From the “New Country” to the Holy Lands: Two Norwegian Americans in the Middle East

Friday, January 4, 2019: 2:10 PM
Chicago Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Ida Nitter, University of Pennsylvania
For Christmas in 1894, Nehemias Tjernagel (1868-1958) traveled to the Holy Land. A quarter century later, for Easter in 1922, Ola Johann Særvold (1867-1937) took a journey to the same region. Both men were Norwegian-Americans who went on to write accounts of their travels which they subsequently published, in Norwegian, in Minneapolis. This study examines their accounts, entitled Fotturer i Ægypten og Palæstina (Trips by Foot in Egypt and Palestine) and Reisebreve: fra Østerlandene (Travelogue: from the Eastern Lands) respectively, to analyze changing perceptions of people in Palestine on the part of two authors whose own identities as Americans of Norwegian heritage were in flux. The study contributes to the transnational history of travelers who were simultaneous both Nordic and American. Thus, the accounts of Tjernagel and Særvold are hybrid cultural productions, which emerged at the intersection of a migratory flow that linked Norway, the United States, and the eastern Mediterranean region during this period.

In addition to offering fascinating accounts of multiple migrations, these texts offer intriguing insights into the ways the Holy Land was viewed in the eyes of Tjernagel and Særvold. Both include political and social commentaries that portray their views of the colonial realities in the region. This commentary is, however, filled with Orientalist tropes and anti-Semitism. Yet, the narratives are distinct from one another. Both men were Lutherans, and thus express a certain disdain for Muslims, Jews, and “Eastern Christians” (and sometimes non-Lutheran “Western Christians”). However, their feelings towards local Arabs (Christian, Muslims, and Jews), as well as towards newly arrived European Jews are remarkably different in the two travelogues.

I thus argue that, while historical circumstances undoubtedly played some role in shaping their thought, their attitudes also demonstrate the divergent outlooks towards the Middle East that prevailed among members of the Lutheran Norwegian-American community.

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