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The following review appeared 3 January 2013 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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In Innocence and War: Mark Twain's Holy Land Revisited, Ian Strathcarron sets out to follow the identical route the correspondent for the Alta California took to the Holy Land in The Innocents Abroad. This modern British traveler makes his way through Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Israel/Palestine to visit the sites that inspired Twain's wit. Strathcarron goes to the very places where Twain contemplated the evidences of history and scripture, where he expressed shock and disappointment in the sacred landscape (the Galilee no comparison to Lake Tahoe) and the cities and shrines (upside-down-chicken-coop Jerusalem and the meretricious Church of the Holy Sepulcher), all the while making hilariously disparaging comments about Arabs, Muslims, Catholics and Eastern Christians and Jews, including the smug Protestant Pilgrims of his traveling party. Twain attempted to square scripture and pious inventions along with the clichés of other Holy Land books with 19th century reason and crude Ottoman realities, as he engaged with various dragomans, priests and other "native informants." In Innocence and War the modern traveler joins Twain in the now familiar exercise of reading the profane Holy Land against biblical text; but Strathcarron updates Twain's discursive move, with a twist: instead of the Bible, he reads Innocents Abroad as the main source text against the jarring realities of cultural differences and contemporary politics and war. Disjuncture and disappointment are frequent responses of many American Holy Land travelers, and Twain was horridly disappointed with the place. Strathcarron is also dismayed at what he calls "that most unholy land" (Preface n.p.), and we follow along a similar narrative of disjuncture, the play of high thoughts and low realities that Twain experienced.
Strathcarron comes closest to stepping in Twain's actual footsteps toward the end of the book. At that point, traveling to Ramla on the road to Jaffa (Joppa), he spends the night at the Franciscan Church and Hospice of St. Nicodemus and St. Joseph of Arimathea. Napoleon Bonaparte had stayed there during his unsuccessful invasion of Egypt and Palestine in 1799, but so did Twain 68 years later. The Franciscan monk from Seattle escorts Strathcarron and his wife to the rooms where both the future emperor and the future scourge of empires most likely slept. "Not likely bedfellows but they both stayed here" (211), the monk comments. He then pulls out a visitor's book signed on Saturday 29 September 1867 by "William Denny, Esq. & Co." Denny was the leader of the crew of pious prigs with whom Twain traveled, and there it is: Even without Twain's own signature it's actual evidence, proof that the iconic American had really slept there, a living scrap of literary history in its natural habitat and not swept up into the vaults of an archive.
Strathcarron frequently encounters precisely the same building or locale as the earlier traveler, but often enough he is forced off the trail or the shrine has drastically changed or the landscape has dramatically shifted in the last 150 years. He seems to have traveled when the Arab Spring was already blossoming but before the civil war tore Syria apart, so he is able to trace Twain's footsteps in Damascus. But when he goes to the Syrian town of Quneitra to follow in the footsteps of Mark Twain and his fellow "Pilgrims" across the Golan Heights, he finds that it is now a ghost town of rubble in the no-man's land between Syria and Israel. Armies bristle at each other on the Golan Heights, so he had to modify Twain's original itinerary. He ends up peering at the Israelis from the Syrian side and then once in Israel he returns to the Golan Heights to look back at the Syrians, unable to travel in that zone between them. He was able to contemplate Twain's route from both sides of the warring divide, which in turn provokes him to meditate on the 1967 War and its consequences.
"What Would Mark Twain Say?" is the question guiding much of Strathcarron's travel book. What would the future creator of Huck Finn and Jim remark at the Separation Fence / Apartheid Wall that Israel built to contain Palestinians? What would he say in the face of attitudes and actions of today, such as contemporary Jewish bigotry and "ethnic cleansing" (he regards the Israelis as the new Romans), what would he say about the Arab sense of injury, desire for revenge and apparent ineptitude, about Muslim anger and disdain of the West, and about Christian feuding and marginalization? What would Twain say about illegal settlements that have become small cities on hilltops or UN-supported refugee camps that have turned into permanent municipalities beneath them? What would he think of Palestine in "sackcloth and ashes" watching Israelis destroy ancient groves of Palestinian olive trees? What would he think of Sharon or Arafat? Strathcarron tries to channel Twain, imagining just what the correspondent from the Alta California would observe and how he would skewer everything.
