Encountering Mark Twain in Palestine


This essay is part of an ongoing partnership with the Mark Twain Circle of America to provide fresh scholarly perspectives on Twain’s life, work, & legacy.

My mother first introduced me to Mark Twain during a three-month curfew when the Second Intifada in Palestine broke out. I was around 11 years old, bored out of my mind, and unable to go to school. “This book is fun to read,” she said, handing me The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). “Tom is a mischievous boy and gets into a lot of funny situations,” she told me. My mother was a high school English teacher in Hebron at the time and had read the book while she was a student at Hebron University. Years later, while getting my MA in English and coming to understand the nuances of American culture and its reckoning with its history of slavery, genocide of indigenous people, racial equality, etc., my mother’s description of Tom Sawyer being a “fun” read became an interesting moment for me to revisit. Reading as part of my own studies the critiques of Twain’s usage of racial epithets and caricature-like portrayal of Native Americans in the novel and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), kept bringing me back to that first introduction to Twain and the nuances of a text that get lost when it is read out of context.

My second encounter with Twain in Palestine was again through my mother (though indirectly this time). At the time my mom was getting an MA in English, while I was applying for grad school to study English Literature in the United States. Her teacher had assigned her Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape (2008). Knowing I was interested in literature that dealt with the intersection of Environment and politics in Palestine, she recommended the book to me.

One of the passages that stood out to me in Palestinian Walks was a critique of Herman Melville and Mark Twain. Shehadeh who is an award-winning Palestinian writer, quotes Twain’s descriptions of the Holy Land as “desolate” and “barren” lamenting: “How could Mark Twain, when he visited this area in the nineteenth century, not have noticed its outstanding beauty?” (120). Twain who visited the Europe and the Holy Land in 1867 published an account of his travels in The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrims’ Progress (1869). Innocents Abroad was Twain’s best-selling work during his lifetime and propelled his literary career.

Shehadeh’s critique of Twain remained with me as I started grad school and drove my interest in researching the history of Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. What interested me particularly about The Innocents Abroad is that although to the general public it is one of Twain’s lesser-known texts – my mother had never heard of it, and when I surveyed my fellow grad students, very few knew of it either – it remains a remarkably influential text 150 years after it was published, and just not for the US audience it was intended for. The Innocents Abroad has a particular importance for Zionists in Israel and the U.S and has become a point of contention between Israelis and Palestinians.

To demonstrate this, one only needs to analyze the way this text has been utilized in the Israeli context. In 2009, during a visit to the White House, it was reported that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu gifted President Obama “Pleasure Excursion to the Holy Land,” a chapter in The Innocents Abroad. Journalists and analysts covering the event at that time wondered if the gift was appropriate since Twain often describes Arabs and Muslims as filthy, brutish, ignorant.

However, as many Israeli journalists pointed out, the significance of this gift isn’t just in the way that it describes Arabs. Its significance lies in its description of Palestine as an “empty, squalid, dismal” area. Whether this report is true or not, Netanyahu has cited Twain often and the narrative that Netanyahu consistently emphasizes through it is that Palestine was a desolate wasteland before the arrival of Zionists to the region and that it was Zionists who “made the desert bloom.” Utilizing the Lockean logic of ownership, Netanyahu was therefore implying that since Zionists had developed Palestine, a “derelict land,” they then had the right to claim it.

Furthermore, in 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Twain’s visit, every major Israeli newspaper published articles celebrating this anniversary. These articles similarly discussed the importance of the travelogue in asserting that Palestine was empty and barren and that the Palestinian people are an invention. Twain’s influence in Palestine and Israel through The Innocents Abroad has been appropriated and this appropriation often underlies the foundation of modern discourses regarding Palestine.

One only needs to look at the Jewish National Fund (JNF) as an example of this appropriation. Twain’s labelling of Palestine as “a blistering naked treeless land” lead to Zionist renewal of the biblical narrative of “making the desert bloom” that is the slogan for the JNF and the inspiration behind Israeli agricultural policy. Netanyahu in his book Durable Peace (2000) quotes The Innocents Abroad multiple times to make the point that Palestine was a wasteland and then points out the improvement Israel has accomplished in terms of agricultural production and infrastructure developing the neglected and empty land.

