Mark Twain Got It All Wrong: Bell and Twain in Palestine


Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell is the author of many travel books, including the  Desert and the Sown.



Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain



[This post is a transcript of a “First Fridays” talk I gave at Concordia University-St.Paul in April of 2013]

Mark Twain today is best known for his novels, especially Huckleberry Finn. When he was alive, though, his best-selling book was Innocents Abroad, his satirical account of his travels through Europe and the Middle East. A less well-known, but more accomplished traveler was Gertrude Bell, a scholar and explorer of the Middle East during a period when that was more difficult to do than today. Bell published several accounts of her exploratory travels; in today’s presentation, I will compare her book The Desert and the Sown (about her travels in Palestine and Syria) with Twain’s Innocents Abroad.

One of the main points I want to make today is that the observations travelers make about new places and people says at least as much about THEM as it does about the places they are observing. The fact is that travelers “read” and “interpret” new places in a process than can be compared to reading and interpreting literature. Just as two different people can have different interpretations of a literary work, so too can different people have different interpretations of a place. This point can be illustrated by comparing Bell’s and Twain’s starkly different “readings” of Palestine and what used to be called Greater Syria.

In 1867, Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) went on an excursion to Europe and the Holy Land with a large group of other Americans on a first-class steamer. In 1869, he published his observations in a volume called Innocents Abroad. It was a huge hit. It was the best-selling book he ever wrote and one of the best-selling travelogues ever published. As you know, Mark Twain was a satirist; he loved to poke fun at people. One of the motivations for publishing this book was his impatience for the popular travel guides of his time, which described tourists sites with such exaggerated reverence that he found it ridiculous.

In the preface to Innocents Abroad, Twain noted that is book

“has a purpose, which is to suggest to the reader how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him. . . .I offer no apologies for any departures from the usual style of travel-writing that may be charged against me—for I think I have seen with impartial eyes, and I am sure I have written at least honestly, whether wisely or not” (3).

His goal was to tell the unvarnished truth about what he saw. Later in his book, Twain cites some of the Holy Land travel writers against whom he is reacting. One writer, for example, wrote about the Sea of Galilee, saying that

“Flowers bloom in this terrestrial paradise, once beautiful and verdant with waving trees; singing birds enchant the ear; the turtle-dove soothes with its soft note; the crested lark sends up its song towards heaven, and the grave and stately stork inspires the mind with thought, and leads it on to mediation and repose.” (1373)

It is certainly understandable why Clemens would wish to rectify the florid hyperbole of such prose with a more realistic assessment of the area. And his satire is effective when he mocks his fellow travelers for supposedly giving their “honest” impressions of the area when in fact that they are simply repeating whatever their guide books said.

However, I submit that his account of Palestine (the area we now call Israel and the West Bank) is far from being impartial. I believe his “objective” impressions were filtered through not only through the anti-Muslim prejudices of his times but also the acute disappointment he felt upon discovering that the Orient (what we would now call the Middle East) did not live up to the expectations set by either the Sunday school lessons of his childhood or the tradition of writing and visual art inspired by 1001 Arabian Nights.

In his satire of the Christians in Palestine, as well as of his own fellow-travellers, he is critical, but ultimately forgiving. However, his attitude towards the Muslims of Palestine (or anywhere else, for that matter) is entirely different: his satire is biting, savage, even hateful. I believe that he tried so hard to be uninfluenced by previous writing that he came across as simply ignorant and prejudiced. My belief is that any attempt to be completely objective is futile. Unless we are newborn babies, everything we see is influenced by our former experiences, including the texts we have read and the movies we have watched. Rather than trying to clear our minds of information, I think we would be better off following Gertrude Bell’s lead by learning as much about the region, language, and culture of the area we are travellng to from the perspective of those who live there.

Twain did not do this. In defense of him, however, most Americans of his time garnered their impressions of the what they called the Orient from very few sources. The most important source for Christians was the Bible, but the second most important source in forming preconceptions was 1001 Arabian Nights, the famous collection medieval Persian folk tales. In its original version and in faithful translations, Arabian Nights is a titillating feast of soft porn, Oriental style, featuring lusty harem women and their obliging black slaves. Many readers, according to Billie Melman, in her Women’s Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718-1918, considered 1001 Nights not just a source of entertainment, but an authoritative source of ethnographic data.

