceptive. Daor, an editor, publisher, Sinologist and travel writer who died in 2010, scarcely talks about mountains and rivers. He does not delve into that which seems to exist forever, focusing instead on human beings and their ephemeral cultures.

Reading this book offers the experience of traveling the world in the company of a scholar. Daor offers us a tour of contemporary Lisbon, for instance, with the dual perspective of what it was like in the 16th century, when Portugal was creating the first global village and Portuguese was the lingua franca of the Indian Ocean, and what tourists should see now, in keeping with the 20th-century guidebook he cites, written by the Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa.

Seen through his eyes, Amsterdam’s red-light district is more than a cheap thrill for tourists; it is the starting point for deep musings on the history of tolerance in the Netherlands and on the country’s unique sociopolitical model. Moving over to Greece, he describes Mount Athos in the north of the country with wonderful pithiness, calling it “a preserved bit of Byzantium,” words that precisely locate the peninsula in Greek history, in the days of the Christian empire, between classical Greece and the new Greek nationalism.

Daor’s essays do not profess to constitute a comprehensive travelogue with a beginning and an end. Rather, they skip from site to site, at times making wild comparisons between cultures. For instance, the article “Tel Aviv Eternity” compares Tel Aviv with, of all places, Varanasi, the Indian city considered sacred to Hindus. Daor offers the following grounds for raising the young city on the Mediterranean rather than Jerusalem to the rank of eternal city: “Jerusalem could also have been an eternal city had it not been bested by history. Timelessness may still inhabit the courtyards of Neturei Karta [a fanatically separatist and emphatically anti-modern ultra-Orthodox group], but the monster that was conceived there from the association with Zionism has exorcised it from everywhere else. Jerusalem of the present is a historic city, conscious of its past, frozen on a rigid axis. ... Tel Aviv, like Varanasi, is all melted and soft, and the sea is its Ganges.” In another article, the experience of paying a visit to the grave of Doors front man Jim Morrison in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is of a piece with the Catholic pilgrimage to Lourdes, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, or a visit to the grave of the Moroccan rabbi and kabbalist known as the Baba Sali in the Negev town of Netivot.

More than geographical

The essays in this collection are short, almost too short for them to be able to say something substantial about the broad subjects addressed: an introduction to Hindu gods, the caste system or Buddhism. The quality fluctuates, as is often the case in these sorts of collections, but overall the anthology reveals Daor’s aptitude for concise, lucid and clever writing.

Some of the journeys explore a certain geographic site, such as the Danube River, which Daor insists on tracking all the way from Vienna, the capital of the Austrian Empire, to the point where it spills into the Black Sea. But the journey that traces the route of the Danube is more than geographical; it is also historical and cultural, and reflects the passage from Western to Eastern Europe and the processes of change in the Soviet bloc following the fall of the Iron Curtain. Nor does Daor ignore the question of the color of the “Blue Danube” (dirty green, pinkish in twilight or a wide yellowish flow, per the descriptions of several writers).

Other journeys revolve around the historical and cultural associations surrounding a given product: the history of tea, from ancient China to the Boston Tea Party and the Opium Wars that erupted due to high demand in the United Kingdom for a “nice cup of tea”; or the history of silk, from the Chinese legends about it, to the Romans’ encounter with the unique cloth, to the sad fate of the silk-weaving larvae that produce the fibers but do not have the privilege of becoming moths. Daor takes us around the world in 2,000 words (more or less).

What’s more, the collection also provides some perspective on the period in which Daor was writing. A large share of the articles were originally published in the Israeli travel and nature magazine Masa Aher during the 1990s, a time when more Israelis than in the past could afford to travel abroad and reach destinations that lay beyond the bounds of classical Europe. In those days, before the Internet changed the way we consume information or plan vacations on the other side of the world, this magazine, with its abundant beautiful pictures, became the hard-copy embodiment of passion for another place. Some of the articles have aged a bit, such as the relatively recent but still outdated one in which Daor reveal s to his readers the wonders of the e-book reader and the way it eases the burden of carrying books on a trip, an article written back in the prehistoric times of 2007, before the first iPad was released. The articles also reflect the changing role of the Internet in helping people plan their trips. If in the articles that date to the 1990s two or three books would be cited as primary sources of information, by the 2000s, Google was assuming the principal role.

The “path” that Daor, who died in 2010, walks in the articles places the individual at the center. He maintains a healthy skepticism regarding imagined identities, and attempts to reveal fascinating aspects of the human experience with extreme succinctness. One might say that when it comes to reading Dan Daor, every philosophical journey begins with a brief essay.

Yaad Biran is a researcher of Yiddish culture and a tour guide.

AP