Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad: The True Story of an Unlikely Friendship

by May Witwit, Bee Rowlatt | Nonfiction |
ISBN: 9780141038537 Global Overview for this book
Registered by Sfogs of Christchurch, Canterbury New Zealand on 4/13/2012
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14 journalers for this copy...
Journal Entry 1 by Sfogs from Christchurch, Canterbury New Zealand on Friday, April 13, 2012
This is a very moving story, I recommend it to everyone~!!

From the Back:

Would you brave gun-toting militias for a cut and a blow dry?

May is a tough-talking, hard-smoking lecturer in English. She's also an Iraqi living in Baghdad: dodging bullets before breakfast, barganing for high heels in bombed-out bazaars and battling through blockades to teach her class of Jane Austen-studying girls.

Bee, on the other hand, is a London mum of three, busy fighting off the PTA meetings and the chicken pox, dealing with dead cats and generally juggling work and family while squabbling with her globe-trotting husband over the socks he leaves lying around the house.

They should have nothing in common.

But when a simple email brings them together, they discover a friendship that overcomes all their differences of culture, religion or age. And, between the grenades, the gossip, the jokes and the secrets, they hatch an ingenious plan to help May escape Baghdad...

*********

In to a Bookray!

sahra51 -France (Int'l post)-Done
Icila -France (Int'l post)-Done
Vekiki -UK (EU post)-Done
pam99 -UK (Int'l post)-Done
Andrasthe -Austria (EU post)-Done
okyrhoe -Greece (Int'l post)-Done
imawinn2 -USA (US/Int'l post)-Done
goldenwattle -Australia (Int'l post/Not EU)-*Done*
azuki -USA (US/Canada post)-*Done*
tchaikovsky -USA (Int'l post) -Skipped
bluezwuzl -Germany (EU post) -Skipped
lunacia -Norway (EU post)-*Done*
mirthful -Norway (EU post)*Done*
Soozreader -Finland (EU post)*Here*

Journal Entry 2 by Sfogs at Christchurch, Canterbury New Zealand on Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Released 7 yrs ago (5/22/2012 UTC) at Christchurch, Canterbury New Zealand

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Given to Grandma to read.

Journal Entry 3 by wingAnonymousFinderwing at Christchurch, Canterbury New Zealand on Monday, June 25, 2012
A true story.... NOT TO BE MISSED.
Fantastic to read a story that tells of life in Iraq from their point of view. A really different way of understanding the horrors of their war and day to day lives, without the propaganda form USA.

Journal Entry 4 by Sfogs at Christchurch, Canterbury New Zealand on Saturday, November 17, 2012

Released 6 yrs ago (11/16/2012 UTC) at Christchurch, Canterbury New Zealand

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Off to France~!!

Journal Entry 5 by sahra51 at By Mail, A Book Relay -- Controlled Releases on Thursday, December 20, 2012
I just getting it today, thanks :)

Journal Entry 6 by sahra51 at Tinqueux, Champagne-Ardenne France on Sunday, January 20, 2013

Released 6 yrs ago (1/25/2013 UTC) at Tinqueux, Champagne-Ardenne France

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I always wondering how was to live in a war country; this books is a part of answer but not only...

Going off to Icila's house :)

Journal Entry 7 by wingIcilawing at Nantes, Pays de la Loire France on Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Arrived this morning. Thanks a lot !

Journal Entry 8 by wingIcilawing at Nantes, Pays de la Loire France on Wednesday, February 06, 2013
What an interesting reading !
It's difficult imagining you are under such conditions and being able to go on with your work, shopping, cooking...
I guess it's the case in a country at war.
Difficult for me too is taking in the fact that May was able to maintain her computer and that her emails weren't under censure.
But there is a lot of question unanswered for.
I would want to know how the couple cope in the UK... I'll try a research.
I'm a bit worrying for the new democraties too.

Journal Entry 9 by wingIcilawing at Nantes, Pays de la Loire France on Wednesday, February 06, 2013
I found an interview at the BBC :
http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/programmes/2009/12/091221_outlook_email_friends.shtml

Journal Entry 10 by wingIcilawing at La Chapelle-sur-Erdre, Pays de la Loire France on Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Released 6 yrs ago (2/12/2013 UTC) at La Chapelle-sur-Erdre, Pays de la Loire France

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On its way to Vekiki in the UK.

Journal Entry 11 by wingVekikiwing at London, Greater London United Kingdom on Saturday, February 16, 2013
this arrived while i was at work today, my housemate brought it in for me :) I'm nearly done on my current read then I'll get straight onto it - thank you so much for sharing

Journal Entry 12 by wingVekikiwing at London, Greater London United Kingdom on Thursday, March 14, 2013

Released 6 yrs ago (3/14/2013 UTC) at London, Greater London United Kingdom

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hmmm.... well.... an interesting read
I did feel sorry for May, and I was very interested in a 'real-time' account of her experiences, but I'm not sure I liked her much as a person (wow - that sounds mean since she is a real person. I'm sure she's lovely really but under that much strain her best side didn't come out).

in the post to the next reader

Journal Entry 13 by wingpam99wing at Troon, Scotland United Kingdom on Saturday, March 16, 2013
arrived safely, I've got one ring ahead of it which I've just started reading, so will hopefully be on to this one soon!