We know that Clemens’s favorite childhood book was Arabian Nights, and he referred to it frequently in Innocents Abroad, usually to note with disappointment how different the reality of the Middle East was. For example, when he was in Constantinople, he wrote,
“I was a little surprised to see Turks and Greeks playing newsboy right here in the mysterious land where the giants and genii of the Arabian Nights once dwelt—where winged horses and hydra-headed dragons guarded enchanted castles—where Princes and Princesses flew through the air on carpets that obeyed a mystic talisman—where cities whose houses were made of precious stones sprang up in a night under the hand of the magician, and where busy marts were suddenly stricken with a spell and each citizen lay or sat, or stood with weapon raised or foot advanced, just as he was, speechless and motionless, till time had told a hundred years!
It was curious to see newsboys selling papers in so dreamy a land as that.” (1035-1036)

Clemens’s reaction to the Middle East was in direct proportion to how well it lived up to expectations excited by his previous reading. Although Clemens enjoyed the Oriental splendors of Smyrna, he was not so excited about Constantinople. He growled, for example, about how his Turkish bath did not live up to his expectations: “When I think about how I have been swindled by books of Oriental travel, I want a tourist for breakfast. For years and years I have dreamed of the wonders of the Turkish bath” (1044).
But if he was disappointed in Turkey, he was disgusted by the Holy Land. Mark Twain hated Palestine. He hated the people who lived there and he hated the landscape. He writes,

“Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent. The Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee sleep in the midst of a vast stretch of hill and plain wherein the eye rests upon no pleasant tint, no striking object, no soft picture dreaming in a purple haze or mottled with the shadows of the clouds. Every outline is harsh, every feature is distinct, there is no perspective—distance works no enchantment here. It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land.” (1627)

I read Innocents Abroad after I came back from my trip to Palestine, and I was taken aback by this description and others like it. I visited many of the same places Twain did, albeit 140 years later, and my impressions were dramatically different. I found the landscape of Palestine beautiful and the people wonderful—warm and welcoming. Clemens’s reaction was so different that I had a hard time believing we had both visited the same place.

His description of the people he saw in Palestine was particularly condescending. He has made fun of Europeans and Americans throughout the entire book, of course, but he usually satirizes people for their actions or attitudes—their hypocrisy, greed, ignorance and other examples of human baseness. When it comes to the Muslim inhabitants of Palestine and Greater Syria, however, as far as I can tell, he didn’t actually get to know anybody enough to comment on their actions. Rather, he despises their very being, especially their poverty and disease, as if these were badges of sin. Even worse, for Twain, was the fact that they spoke Arabic and were Muslim. He describes the people as “dusky hags and ragged savages” who speak in the “discordant din of a hated language.” (1619) He describes the people of Endor as “the wildest horde of half-naked savages we have found thus far” “here the glare from the infidel eyes was fierce and full of hate.”

Rather than responding to poverty and disease with compassion, as Jesus did, he reacts with unbridled contempt and attributes them to Islam. For example, when he describes Jerusalem, writes that:

“It seems to me that all the races and colors and tongues of the earth must be represented among the fourteen thousand souls that dwell in Jerusalem. Rags, wretchedness, poverty and dirt, those signs and symbols that indicate the presence of Moslem rule more surely than the crescent-flag itself abound. Lepers, cripples, the blind, and the idiotic, assail you on every hand, and they know but one word of but one language apparently—the eternal “bucksheesh.” (1500)

In some of Twain’s observations, his disappointment so acute that they lead to violent fantasies, which I found disturbing. For example, in one chapter he was so disappointed than an exotic scene of “picturesque Arabs” with their camels was marred by poverty, dirt and disease that he fantasized about killing the people.

He writes that in the pictures he had seen at home of scenes such as these, “there was no desolation; no dirt; no rags; no fleas; no ugly features; no sore eyes; no feasting flies; no besotted ignorance in the countenances; no raw places on the donkeys’ backs; no disagreeable jabbering in unknown tongues; no stench of camels, no suggestion that a couple of tons of powder placed under the party and touched off would heighten the effect and give to the scene a genuine interest and a charm which it would always be pleasant to recall, even though a man lived a thousand years. Oriental scenes look best in steel engravings. I cannot be imposed upon any more by that picture of the Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon. I shall say to myself, You look fine, Madam but your feet are not clean and you smell like a camel.” (1462-1463, bold-face mine)

Reading Twain’s account of Middle Easterners make them sound more like wild animals or, at best, savages, rather than people with a particular culture, traditions, and outlook on life that made sense given their situation.. Unfortunately, Twain’s reaction to the Middle Eastern inhabitants was not unusual. Most American travelers shared both his ignorance and his sense of superiority. It would be easy to dismiss Twain’s contempt as unfortunate but unavoidable. We could forgive him by saying he was merely a product of his times. Expecting anything different would be unrealistic, right?

