Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad

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Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad: The True Story of an Unlikely Friendship - Bee Rowlatt, May Witwit, book reviewWhen I heard that there was a book called Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad – The True Story of an Unlikely Friendship my first thought was that it sounded just a bit too similar to ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ and I will admit that I dismissed it as another ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ book and thought no more of it. Then in autumn 2011 BBC Radio 4 did an adaptation, teasing the listener with just 15 minutes each day and I was hooked. I loved the adaptation of the book so much that I ordered a copy almost immediately – though perhaps to call it a ‘book’ is the wrong way to describe this. In effect, it’s just a collection of emails gathered over several years of friendship between a UK-based journalist and an Iraqi academic.

Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit are the unlikely and serendipitous friends. In January 2005 Bee was working as a journalist for the BBC World Service and was trying to find someone in Iraq whom she could interview about the Iraqi elections for a radio show. May was the woman she found, an academic who was teaching English at a university in Baghdad. What started as a simple enquiry evolved – as email friendships often do – into a deep and enduring relationship between the two women and a campaign to get May out of Iraq and away to safety as an asylum seeker.

Each woman became fascinated by the life of the other and wanted to know more about what was happening in their very different worlds. Bee learned of May’s life in war-torn Baghdad, of the challenge of her Shia-Sunni mixed marriage and the antagonism it attracted, and of the crazy goings-on in her workplace where logic and common sense had long been victim to politics. In exchange she offered May a window onto the world of a suburban London middle-class mum, worrying over the school run and the Parent Teacher Association, whether the take the kids to Glastonbury and how to balance her time and energy between kids, her husband and her work.

The emails track the growth of their friendship and their campaign to get May and her husband Ali out of Iraq and over to the UK. Once May finds herself on an official hit-list of academics at risk of murder, the case for asylum grows stronger but nothing ever runs smoothly when dealing with the authorities in both the UK and Iraq and countries in between. May and Ali attempt to leave Iraq but nothing runs as smoothly as they hope. As readers we all suspect that this book must have some kind of happy ending but at times it doesn’t half feel like it’s a very long time and frustrating time coming.

“I’m not a fan of email-based books and this book hasn’t greatly changed my mind about that position.”

The things I liked best about the book were the exchange of details about the absurdities of everyday life – May dodging armed militia in order to get a hair cut or having to go out with her hair only half ‘styled’ when the power cuts out half way through drying it. Bee writes of covering up what’s happened when her baby daughter pees herself in the photo processor’s shop and both exchange the irritations and annoyances of their married lives. As a way to learn about what every day life in Baghdad was like for an educated woman married to a man of the wrong sub-religion, it’s a much easier read than most autobiographical attempts to express the challenge. It’s by focusing on the seemingly banal little details that we find ourselves gaining a deeper understanding that’s lost when simply watching yet another report of a suicide bombing or an attack on civilians.

Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad isn’t perfect though. There’s nothing actually wrong with this book it’s just – in my opinion – it’s much too long. If you got access to my email account and wanted to read my mails to friends it would probably seem quite interesting to start with – in fact we generally feel a bit naughty reading someone else’s correspondence. But after 370 pages of correspondence back and forth, I couldn’t help but thinking there was a great 200 page book tucked between the covers of ‘Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad’ and 170 pages of filler and fluff. I have no objection to long books but when there’s little plot and just the exchange of the minutiae of everyday life, it feels like a mountain to climb to keep plodding through. There’s also a strange sense that once the women realise that the way to raise money for May’s application and move to the UK is by selling their email story, a hint of a doubt creeps in about whether the writing changes slightly because they know that they are intended for a wider audience.

Epistolary novels or non-fiction of the past depended to some degree on the time it took for letters to get from one person to the other. Letters were carefully crafted and people often kept copies for posterity. Now we fire off hundred of emails each day often without even stopping to read them through before pushing that SEND button. I’m not a fan of email-based books and this book hasn’t greatly changed my mind about that position.

I take my hat off to whoever it was that abridged this for the BBC series and cut out a lot of the waffle to focus on the core of the story of these two women. I wish that Bee and May had been willing to give an editor a little more free reign with a red pen. Had they done so this might well have been a 5 star read rather than a 3 star drag.


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Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad
by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit

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Written by koshkha