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Thu, 3 Jan 2013 19:59:03 -0500
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_Innocence and War: Mark Twain's Holy Land Revisited_. By Ian Strathcarron.
Dover Publications, 2012. Pp. 248. Paperback. $14.95. ISBN 978-0-486-49040-3

Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at discounted
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Hilton Obenzinger
Stanford University

Copyright (c) 2013 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

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

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's 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 is 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

_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

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