Wrong. There is in fact a body of work written by Western travelers of the late 19th and early 20th century who took away dramatically different impressions of the Orient—impressions that feature neither the over-the-top fantasy of the travel guides quoted by Twain nor the unbridled contempt of Twain. One of these travelers was Gertrude Bell, a wealthy English woman who lived from 1868 to 1926. She was writer, traveler, political officer, administrator, archaeologist and spy who explored and mapped large areas of Syria, Arabia, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor. She was educated as a historian at Oxford and had a vast geographical and historical knowledge of the region. She also spoke Arabic, Persian, French, German, Italian and Turkish, as well as English.

Her method of travelling and her purpose in writing varied markedly from the type of tour group Twain engaged in. In the preface to her book The Desert and the Sown (about her travels in Palestine and Greater Syria in 1905), she writes:

“I desired to write not so much a book of travel as an account of the people whom I met or who accompanied me on my way, and to show what the world is like in which they live and how it appears to them. And since it was better that they should, as far as possible, tell their own tale, I have strung their words upon the thread of the road, relating as I heard them the stories with which shepherd and man-at-arms beguiled the hours of the march, the talk that passed from lip to lip round the camp-fire, in the black tent of the Arab and the guest-chamber of the Druze, as well as the more cautious utterances of Turkish and Syrian officials.

Unlike Mark Twain, when Gertrude Bell travelled through an unknown region, she got to know the people who lived there on their own terms, speaking their own language to them and hearing their perspectives on life. She learned about their histories and cultures through books, but also by hanging out with people and speaking to them in their own languages. Some of happiest hours of her life were spent in the middle of the Arabian desert hanging out in tents with Bedouin sheiks, drinking coffee, speaking Arabic and discussing Arabic poetry. Because her approach was so different, so too were her impressions of the area.

Whereas Twain conveyed the impression that Middle Easterners were ignorant, savage, and full of hatred for Westerners, Bell describes countless encounters with people who were warm, hospitable, intelligent, and politically astute. To give a brief but telling example of the different attitudes of the two traveler—and thus their different ceptions– here are excerpts from their descriptions of Damascus.

At first glance, Twain found Damascus beautiful, but he quickly became repulsed by the city and its people. He decided that they all hated him because he was a Christian. He writes:

in Damascus they so hate the very sight of a foreign Christian that they want no intercourse whatever with him; only a year or two ago, his person was not always safe in Damascus streets. It is the most fanatical Mohammedan purgatory out of Arabia. . . The Damascenes are the ugliest, wickedest looking villains we have seen. All the veiled women we had seen yet, nearly, left their eyes exposed, but numbers of these in Damascus completely hid the face under a close-drawn black veil that made the woman look like a mummy. If ever we caught an eye exposed it was quickly hidden from our contaminating Christian vision; the beggars actually passed us by without demanding bucksheesh; the merchants in the bazaars did not hold up their goods and cry out eagerly, “Hey john!” or “Look this, Howajii!!” On the contrary, they only scowled at us and never said word.

Gertrude Bell was also a Christian, but she found the city amazing and the people friendly and hospitable. She devoted chapters in her book to descriptions of the people she met, the homes she visited, and the conversations she had. Most of her descriptions are respectful and admiring. Many of the people she knew wealthy, but she did not confine her acquaintances to the upper classes. “
Nor let me, amid all this high company, forget my humbler friends: the Afghan with black locks hanging about his cheeks, who gave me the salute every time we met; the sweetmeat seller at the door of the Great Mosque, who helped me once or twice through the mazes of the bazaars and called to me each time I passed him: “Has your Excellency no need of your Dragoman today?” or the dervishes of of Shekh Hassan’s Tkkiyyah, who invited me to attend the Friday prayers. Not the least the red-bearded Persian who keeps a tea shop in the Corn Market and who is a member of the Beh’ai sect among which I have many acquaintances. As I sat drinking glasses of delicious Persian tea at his table, I greeted him in his own tongue. . . when I rose to go and asked his charge he replied: “For you there is never anything to pay.” I vow there is nothing that so warms the heart as to find yourself admitted into the secret circle of Oriental beneficence—and few things so rare.” (103)