None have profited more from this narrative than the JNF even a simple Google search reveals the way they have utilized Twain’s account. Memos, articles, and campaign letters from 1992 to 2018 all utilize Twain’s narrative to justify the work of the JNF. One might think that the JNF is an unobtrusive environmental agency in Israel. However, this organization was specifically founded in 1901 during the 5th Zionist congress in Basel, Switzerland by Theodore Herzl as a fund to be “used to build the foundations of a Jewish state.” The importance of the JNF in the establishment of Israel is also witnessed by the fact that when the British forces withdrew from Palestine, the declaration of independence for the new state of Israel was voted on at JNF headquarters in Tel Aviv. The JNF today holds 13% of Israeli land while the Israeli Land Authority holds 80% making them the second largest landholder in Israel. They also hold tremendous influence within the Israeli Land Authority.

A 1992 entry on the website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs titled “The Story of the Jewish National Fund” starts with Twain’s quote that Palestine was a “desolate country, which sits in sackcloth and ashes” and then goes on to say that since its inception the JNF’s mission has been to revitalize this desolate land. More recently (Dec 2019), an opinion piece published in The Jewish Voice utilized The Innocents Abroad to attack an essay written by Amy Weiss in the latest issue of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, the official journal of the United States Holocaust memorial museum, that critiqued the work of the JNF and further accused the Zionist movement of creating an “environmental degradation narrative” to justify the JNF’s seizure of Palestinian land.” The op-ed attacking Weiss’s essay starts with Twain: “Mark Twain, America’s greatest writer offered sad but eloquent testimony of the frightful neglect the country endured under centuries of Muslim occupation” and ends by saying “Mark Twain was not a liar.”

Rather than interpreting The Innocents Abroad through the satirical exaggerated lens which Twain was known for, his account of the Holy Land is taken as an accurate representation of Palestine, one that has been excessively appropriated by the Zionist movement while at the same time rejected by Palestinians. Twain in this travelogue consistently satirizes Europeans, his fellow travellers, The Holy Land, and its people as well as previous travel writer’s narratives about the Holy Land. He also often compares the landscape of the Holy Land to the landscape of the US, whereby he finds the former lacking since it fails to resemble the Holy Land of his imagination, one produced by reading other travel narratives. His description of the landscape contrasts with the language of other contemporary travelogues like William Cowper Primes’ who he concludes must have romanticized the region and whose narrative Twain ridicules.

Fay & Cox Illustration from First Edition of Innocents Abroad

Twain’s differing account on Palestine from other travel writers is interpreted by scholars in multiple ways. Prof. Milette Shamir of the English & American studies department at Tel Aviv University argues that the political use of Twain’s descriptions in order to prove the land was desolate and empty of people before the Zionist Aliyah misses the mark. Providing historical context, she attributes his response to his arrival to Palestine in a period of drought, famine and plagues, which forced many of its residents to move to Egypt and other places for a time.

Influenced by my own studies in the Environmental Humanities, my reading of Twain’s narrative differs in the sense that I attributed some of Twain’s disappointment in the landscape that he encountered to a differing conception of “wilderness.” His descriptions of the Holy Land are tied up with 19th century American conception of wilderness as pristine green pine forests.  He makes this comparison explicit when he contrasts Lake Tahoe and the Sea of Galilee; whereby the presence of pine is what distinguishes them from each other and gives Tahoe its “limpid brilliancy” as compared to the Sea of Galilee being “devoid of perspective.” The Sea of Galilee is devoid of these trees, the hills around it are “rocky and yellow” whereas the peaks around Lake Tahoe are “green and beautiful.”

Twain’s differing account from other travel writers can be interpreted in a multitude of ways and isn’t particularly pertinent to my argument. What matters is the lasting impact of his narrative and the way it is taken at face value. The fact that Twain is narrated as America’s “greatest writer” and his words are taken as absolute truth demonstrates Twain’s lasting (and dare we say in this case problematic) influence 150 years later and thousands of miles outside his place of origin.


Lubna Alzaroo is a lecturer at University of Washington, Seattle. She was one of the presenters on the “Mark Twain and Globalism” panel at the 2020 MLA conference.