What we actually read are musings by someone who is steeped in Twain's writing and covets his satirical mind-set, but who also entertains a modest sense of modern Middle Eastern history and a secular Western (vaguely Protestant) outlook. The book has terrific footnotes with quotes from Twain commenting on such key words as the Bible or notions of religion and morality from "Puddn'head Wilson's Calendar" and other Twain sources. Of course, the book is thoroughly laced with relevant passages from Innocents Abroad, and Innocence and War clearly improves if the reader has already read the original text and has at least some knowledge of the Middle East although it could also serve as an interesting introduction to both Twain's book and the modern place.
Ian Strathcarron is a British lord, an independent cosmopolitan traveler and writer, not an academic. He gives us no documentation, and instead of a bibliography only a short list of recommended biographies and history books. It's an interestingly diverse list--hardly do you get Alan Dershowitz and Nathan Finkelstein together on anything. Strathcarron is a publisher of art books in Scotland, a trained mediator, a cabaret performer, and a worldly British peer who navigates his boat Vasco da Gama around the world, including through the dangerous waters between Turkey, Lebanon and Israel. With such a background, he offers lively insights about Innocents Abroad and observations on the ironies and follies of history. He has written other books retracing famous authors: Joy Unconfined! Lord Byron's Grand Tour Re-Toured and, most recently the second of his trilogy on Twain's travels The Indian Equator: Mark Twain's India Revisited. As you might suspect, he is writing the third of the set, a book reliving Life on the Mississippi.
Innocence and War is frequently amusing. One of the great mistakes of anyone writing about Mark Twain is to try to imitate him. Like others, Strathcarron can't avoid it, but he does miss the worst of the habit and maintains his own jaded view of the Levant in a lively literary style. Like Twain, Strathcarron is sure to offend sensibilities, particularly anyone deeply attached to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no matter your position--and I'm sure he wouldn't have it otherwise. But he also does a service to students of Twain's work. He makes some powerful observations as he follows Twain clashing once again with the pretenses of the sacred, and he interprets aspects of Innocents Abroad with a fresh technique as a traveler-critic.
On one level Strathcarron can engage in details, such as correcting Twain's confusion between the Dome of the Rock (or Mosque of Omar) and al-Aqsa Mosque, and on another he can note the different receptions of the American author's book with Arab and Israeli readers, what his "Fergusons" and other locals think of the purpose of his journey. One Arab guide wryly calls the British traveler "Mark Twain Effendi" (155), even though Twain's travel book doesn't elicit much response from Arabs; most have not read the book and have only vaguely heard of the American writer, and those who have read The Innocents Abroad didn't think much of it. At the same time, "Mark Twain is a bit of the folk hero in Israel" because "he was none too impressed by the Arabs extant and wasted no time saying so."
Over the years the Israeli Ministry of Information has frequently used Mark Twain's quotes from The Innocents Abroad as proof of how Israel "has made the deserts bloom." Schoolchildren are shown what the great American writer saw in Palestine then, and to contrast and compare what he might report about Israel now (99).
In other words, Israeli schoolchildren are encouraged to view the land through the prism of present and past as Twain and Strathcarron do--but with a great deal of propaganda by the Jewish state. Unfortunately, the Zionist movement enlisted Twain since at least 1984 when Joan Peters in From Time Immemorial opportunistically employed his "sackcloth and ashes" vision of Palestine to justify Jewish colonial settlement: Twain's "desolate" land was "empty" and as a consequence improvement by colonialism legitimate--the same logic the British had earlier applied to North America.
