Mark Twain on Palestine  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

In Chapters 46, 39, 52 and 56 of his The Innocents Abroad , American author Mark Twain wrote of his visit to Palestine in 1867: "Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies. Palestine is desolate and unlovely – Palestine is no more of this workday world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition, it is dreamland."(Chapter 56) "There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country". (Chapter 52) "A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action. We reached Tabor safely. We never saw a human being on the whole route". (Chapter 49) "There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent – not for thirty miles in either direction. ...One may ride 10 mi hereabouts and not see ten human beings." ...these unpeopled deserts, these rusty mounds of barrenness..."(Chapter 46)

These descriptions of the often quoted non-arable areas few people would inhabit are as Twain says, "by contrast" to occasional scenes of arable land and productive agriculture: "The narrow canon in which Nablous, or Shechem, is situated, is under high cultivation, and the soil is exceedingly black and fertile. It is well watered, and its affluent vegetation gains effect by contrast with the barren hills that tower on either side"..."Sometimes, in the glens, we came upon luxuriant orchards of figs, apricots, pomegranates, and such things, but oftener the scenery was rugged, mountainous, verdureless and forbidding"..."We came finally to the noble grove of orange-trees in which the Oriental city of Jaffa lies buried"..."Small shreds and patches of it must be very beautiful in the full flush of spring, however, and all the more beautiful by contrast with the far-reaching desolation that surrounds them on every side.

"The narrow canon in which Nablous, or Shechem, is situated, is under high cultivation, and the soil is exceedingly black and fertile. It is well watered, and its affluent vegetation gains effect by contrast with the barren hills that tower on either side"..."Sometimes, in the glens, we came upon luxuriant orchards of figs, apricots, pomegranates, and such things, but oftener the scenery was rugged, mountainous, verdureless and forbidding" "We came finally to the noble grove of orange-trees in which the Oriental city of Jaffa lies buried" "Small shreds and patches of it must be very beautiful in the full flush of spring, however, and all the more beautiful by contrast with the far-reaching desolation that surrounds them on every side"

Author Kathleen Christison was critical of attempts to use Twain's humorous writing as a literal description of Palestine at that time. She writes that "Twain's descriptions are high in Israeli government press handouts that present a case for Israel's redemption of a land that had previously been empty and barren. His gross characterizations of the land and the people in the time before mass Jewish immigration are also often used by US propagandists for Israel." For example, she noted that Twain described the Samaritans of Nablus at length without mentioning the much larger Arab population at all. The Arab population of Nablus at the time was about 20,000.





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