Biblical Shunem is today Sulam, a Muslim Arab village near Afula in northern Israel. Mark Twain, the greatest of American writers, wrote 150 years ago about Shunem: “We found here a grove of lemon trees – cool, shady, hung with fruit. One is apt to overestimate beauty when it is rare, but to me this grove seemed very beautiful. It was beautiful. I do not overestimate it. I must always remember Shunem gratefully, as a place which gave to us this leafy shelter after our long, hot ride. We lunched, rested, chatted, smoked our pipes an hour, and then mounted and moved on.”
This description is very unusual in Twain’s book “The Innocents Abroad, or, The New Pilgrims’ Progress,” the last part of which describes his travels in the Holy Land.
You have to rub your eyes to believe from his description of Shunem – Twain goes out of his way to praise a beautiful place. He certainly did not experience many such pleasures during his visit to Ottoman Palestine. Most of the book about his trip is taken up by complaints, allegations and horrible insults about the land, landscapes, cities, villages and residents living there. Because of that, in order to mark the 150th anniversary of Twain’s famous visit, I searched for a place he liked, so I went to visit Sulam-Shunem.
Twain described Shunem as a place with camel dung stuck to the walls of the huts, but he loved the nearby shady grove of lemon trees. Other places, such as Migdal, Tiberias or the Jordan River, earned far less admiring descriptions. Camel dung on the walls is not so bad according to Twain’s criteria for the Holy Land.
The walls in Sulam today are incredibly clean. The residents of the village are courteous and friendly, and a few of them pointed out for me with pleasure the curved wall that marks the place traditionally considered to be the home of the Shunammite woman. This house, possibly a cave, was the reason Twain and his comrades visited the village.
They traveled around the country in the footsteps of biblical stories, and “Here, tradition says, the prophet Samuel was born, and here the Shunamite woman built a little house upon the city wall for the accommodation of the prophet Elisha,” wrote Twain. This is where Elisha performed two miracles: First he granted the barren woman and her husband a son, and later, in one of his most impressive miracles, he revived the Shunammites’ son after he had died.
Twain tells in his book in simple language the story of the Shunammite that appears in the Second Book of Kings, chapter 4 (years earlier, Abishag the Shunammite was brought from this town to keep King David warm in his final years).
The village does have a few lemon trees today, but I could not find a shady grove like Twain described. Lemon trees live for only some 60 years. I sat in the shade of a few huge eucalyptus trees at the edge of the next-door community of Merhavia, ate a pita with labeneh, similar to a Greek yoghurt, and olives which I bought at the grocery store in Sulam, while I read the chapter in Twain’s book where he describes his journey crossing the Jezreel Valley on his way from Nazareth to Nablus. Merhavia, the first Jewish community built in the valley, was established only in 1911, 44 years after Twain’s visit.
This is precisely why his trip is still relevant today. He arrived here with fascinating timing, just before the great upheavals. His book would seem to be documentation of what was here before the Zionists arrived.
1867, a dramatic year
In June 1867, 150 years ago, Mark Twain, or Samuel Clemens originally, then a young journalist aged 31, embarked on a great voyage on the steamship “Quaker City.” He traveled through Europe and then continued on with the pilgrims and tourists to Holy Land. During his journey, which he called his “great pleasure excursion,” Twain sent off 50 humorous and acerbic columns to the Daily Alta California newspaper. His readers enjoyed them very much.
The book was published in 1869 and is still quoted widely today in order to prove all sorts of claims. Many use it to prove the land was empty at the time and the Palestinian people is an invention. Others quote it to prove how much Zionism improved the situation, which was horrible and desperate until the Zionists arrived. Many tour guides love to quote Twain because he is funny and highlights the land in a critical and amusing way. Others (myself included) quote him in order to show that very little has changed here over the last 150 years.
In many ways, Twain was a bad traveler. He is cynical, arrogant and sometimes racist. The description of an unknown destination requires a stable foundation of empathy. Twain is missing that on this trip, and some claim this is because during part of his short visit to Israel, only about three weeks, he was ill.
The right gift for Obama?
In May 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Washington for a meeting with United States President Barack Obama. The Israeli ambassador-designate, historian Michael Oren, accompanied Netanyahu. Oren, today a Kulanu Knesset member and deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, is an expert on America and the Muslims. His book, “Power, Faith and Fantasy,” is about the history of American involvement in the Middle East from 1776 to the present. Mark Twain is mentioned a number of times.
