As another year draws to a close, it is hard not to think in larger terms of the course of the last century. The world has seen two world wars and far too many atrocities since 1908 to think of our technological and commercially driven age as golden. But in it all there has been humor. Believe it or not, the American writer Mark Twain was still alive one hundred years ago. His greatest books belong to the century before, from the mother of all Holy Land travelogues, Innocents Abroad, to Huckleberry Finn and his adventurous friend Tom Sawyer. Surely one of the greatest humorists ever, Mark Twain did more than tell funny stories. His work survives in part because it uses humor to remind us of the unfairness and unwavering mundaneness of life.

In Tom Sawyer Abroad Twain offers a vivid critique of the kind of Orientalism that Edward Said rightly views as a style for dominating the Orient. Tom is not the ugly American abroad but the naive traveler finding out that the world has problems beyond flooding of the Mississippi. One of the more poignant passages goes straight to the core of the contemporary political crisis over Palestine. Who owns the Holy Land? The dialogue, as is often the case in Twain’s homespun rendering, speaks for itself:

“Huck Finn, do you mean to tell me you don’t know what a crusade is?

“No,” says I, “I don’t. and I don’t care to, nuther. I’ve lived till now and done without it, and had my health, too…”

“A crusade is a war to recover the Holy Land from the paynim.”

“Which Holy Land?”

“Why, the Holy Land – there ain’t but one.”

“What do we want of it?”

“Why, can’t you understand? It’s in the hands of the paynim, and it’s our duty to take it away from them.”

“How did we come to let them git hold of it?”

“We didn’t come to let them git hold of it. They always had it.”

“Why Tom, then it must belong to them, don’t it?”

“Why, of course it does. Who said it didn’t?”

I studied over it, but couldn’t seem to git at the right of it, no way. I says: “It’s too many for me, Tom Sawyer. If I had a farm and it was mine, and another person wanted it, would it be right for him to –”

“Oh shucks! you don’t know enough to come in when it rains, Huck Finn. It ain’t a farm, it’s entirely different. You see, it’s like this. They own the land, just the mere land, and that’s all they do own; but it was our folks, our Jews and Christians, that made it holy, and so they haven’t any business to be there defiling it . It’s a shame. and we ought not to stand it a minute. We ought to march against them and take it away from them.”

“Why, it does seem to me it’s the most mixed-up thing I ever see! Now, if I had a farm and another person –”

“Don’t I tell you it hasn’t got anything to do with farming? Farming is business, just common low-down business; that’s all it is, it’s all you can say for it; but this is higher, this is religious, and totally different.”

“Religious to go and take the land away from people that owns it?”

“Certainly; it’s always been considered so.”

Jim he shook his head, and says: “Mars, Tom, I reckon dey’s a mistake about it somers – dey mos’ sholy is. I’s religious myself, en I knows plenty religious people, but I hain’t run across none dat acts like dat.”

It made Tom hot, and he says: “Well, it’s enough to make a body sick, such mullet-headed ignorance! If either of you’d read any-thing about history, you’d know that Richard Cur de Loon, and the Pope, and Godfrey de Bulleyn, and lots more of the most noble-hearted and pious people in the world, hacked and hammered at the paynims for more than two hundred years trying to take their land away from them, and swum neck-deep in blood the whole time — and yet here’s a couple of sap-headed country yahoos out in the backwoods of Missouri setting themselves up to know more about the rights and wrongs of it than they did! Talk about cheek!”

Well, of course, that put a more different light on it, and me and Jim felt pretty cheap and ignorant, and wished we hadn’t been quite so chipper. I couldn’t say nothing, and Jim he couldn’t for a while; then he says: “Well, den, I reckon it’s all right; beca’se ef dey didn’t know, dey ain’t no use for po’ ignorant folks like us to be trying to know; en so, ef it’s our duty, we got to go en tackle it en do de bes’ we can. Same time, I feel as sorry for dem paynims as Mars Tom. De hard part gwine to be to kill folks dat a body hain’t been ‘quainted wid and dat hain’t done him no harm. Dat’s it, you see. Ef we wuz to go ‘mongst ’em, jist we three, en say we’s hungry, en ast ’em for a bite to eat, why, maybe dey’s jist like yuther people. Don’t you reckon dey is? Why, DEY’D give it, I know dey would, en den –”

“Then what?”