Saturday, May 10, 2008

Come Tell Me How You Lived by Agatha Christie Mallowan

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

This Agatha Christie Mallowan is indeed the Agatha Christie of billion-selling, mystery novel fame. Married to the British archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, she was, in her other life, Lady Mallowan, assistant and recorder of his work in the Near East. In Come, Tell Me How You Lived -- "this meandering chronicle," she puts it -- she describes several years' worth of experiences aiding her husband in his excavations, circa 1940, in the border lands where northern Syria, southern Turkey, and northwestern Iraq meet. The book is therefore much relevant today. I read it, and learned from it about the Iraqi religious sect called Yezidis, in the same week that the horrifying murder by stoning of a Yezidi girl was laid across the front page of national newspapers.

Agatha Christie was an intrepid traveler to say the least. In the book she copes with desert heat and winds, flooded wadis turned to car-engulfing mud in a few hours, with mice- and roach- infested village homes, and with illness. Meanwhile Max and his team take their pick of the Tells dotting the landscape, each one the remains of an ancient busy city from five thousand years ago. They dig for beads and clay fragments with the help of local workmen. When the work is over for the season, the finds are divided into two groups, and representatives of the Syrian government come and choose which group is to remain in the country and which can be released to British museums and universities. Christie then goes thankfully to Aleppo for "a shampoo!"

Christie's eyewitness portraits of local people remain the most intriguing parts of the book. These men and women are mostly Moslem Kurds, Moslem Arabs, and Armenian Christians, mostly all convinced it is their duty to persecute one another (and the Yezidis). Local sheikhs govern local matters, under titular French rule. Poverty does not begin to describe conditions, and to poverty Christie adds a general fatalism, an observation that to "the Oriental mind" neither life nor death matter very much. Since all will happen as God wills, there is no hurry, say, for a sheikh to get his wife to a doctor for her blood poisoning. The sheikh will consider it. Yet Christie claims that because these people own almost nothing and do not fear death, they also live free of Western anxieties and the Western work ethic. They know, she says, a simple joy in life.

Although she is an eyewitness, the reader can't help but wonder if she really guessed what the natives were thinking all around her. Joy in life did not prevent workmen from planting forgeries in the Tells, so they could show them to Max for a cash bonus. One day a fatal accident on a dig so inflamed tempers everywhere that the English had to flee for their lives on the spot. The "season," and the book, ends there. " 'It was,' " she writes, " 'a very happy way to live ....' "

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