A guest post by Laura A. Macaluso
Agatha Christie is the Western world’s most beloved, prolific and best-selling mystery writer. Iconic titles such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile evoke distant lands and ancient cities—a unique perspective shaped when the already-successful writer met and married archaeologist Max Mallowan in 1930. Christie’s popularity is based on the set of traits she possessed as a writer; in addition to deftly painting pictures of another time and place, Christie was also a master at creating memorable characters and small moments, when conversations between passengers on a luxurious train could lead to intrigue and even murder. Christie’s books—literally hundreds of titles in print, spanning a 50-year career from the 1920s to the 1970s—remain popular and accessible even today. They have generations of new fans thanks to the British television series based on her Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence characters.
But, her second autobiography, an easily digestible memoir called Come, Tell Me How You Live is a reminder of just how long Westerners have been involved in the Middle East—and not just as tourists or writers. In a short window of time, before drone warfare and 21st-century style terrorism, there were many active archaeology projects uncovering the history of Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where people first began living in cities and where writing was invented more than 5,000 years ago. In the 1930s, Christie accompanied Mallowan on his archaeological excavations in Syria and Iraq. She spent many seasons in the field as an assistant cleaning, sorting, labeling, and photographing excavated materials which would eventually go into museum collections such as the British Museum.
Right now, after almost a year of watching the Islamic State (or ISIS) attack with determination and an extreme agenda to wipe out all history that predates Islam in Syria and Iraq, I am reading Come, Tell Me How You Live with some resignation. Christie’s book, which she calls “this inconsequent chronicle,” is a light-hearted account of the archaeological life, of the people they meet and the little challenges most Westerners find when placing themselves in someone else’s country. While Christie wrote the book with such a title to answer people’s questions about how she and Max lived when on excavation, in a broader way, Come, Tell Me How You Live, is also the question that all of us heritage and history lovers ask when we visit historic sites, museums and old cities. We visit these places to get a glimpse into how people lived and thus to learn something about them. ISIS and other extremists such as the Taliban do not care to know the answer, and therefore never ask the question. Brutality and destruction is the result.
Christie wrote the book right after the end of World War II in England, after her country had endured bombings that leveled many historic buildings and old cities. Her glance backward to the interwar period was no doubt tinged with nostalgia; the last line in the book is “Inshallah, (God willing) I shall go there again, and the things that I love shall not have perished from this earth.” I do wonder what Christie would say right now about this past year—which happens to be the 125th anniversary of her birth—watching the destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East on social media, in Nimrud and Ninevah and Dura Europos, some of the very places where her husband worked. Archaeologists both in and outside of the Middle East are finding ways to mitigate this destruction, by creating inventories and photographs and even by reconstructing in the digital realm buildings and cities. But, Come, Tell Me How You Live gives us instead, a pre-digital world, where the texture of the Middle East—in sights, and smells, and movement on trains and on donkeys and in cars that get stuck in the mud and friendly people and the procurement of food—is an intimate view of a place that is important both to the Western imagination and to world history.
Agatha Christie Mallowan, Come, Tell Me How You Lived (New York: William Morrow, an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 1946).
For evocative images of the early 20th century in the Middle East, see William Boot, “When Iraq was Paradise,” The Daily Beast.
For more on the current destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq, see “Museums Issue Most- Threatened List of Iraqi Treasures,” Erin Blakemore, Smithsonian.Com, June 3, 2015.
Laura A. Macaluso is a Ph.D. candidate in the Humanities at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI. She is currently completing a book about the Portrait of Cinque/Sengbe, a painting from 1840 which depicts the leader of the Amistad mutiny, one of the few successful slave revolts in western history (AASLH/Rowman & Littlefield). She was a Fulbright Scholar to Swaziland in 2008-2010 and enjoys learning and writing about cultural heritage from across the globe.