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For me, Agatha Christie is so very English, part of rose filled gardens and vicarages, that it was startling to picture her in the Middle East. But that’s just what this memoir is about, accompanying her husband, archeologist Max Mallowan on several digs in Syria in the 1930’s and early 40’s.
This is the same period in which The English Patient takes place, but Christie’s book doesn’t have the golden glamor and big discoveries. It’s more realistic, about everyday events and small finds like beads or shards of pottery and quite light-hearted for the most part, anecdotes rather than scientific details. But in doing so, it give a truer version of an archeological project than the oft portrayed big discoveries.
She takes us round trip, from shopping in London, where the store clerks call her “Modom” to trying to pass an excessive number of shoes past Turkish customs. They journey on the Orient Express(!) and live in tents until the houses in disrepair can be made habitable, even then, sometimes the tents seem better. There are the usual colorful characters, such as the Sheikh who resembles Henry VIII. And the monosyllabic assistant who spends most of his free time writing in his journal, even though he seems to have nothing noteworthy to write about. The crews and cars are unreliable, the latter given names, such as the top-heavy blue truck named the Queen Mary.
But there are more serious issues to be found. Infections were rampant, especially eye infections and people delay in seeing a doctor, even when they can afford it. Dogs are not cared for and often abandoned. One military member of the team had a vendetta against bats and devised traps to drown them. And the author mocked a house servant boy for his stupidity, though it seemed obvious to me that he was developmentally disabled. I know some of these behaviors is due to the mores of the era, but they were still upsetting.
At that time, Syria was under French control and it was odd seeing the names of sleepy towns that are now the scenes of fighting. There were various religions and cultures trying to co-exist, just as today, though they fought with less advanced weapons when things boiled over.
The book ends in a perfect way, with the author and her husband reflecting on the sights they see as as they depart by boat, it’s humorous and wistful closing. Max Mallowan was later Knighted for his work, as was Dame Agatha for her writing, making them one of the few married couples with separate honors of that level.
Originally published by William Collins 1946 193 pp. Available in traditional and ebook formats