Gertrude Bell was particularly famous, however, for her explorations of what was then known as Arabia, a part of the world about which most Westerners were profoundly ignorant. Bell travelled extensively in these deserts by herself (meaning without other Westerners) over a period of many years and ultimately was recognized as knowing “more about the Arabs and Arabia than almost any other living Englishman or woman.” She was particularly knowledgeable about the Bedouins, the nomadic Arab peoples of the desert.
Mark Twain described Bedouins in his book as not living up to his expectations:

“As we trotted across the Plain of Jezreel, we met half a dozen Digger Indians (Bedouins) with very long spears in their hands, cavorting around on old crowbait horses, and spearing imaginary enemies; whooping, and fluttering their rags in the wind, and carrying on in every respect like a pack of hopeless lunatics!. . . To glance at the genuine son of the desert is to take the romance out of him forever—to behold his steed is to long in charity to strip his harness off and let him fall to pieces.” (1467-68).

Of course, Twain only saw glimpses of Bedouins and was unable to talk to any of them because he didn’t speak their language—their “hated tongue” of Arabic. Gertrude Bell, on the other hand, knew the Bedouins well and admire them deeply. She took the time to learn their language and to talk to people to learn how they viewed the world. She learned for example, that “The word “guest” is sacred from Jordan to Euphrates.” She, like other travellers in Arabia ,owed her life to the hospitality given her by Bedouins. There were no Holiday Inns, highways, or policemen in the desert; the only way to survive was to become a guest and thus be protected by the hospitality of a particular tribal leader. Because she learned the rules of the Arabs, she was able to travel freely and unharmed through unmapped desert areas where almost no Westerner had ever been.

Another reason she was able to earn the respect, and thus the protection of these so-called savages was that she knew their tradition of oral poetry and was able to cite it and discuss it with the Bedouins while sitting with them around the fire at night drinking coffee. Because of her knowledge of their poetry, she is able to see the world through their eyes:

‘He had struck the note. I looked out beyond him into the night and saw the desert with his eyes, no longer empty but set thicker with human associations than any city. Every line of it took on significance, every stone was like the ghost of a hearth in which the warmth of Arab life was hardly cold, though the fire might have been extinguished this hundred years.. . . The Arabs do not speak of desert or wilderness as we do. Why should they? To them it is neither desert nor wilderness, but a land of which they know every feature, a mother country whose smallest product has a use sufficient for their needs. Learning this tradition of poetry helped her get a glimpse of the world from different eyes. It also helped her appreciate that these Arab poets “have left behind them a record of their race that richer and wiser nations will find hard to equal.” (52)

I hope I have been able to give you a sense of the dramatically different impressions Twain and Bell have conveyed in their travelogues. Granted, Bell lived and travelled a few decades later than Twain. However, although things may have changed a little bit in that that time period, the main difference is in the attitudes of the authors. Twain brought with him ignorance, prejudice, and rather a odd (to me) expectation that the Middle East would be like a medieval folk tale. Since he did not take the time to get to know the people of the places he visited, his superficial impressions only reinforced his feelings of cultural superiority. Bell, on the other hand, came equipped with a knowledge of the language, history, literature, and respect for the people she visited and came back transformed—for the better–by her experiences.

The point I want to make today is really quite simple. If we are to survive as a planet, we need to learn how to share the earth in a peaceable manner. Learning about the people with whom we share this planet and perhaps more important, learning to respect each other, may not solve every problem we face, but it can certainly help. I really believe that if more of the world in the early 20th century had been like Gertrude Bell in her openness to and respect for people different from herself, many of the international problems we are now facing regarding the Middle East could have been avoided or at least minimized. I want to encourage you students to take every opportunity you can to travel, to see the world. But when you do, try to get off the tourist bus and interact with the local people in a more meaningful way than Twain did. Ideally, you can learn a foreign language. At the very least, you can read more about other places and talk to people who are different from yourselves. The world will be a better place if you do.