A Touch of Irak and Gertrude Bell

From The Gate of Shiraz in Parker Pyne Investigates (1934) to her archaeological memoir Come, Tell Me How You Live (1946), to Death Comes to An End (1944), there is ample evidence of Agatha Christie’s being besotted with the Middle East.

Christie takes a photograph of an Assyrian ivory statue in Nimrud, Irak.

Intrepid like-minded English women before her have crossed the Sahara and spent nights in the wilderness of the desert, but none turns the wonders of the ancient cultures of Assyrians and Egyptians into a crime fiction. In her memoir, Christie’s account on her journeys accompanying her husband captures the lives of the people and their customs with great fondness and respect. And if she’d had to choose her favourite place, it would have been Irak. For Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) and They Came to Baghdad (1951) become the everlasting memories of her fascination towards the country. In the later book she dedicates it to ‘friends in Irak and Syria.’  What’s more, in Murder Is Announced (1953),  she names the priest’s dog Tiglath Phileser after an Assyrian King. The ‘wise’ and ‘clever’ canine creature helps Miss Marple work out as to the execution-style murder has been carried out in the house of Letitia Blacklock. If there was another woman who would match her  passion, it would be Gertrude Bell. BBC 4’s Book of the Week: Queen of the Desert, which highlights her major role in the formation of the Republic of Irak, unearths an indomitable but intriguing personae ahead of her time. Bell is the choreographer behind the installation of Faisal I of Irak  in 1921. Her  work for the Arab Bureau during the First World War I gathering intelligence for the British Imperial government leads to her post as the Oriental Secretary under  Sir Percy Cox. In the meantime, she reaches out to Faisal. Her excellence in Arabic and Farsi, as well as her wide networking with the tribal leaders and the chieftains, are indispensable to the success of British campaign after the Ottoman Empire relinquishes its power in Irak and Arabia in 1917. At that time Irak is an uncharted territory; for thousands years Arabs have recognised it merely as ‘al iraaq,’ a vast land consists of three former-Ottoman provinces namely Mosul, Basra and Baghdad. In Greek it is called ‘Mesopotamia: ‘between the rivers’ (the Tigris and the Euphrates). Unbeknown to her, there was a secret pact between Britain and France to divide authorities in the region rich in oil but ruled largely by tribal laws. Her plan for Faisal as the Pan-Arab king has been thwarted. Much as she believes such pact is an ill-informed decision, Bell does not step back. She then manages to cajole Faisal into claiming a kingdom in a region he has no bearings and root.   Bell’s involvement in the Near East starts in Tehran. She stays with her stepmother’s sister, the wife of British Minister Frank Lascelles, in her attempt to find a suitor. She falls in love with one there, but Hugh Bell disagrees to their union in marriage. Her heart bleeds when she receives a telegram about his death, eight months after she was back in London. Despite her heartache,  Persian Pictures (1894) is published.  The Desert and the Sown (1907)  follows, enriched by three-hundred photographs she has taken about people, landscape and agriculture of different regions of Syria and Palestine. The Thousand and One Churches (1909), co-authored with William Mitchell Ramsay,is considered as a seminal archaeological work about the first Christian settlement in Turkey. Contrary to Bell, Christie’s interest towards the Middle East is a slow-burning one. Clara Miller brings her twenty-year old daughter Agatha to Cairo for her formal ‘coming-out’ into the society in the winter 1910. Unfortunately, the young Agatha is more into dances and parties, being oblivious to any archaeological artefacts and history. She does not warm up to Sphinx and the pyramids. In her biography (1976) she writes: “Mother tried to broaden my mind by taking me to the Egyptian Museum, and also suggested we should go up the Nile to see the glories of Luxor. I protested passionately with tears in my eyes the wonders of antiquity were the last thing I cared to see.” In 1915, the then-newlywed Mrs. Christie might not have heard about Bell.Nor would she have come across the three books the other had written. Little did Christie realise thirteen years later she would board the Orient Express from London to Baghdad like Bell 36 years before. Her last-minute decision to have cancelled the Caribbean trip had a huge impact to  her life and writing. Due to her leg injury, her journey back to London is accompanied by a twenty-six year old junior archaeologist Max Mallowan. She returns to Irak as his wife in 1931, a year before the country declares itself as an independent kingdom. Mrs. Mallowan brings her  typewriter and the sounds of the clanking keys of her typing is part of life in a dig.   When Murder in Mesopotamia is out in print,Bell has long gone.She dies in the early hours in her Baghdad home two days before her 58th birthday ; in the same summer The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has catapulted the shy Mrs. Christie into the limelight. Christie’s portrayal of the atmosphere in the imaginary Tell Yamrijah  would have thrilled Bell a lot. Just as Christie, Bell is familiar and passionate about the hard work being carried out during an excavation. It would have tickled her that the plot suggests a former spy has been among the members of the team. Had they met, both women would have had a lot to share and discuss. On the one hand, Bell could have told Christie about the flowering Daffodils in her Baghdad’s garden and her friendship with King Faisal. On the other hand,Christie would have intrigued Bell with the usage of lotion cream to recover an intricate Assyrian ivory small statue. When I wrote Notes on They Came to Baghdad during the marathon reading in 2013, little did it occur to me that Irak has left an indelible mark in Christie. A plan to sabotage an international peace conference held in the capital is well under way and it will be unstoppable unless the evidence of it being presented in time. Why  a peace conference, I wondered. The answer perhaps is not a clear-cut one.It seems to me the book challenge the views regarding the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, seen as more phenomenal  and much more popular than the discovery of Ur. Instead of the Valley of the Kings Christie suggests Baghdad:the cradle of civilisation. And therefore peace ought to be where everything begins. What would have Bell had to say  had she been alive to read Christie’s books? First, she might have recalled the depiction of the British agent Carmichael in They Came… among a league of men in  her circle. Next, she might have seen resemblances of her boss Sir Peter Cox in Corbie, and maybe a little of herself in Victoria Jones. Both Bell and Christie might have something in common after all. They have encounters in connection to the Armenian genocide . In Iraq and Gertrude Bell’s The Arab’s MesopotamiaPaul J. Rich quotes Bell catching a glimpse of the horrors  in Damascus. For she has witnessed the Kurds, being ordered by  the Turks, rounding up the Armenians and taking them to different places. Later they are killed.  In the memoir,Christie recollects  her visit to the Yezidi Sheikh of the Sinjar, whom gives shelter to hundreds of Armenians fleeing from the prosecution. Also, the story of the amiable Aristide, the Armenian driver whose taxi is hired for an  arduous journey from Beirut to North Syria.  At the age of seven Aristide is thrown into a deep pit with his family and other Armenian families. Whilst his father, mother, two brothers and sisters are burnt alive, his life is spared. Found and saved by  the Anaizah Arabs, he is then brought up as one of them.  This 15th September will mark 125 years of Christie’s birth. Queen of the Desert starring Nicole Kidman will also be in the cinemas in the UK this autumn. Whilst Christie has been a household name for over eighty years, Bell’s has only  came up in the last twenty years. Alas, the first woman who receives a First in Modern History from Oxford gets her dues.

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