Today's Sunday Guardian column.
“In a few weeks’ time, we are starting for Syria!” That may seem like the optimistic assertion of someone from the US administration, but it’s instead the opening sentence of Come, Tell Me How You Live, a memoir by Agatha Christie about her time on an archaelogical dig in the country with her husband, Max Mallowan, in the 1930s. It’s a good-natured and self-deprecating work – but reading it today reveals much about colonial attitudes towards the Middle East, the legacy of which can still be seen in the region’s current state of unrest.
Christie herself seems to have been curiously self-effacing about the book, perhaps because it’s such a departure from her better-known mysteries. “This meandering chronicle,” she calls it, and then again: “a very little book, full of everyday doings and happenings”. (Indeed, the preponderance of exclamation marks and somewhat breathless comments sometimes puts one in mind of Enid Blyton – whose own The River of Adventure was set near the Syrian border.) Christie wrote the book, she says, as “the answer to a question that is asked me very often. ‘So you dig in Syria, do you? Do tell me all about it. How do you live? In a tent?’ ”
Much of her time there was spent at Chagar Bazar, near the city of Al-Hasakah in the country’s north-east. Today, the area is among those witness to aerial bombardment and deadly sectarian clashes. In the Thirties, though, Christie had other problems to contend with: “The arrival of plumbing in the East is full of pitfalls. How often does the cold tap produce hot water, and the hot tap cold!” That’s one among the many breezy generalisations, along with others such as: “No dish that needs to be eaten as soon as it is cooked should ever be attempted in the East”, “The spending of money seems a point of honour with Arabs” and “Servants in the East are rather like Jinns. They appear from nowhere, and are there waiting for you when you arrive.”
The author spent her time there helping her husband and his cohorts; as Mallowan was to tersely note in a later archaelogical publication, “my wife was also present throughout, and assisted in the mending of the pottery and the photography.” Their painstaking labours at the mound revealed that the area was inhabited during the sixth millennium BC, and was finally abandoned over three centuries later. Christie writes: “It must have been on a much-frequented caravan route, connecting Harran and Tell Halaf and on through the Jebel Sinjar into Iraq and the Tigris, and so to ancient Nineveh. It was one of a network of great trading centres.”
She also found time to write her whodunnits, or as she briefly puts it, “ply my own trade on the typewriter”. In Come Tell Me How You Live, she mentions a vanished time captured in some of her novels: “It was a world where one mounted a Pullman at Victoria in a ‘big snorting, hurrying, companionable train, with its big, puffing engine’, was waved away by crowds of relatives, at Calais caught the Orient Express to Istanbul, and so arrived at last in a Syria where good order, good food and generous permits for digging were provided by the French.”
Unreliable vehicles, flash floods, infestations of mice and lice, dodgy food, seedy accommodation, the caprices of her colleagues: Christie chronicles all of these with unflagging cheerfulness. Space is also devoted to the merits and demerits of domestics, labourers and associates, their varying ethnicities reflecting the Syrian mix. In words that prove ominous in retrospect, she remarks: “Syria is full of fiercely fanatical sects of all kinds, all willing to cut each other’s throats for the good cause!”
Her affection for the place, though, is undeniable: “I love that gentle fertile country and its simple people, who know how to laugh and how to enjoy life,” she says, singling out their “dignity, good manners, and a great sense of humour”. She would have been horrified at their plight today.
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