Strathcarron does concur with Twain's description of the Muslim-dominated Holy Land as being in "sackcloth and ashes," and he deeply admires Israel's modern, mainly secular society and the drive of Jews to create their own state in the face of Hitler's mass murders. His appreciation grows even as his revulsion at the country's flaws becomes increasingly evident: he regards Israelis as lacking empathy and conducting ethnic cleansing, becoming the new Romans. Orthodox Judaism "is fast shaping up to be my least favorite religion" (179), he admits, although no sectarian religion sits well with him. Strathcarron is by no means anti-Semitic, despite his low regard for Israeli depredations, and he also takes care to touch upon Twain's late essay "Concerning the Jews" to ward off any notion that Twain might be as well.
Strathcarron quotes Twain on his dismal view of Muslim society: "Rags, wretchedness, poverty and dirt, those signs and symbols that indicate the presence of Moslem rule more surely than the crescent-flag itself, abound" (qtd in 165), and he concurs. He is disgusted with Arab society, repulsed by Muslim attitudes, and even more disgusted with self-defeating Palestinian politics; yet he enjoys "the poetry and humor and joie de vivre and frail humanity of Arab street life" (134), and he is keenly aware of Palestinian dispossession and the British Empire's role in creating such misery. He echoes Twain's disgust with the sectarian jostling of Christian sects at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and all the apparent pious frauds. Like Twain he has no appreciation for the sense of incarnation practiced by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. He even meditates by contrast upon the tranquil Garden Tomb, the Protestant alternative for Golgotha. Strathcarron does not explain that the more peaceful, less tricked-out alternative was "discovered" in 1882 by Charles George "Chinese" Gordon, British imperial hero and martyr killed in Sudan. The Garden Tomb, discovered the same year Zionist colonization began, is a different type of incarnation, a clean, quiet, modern site of Western incursion.
But Strathcarron is not naive or unawares. He presents his then-and-now vision with some aplomb. In the epilogue the modern traveler even writes a long "Dear Sam" letter "about the Middle East as [Twain] would find it now" (217), trying to elucidate the agonies and absurdities of the intractable conflict to Twain:
You won't be surprised to hear that the Holy Land has lost none of its intensity: whereas you saw desolation and serfdom, I saw arrogance and desperation; whereas you saw religious skullduggery and barbarity, I saw religion politicized and so double dangerous; whereas you wished the British and French Empires would sink the Ottoman Empire, I saw how the British and French Empires' broken promises [of Arab independence and a Jewish homeland] have left only broken dreams (217).
In his epistle to Sam he offers his own thumbnail history of the conflict and its solution; and whether or not you agree with his version, he forces anyone reading Twain's text to see it differently.
Imagine the travel book; then experience the travels and return to re-imagine the book. Ian Strathcarron does just that, allowing readers to enjoy Twain from yet another vantage point, and that's a pleasurable excursion. However, despite his letter to Sam I can't help but feel he's missed a marvelous opportunity to even more deeply question Twain's orientalist attitudes. Twain, like other Westerners of his time, made his short sojourn through the Ottoman Empire happily ignorant, virtually unaware of underlying social, cultural and political dynamics; he shares laughter at a particularly impoverished un-modern part of the world although Italy didn't fare much better. Twain's grace is compassion and a readiness to lambaste himself and everyone else as fools; and his satire is, in the end, directed more at his readers, at the sanctimonious piety, sense of superiority and delusions of exoticism that con Americans in the typical Holy Land travel books. In Innocence and War Strathcarron is more knowledgeable about the region, and he's capable of understanding today's conflict as an intelligent observer, despite several prejudices of his own. A British peer, he could have used the opportunity to question his own assumptions more thoroughly, and that may have allowed him to plumb even more deeply Twain's earlier journey. Still, it's a fun read, and I look forward to sailing down the Mississippi with the Lord, if not the King and Duke.