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Isabella Morris



Isabella Morris

Morris has a MA in Writing from the University of the Witwatersrand. She has written a novel on Moroccan migrants. She is a finalist in the 2009 PEN/Studzinsi Awards (for Bluette) and is the 2007 POWA Women’s Writing, short story winner. Her winning entry appears in Breaking the Silence. Her publishing credits include wordsetc, The Times, and Baobab. She blogs at www. wordworx.wordpress.com


 Cruising with Ms. Christie  

On my father’s bedside table was a well-thumbed copy of Tutankhamen – a medium-sized volume that told the story of the young king who died before he could be great; and beautiful colour plates displayed his funeral mask and the finery with which he was buried. On my mother’s bedside table, beside her jar of pink 2nd Debut night-cream, was a Reader’s Digest volume of Agatha Christie, covered in a dust jacket whose whiteness was marred by a red spill of blood.

On the last Saturday of the month I would accompany my mother to the post-office next to a sandy park where we handed over the parcel slip to receive the cardboard envelope that held the next volume of Agatha Christie’s mysteries.

As I outgrew the Nancy Drew detective novels for young adults, I discovered the astute detective Hercule Poirot and super-sleuth Jane Marple in the sun-bleached volumes that my mother had enjoyed. During school holidays I devoured one novel after another – Death on the Nile, Peril at End House and Evil Under the Sun, to name just a few.

The airplane journey from Johannesburg to Cairo is a mere 8 hours and ensconced as I am in business class, I’m reluctant to do anything other than buzz my seat into a comfortable position and re-read Death on the Nile. It’s been twenty years since I last read a Christie novel, and I had forgotten how proper her characters can be. I sip at the small airline glass of ice cold water and grit my teeth. I think of contemporary mystery novels I’ve been waiting to read and berate myself for not bringing Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy instead; but it’s too late for self-admonishment, so I read the Christie.

Cairo – Al Qahirah, meaning triumphant – is the magnificent minareted city perched at the top of the continent in the mother of the universe, Egypt. The city is a guttural swathe of taxis, cars and buses that hoot and brake and use the white lines as guides rather than lane separators. The rules of driving are difficult to discern; vehicles only yield to others at the final second and all vehicles carry a dent or scrape somewhere on their paintwork. Donkeys, horses, cars, trucks, vans and motorbikes have equal access to the dusty streets.

With local craftsmen carrying out ancient crafts like silver-smithing and ironmongery on the streets, it is easy to cast one’s mind back to a time when Christie made her first visit to the golden city of Cairo. At the beginning of the 20th Century the European elite wintered in the mild climate of Cairo. It is a mild winter’s day during my visit, and the weather is tepid as I glide around the Nile in a felucca; the hurly-burly of the city seems far away and the grand hotels on the Corniche el Nil seem glamorous and exciting.

It is into the reception areas of an opulent hotel like the Semiramis, one of the oldest establishments in the city, that the admirals of the “Fishing Fleets” arrived, and mothers would prowl for eligible husbands for their daughters (Agatha Christie was herself one of those daughters). “Cairo from the point of view of a girl was a dream of delight. We spent three months there and I went to five dances a week,” she recalled in her autobiography.

The young Agatha was so enamoured by the social scene that she had no desire to accompany her mother to view the antiquities. "Mother tried to broaden my mind by taking me to the Egyptian Museum, and also suggested we should go up the Nile to see the glories of Luxor [but] I protested passionately with tears in my eyes. The wonders of antiquity were the last thing I cared to see." I share her sentiment if only because the crowds at the Egyptian Museum today are claustrophobic. How could a dusty sarcophagus, even a jewel-encrusted one, possibly hold the same attraction to a young lady as one of Lady Idina Gordon’s scandalous cocktail receptions which were allegedly held in the nude in her Semiramis bathroom?

From the Semiramis Hotel, the view of the Nile at night is a dazzling spectacle. I’m standing on a balcony on one of the uppermost floors; but even from a suite at street level, the young Agatha would have shared a similar unimpeded view of lights from affluent homes and hotels across the water glittering on the river at night. And perhaps it was scenes like these, coupled with the shoulder-rubbing she did with aristocracy, prominent entertainers and leaders of society at The Winter Palace in Luxor, that inspired the characters for Christie’s first novel, Snow Upon the Desert, because she admitted that her characters were drawn from guests she had observed in one of the many hotels’ dining-rooms. Certainly the Winter Palace with its high ceilings, ornate furniture, extensive corridors decorated in rich, red carpets and fine antiques and paintings hosted sumptuous parties for the upper classes of Egyptian society, and the lively Christie would have felt quite at home amongst them.

Before we leave Aswan and sail for Kom Ombo I feel restless and eager to give my river-legs a break and place them back on terra firma. I run up the steps at the Aswan dock and negotiate for a taxi to take me to the Old Cataract Hotel. Mustafa drives slowly and hoots at all his friends lolling about on the sidewalk, people who at 08.00 hrs in the morning haven’t yet got going for the day. We reach a small rise in the road that seems to lead out of the city and Mustafa pulls over to a property with locked gates and green shade cloth concealing the building work.

