Come, Tell Me How You Live
by Agatha Christie Mallowan
Last Friday’s post left Agatha Christie and her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan leaving Palmyra. But those lovely Roman-era ruins are far too modern for Max, whose mind, as Christie notes in her introductory poem, was attuned “to far B.C.” But before the Mallowans depart the first century CE for circa 3,000 BCE, they encounter some of those hangers-on of archaeology, tourists. Specifically, French tourists who need a ride back to their hotel after the breakdown of their taxi, and whose high-heeled ladies are unable to make the trip on foot.
While gallant Max returns to the hotel to fetch the Mallowans’ rented car, Agatha makes small talk.
“The French ladies profess a charming interest in our journeyings,” she writes in her 1946 memoir, Come, Tell Me How You Live. “‘Ah, Madame, vois faites le camping?’ I am fascinated by the phrase. Le camping! It classes our adventure definitely as a sport.”
It is a phrase she comes both to love and to rue, as the adventures come to include scourges of mice, fleas and cockroaches; the company of their Armenian driver Aristide who was rescued and adopted by an Arab tribe while escaping the World War I era genocide of his people; and encounters strange, comic or tragic.
The Mallowans’ first visits to Iraq and Syria are made in autumn to scout potential excavation sites for the following spring. Mallowan has three requirements for a dig: it needs proximity to villages where he can hire labor and to water (not to be taken for granted in a desert). And most important, it has to be of the right era. Of the hundreds of “tells” – artificial mounds indicating the places of ruined and buried cities dotting the Syrian and Iraqi deserts – he passes over any he considers too recent, i.e., within the past two millennium or so. Even sites with more ancient strata don't make the cut if their oldest layers are too deeply buried under more modern debris – the cost of excavating will simply be too high.
They are indeed camping, setting up their tents nightly, including a never-to-be forgotten night of rain and wind. "the wind rises to a gale, the rain is lashing down," Christie writes. "Aristide runs in to say he thinks the tents are coming down. We all rush out in the rain. It dawns on me that I am now going to see the seamy side of le camping.”
And then there are the people, who often appear seemingly out of nowhere like figures from a fairy tale, such as the very old man with “a long white beard and ineffable dignity…He sits down beside us. There is a long silence—that courteous silence of good manners that is so restful after Western haste.” After asking Max’s name: “‘Milwan…How light! How bright! How beautiful,’” he leaves. The Mallowans never see him again.
More tragic is the mother who comes to their camp begging for medicine to cure her son who “has not his proper senses.” The child’s mental disability is all too obvious, and Max tells her gently that there is no medicine that can help the boy. “The woman sighs—I think a tear runs down her cheek.” Then she asks Max for poison “‘for it is better that he should not live.’” This request too must be refused as gently as possible.
I suspect the fate of this mother and child especially weighed on Agatha. Much later, she would use the trope of a mentally disabled child and a mother’s revenge by poison in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (published in the US under the shortened title, The Mirror Crack’d).
(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a January of true adventures with Agatha Christie Mallowan’s Come, Tell Me How You Live.)