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Mark Twain in Syria

Mark Twain in Syria

by William H. Benson

April 19, 2018

In the year 1867, the thirty-one year old Mark Twain joined several dozen other Americans on a pleasure cruise across the Atlantic to see the sights around the Mediterranean Sea. When in Syria, Twain and his friends hired a guide and rode horses from the coast inland, towards Damascus, then south to the Sea of Galilee, and finally alongside the Jordan River to Jerusalem.

In his book, The Innocents Abroad, Twain reveals his disgust with Syria and Palestine. The worst of the worst though, for him, was the village of Magdala, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. 

He writes, “Magdala is not a beautiful place. It is thoroughly Syrian, and that is to say that it is thoroughly ugly and cramped, squalid, uncomfortable, and filthy. The streets of Magdala are reeking with uncleanliness.” 

“As we rode into Magdala not a soul was visible. But the ring of the horses’ hoofs roused the population, and they all came trooping out—old men and old women, boys and girls, the blind, the crazy, and the crippled, all in ragged, soiled, and scanty raiment, and all abject beggars by nature, instinct, and education.”

In a deafening chorus, they shout, “Howajji, baksheesh!,” a cry for money, and Twain and the others paid “baksheesh out to sore-eyed children, and to girls with tattooed lips and chins.”

A reader of Twain’s words may wonder, “Why are these people so pitiful, reduced to begging?”

Twain hints at an answer. “If ever an oppressed race existed, it is this one we see fettered around us under the inhuman tyranny of the Ottoman Empire. The Syrians are very poor, and yet they are ground down by a system of taxation that would drive any other nation frantic.”

In 2012, the popular science writer Jared Diamond asked a similar question in his book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. In it, he points to the differences between Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico, a single city that the U.S. / Mexico border cuts in two.

Diamond writes, “The reason that Nogales, Arizona, is much richer than Nogales, Sonora, is simple. It is because of the very different institutions on the two sides of the border.” 

On the Arizona side, he says, “good economic institutions motivate people to become productive. They protect private property rights, enforce contracts, provide opportunities to retain control of their money, control inflation, and allow an open exchange of currency.

“If those institutions are missing, people are unlikely to work hard. They know that their earnings or profits are likely to be confiscated.”

A more perceptive question, “Why do people stay in wretched conditions, like in 1867 Magdala?”

The answer is not simple. It comes down to human motivation. It is difficult to move alone, to leave the familiar for the unknown. After all, family and familiar are the same word. 

The Chinese say, “If you want to go quickly, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.” It is easier to leave behind depravity and wretchedness, if an entire family, clan, or tribe moves together.

And yet each fall, freshman college students pack their bags and head off to college alone, and they go quickly. For the boys and girls in 1867 Magdala though, college was not an option.

The U.S. federal government, through HUD, has funded a program, “Moving to Opportunity.” “Poor families receive housing vouchers that require them to move to better areas. The vouchers go to only a quarter of those who qualify. Waiting lists are sometimes a decade-long.”

But, “the benefits, in social-science terms, are astonishing. Children who moved before the age of 13 went on to have incomes 31% higher than those who remained.” The fog bank of depravity and short-sighted thinking lifts, and people for the first time begin to see opportunities.

Some insist that a young person should build a life where they are. Russell Conway’s Acres of Diamonds comes to mind. Then, there are government programs that invite entire families to leave and start over in a different neighborhood with different schools and jobs. Do we stay? Do we leave?

World Vision estimates that more than 5.6 million Syrians have fled their country, since the civil war there began in March 2011. Over 6 million are considered as “displaced persons” within Syria, and 13.1 million need humanitarian assistance. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives.

President Bahar al-Assad has rained down on the rebels, from helicopters, an estimated 70,000 barrel bombs loaded with chemical agents, the most recent on Douma, earlier this month.

Millions have left, leaving behind homes and possessions, choosing the strange and unknown, over the dangerous and the familiar. Millions have stayed at home and suffered unspeakable atrocities.

Should they leave? Should they stay? Each must decide.