Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Wed, Dec 5th, 2018

Mark Twain on what a Muslim is

According to all three major monotheisms even God needed time to take a rest and so the sabbath was created. With the ongoing conflict, spate of bombings, humanitarian crisis, torture of prisoners and outright mayhem dominating the news about the Middle East these days, it might help to sit back and read what the American humorist Mark Twain wrote about his Missouri-born creation Tom Sawyer set loose in the Holy Land more than a century ago.

Twain had an uncanny knack for highlighting hypocrisy, especially in his own society. It is possible to read the following story about Tom at the Great Pyramid and visiting a mosque in Cairo as typical ethnocentric Orientalism. Just about anything can be ready for a negative swipe. But the demeanor of the author and the entire corpus of this satirist suggest that irony is the best guide to his writings. When Twain visited the region aboard the tourist steamer Quaker City in 1867, he felt right at home in finding the same kind of foibles he left back home.

But let Tom Sawyer Abroad, first published in 1894, speak for itself…

By and by we left Jim to float around up there in the neighborhood of the pyramids, and we clumb down to the hole where you go into the tunnel, and went in with some Arabs and candles, and away in there in the middle of the pyramid we found a room and a big stone box in it where they used to keep that king, just as the man in the Sunday-school said, but he was gone, now, somebody had got him. But I didn’t take no interest in the place, because there could be ghosts there, of course; not fresh ones, but I don’t like no kind.

So then we come out and got some little donkeys and rode a piece, and then went in a boat another piece, and then more donkeys, and got to Cairo; and all the way the road was as smooth and beautiful a road as ever I see, and had tall date palms on both sides, and naked children everywhere, and the men was as red as copper, and fine and strong and handsome. And the city was a curiosity. Such narrow streets—why, they were just lanes, and crowded with people and turbans, and women with veils, and everybody rigged out in blazing bright clothes and all sorts of colors, and you wondered how the camels and the people got by each other in such narrow little cracks, but they done it—a perfect jam, you see, and everybody noisy. The stores warn’t big enough to turn around in, but you didn’t have to go in; the storekeeper sat tailor fashion on his counter, smoking his snaky long pipe, and had his things where he could reach them to sell, and he was just as good as in the street, for the camel-loads brushed him as they went by…

There was churches, but they don’t know enough to keep Sunday, they keep Friday and break the Sabbath. You have to take off your shoes when you go in. There was crowds of men and boys in church, setting in groups on the stone floor and making no end of noise—getting their lessons by heart, Tom said, out of the Koran, which they think is a Bible, and people that knows better knows enough to not let on. I never see such a big church in my life before, and most awful high, it was; it made you dizzy to look up; our village church at home ain’t a circumstance to it; if you was to put it in there, people would think it was a dry-goods box.  

What I wanted to see was a dervish, because I was interested in dervishes on accounts of the one that played the trick on the camel driver. So we found a lot in a kind of a church, and they called themselves Whirling Dervishes; and they did whirl too, I never see anything like it. They had tall sugar-loaf hats on, and linen petticoats; and they spun and spun and spun, round and round like tops, and the petticoats stood out on a slant, and it was the prettiest thing I ever see, and made me drunk to look at it. They was all Moslems, Tom said, and when I asked him what a Moslem was, he said it was a person that wasn’t a Presbyterian. So there is plenty of them in Missouri, though I didn’t know it before. 

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.