It 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.