Reminds Me of Bethlehem

(This is my “Asia” entry for my Around the World Reading Challenge.

It seems that the only news we in the U.S. hear about Syria (or the Middle East more generally) is of war, terror, chaos, refugees, and other forms of suffering.  For that reason, I am always happy to find published works that portray everyday life in the Middle East, especially everyday life during less chaotic times.

I discovered the memoir Road To Damascus by Elaine Rippey Imady recently in a new, local bookstore focusing on women’s works, international works, and works about human rights. The store, located in St. Paul, is called Daybreak Press   (A fun fact about Road to Damascus is that, as I discovered when I bought the book, it was written by the mother-in-law of the owner of the bookstore.)

Road to Damascus

Road to Damascus is written by an American woman who moved to Damascus, Syria in the early 1960s to be with her Syrian husband, Mohammed.  She lived there happily the rest of her life (or at least until the book was published in 2008).   Imady’s memoir provides an intriguing glimpse into Damascus as experienced by one American woman, a point-of-view I haven’t seen much before.

Elaine Imady

Elaine Rippey Imady

One of the pleasures of the book for me was that many of Imady’s descriptions of Syrian culture reminded me fondly of my experiences in Bethlehem (in the West Bank) when I was there in 2012.  More than 50 years had elapsed between my stay and Imady’s, and Bethelem was in a different country, but the culture struck me as very similar.  This shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose, since the country boundaries are artificial, and Palestinians and Syrians are both Levantine Arabs.

I have reproduced below some excerpts from Imady’s memoir, followed up with my own more recent memories in Palestine.

  • Our friends “had a terrible time finding us because we had no phone, and although they had our address with the name of our street and the number of our building, Syrians are accustomed to a different way of locating places, what I called ‘the landmark method.’ A Damascene would give direction to our home by saying, ‘The Imady building is one street up from the tram street in Mohajareen. Walk up one block from Abu Saoud’s drugstore at Shutta Street, and then turn left.  It’s the tallest building on the block.’  (37-38)

This anecdote made me laugh because I had the same experience with the rental apartment where I stayed for six weeks.  Before I arrived in Bethlehem, I asked my landlord (via e-mail) for the address of the place I’d be staying.  He said it was just a few houses up the street from Abdul’s Bakery.  I was confused and repeated my question, saying it was for mailing purposes.  He repeated the same thing about Abdul’s Bakery.  I gave up.  He may have had a street address with the number of the home and the name of the street, but nobody ever used it.  I used taxis all the time to get around, and I always told him it was near Abdul’s Bakery or gave the name of the local grocery store, and that always worked.

  •  “I found the main thoroughfare lined cheek to jowl with small shops. Most had some of their merchandise on display outside, either piled up on the sidewalk or hanging above the shops on “clothes lines.”  But the merchants didn’t stop there.  They sent young boys out into the crowds to entice you into their dens with insistent cries of “Tafuddily.”  (Come in.) . . . In ten minutes of walking in the souk, we saw for sale wooden clogs, slippers, children’s clothes, underwear, perfume, head coverings for men and women, brass rays, gold and silver jewelry, chess boards, lutes, rugs, prayer carpets and rolls of fabric of all kinds—but no pots and pans.  Beguiling and exotic smells wafted through the air.  There were fragrant scents from the perfume and attar shops, pungent odors coming from the spice market and the distinctive smell of tanned skins from the leather souk.”  (46)

 To me the souks and small “hole-in-the-wall” shops are a major pleasure of travelling in the Middle East.  They still exist in Bethlehem,  but in some major cities, they are being replaced by Western-style shopping malls.  I suppose the malls are more comfortable, but I do think something important is being lost with their triumph over traditional souks.


Small shops in Bethelehm


Small shops in Hebron

  • “Characteristically for desert weather, the temperature could drop twenty-five degrees Fahreneheit or more from noon to midnight, and the tile floors, high ceilings and drafty windows meant bone-chilling rooms at night. I had never been so cold indoors before: no central heating, and only one room of my in-law’s five-room apartment had a heater.” (42)

I live in Minnesota, which is known (rightly so) for its cold winter weather.  Yet, I have NEVER been cold for any length of time while inside a house.  Our homes are all well-heated, and we take this heat for granted.  Therefore, I was surprised to find out how cold my Bethlehem apartment was.  When I first arrived, they were having a cold, rainy spell.  I spent several days shivering under the blankets.  The home did have central heating, but the cost of heating was high, and my landlord only turned on central heating for about an hour a day.  He let me use a space heater in my bedroom, but even then, I was supposed to ration it to a few hours a day.  Fortunately, the weather warmed up after a week or so; otherwise, I don’t know how long I could have lasted in that ice-box!

