Broken by the Badlands: A Review

Originally posted by delicatemonster on 07/02/07

A missionary doctor amid the Christian tribes of Kurdistan, By Gordon Taylor
Academy of Chicago Publishers, 354 pp., 2005, ISBN: 0-89733-537-6

The most impressive feature of Fever & Thirst, Gordon Taylor’s meticulously researched study of the misadventures of a 19th Century doctor and missionary in the remnants of the Ottoman empire, is the grudging sympathy we come to feel for Asahel Grant, the erstwhile hero of this tale. By current standards of tastes, he is not an entirely endearing character: stoic, overly pious, headstrong and something of a quack. There is little to recommend him. Indeed, the opening chapter seems contrived to lower our expectations. This upright Victorian appears to be something of a masochist or a fool. Rousing from a hard night out of doors in Chumba, very close to what is now the border between Turkey and Iraq, our man finds his face swollen “into a bubble of pain.”  The night before he had slept on an azraleh: a platform rising some ten to fifteen feet above the ground to avoid mosquitoes. The particular azraleh that Grant slept on rose only a few feet above a roaring cataract whose cold waters he presumes have caused the swelling. Near the end of the first chapter, entitled “Remedy” we are introduced to what Grant-an M.D.  by the standards of the 19th century-determines is the appropriate cure: a lancet, thrust fiercely into his jaw again and again to drain off the swelling.

“Grant found relief,” Taylor writes, “`only by a desperate plunge of his lancet into the very roots of his teeth’. The blade, Grant admits, had struck so deeply into his gums that the labial nerve was severed, leaving his upper lip numb for nearly two weeks.”

Gordon Taylor delivers this striking moment with such casualness that I found myself wondering if we weren’t verging into satire, or spoof. But no: “This was not the act of a madman or quack” Taylor is careful to note; “Grant was a competent and conscientious physician, a man who never acted with anything but the best of intentions.  No one can read about his desperate thrust of the lancet without the queasy realization that little had changed since alchemists stalked the earth. In some parts of the United States, doctors continued to draw blood up to the beginning of the 20th century, and the potions they dispensed lingered even longer in their black bags and in apothecaries’ chest. Such was the staying power of an illusion; such was the world of Asahel Grant.”

Indeed, Gordon Taylor devotes page after page to the leech gatherers of that time and the paradoxically effective powers of violent emetics. In retrospect what is most curious about this passage is how pronounced that word `illusion’ stands out. Calling to mind Freud’s Future of an Illusion and the indictment of superstitious belief patterns in general. And yet, it’s a credit to Taylor’s art, perhaps, or at minimum, his sympathy, that Asahel Grant’s world stands on its own: horrific, primeval and heroic, even for modern day readers far removed from both Grant’s cures and his beliefs.

In addition, I found myself reading this book in awe of its encyclopedic knowledge of the medical and religious practices of that geographic area and era. The main thrust of the story, however, is simple disaster. At twenty five years old, Grant’s wife, Judith Campell Grant, dies in the relative wilderness of Urmia among the Nestorians, a group of primitive and semi-heretical Christians that Grant has come to cure and convert. She had “toiled like some super human being. She bore a son in the summer of 1836 and twin daughters in 1838. She taught school, she learned Persian, Turkish, and ancient and modern Syriac, she nursed the sick.” Of course, soon she fell ill herself. Taylor notes that it was probably Malaria. He ends by eventually abandoning his children to conduct his missionary / medical work. The work itself Asahel Grant has no doubt about, but a modern reader lingers over certain questions of efficacy and judgment. Why abandon your own children? Are cures of leech bleedings and vomit inducing emetics the best possible thing to bring to these mountain primitives? And, as if that weren’t enough, must you introduce your own prejudices to them: railing against the Papists (“sons of perdition”) and Anglicans alike, while trying to dodge the advances of the latest band of Kurdish thieves?

Taylor manages to illuminate and discuss these questions while still maintaining a large and sympathetic heart for our doomed doctor. Along the way we learn about the value of Gall nuts-how gall-wasps actually make the necessary `tanning solution’ by swelling the Oak trees of Aleppo with their own larva, the tediousness of sitting minutes on end for a daguerreotype, the reptilian politics of the Nestorian and Kurdish mountain tribes-and perhaps — not so surprising-that Mosul, Iraq has always been a fetid, dangerous place. Both violent time and weathered country come to life in layer after layer of carefully researched detail. We know from the beginning, of course, how it will end. There can be little doubt: Grant is doomed from the moment the lancet pierces his gum. And yet, Taylor invests this last, almost ridiculous scene with grandeur and sympathy: he is ordered by his own mission board to `go home’ and take care of his children. “from the weary doctor there now issued a great sigh of relief. It was the best thing that could have happened. `On reading this,’ Grant wrote, `my heart was full, and I passed almost a sleepless night.'”

His heart is full, Taylor is careful to explain, because he can now return to tending for his children, relieved of his missionary duties. There is only one problem. He is in Mosul; and there is a typhus epidemic. “With too many refugees and too little room to house them, Grant’s makeshift hospital had bred the germs that would destroy him.”

The end comes quickly, ironically, within days of the notice that he must return home.

“Sometimes in his delirium he spoke Turkish, other times Syriac. He conversed with his mother and his children. He spoke with his Savior.”

He dies, imagining he is on a ship, traveling to his home.

On April 24, 1844, by the banks of the Tigris, in the city of Mosul, which is even now the scene of horrific battles, Asahel Grant was buried. Even the Turkish governor at the time attended. The other Christian missionaries-his comrades– lingered on for a time, as was their pattern, but soon even they departed, driven like Asahel Grant, and like our own violent effort today, by their own loss of illusions.


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