Rating: 4.5 out of five
Year of Publication: 1946
Motive for Murder: n/a
This so-called ‘archaeological memoir’ is an answer to various questions asked about the authoress’s journeys to the East in the thirties. Mrs. Agatha Christie Mallowan is a travelling companion to her renowned archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan.
‘So, you dig in Syria, do you? Do tell me about it. How do you live? In a tent? etc. etc.’
I imagine her sighing quietly, thinking of a suitable answer. Would they listen to the nitty-gritty details of the excavations, the findings and the high-brow terminologies in the science itself? Or would she be able to tell them about the unforgettable first night in Amuda? Their aloof architect, Mac and Mansur, their boy servant?
For her choice of answers vary and will depend on what the person wishes to hear.
‘A final warning,’ she writes in the Foreword,’so there will be no disappointment. This is not a profound book – it will give you no interesting sidelights on archaeology, there will be no beautiful descriptions of scenery, no treating of economic problems, no racial reflections, no history.’
From the preparations for a long journey by train from London Victoria to Beirut to her following Max in choosing the excavations site; from the intricate matters in customs to her befriending her husband’s team members emerge ‘everyday doings and happenings’ through the eyes of Mrs. Mallowan. They are the lighthearted, moving but sensitive accounts without her falling deep in the burrow. She is not Alice, but would Alice requires a toilet seat, of which is unavailable in Syria?
Reading the lines in which she describes a bug powder in her possession to the Turkish officials by scratching her body all over in front them or recounting Max arguing with the Armenian driver who rehires the car the Mallowans has hired to French tourists are hilarious. Christie plays down the difficulties she has experienced and small inconveniences an English woman in her forties having to endure in travelling.
For her the desert weather, the scorching heat during the day and her inability to adapt to squatting position while doing the ‘loo business’ are not substantial. She is more intrigued towards Max’s and the foreman’s comments about the Romans remains, the work arrangements and her trying to win the heart of the stiff upper-lip Mac.
Also, it is more important to describe in details her encounter with the mice in the first night in Amuda, a small town in Syria. Not only did it put to a test the authoress’s adventurous spirit and determination but also her sense of humour in the most unbearable situation.
“You aren’t really going back to Alep?” Max inquires anxiously the next morning. I (Christie) blush a little over the remembrance of my hysterical outburst.’
There you go. Had she lived, she could have written the scenes of Indiana Jones better.
What I like most is her attitude. For she does not seem to think of herself a Lady Hester Stanhope. Instead Christie happily admits that she has known the Harbur and the Jaghjagha because of Max.
Nonetheless, she sees that the carpenter will make a toilet seat for her and that the mice gang are to disappear from her bedroom. She is not in the least excited to develop the films in the dark room crouching in a room with a sauna temperature.
As for broken potteries, amulets or whether a small statue resembles a ram or a dog, it is not so much about their being much older than her that she comes to appreciate. More is whether they are a potential murder weapon.
Glad she finds it in an ancient guern. In Murder In Mesopotamia Louise Leidner was struck on the head by the heavy stone.
Towards the entd of the book it dawns on me that this book is the only one which provide insights into Christie’s personal life. What’s the urge to share them, given that she doesn’t give interviews?
Is it her respect to the local culture and her valuing the simplicity in the locals’ life, be it the Kurdish, the Arabs or he Armenians?
story of an Armenian boy rescued from a deep pit and brought up as Arab in 1915 is moving. She touches the topic of the end of Ottoman Empire in the context of the change of the political map and captures the simmering tension between Mohammedans (Muslims), Yezzedis and Christians in a balanced manner.
Interestingly she admits writing the book during the uncertain years blighted by the Second World War. It is her escape from fears and morbid imagination.
’For after four years spent in London in war-time, I know what a very good life that was, and it has been a joy and refreshment to me to live those days again…Writing this simple record has been not a task, but a labour of love…’
And yet, in the Foreword she stresses that ‘this is not a profound book…etc.’
In all fairness I suppose the Westerners can actually learn from their East comrades many civilised things and again ripe the benefits of their easy going approach. That the East and West is not a clash of cultures but a room for tolerance and respect. That death is not a horrible thing.
The Most Fascinating Character: Aristide
Max Mallowan hired an amiable Armenian man and his taxi (a battered-looking Citroen) in Beirut for three months, as they headed for the Habur and the Jaghjagha near the Turkish border for a survey of potential digging sites.
One day the Mallowans happened to pass a group of French tourists whose taxi was broken down. Max offered to take them back to their hotel with their taxi. Later he came back looking furious to Aristide. For it turns out it was their taxi that had been used to transport the French. In Aristide’s defence he said to Max: ‘But, did you not tell me that you yourself would not use it this afternoon? Naturally, then, I have the chance to make a little extra money. I arrange with a friend, and he drives this party around Palmyra. How can it injure you, since you do not want to sit in the car yourself?’
He is firm in his belief that his weekly wage must be kept by his employer until the end of the journey. He only asks four pence to buy a pair of socks. His thriftiness means it is cheaper not to shave his beard and it does not matter because he is in the desert. Having been asked what he would do with the money, he responds, ‘It will go towards buying a better taxi.’ ‘Max continues, ’And when you have a better taxi?’ ‘Then I shall earn more and buy two taxis.’
Armenian he may seem, he is attached to the Anaizah tribe of the Beduins. When he was seven, the Turks rounded up all Armenians (1915-1918) and killed them. Aristide was thrown into a deep pit with his families and other Armenian families alive. They were then burnt alive. Yet he, who was below them all, was survived and found later by some of the Anaizah. They took him with them and adopted him into the tribe. He was brought up as an Arab and knew his true identity when he had reached eighteen. Nonetheless, to the Anaizah Aristide is still one of them and vice versa.
When the survey is finished at the end of the year, so is his employment. When the Mallowans came back to Beirut the next Spring and enquired as to Aristide’s whereabouts, they were informed that he had been working for the government: driving a street watering-cart in Der-er-Zor.
– Toilet seats were imported to Syria
– Four deaths at an incident in Tell Barak due to the workmen’s greediness
– The Sheikh in Chagar Bazar was asking for ‘garden money’ after other compensations paid
Cast of Characters:
Alwi – Hamoud’s elder son
Aristide – the Armenian
‘Bumps’ – the architect when the other (Mac) was away
The Colonel – Max’s colleague who oversaw the digging at Tell Barak
Guilford – the photographer
Hamoudi – the Arab foreman and an old friend of Max Mallowan’s
Mac – the English architect
Mansur – the ‘head boy’ maid in the Mallowans’ household
Max Mallowan – the husband, the chief archaeologist
Michel – the Christian driver with his three golden rules: forca (pull/try hard), economia (being economical at all time), sawi Proba (make trial)
The Sheikh at Chagar Bazar digging site
Subri – the maid for the Colonel and ‘Bumps’
Yahya – Hamoudi’s younger son