  • ‘Referring to some visitors to their home, Imady writes, “Sometimes the voices of two or three guests would rise, their faces would look agitated, and they would gesture excitably. I would be sure they would be furious with each other or that something was wrong and would worriedly ask Mohammed what was the matter.  He would laugh and explain that it was nothing, that Syrians were simply more vehement, fiery and emotional than Americans.”  (37)

My landlord was a mild-mannered man when he spoke English (at least to me).  He spoke it fluently, by the way.  I noticed, though, that when he spoke Arabic, he often sounded angry to me.  Perhaps he was angry, but I did notice that Arab speakers were more likely to be loud and emotional than we reserved Minnesotans are/

  •  “Fat-tailed sheep crowded the narrow road, and sometimes our car had to stop while young boys or girls shepherded their flocks across the road.” (35)

Bethlehem is in most ways a modern 21st century town.  The streets are full of cars; everyone has cell phones and computers, and so forth.  And yet, it was not at all uncommon to see flocks of goats and sheep crossing the street—in the middle of the city.  I never quite got used to that sight.

feeling sheepish

a young shepherd with his flock

  • “I could hardly believe that Lamat went on this picnic wearing a good suit, stockings, and high heeled shoes. Her heels sunk in the plowed furrows between the trees, but she didn’t seem to mind.”  (35)

One of my favorite pastimes while in Bethlehem was hiking.  One day I joined a public hike that focused on Sufi shrines.  Both Western tourists and local Palestinian women were on this hike.  The Westerners wore casual pants and hiking boots.  The Palestinian women wore street clothing and shoes—the type of clothing one might wear at an office job.  None of them wore athletic shoes or hiking books.  I have to confess I found their lack of proper clothing irritating, because they slowed down our pace considerably. 

Scene from Sufi hike
Scene from Sufi hike

Perhaps the most significant commonality between Imady’s Syria and my experience of Palestine, though, is the warm hospitality she and I encountered everywhere.

I have never been to Syria, and I would like to go there.  Now is obviously not a good time.  Watching the devastation their country is going through now is heartbreaking.  I hope they can resolve their conflicts soon.

Have any of you been to Syria?

How to Create a Terrorist, Part III

Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building.

First published in Arabic in 2002.  U.S. edition, translated by Humphrey Davies, published in 2004, Harper Perennial

This post is part of the African Reading Challenge hosted by Kinna Reads.  .

Alaa al Aswany
Alaa al Aswany

Taha el Shazli has dreamed since childhood of becoming a police officer in his home city of Cairo, Egypt, and he has done everything in his power to make that happen.  He achieved high scores on all his school tests, he trained his body to become physically fit, he cozied up to all of the policemen in his area, and he passed the qualifying examination for the police academy with flying colors.

Taha is one of the main characters in Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany’s best-selling 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building.  This novel focuses on a group of characters who all live in (or on the roof of) the once-elegant apartment complex called The Yacoubian Building.  This building is meant to represent a microcosm of Egyptian society, with the rich, poor and middle class all living intersecting lives within close proximity.


Taha is one of the poor members of this microcosm, so poor that he and his father live on the roof of the building.  Taha tries his whole life to rise above his humble origins.  Despite all his efforts, however, Taha is rejected from the police academy, not because of his qualifications, but because his father is a lowly door keeper.  Class barriers are strong in Egypt.  As Taha’s girlfriend Busayna points out,

“This country doesn’t belong to us, Taha. It belongs to the people who have money.  If you’d had twenty thousand pounds and used them to bribe someone, do you think anyone would have asked about your father’s job?  Make money, Taha, and you’ll get everything, but if you stay poor they’ll walk all over you.”  (59)

After being rejected from the academy because of his father’s job, Taha starts to dream of revenge.  He moves on with his life, however, by attending university.  He finds himself unable to shake off his class though.  The university students replicate the rest of their society; his fellow students are divided into cliques of the rich vs. the poor, just as the Yacoubian Building is.

One place where Taha DOES finds a place where he feels accepted is at the Faculty’s mosque.  Most of the other young men who frequented the mosque are poor like himself, and he soon became part of a close group of friends. One of these friends eventually introduces him to Sheikh Shakir.

