Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad: The True Story of an Unlikely Friendship by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit

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Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad: The True Story of an Unlikely Friendship by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Luci Davin
Reviewed by Luci Davin
Summary: Two women, an Iraqi academic in Baghdad and an English journalist and working mum in London, exchange emails about their day to day lives. This is a terrific story about how real and important an online friendship can become.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: February 2010
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0141038537

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In early 2005, a BBC journalist emails an Iraqi woman to confirm and prepare for a telephone interview about day to day life in Baghdad, and about her thoughts on the forthcoming elections there. May's detailed and frank responses prompt more curiosity and questions from Bee, and a friendship develops between the two women. They tell each other about their work, relationships and family lives.

I picked up this book because of the title but should say it turned out not really to be about Jane Austen. May is an academic who teaches English literature at a women's college in Baghdad, and explains:

I think it helps my students because it transports them to another culture, another life, and another world. The world of Jane Austen is so far removed from our daily terror of bombs and violence.

There are more brief references to literature that May is teaching or writing papers on herself, but most of the emails are about the two women's day to day lives, and about the difficulties of daily life in Baghdad that May and her husband face. The conversation shifts frequently from light, funny and frivolous things to serious, sad and scary subjects.

I really appreciated feeling that I was being offered an insight into life in Baghdad after the invasion and war, and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. May is very open and honest about her views – life wasn't great before, but in her first email she says it is a mini hell, and it becomes more difficult, as there is an ongoing civil war, and she has very real fears that she or her husband Ali will be killed by a bomb, or that someone will try and kill him. I was against the war and our government's policy on Iraq, and I found reading this individual human story about how it has affected one woman very compelling (of course, it confirmed my own biased opinion that Britain and the US have not exactly improved lives for ordinary Iraqis – maybe someone with a different view would hate the book).

While May is unusual in some ways for an Iraqi – she comes from quite a privileged background and her parents were educated in Britain and in fact the whole family lived here for some years when she was a child – I also thought the content of her emails really offered a counter to Western stereotypes of women's oppression in Muslim countries. She has what I would consider to be quite a feminist outlook on things, but doesn't see Islam as especially oppressive.

I also found Bee's emails about her life as a working mother interesting. She has three daughters and considers whether to have a fourth, but she also has an interesting and enjoyable job and has no desire to be a stay at home mum.

There is a story to unfold from this correspondence too – May decides that life in Iraq is too unhappy and dangerous to stay there, and asks Bee for help to leave. Bee finds out that seeking asylum in Britain will be very difficult, but eventually she find people who can help find a way forward. The email correspondence turns out to be key to this – its publication in book form is a way to raise funds so May could come to study in Britain and prove that she has funds to support her and her husband.

This book offers an insight into the life of one individual in post-war Baghdad and a chance to eavesdrop on a developing friendship. It also turns out to be a story of how an email/online friendship changes someone's life (hopefully for the better).

I would like to thank the publishers for sending a copy of this to The Bookbag, and would definitely recommend buying or borrowing it.

There are various suggestions for further reading, depending on what interests you. The book title reminded me of Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Some modern novels for Jane Austen fans are Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, Acting Up by Melissa Nathan or The Importance of Being Emma by Juliet Archer. If you like reading letters and diaries, Nella Last's Peace is based on the post-war diaries of an ordinary woman in England. Mary Dora Russell's Dreamers of the Day is a historical novel set in the Middle East in the 1920s which offers an insight into the background of the present day's politics.

Buy Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad: The True Story of an Unlikely Friendship by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad: The True Story of an Unlikely Friendship by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad: The True Story of an Unlikely Friendship by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad: The True Story of an Unlikely Friendship by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit at Amazon.com.


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Valerie Hedges said:

The true story of May Witwit my childhood neighbour and school friend while she lived in the UK as a child, now an Iraqi Academic, her survival in Iraq and journey to safety in the UK via her email friendship with a BBC journalist

•How to survive life in a war zone… leaving earlier to go to work in order to get through the checkpoints …But still going to work!!

•What to do when doing your hair and the electricity goes off…Go to work half curly and half straight!

•How to encourage kids to still study during chaos…. show them its business as usual, lessons give a touch of normality...

The story we didn’t hear in the news, of ordinary daily life during the Iraq war as told by an Iraqi

It isn’t often that two 51 year old women who were neighbours and school friends aged 11 meet up again in London on a sunny May afternoon after almost 40 years, and when one asks the other “What have you been doing, what has happened to you…?” She knows that it is a daft question really and the answer is too harrowing to imagine for the answer lies in the reply “Read my book!”

I owe more than I can possibly express to Bee Rowlatt, thanks to her courage, daring and friendship my childhood friend is safe in the UK, and I have met her again after forty years. An inspiring book that will move the reader to tears in its accounts of courage… make you smile and put lots of troubles in perspective

Valerie Hedges