Book Review: Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad

by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit

Bee is a mother to three young daughters and a London resident.  She’s also a journalist, school fair organiser, tea drinker and generally busy woman juggling married life, family illness and holidays abroad.

May is a lecturer, teaching Jane Austen and democracy to girls, and has a preoccupation with coffee, smoking and her hair.  She’s also an Iraqi living in Baghdad. 

“He made me think about your literature students: don’t they find it hard to relate to literature when their lives are a daily struggle? How can you teach Jane Austen in Baghdad? How can they make sense of it? … Bee”

This true story spans 2005-2008 and follows the true story, and “Unlikely Friendship” (cover), of the two women as they meet through an email that brings them together.  The 367 pages are a record of the email correspondence of the two very dissimilar, but likeminded, souls as they battle to get May out of Baghdad and to finally meet in person.

I’ve literally just this minute put the book down, and I can only describe my current feeling as exhiliration.  It begins tentatively, the new friendship blossoming, and slowly Bee and May reveal different elements of their own situations as the trust grows.  At times, what is written is heartachingly thoughtful (reflections about abortions, abusive husbands and disgracing one’s family) at other times amusing (irritating spouse habits and children’s poos) and sometimes even unbearable to read (bombs, cancers and accidents) but all of it has a ring of honesty that makes for an all-night-long read.

If you’ve ever wanted to read about friendship, journalism and teaching… or even if you want an easy way into The Iraq Situation, this is a book you have got to pick up.  Blending the seriousness of the situation in Iraq and the life of one woman – all corruption and fear exposed- on display, with light hearted banter about clothing, makeup and baklava you never feel completely out of hope for May. Even though there are times that will leave you sweaty with nerves (as she is marked on a hit list of academics that may be killed) or clenching your fists in irritation.  Besides when chick-lit topics, such as romance, PMT and the exchanging of saucy gifts come up, no one can be blamed for finding this book the perfect balance of politics and foppery.

For those of us who really like all literature, particularly the classics, this book is packed with poetry quotes and references to a range of novels and authors from Canterbury Tales to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as fantastic original lines from Bee and May, both of whom write well for such a conversational medium (possibly because of their writing backgrounds in journalism and lecturing/writing papers on Austen and Democracy).

Unfortunately, the specific Pride and Prejudice mentions lie at about a handful or less, however I think the observations in this book about the students themselves (and prompting me to consider how other cultures might respond to P&P) are incredible and shouldn’t be overlooked.  Quality over quantity, as is so often said.  There is plenty of romance touched on in the book though, and both Bee and May have lovely stories with how they ended up with Justin and Ali, respectively.  Plus the entire idea of correspondence is so Elizabeth and Jane Bennet that I adore it.

At times, it could get a little repetitive and some of the remarks were even a bit harsh from Bee.  While this made me a little uncomfortable for some of the passages, I found that she seemed more real from losing it at moments and breaking the calm do-gooder mask.  Sometimes the emails are desperate, or all in CAPSLOCK, or full of exclamation marks and question marks.  The relationship between the women becomes real when considering the full spectrum of emotions gone through together and the strong need for contact.  I think an interesting observation to be made of the book revolves around the different lifestyles of women, and the repression in different eras compared to what is now acceptable in other countries.  I wonder if Elizabeth Bennet would find it more similar to her era if she lived in Baghdad than if she did in modern-day London.  The commentary on raising daughters was also quite amusing and reflective of the different Bennet girls personalities as well (and there were some rather interesting comments from May about men always wanting a son).

While it ends fairly abruptly, the last half of the book is a stagnant but touching look at the red tape keeping May and her husband Ali from the UK, as Bee and her husband Justin attempt everything within their power.  So how does it end?  And what would Jane have thought of all the craziness in this book?

I will remember this from the book.  Literature can sustain you.  Just as Bee’s teacher made her memorise a poem (and apparently this is a technique people use to stay sane in prisons and keep calm), and May reads classics at night, it is clear that books and Jane Austen help us in our most desperate moments to focus, escape and show us that there is more out there we can think about.

I picked this paperback up for $6.95 from Basement Books, Sydney. (They should seriously hire me as I already spend most of my life in there!)

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Book Review: Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad

  1. Since you first mentioned this title to me I have been counting down the days until its release on Amazon.com! I can’t wait to read as it seems like the perfect compilation of passion, literature, and reality. As Austen’s characters used letters to reveal their truths it is nice to see that present day hasn’t lost complete touch with such a notion, even if pen to paper is fading into the keyboard.
    Great review, you have one reader on board for this book.

  2. Valerie Hedges

    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 the journalist Bee Rowlatt for her courage, daring and friendship which saved the life of my childhood friend….and to May for her courage in wanting to survive !! The book will make readers cry, laugh as well….and puts lots of troubles into perspective

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