In a conversation this week, Oren described the gift Netanyahu gave Obama, a first edition of Twain’s “Innocents Abroad” from 1869. Journalist Tom Segev wondered at the time in an article in Haaretz if that was the appropriate gift: “Mark Twain despised the Arabs and Islam in general. He thought they were ‘filthy, brutish, ignorant, unprogressive [and] superstitious.’ That is a good reason for Israel’s prime minister to give Twain’s book as a gift to the president of the United States ... Netanyahu and ambassador Oren evidently thought Barack Hussein Obama would like that.”
“The unconcealed message in the gift for Obama was: Don’t be naive or eccentric in the Middle East,” said Oren. “Eight years later we can say the message did not get through.”
Oren says Twain’s attitude toward the Jews should be evaluated according to what he wrote in the short essay “Concerning the Jews” published in Harper’s Monthly in 1899.
His travelogue from 30 years earlier did not contain almost any direct comments about the Jews except for mentioning them as living in Jerusalem: “Rags, wretchedness, poverty and dirt, those signs and symbols that indicate the presence of Moslem rule more surely than the crescent-flag itself, abound.”
The Ottoman census from 1878 reported only 25,000 Jews living in the region, out of a total population of about 400,000 at the time.
Oren explains that Twain’s daughter married a Jew from Vienna and the author very much liked his son-in-law. The local press in Vienna attacked Twain in an anti-Semitic manner and even suspected he was Jewish himself: He met Freud and Herzl in Vienna and was impressed by them. At that point in his life he may have had criticism of Jews, but he also had a completely positive attitude toward them. Oren even wonders whether it is worth researching if any of Twain’s descendants died in the Holocaust.
A Trumpian voice
Prof. Milette Shamir of the English and American studies department at Tel Aviv University, who specializes in American literature and Twain’s writings, says 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.
“They tell us Twain describes a desolate land with few people. Such a statement, which of course has political significance, ignores that Twain came to the land in a period in which many of its residents were absent because of serious economic difficulties that forced them to live for a certain time in Egypt or other lands,” she says. “They suffered here from serious drought and plagues of locusts. The entire region also suffered economically because the Civil War in America ended and so the price of cotton in the region plummeted, a central crop in Egypt and [Palestine]. Twain did not see the context and used clichés such as the isolation and wildness of the population. This is far from a complete picture, and it is impossible to consider it documentary evidence.”
Shamir points out that Twain did not use a consistent voice in the book. “There is a neutral voice, a voice of an American laughing at himself and a less pleasant voice of an arrogant American, Orientalist, who looks at the Bedouins and Arabs as Indians. This is a voice it is tempting to call today a ‘Trumpian voice.’
“He has an annoying patriotic side too: the ceaseless comparison to America, the comparison between Lake Tahoe and the Sea of Galilee. After all, he writes, ‘I have already seen the Empire of King Solomon diminish to the size of the State of Pennsylvania; I suppose I can bear the reduction of the seas and the river,’” says Shamir.
When I ask Oren if it is proper to compare the voices of Twain and Trump, he first says: “Yes, both of them have the least politically correct speech you can imagine.”
But he immediately has reservations: “The important difference is that for Twain the attitude to Muslims is one of disgust, while for Trump the attitude stems from a fear of an attack on America.”
After the visit to Shunem and El Fuleh, today’s Afula, where you can still see the remains of the Crusader fortress Twain mentions in the center of town, he continued on to Jezreel. He tells the story of King Ahab, Jezebel and Naboth, the owner of the famous vineyard about whose death the prophet Elijah told the king: “Hast thou murdered, and also taken possession?”
At Tel Jezreel nothing remains of the palace that seemingly stood here thousands of years ago, but it is still worth climbing to the top of the hill. The view of the valley is incredibly beautiful.
Twain is lucky he was spared the present site of the Jezreel spring, which has an ugly concrete structure in the middle, the remnants of a British pump house. Twain and his friends continued on to Jenin and slept there, but there are limits to how far we can follow in the footsteps of the person who wrote such nonsense as: “The Nazarene girls are homely. Some of them have large, lustrous eyes, but none of them have pretty faces.”