Shakir convinces these discontented young man to join his group in jihad.   He exhorts his listeners to rebel against the corrupt rulers of Egypt, claiming that Egypt is ruled by “French secular law, which permits drunkenness, fornication, and perversion, so long as it is by mutual consent.”  Shakir then reminds the men that their “supposedly democratic state is based on the rigging of elections and the detention and torture of innocent people so that the ruling clique can remain on their thrones forever.  They lie and lie and lie, and they want us to believe their revolting lies.”  After railing against the corrupt Egyptian government, Shakir then urges his lsteners to “reclaim the concept of gihad and bring it back to the minds and hearts of the Muslims,” noting that “Millions of Muslims humiliated and subjected to dishonor by the Zionist occupation appeal to you to restore for them t heir ruined self-respect.”  (95-97.)

Taha, like many other young men, is drawn to the words of the sheikh.  He is all too familiar with feeling humiliated and rejected and finds succor in the idea of organized resistance against all the corrupt forces that are holding him down.  Becoming an Islamist gives him “a new, powerful, bounding spirit.  He has taken to walking, sitting, and speaking to people in the building in a new way.  Gone forever are the old cringing timidity and meekness before the residents.  Now he faces them with self-confidence.”  (115)

Once Sheikh Shakir is confident of  Taha’s strengthened religious faith and his feeling of belonging, he next persuades him to join their jihadist struggle, the Islamic Action Charter.  He give Taha a copy of their brochure to read, which Taha stores in his pocket.  Not long afterwards, Taha participates in a mass protest against the Western alliance in the Gulf War.  The police are not happy with his participation in the protest, so they take him in to jail.

The police find the brochure for the Islamic Action Charter in Taha’s pocket and assume he is part of the organization.  The beat him to a pulp trying to get him to talk about it, but Taha knows nothing.  At that point, the police escalate their torture.

“Then they threw him facedown on the ground and several hands started to remove his gallabiya and pull of his underclothes.  He resisted with all his might, but they set upon him and held his body down with their hands and feet.  Two thick hands reached down, grabbed his buttocks, and pulled them apart.  He felt a solid object being stuck into his rear and breaking the tendons inside and he started screaming.  He screamed at the top of his voice.  He screamed until he felt that his larynx was being ripped open.”  (153)

It is this experience of torture and humiliation at the hands of the police that complete Taha’s transformation from an earnest, hopeful young man to a scarred soul bent on revenge.  He is now ready and willing to do anything for revenge.  He is now primed to become a member of Shakir’s jihadist organization and to volunteer for a suicide mission.

Alaa al Aswany’s portrayal of Taha has some intriguing similarities with Yasmina Khadra’s portrayal of his nameless narrator. Both of them start out as poor yet peaceful young men with high hopes for the future.  Both are brought down by a series of shocks and assaults on things and people they love.  What finally turns both of these characters towards terrorism, though, are actions of others that humiliate them and remove their sense of honor and dignity.  Once those are gone, they feel compelled to seek vengeance.  They believe this vengeance is necessary to restore themselves to life as they know it, life with dignity and honor.

Khadra’s narrator claimed that he was, for all intents and purposes, dead after seeing the humiliation  his father suffered at the hands of the American soldiers.  Similarly, Taha felt dead after his torture by the police.  He said to the sheikh,

“I’m dead now.  They killed me in detention.  When they trespass on your honor laughing, when they give you a woman’s name and make you answer with your new name and you have to because of the savagery of the torture. . . You want me to forget all that and go on living?’

Whether this loss of honor and dignity come from Western military forces or from the brutal Egyptian police, these characters believe they must take action to restore their sense of selves.


This post is the third in my series “How to Create a Terrorist.”  The first two posts were on Yasmina Khadra’s novel The Sirens of Baghdad:



I spent several weeks in Bethlehem, Palestine a few years ago.  I lived by myself, which meant cooking for myself. That meant I did not necessarily eat traditional Palestinian dishes.  I did learn about one popular dish, called Maklouba.  (I see it spelled differently by different people.)  Malkouba means “upside down,” and it refers to the presentation of this dish:  when the dish is ready, the cook tips the pot upside down onto the plate so that the rice is on the bottom and the meat is on the top.

