It was three years ago when I first got to know about Mark Twain’s the Innocents Abroad. The interest of reading it was solely due to pro-Israel bloggers’ frequent mentions – if one seriously inquires into the details of the conflicts in this land, great chances are he will hear about this book. A travel journal by one of the most renowned American writer, before everything here is politicalized – that was 1867, I suppose the description about Palestine given here should be raw and reliable. *
So I started reading it in a certain summer. But this is a six hell volume book. After reaching somewhere near Marseilles, I had to abandon it for the new semester began. Various attempts have been made over the years to pick it up again, but only this time I made it to the last. And the motivation of keeping up reading has slightly altered – so has my feeling for Israel.
People are right, Mark Twain is indeed humorous. Here and there from time to time appears a remark of wit. Such that I enjoyed the virtual excursion through Gibraltar and Europe. But when we finally arrived at Holy Land, which was originally my sole purpose of reading it, we were disappointed – for distinct reasons though. For me, it’s never a child’s dream of a mighty King Solomon with vast territories broken by the poverty-stricken reality. I have expected to read about "A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds… a silent mournful expanse…. we never saw a human being on the whole route…. hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country." But compared with the theme of grandeur in France or Italy, the keywords here are crooked streets, armies of beggars and glimmering sands under the baking sun. So far I had lived up with an American’s natural habit of speaking Christian language (e.g. St. XXX of various kinds), but how am I suppose to endure it given such an utterly uninviting environment?
Speaking of the Sea of Galilee, this is the only place I myself have visited of all the places Mark Twain travelled here. But I was surprised he endeavored so much to prove other authors’ appreciation for Galilee were blinded by prior bias and calculated to deceive readers. He says the color of Galilee is mild blue, rather than deep blue; the size of the lake and the number of trees surrounding it are dismal compared to Tahoe. I honestly don’t know why mild blue is inferior to deep blue. When I took a first glimpse of Galilee, I felt a piece of perfect blue so soothing to the eyes. It’s just like the color of the sea near the horizon.
After all, the Holy Land is a small place and it only takes up half a volume. As now I can recall, Mark Twain’s pilgrimage proves that in the late 19th century, population was extremely small. My initial goal is achieved. And I did have a pleasant reading for the most part, which is the driving force later on. And this post thus closes a reading project spanned three years.
*I am aware even the Innocents Abroad is a raw material cited by Israeli textbooks, there are also voices from the other side claiming this quote is out of context etc. While this post mainly serves as a rambling reading report, I can’t help but to state:
1. whether it’s 17% or 70% of the land is arable, the small population is the fact in late 19th. And it means space for more population when people are willing to turn dessert into oasis – just like what we see today.
2. It’s true Mark Twain visited the region in the summer, when arid land and barren hills dominated. But with the minimal population, nobody would expect the land to automatically turn fruitful in the winter. It’s no use trying to suggest the land wasn’t always desert. It was.
3. Last but not least, they try to downplay the importance of the book by saying “Mark Twain provided no statistical data whatsoever about Palestine’s agriculture and demographic make up. So his statements should not be taken as if they were written by an authoritative body.” And no one does. And that’s precisely the reason why we value it – an honest account from a visitor, not the authoritative body that deeply trapped itself in the mess of conflicts.