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~A Tale of Two Cities~
When 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.
~Does it work?~
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 bit of a 3 star drag.
I feel very 'cultured' as I tell you how I came to read this book - if I remember rightly I saw it reviewed in something like Times2 (or some other such 'stylish' read!), and was immediately drawn to reading it. I liked the reference to Jane Austen, whose novels I can't help but love, and I thought it would be an interesting read after enjoying other books set in Middle East war zones (namely The Kite Runner/A Thousand Splendid Suns). I was also intrigued by the mention that the book is a series of emails, a correspondence between two women living in completely different worlds. I don't know very much about Iraq and so all these reasons conspired to convince me to buy a copy of this book.
As I mentioned, the premise of this book is an email correspondence between two women; one living a busy, middle class, family-and-work-centred life in London, and the other struggling to survive as a university lecturer who teaches English Literature - hence the Austen reference - in central Baghdad. May (the Iraqi) is originally contacted by journalist Bee (Rowlatt - wife of Justin Rowlatt who you may have seen on the One Show etc.?!), who wants to gain an insight into how the invasion has come to affect ordinary people living in the midst of the apparent turmoil and unrest. May replies promptly, seemingly eager to develop a friendship that will allow her to escape somewhat from her reality. What follows is a series of engaging, informative, funny and thought-provoking emails which bounce back and forth across continents for many months. Without giving too much away, the book culminates, and is always aiming towards, May and her husband leaving Baghdad, but I won't give away whether their dream comes true or not.
This book is written in a really engaging way. I suppose this is because it is so easy to read emails, as they are written in a colloquial style, without naff descriptions and difficult-to-follow plot twists. We can all relate to this way of writing, and we are used to reading this style of text. The conversations that May and Bee share are so wonderful and interesting that you feel like you want in on them, you want to become friends with these two selfless and honest people. At times I was worried that Bee, being so busy with work, family, illness, etc., would back away and let May down, but I had misjudged her - she became a loyal and kind friend to May, and I came to feel amazed at both ladies' generosity and altruistic natures.
This book is very eye-opening and actually quite brave politically because it offers the reader a different account of the war in Iraq. I cannot claim to have a deep understanding of how and why the invasion was started (please don't judge me) but I learnt such a lot from reading this book: May's stories demonstrate how difficult and different life became for Iraqis because of the invasion. 'Amusing' stories that she shares of risking her life to natter with friends and have her hair cut, are actually laced with the grim reality of living in a dangerous war zone where being high up in any job could result in you being placed at the top of a hit list. She would daily drive past the shells of exploded cars, and read about friends who'd been killed. It ended up being ironic that two women could discuss Austen in the same email as bombs and death and horror. How May coped is beyond me; this book made me question myself and really examine how much I appreciate the liberties and freedom that I live with.
At times I felt particularly sorry for, and then surprised by, May, because quite often she emails Bee with details of a horrific day in Baghdad, and she promptly receives a reply full of nice stories and happy goings on in England. What surprised me is that May doesn't respond to this like I would - she doesn't appear jealous or annoyed with Bee's apparent insensitivity. Instead she craves these moments of idyllic daydreaming. This was a really lovely addition to the story, and it makes me wonder again about my own values and attitude.
This book unfortunately lets itself down in my opinion. The last third of the book drags on endlessly, following the depressing bureaucracy of trying to go through the process of leaving Iraq. Countless emails are sent from May charting her and her husband's outlook steadily sinking as they make efforts to seek asylum in the UK (a ludicrously difficult process) which are met over and over again with refusal, discouragements and hurdles that seem impossible to overcome. I am sorry to admit that this made for very boring reading (or maybe I'm just a boring person), and I felt that it wasn't all necessary.
In conclusion, I enjoyed reading this book for its educational and thought-provoking content. There aren't many books I have read that have made me question myself and have challenged me to be more thankful for what I have. The book is very easy to read and was a compelling and engaging subject which I am glad to say widened my outlook and taught me new things about the world and politics. The only down point of this book is that for most average joes, the ending drags rather and is set at a hugely slower pace than the beginning of the book - there is an abrupt change from a nice run to a slow plod. I think the editor missed part of their vocation when preparing the emails to be turned into the book. Overall however, I would recommend this book - perhaps just skip a few chapters towards the end!
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 3 daughters and considers whether to have a 4th, 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).
Highly recommended reading.
This review previously appeared in a slightly different form at www.thebookbag.co.uk