In the few short weeks I was in Bethlehem, I was served maklouba on three separate occasions.  This says to me the dish is popular!  There are endless variations on the recipe, but it is always a combination of vegetables, (usually fried), rice mixed with spices, and some sort of meat (chicken, beef, lamb are popular).  Each “layer” is cooked separately.

Most of the pictures included in this gallery were taken on the day that a group of culinary students showed me how they made the dish and then served it to me.  It was dellicious!  Each time I was served it the dish was always a little bit different, but it was always tasty.

After I returned home to the U.S., I felt I needed to make maklouba myself.  One of the pictures is of me with my own homemade attempt.

I am including links to a few online recipes I found for this dish, in case you want to try it yourself.  Enjoy!

How to Create a Terrorist, Part II

Yasmina Khadra, The Sirens of Baghdad, Part II.

Yasmina Khadra, pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul
Yasmina Khadra, pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul


Sirens of Baghdad
Sirens of Baghdad

Spoiler Alert!  I discuss the ending of the novel in this post.

This post is a continuation of yesterday’s discussion of Yasmina Khadra’s book The Sirens of Baghdad. This novel traces the journey of a young Iraqi Bedouin man from a sensitive, peaceful person to someone determined to destroy as much of the world as possible through violent means.

As I mentioned earlier, the narrator turns to violence after the Americans and their allies inflict a series of outrages on people close to him.  After the third outrage, the protagonist believes he has no choice but to seek revenge.  This need for vengeance comes not from his religion, but from his Bedouin heritage’s emphasis on honor. The unnamed narrator points out that, “For Bedouin, no matter how impoverished they may be, honor is no joking matter.  An offense must be washed away in blood, which is the sole authorized detergent when it’s a question of keeping one’s self-respect. . . Dignity can’t be negotiated.  Should we lose it, all the shrouds in the world won’t suffice to veil our faces, and no tomb will receive our carcasses without cracking.” (133)

Most of the characters in Khadra’s novel who voice disgust over their treatment by the West are outraged by the indignities they believe they have suffered from the West.  Some of these abuses are specific instances of violence and mal-treatment like those suffered by the narrator (discussed previously.)

Other examples are less physical, but are nonetheless stinging.  One taxi-driver in Sirens says, for example, that “I was an interpreter with the American troops. . . ‘Sand niggers’—that’s the name they give their Iraqi collaborators” (126)  Iraqi characters in the novel also voice disbelief at the way Americans treat their parents and the elderly:  “But the GI has no clue.  He can’t measure the extent of the sacrilege.  He doesn’t even know what a sacrilege is.  In his world, a man sticks his parents in an old folks’ home and forgets them.  They’re the least of his worries.  He calls his mother an “old bag” and his father “an asshole.”  What can you expect of such a person?”  (173)

Still others are appalled at the general disdain they think Westerners have towards Arab culture, which has a much longer and more distinguished history than does Western culture.  As one character observes, “They think all Arabs are retarded,” he muttered.  “Imagine:  Arabs, the most fabulous creatures on earth.  We taught the world table manners; we taught the world hygiene and cooking and mathematics and medicine.  Ad what do these degenerates of modernity remember of all that?  A camel caravan crossing the dunes at sunset?  Some fat guy in a white robe and a keffiyeh flashing his millions in a gambling casino on the Cote d’Azur?  Cliches, caricatures..,” (128).

In this novel, Khadra is emphasizing that the reason some Arabs and Muslims hate the West is not because of their religion (which is what right wing media pundits would have us believe) but because they are not treated with respect and dignity.  Another reason, Khadra suggests, is that Westerners seem to value money and material progress above else.  We see an example of this sort of thinking when the American military offers money to the father of Sulayman just a few days after they shot him to death.  The father is appalled that Americans would stoop so low as to try to “buy him off” in the midst of his grief.

I need to emphasize, however, that despite the many critiques of the West contained in The Sirens of Baghdad, Khadra is by no means promoting terrorism.  On the contrary.  He portrays the resistance fighters with whom the narrator gets involved as wrong-headed at best.   Just as he gives voice to characters who hate the West, he also gives voice to characters who are horrified at the Fedayeen (resistance fighters.)  One character says,  “The actions of the Fedayeen are lowering us in the eyes of the world.  We’re Iraqis, cousin.  We have eleven thousand years of history behind us.  We’re the ones who taught men to dream.”  (161)

Another tells the narrator, “If you insist on fighting, do it properly.  Fight for your country, not against the whole world. Keep things in perspective; don’t mistake wrong for right.  Don’t kill just for killing’s sake.  Don’t fire blindly—we’re losing more innocent people than bastards who deserve to die.”

