Early-20th century nostalgia and romanticised archeology narratives ignore colonialism and exclude gender and race
Over the last few months of the U.S. presidential election, one candidate in particular has referenced Syria and Iraq so frequently that one might mistake him for a scholar of Middle East Studies. He is not.
On the political stage, Benghazi, Aleppo and Mosul are emptied of all meaning as real places where actual people live. Instead, place-names become signs for right-wing conspiracy theories, or props in an elaborate pretense that Donald Trump – or the average voter, for that matter – is well-informed about U.S. foreign policy. We are not.
The flattening of Muslims and Muslim-majority countries into negative stereotypes is not exclusive to the United States, of course. The majority of UK citizens found the idea of Syrian refugees crossing its borders so abhorrent that they were willing to leave the EU, sink the entire British economy, and call it patriotism. Indeed, British culture is so rife with racist rhetoric that it permeates even that most British of art forms – the period drama.
Years after the series ended, ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989 – 2013), starring David Suchet, is a perennial favourite among fans who are drawn in by equal parts mystery and aesthetic. The 1920s and 30s look far more stylish on screen than they perhaps ever did in reality, even for the most wealthy aesthetes. For added glamour, one of Poirot’s favourite pastimes is travelling to archaeological digs throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
In episodes set in Egypt (‘Death on the Nile’, ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’), Iraq (‘Murder in Mesopotamia’), or Syria (‘Appointment with Death’, though the novel is set in Jordan), Poirot’s class status is clearly marked by his three-piece summer suit in varying shades of sandstone, a straw homburg, and a small lapel pin in the shape of a vase with flowers, which is as much of a trademark as his waxed moustache.
Poirot’s dapper attire is not so unlike the sartorial sensibilities of Sir Max Mallowan, renowned English archaeologist and second husband of Agatha Christie. Her first marriage, to Archibald Christie, ended badly, with her husband’s infidelity and her own mysterious disappearance. Afterwards, perhaps to escape scandal, Christie went on an extensive tour of Mesopotamia, or present-day Iraq. It was at Ur, famous for its ziggurat and as the birthplace of Abraham, that she met Mallowan. Over the decades that followed until her death, the couple travelled extensively, and she frequently assisted in her husband’s excavations, which informed her novels and, to a lesser extent, the television series.
But the books aren’t really about the Middle East or archaeology, and even Christie’s Come, Tell Me How You Live: An Archaeological Memoir uses archaeology as a metaphor for digging in the past. She writes in the preface: “A final warning, so that there will be no disappointment. This is not a profound book–it will give you no interesting sidelights on archaeology, there will be no beautiful descriptions of scenery, no treating of economical problems, no racial reflections, no history.” This kind of disclaimer is standard boiler-plate language for women writing non-fiction in the early-20th century: women should avoid all claims of expertise, and so Poirot becomes Christie’s alter-ego, emphasis on the ego.
For all of Poirot’s posturing as the world’s most clever detective, Christie’s novels aren’t incredibly profound or informative either. She is great at dialogue (though some of the best lines in the show–as when Dr. Leidner says in ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’, “All I ever wanted to do was dig in the earth and find the secrets that time has buried there.” – never appear in the books), but her descriptions of place are rather sparse. This might be surprising given the show’s lush sets, but Christie’s novels are very much of their time and genre. Popular fiction after World War I abandoned the rich detail associated with Victorian literature; instead, Christie’s novels read almost like plays – there is plenty of dialogue, a few stage directions, and everything else is just flat backdrop. By contrast, the ITV programme works so well because, paradoxically, the modern television camera sees the world through a strangely Victorian eye – every detail is captured, every object is in focus, and every textile preserves its texture.
Like Christie’s memoir, Agatha Christie’s Poirot does not treat economic problems either, though the disparity is obvious, and there’s no historical background, but as for “racial reflections” the series gives more than it perhaps intends. In the archaeology episodes, we see the (almost always male) locals in three classic aesthetic models: large crowds of manual labourers or diggers to add a sense of sublime scale to the digs; the picturesque peasant; or the mysterious suspect hiding in the shadows. These are the same archetypes used throughout British travel literature. In other words, locals are simply racial stereotypes, used as props and plot devices to push along the narratives of the largely Anglo ensemble.
In order to buy into the romance of archaeology, we must ignore the fact that it is (or at least was) largely a colonial project, and that the discoveries we praise would not be possible without the invisible labour of the local populations. In order for the fantasy to work, we must excise the problematic aspects that make us uncomfortably complicit. The alternative is to acknowledge the fact that our idealisation of archaeology in the early-20th century is built on nostalgia – we only remember what we want to remember – and nostalgia is frequently only accessible via white privilege. We see this nostalgia playing out in nationalistic calls to close border or “make America great again”.
I’m not suggesting that we abandon Poirot or other programmes that feature problematic treatments of race, gender or sexuality. There would be nothing left to watch. But we should be more aware of the ways in which these two-dimensional racial stereotypes permeate our culture, and ever more vigilant when we hear them in the mouths of politicians.
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