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Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad

Austen in BaghdadIt began with a question in an email. Bee Rowlatt, BBC World Service journalist in London, wanted insight on how women in Iraq felt about the recent elections and what was happening in their country. Over the course of the next few months, emails zipped between her and May Witwit, lecturer in English at Baghdad university. May proved a lively correspondent; one minute talking vividly about the dangers of living in the cross fire between the  the danger she faced in getting to work each day and the next to 

From this unusual beginning,  a friendship blossomed as each woman became fascinated by the life of the other and wanted to know more about what was happening in their very different worlds.

In Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad, Bee and May’s  lives are juxtaposed as they kept up a correspondence, supplemented by an occasional text message and a rare phone call. Bee learned about May’s fears for her husband trapped in their apartment because he was a Sunni Muslim, the strange regulations imposed at her workplace and her attitudes towards Sadam Hussein. In return May’s in box contained epistles featuring the quotidian life of a mother of three in a London suburb, a woman whose frustrations extended to dealing with sick children, organising fund raising events for the local school and what to wear to work.

The nature of the emails change once Bee hits on a plan to get May and her husband Ali out of the dangers of Iraq. Bee continues to talk about her endless cups of tea, about her lectures on Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ernest Hemingway and about her thesis on the theme of love in Chaucer , but now her emails are also full of the frustrations involved in penetrating multiple levels of bureaucracy to try and get visas.  Set back follows set back, sending May into cycles of despair in which she feels there is no way out.

What does all this have to do with Austen? This title was chosen by the publishers (Penguin) whose decision to publish the book provided May with the money needed to fund her new life in London. I presume they thought the use of Jane Austen’s name would attract attention but it’s misleading since Austen’s name comes up only a few times. Bee asks at one time “how can you teach Jane Austen in Baghdad?” “How can [your students] make sense of it?”, bringing the response from May that it was for her students a form of escape; a “transportation to another world.” that gave them the strength to continue.

What made this book fascinating was to witness the blossoming of the friendship. The formality of the first emails with their salutation Dear Bee quickly evaporated and became simply ‘ Bee’ or, touchingly ‘dear sis’ . It’s to May that Bee turns when she wants to know should she have a fourth child or to vent after an argument with her husband. Neither Bee nor May hold back from sharing their emotions, littering their emails with strings of exclamation marks or shouty subject lines.

The lack of self consciousness in their exchanges makes this a tremendously engaging book. It wanes a little bit in the final quarter where the bureaucratic machinery gets ever more tortuous and I had the feeling some subjects were introduced just to pad out the story (by then, they knew they had a publishing deal on their hands). But I forgive them because they had been such wonderful company on my drive to work for so many days earlier.


Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad is available in paperback from Penguin Books or in Audio format from Chivers.

If you want to know what happened to May Witwit, take a look at this interview in which she talks about her life as an academic in the UK.

Snapshot August 2015

PimmsAs the first day of a new month arrives it’s time to take a quick snapshot of what I’m listening to and reading.


I’m about a third of the way into Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac which is part of his novel sequence La Comédie humaine. It’s a book that’s been on my TBR shelf for about four years so the TBR Challenge run by Adam at RoofBeamReader was the perfect catalyst to get  it down off the shelf. Now I’ve started I don’t really understand why I’ve held back for so long. Set in Paris in 1819, Old Goriot follows the intertwined lives of three characters who live in a down at heel boarding house in an undesirable part of the city. Goriot is an elderly retired trader in vermicelli who is so devoted to his daughters he descends into penury just so they don’t go without. Other inhabitants include a mysterious agitator called Vautrin; and Eugène de Rastignac, a naive law student intent on getting established in the higher reaches of society. I love the way Balzac describes the depressing, gloomy nature of the boarding house, its miserable environs which have ” a suggestion of a jail” and its wretched food.


On my journey to work I’ve been engrossed by a true-life story of a friendship conducted via email between a  British mother and an Iraqi teacher. Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit traces the stages of a friendship which began in 2005 when Bee (a journalist on the BBC World Service) interviewed May (a lecturer in English literature at Baghdad university) for a feature piece. Their lives as so different; one woman is trapped in the bloodbath of Baghdad while the other bakes cakes for the school’s parents’ association; but their friendship grows. Together they hatch a plan to get May and her husband Ali away from the dangers of Iraq. As in all good human drama stories, it’s a plan that doesn’t go smoothly. This is a book that exists only because of that plan (its publication was designed to fund a PhD position in London for May). As a written text I’m sure it would be a fascinating read but it works so much better in audio format where the letters are read by an actress Sian Thomas. She captures so well each woman’s speech patterns and accidents so you feel they are really talking to each other across the miles.



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