Others try to dissuade the narrator from his terrorist mission by telling him this:

“You’re already on the wrong track.  The world isn’t our enemy.  Remember all the people who protested the invasion all over the world, millions of them marching in Madrid, Rome, Paris, Tokyo, South America, Asia.  All of them were on our side, and they still are.  We got more support from them than we got from the other Arab countries.  Don’t forget that.  All nations are victims of the avarice of a handful of multinational companies.  It would be terrible to lump them all together. Kidnapping NGO workers who are here only to help us—those kinds of things are alien to our customs.  If you want to avenge an offense, don’t commit one.  If you think your honor must be saved, don’t dishonor your people.  Don’t give way to madness.”  (183)

In the end, the narrator almost gives way to madness.  He is about to embark on a mission to infect millions of people with a deadly virus that spreads easily and rapidly.  As he is about to get on the plane to start his mission, however, he falters.

Looking around the airport at all of the people doing ordinary things, like kissing each other, waiting hopefully to be reunited with their families, etc., he realizes how wrong he has been.  He realized “they deserved to live for a thousand years.  I have no right to challenge their kisses, scuttle their dreams, dash their hopes.  What have I done with my own destiny?  I’m only twenty-one years old, and all I have is the certainty that I’ve wrecked my life twenty-one times over.”  (306)

It seems to me that the narrator realizes there is a big difference between hating The West (an abstract concept) and hating all of the individual people that make up the West, most of whom have little to do with the outrages that have been inflicted upon him.  By the time he comes to this realization, unfortunately, he has already shot himself up with the deadly virus and can do nothing more but wait to die.

As he waits, he “concentrates on  the light of the city, which [he] was never able to perceive through the anger of men.”  (307)

Quotations used are from the 2007  Anchor Books publication, translated by John Cullen.

***Stay tuned for future installments of “How to Create a Terrorist,” in which I discuss The Yacoubian Building and The Reluctant Fundamentalist.**

How to Create a Terrorist, Part I

The Sirens of Baghdad, by Yasmina Khadra

Yasmina Khadra, pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul
Yasmina Khadra, pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul


Note:  Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian writer  

Sirens of Baghdad
Sirens of Baghdad

Yasmina Khadra, Sirens of Baghdad.  Published in French in 2006.

The unnamed narrator of Yasmina Khadra’s Sirens of Baghdad lives most of his life as a peaceful, shy, naïve soul.  He is a Bedouin from the small, backwater Iraqi village of Kafr Karam, which lay mostly isolated from the tumult of the modern world.  The narrator notes that

“For generations beyond memory, we had lived shut up inside our walls of clay and straw, far from the world and its foul beasts, contenting ourselves with whatever God put on our plates and praising Him as devoutly for the newborn He confided to us as for the relative He called back to Himself.  We were poor, common people, but we were at peace” (12).

This peaceful, if lethargic, existence careens to an abrupt halt, however, with the American invasion of Iraq.  At first, the Kafr Karam inhabitants try to ignore the violence occurring in Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul, and other Iraqi cities.  Soon, though, the ravages of war come to them.

At this point, Khadra’s narrator begins his transformation from a peaceful village boy to a resistance fighter who is about to embark on a mission that, if successful, will destroy millions of people.  How can such a dramatic change occur?  Three key events catapult our protagonist into his short career as a terrorist.

The first event concerns a developmentally disabled young man named Sulayman who lives in Kafr Karam.  One of the symptoms of his disability was his habit of taking off running frantically until he passed out:  “Sulayman didn’t talk, didn’t complain, was never aggressive; he lived entrenched in his world and ignored ours totally.  Then, all at once, he’d give a cry—always the same cry—and take off across the desert without looking back”  (29).

One day, Sulayman accidentally cut off two of his fingers, and he needed to be rushed to a clinic.  The narrator accompanies Sulayman’s father on their trip to the next town, where the nearest clinic is found.  Unfortunately, their trip is interrupted by a checkpoint that blocked their route.  Two soldiers with automatic weapons stopped their car and started barking orders at them.  The American GI, in particular, intimidated the passengers in the car with his gigantic body, his rage, and his shouts.  Sulayman’s father pleaded with him, “I beg you, please don’t shout.  My son is mentally ill, and you’re scaring him.”  (55)

The black GI responded with even more rage, “Shut the fuck up or I’ll blow your brains out!  Hands behind your head!”  (56)  The tensions of the exchange escalated, and eventually Sulayman became so scared that he bolted out of the car and started running away.  The soldiers assumed the worst and immediately started shooting.  They shot Sulayman so many times that his head “exploded like a melon; his unbridled run stopped all at once.”

