The title of Carlo Rovelli’s latest book hooked me in. There are places in the world where rules are less important than kindness. Rovelli’s previous works have been popularizations of some very difficult concepts in theoretical physics. His latest book, however, consists of a series of articles and short essays on a wide variety of subjects and personal experiences. Very accessible and very fascinating.
The title comes from an incident when the 60 year old Rovelli was traveling around Senegal in West Africa. Given all the stories about jihadi activity in the Sahel region, I must admit that as an older European man I would have avoided traveling by myself in rickety taxis through desolate desert areas to sparsely populated towns in the middle of nowhere. But Rovelli showed the same kind of intrepid curiosity in the face of potential danger that he displays in his intellectual pursuits. In one town, he decided to enter a mosque just after Friday prayers. After he had gone a ways inside, he realized that he should have taken off his shoes, takes them off, and starts carrying them. A man runs up to tell him that the shoes should not enter the mosque at all. He takes Rovelli back to the spot near the entrance where people leave their shoes, but another man comes up, talks to the first man, and then puts Rovellis’ shoes in a plastic bag, brings them back inside the mosque, and gives them back to Carlo.
In his story of “A Day in Africa,” Rovelli mentions talking with a number of the locals. He does not mention what language is being used. I assumed French since Senegal is a former French possession. But at the end of his story about the mosque, he seems to imply his words explaining that he felt fine with leaving his shoes outside, that he didn’t think they’d get stolen, were not interpreted, but still understood. The older man
smiles, and the young man smiles as well. In response, I pick up my shoes, thank the two men with my eyes and carry on into the interior of the mosque. I am speechless: there are places in the world where rules are less important than kindness.
To be continued.