How did I come to write Wallis Budge: Magic and Mummies in London and Cairo? There’s some back story to this…
By the time I decided that I no longer wanted to be an academic, in 1993, I had already spent eight years in graduate study. I had completed MA degrees in Islamic and Middle Eastern History, Humanities, and Modern European Intellectual History. I had written an MA thesis at Ohio State University on the Mahdi Muhammad Ibn Tumart; I had written a seminar paper at the University of Chicago on 17th century coffeehouses in England as an import of a Middle Eastern institution and its own peculiar sociability, I had gone through a phase of reading everything written by Michel Foucault and Edward Said. My overriding interest had always been the interactions between the Middle East and the West, but I was also interested in the relationship between British India and England. And then again, I also loved what is sometimes called Country Blues—the music recorded by such musicians as Robert Johnson, Furry Lewis, or Blind Willie McTell in the 1920s to the 1940s—but this interest had no real place in my academic pursuits.
Now, I’ve always loved to write, but I had almost come to hate writing in an academic environment. I left the academic world because I wanted the freedom to choose my topics, to chose my approach, and to chose whether I wanted to write fiction or non-fiction. If I wanted to write non-fiction, then I wanted no pressure to conform to academic fashions, no pressure from overbearing advisers or colleagues, and no more struggle in the fetid swamp of academic politics. If I wanted to write fiction, for that matter, I would write whatever I wanted to write, whether that would be adventure stories or mysteries or historical fiction—or anything else!
So, as soon as I was free I set about writing a variety of things. In the middle 1990s, I wrote Blues Discovery: Reaching Across the Divide, which was an oral history of the experiences of young white Americans who’d discovered the blues in the 1930s to the 1960s. I had interviewed old family friend Roger Brown, who’d turned me onto the blues when I was a kid, as well as blues and jazz writer Samuel Charters, the photographer Raeburn Flerlage, Fred Mendelsohn of Savoy Records, and Bob Koester, the founder of Delmark Records.
While I was writing Blues Discovery I was also writing short stories (never published and now lost) and reading about British India, particularly about those 18th and 19th century European adventurers who threw themselves into the expanding empire for a thousand different reasons. I read Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game and Quest for Kim, both of them wonderful and exciting books about the British Raj, as well as George MacDonald Fraser’s wild books Flashman and Flashman in the Great Game. I also read the classic accounts of some of the imperial adventurers, themselves, such as Charles Masson’s Narrative Of Various Journeys In Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab, and Kalat (1844), Alexander Burnes’ Travels into Bokhara, Being an Account of a Journey from India to Cabool, Tartary and Persia (1834), and the rather different Sir John Malcolm’s Memoir of Central India (1823). The account of the career of the Irish mercenary George Thomas, by Lt. William Francklin, explains itself quite well: Military Memoirs of Mr. George Thomas; Who, by Extraordinary Talents and Enterprise, Rose from an Obscure Situation to the Rank of a General, In the Service of the Native Powers in the North-West of India (1803).
It was after this (and much other) reading in the mid to late 1990s that I decided to write what eventually became the first novel I ever completed: Trevelyan: A Rogue in Cairo.
This novel reflects much of what I had been reading at the time, from the Flashman books, to the accounts of British adventurers, to the stories about Shepherd’s Hotel as a central address for the British in Egypt. Trevelyan is an adventure story, and it reflects something of the randy roguishness of Flashman, but the book also reflects something of my studies of Egypt in the 18th and 19th centuries, including the stories about the Egyptians who sold counterfeit mummies to Europeans.
When I moved overseas in 1999, I put Trevelyan and Blues Discovery aside and, needless to say, everything changed. I lived in al-Ain and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates from 1999 to 2006 and found this a transformative experience. Living in the Emirates exposes a person, not only to Emiratis (indeed, least of all to Emiratis!), but to all the people of the Arab world who work in the Emirates, as well as to Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Iranians, and all manner of Europeans and North Americans. I met my Syrian cousins and aunt for the first time in Abu Dhabi and Istanbul, and my working days and social life were a United Nations of Arabs, Africans, Indians, Europeans, Canadians, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders…It was a remarkable experience which also included many months of traveling to places such as India, Thailand, Athens and Rhodes in Greece, Istanbul, Sarajevo and Mostar in Bosnia (where my great grandfather was born), Romania, Croatia, Hungary, Czech Republic, and so on.
When I moved to Cairo in 2006 it was similarly amazing. Living in Cairo is very different from living in the Emirates for many reasons, but one thing both experiences had in common was being very international. I knew Egyptians, Tunisians, Indians, Africans, Englishmen, Americans, and so on, a wonderful mixture of cultures and experiences, and not only did I enjoy daily life in Cairo, but the trips to the sites of Ancient and medieval Egypt were wonderful. Whether it was the Valley of the Kings, Siwa Oasis, Tell al-Amarna, Islamic Cairo, or the remains of the ancient city of Alexandria, I enjoyed each and every trip. During this time I was also able to travel to Morocco, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Germany, and France, among other places. We left Egypt after the Revolution of 2011 and I have missed it ever since.
Now, back to Budge. This very sketchy and hurried background provides a sort of context for why I wrote about E. A. Wallis Budge as I did. My academic background, after all, was in Middle Eastern History and European Intellectual History, not in Egyptology, and my interest was never in the latter subject. Indeed, the idea for the Budge book came to me from an Indian friend in Sharjah who was interested in comparative religions and the occult. I was considering writing a book about Sir John Malcolm, the British soldier and writer in British India, but my friend made a face and said, “Don’t write about him. Why don’t you write about E. A. Wallis Budge?”
And that was that. The idea struck me as brilliant, somehow. Yet, the fact is that I new little about Budge, with whom I was mostly familiar from having leafed through The Egyptian Book of the Dead or Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection many years before in used bookstores. I knew that Budge was an Englishman working in the British Museum who had published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I knew that the imperial context in which Budge lived and worked was of great interest to me, I knew that I wanted to write about an Englishman whose life was embedded in the Middle East in the age of empire. Not surprisingly, then, once I began to dig into the archives at the British Museum, the British Library, Oxford University, The University of Durham, and the Centre for Kentish Studies, I found in the assembled letters and papers a story that was a treasure trove of remarkable narrative and anecdote concerning an Englishman who was deeply engaged, not only with the British Empire, but also with the Ottoman Empire. I was most certainly hooked.
When time permits, I’ll add some more background to Budge…