Sulayman’s death left his family inconsolable and the narrator reeling with shock.  The Americans eventually realized they had made a mistake, “but they weren’t going to make a big deal of it.  Incidents of this kind were commonplace in Iraq.  Amid the general confusion, everyone sought his own advantage.  To err is human, and fate has broad shoulders”  (59).

The killing of Sulayman was just the first event that shattered the protagonist’s outlook on the world.  The second event involved the destruction of a Kafr Karam wedding party by American missiles.  The Americans had mistaken the wedding party for a gathering of terrorists. The results were devastating:

“The force of the explosion had flung chairs and wedding guests thirty meters in all directions.  Survivors staggered about, their clothes in rags, holding their hands out in front of them like blind people.  Some mutilated, charred bodies were lined up along the edge of a path.  Cars illuminated the slaughter with their headlights, while specters thrashed about in the midst of the rubble.  Then there was the howling, drawn out, interminable; the air was full of pleas and cries and wails” (93).

This slaughter, not surprisingly, appalled the narrator:  “I didn’t remember ever having borne a grudge against anybody, anybody at all, and yet there I was, ready to bite something, including the hand that tried to soothe me—except that I held myself back.  I was outraged, sick, tormented by a thousand thorns…” (97). And yet, he still remained peaceful, reasoning that “I held a better grudge against the coalition forces, but I couldn’t see myself indiscriminately attacking everyone and everything in sight.  War wasn’t my line. I wasn’t born to commit violence—I considered myself a thousand times likelier to suffer it than to practice it one day.”

This philosophy changes irrevocably one night when the narrator’s home was forcibly invaded by a squad of American soldiers looking for weapons.  As usual, they used excessive force, shouting obscenities and destroying the few valuables owned by the family.  Much more outrageous, though, was the way the GIs treated the family members, dragging everyone around and striking women into submission.

The way the Americans soldiers treated his father, however, was truly unimaginable to the narrator.  His father was frail and elderly and was not dressed when the soldiers knocked down his bedroom door.  He requested that the soldiers let him get properly dressed, but they would not allow it.  The father could not permit himself to appear in front of his family members with nothing but underwear, so he turned back to the bedroom to get his clothes.

The soldiers responded by knocking the elderly man to the floor with a gun.  When they did that, his abdomen and genitals were revealed to the entire family.  This sight was an unspeakable sacrilege to the narrator.

“That sight was the edge of the abyss, and beyond it, there was nothing but the infinite void, an interminable fall, nothingness. . . A Westerner can’t understand, can’t suspect the dimensions of the disaster.  For me, to see my father’s sex was to reduce my entire existence, my values and my scruples, my pride and my singularity, to a coarse, pornographic flash.  The gates of hell would have seemed less catastrophic!” (102).

This outrage on the honor of his family was the final straw for our narrator.  As a Bedouin, he had no choice but to “wash away this insult in blood, until the rivers and the oceans turned as read as the cut on Bahia’s neck, as my mother’s eyes, as the fire in my guts, which was already preparing me for the hell I knew was waiting….”  (102)

From this point on, the narrator is bent on revenge.  He travels to Baghdad, where he joins resistance forces and agrees to participate in whatever mission they assign him, including a suicide mission.  He reasons that he is already dead, at least he can go down fighting.

Clearly, Khadra is suggesting in Sirens of Baghdad that the American invasion of Iraq contributed to the rise of terrorism in the region.  Moreover, while our presence was inherently disruptive, many of the events that traumatized the narrator could have been avoided if soldiers had been more respectful of ordinary Iraqis and cracked down on the “shoot first, ask questions later” policy of so many soldiers.

Also noteworthy in this novel is that the reasons for the narrator’s turn to terrorism had nothing to do with the religious tenets of Islam, although it did have much to do with Eastern vs. Western values. I will discuss these values as they are portrayed in The Sirens of Baghdad in my next blog post.

Stay tuned!

(The quotations come from the Anchor Books version published in 2007, translated from the French by John Cullen.)


National Blog Posting Month
National Blog Posting Month


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.