The pink hotel where Agatha Christie researched and penned her novel Death on the Nile, faces the Nile and Elephantine Island. From what is visible, the architecture has a dual influence of Arabic and British Colonial style. A guard appears and holds up his hand to stop me at the gate. “Closed,” he says. He has little English and I have no Arabic, and eventually I understand that the hotel will re-open either later in 2009 or early in 2010. I turn away disappointed that I will not see the characteristic Arabic arches or the wooden mashrabiya behind which Agatha might have hidden as she eavesdropped upon conversations that inspired plots for her stories.

When Ms Christie fled from England after her divorce, she visited various archaeological digs in the Middle East and she made friends with Katherine Woolley who invited her to visit again. The intrepid Agatha accepted the invitation and upon her return she met her future husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan. Arguably her new husband’s career was to have a great influence on Christie’s play Akhanaton and her Middle-East-inspired novels and short stories. Desert life inspired her creativity, “I enjoy writing books while I am in the desert. There are no distractions such as telephones, theatres, operas, houses and gardens.”

As our Nile Cruiser slides up the Nile past the soft-sand hills and the pastoral scenes that feature camels and rustic farming equipment and the donkey, eternal beast of burden, it is easy to write. Ms Christie travelled on the steam ship Sudan, which was built in 1885 for King Fouad and is still in service; I am travelling in the Sonesta St George and it is quieter than a Catholic Church during confession, and I write and write.

Guests on the Sonesta St George appear to have the same idiosyncrasies as those guests observed by Christie on the steam ship Sudan, and in the bar I withdraw unnoticed into a comfortable chair and listen in on purse-lipped conversations between gruff husbands and bitter wives; these men and women are travelling together yet I can detect no warmth between them. I watch as determined women lead and their tired men follow, forced to trail in the wake of an officious voice that has determined the entire course of their marriage. The cruiser offers a story at every occasion, and it is unsurprising that Christie was such a prolific writer; I scribble away.

During dinner one evening, I glance around the room and notice how many waiters are standing on the periphery of the dining room waiting to attend to diners who seem unaware of their presence. A tickle trips down my spine as I recall the Christie murderers who posed as servants. In Death in the Clouds the poisoning murderer posed as an air steward while in Sparkling Cyanide the poisoning murderer posed as a waiter.

When we reach Luxor I am ill, suffering the effects of poisoning – food poisoning. A doctor is called and he gives me three tingling jabs in my bottom and hands over four cards of pills. On the drive into Luxor I stop at a pharmacy and while I wait for the pharmacist to attend to me, I imagine a young Agatha Christie at the Red Cross hospital in Torquay during the First World War dispensing medicines to the injured and the dying. It was there that Christie acquired her useful knowledge on poisons; she used poisoning as a means of death in eighty three of her novels.

Death Comes as the End breaks away from the contemporary settings favoured by Christie as it is set in ancient Egypt, and as I roam around the magnificent golden-hued temples at Kom Ombo and Karnak, the characters who peopled these ancient times are brought to life in my mind by Christie, through her tale of chaos and murder in ancient Egypt. It is this novel which most upsets her loyal readers who feel that her voice – the English voice – is at odds with the setting of the novel. Yet other critics condemn subsequent revised editions of the book which they feel have altered Christie’s voice.

It is not possible to separate voice from writer and as Alvarez states in The Writer’s Voice, “finding your own voice as a writer means...feeling free in your own skin. It is a great liberation. Yet the only way to achieve it is through minute – the minutest – attention to detail.” In Death Comes as the End Christie is able to attend to the minutest of details because of a life spent on archaeological digs where she gained an immense understanding of life during ancient times.

Akhnaton, the play that was only published almost forty years after being written, details the lives of Pharaoh Akhnaton, Queen Nefertiti and successor to the throne, Tutankhamon, and it was written by Christie simply for enjoyment.

Writing should be about enjoyment. I was an avid note-scribbler until I read Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream; he posits that “The line to line words come from your unconscious”, and that we instinctively retain everything we see and need to remember. Once we start writing, our stored memories seep naturally into that writing.

I consider some of my own stories, the ones closest to my heart. They are the ones whose details were felt; not imagined or redeveloped out of the copious notes I took. They are the stories developed out of the memory of observing a little girl on a bus who had knotted hair and dirty fingernails; a statement I read about a woman who owns a running-away suitcase; and, witnessing the shudder of impatience in an older brother who was trying to teach his retarded brother to fish off windblown rocks. These are more than impressions upon my mind; they are imprints on my writer’s soul, triggered and re-membered when I sit down at a keyboard.

Agatha Christie took my hand and led my imagination across her beloved Egypt. She nudged me and winked in the direction of some delightful characters on a boat, giggled at a matronly woman who insisted on sitting in the front seat of the tour bus, and shook her head when pharmacy assistants tried to make me pay more for my medication than was fair. When I place my bookmark in Death on the Nile and gaze out at the blinkered horses clip-clopping on the sandy city streets of Luxor I hear her say, “There are wonderful things to be seen in Egypt, are there not?” .

Isabella Morris travelled to Egypt courtesy of Excel Tours, Flight Centre and Egypt Air.


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