Journal Entry 14 by wingpam99wing at Troon, Scotland United Kingdom on Saturday, March 30, 2013
finished this last week but I've been moving house and I've not had internet access, so it's taken a couple of days to journal. An interesting read, I quite liked May but I did find Bee a bit irritating at times. Will pm the next reader for an address, although I think I sent something to andrasthe recently!

Journal Entry 15 by wingpam99wing at Troon, Scotland United Kingdom on Thursday, April 04, 2013

Released 6 yrs ago (4/4/2013 UTC) at Troon, Scotland United Kingdom

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finally went on its way today - apologies for the delay, a very busy week following a house move, and the Easter weekend meant that there was a queue down the street at the Post Office when I tried earlier in the week!

Journal Entry 16 by wingAndrasthewing at Klagenfurt, Kärnten Austria on Saturday, April 13, 2013
Arrived. I will get to it soon :)

06.05
Having finished the book I must say I really enjoyed the story and the structure. Much like Bee my knowledge about Iraqi culture and everyday life during that period in time is very limited. Some of May's narrations astounded me. The difficult life under the various forms of "government" and the gravity and danger involved in getting trivial things done were particularly interesting to me.
The form of the novel worked well. However, some of the correspondence struck me as a bit odd under the circumstances - but hey, that's humans for you. Moreover some dates caught my eye, as sometimes the duration between one mail and the next were quite long. When one email sounded hopelessly desperate and the answer took weeks - that above all surprised me. Then again, life - however trivial it seems - happens and delays our returning of important correspondence.
All in all I enjoyed the book, although I sometimes had difficulty relating to one character or the other, to their actions or emotions. Thank you for including me in this ring.

The book will be on its way as soon as I get the next address.

Journal Entry 17 by wingAndrasthewing at Klagenfurt, Kärnten Austria on Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Released 6 yrs ago (5/7/2013 UTC) at Klagenfurt, Kärnten Austria

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traveling onwards

Journal Entry 18 by okyrhoe at Athens - Αθήνα, Attica Greece on Friday, May 31, 2013
Book has arrived in Athens. Thanks Andrasthe for posting it to me, and Sfogs for including me in the bookray!

May and Bee's radio interview.
May Witwit recommends five books.
Bee's adorable girls. Husband Justin Rowlatt, a.k.a. "Ethical Man," eating insects.

- - - - - - -

my review

As a book based on email exchanges it is readable. There is a natural evolution in the narrative. It opens with formal messages between two strangers and gradually leads to an intimate friendship.

Within that developing relationship, the communication becomes more complex, as each side slowly reveals more about their lives, the roles they perform, their frustrations, their fears. And soon, it is what they discover that they have in common that determines their continuing communication. What keeps the friendship going is a shared need for female bonding. There may be at times too much talk about food, children, relatives, man trouble, concerns over feminine issues such as fertility, weight and physical appearance, housekeeping, etc. but that's what they have in common best understand about the other. The minutiae of juggling a career with the demands of domestic life is what keeps the conversation going.

In the email exchanges it's May who is the most naturally expressive, generous with endearments from early on (Bumbo Bee, lovely Bee...). I got the impression that Bee was somewhat hesitant at first, and distrustful of this display of affection. Over time though Bee lets her guard down, and soon they are calling each other 'big'/'little' sister. These expressions of filialtiy are what shapes and cements their friendship, more than anything else.

The theme of the two women's bonding is best understood in relation to the unusual nature of May's marriage to second husband Ali. Both May and Ali are ostracized by their respective families (the reasons being several - May is a widow, Ali is much younger, and from a different religious group). The families' unequivocal and harsh reaction may seem overblown and harsh to non-Iraqis. Nevertheless, the concept of filiality in Arab society is very strong. The couple were cast out not for what they did per se, but for what & how their "scandalous" marriage reflected upon the extended family's image and values (unity, reputation and honor). From the point of view of the families, the couple disregarded the families' priorities for their own individual needs, and this was a betrayal, a selfish choice of the individual over the family.
With that in mind, for May to address Bee as her sister was no small matter. Both women -each for their own reasons- had a need for the unequivocal trust and accepatance one assumes in kinship. Their frequent appeal to sisterhood displays a need they shared, but for May, given her alienation from her family and her in-laws, it was much stronger and fundamental. Bee understood that on an emotional level, but maybe failed (as with several other issues) to comprehend intellectually - at least in the beginning. May's desire to escape Baghdad are based on immediate danger and financial concerns, but the driving force behind the decision to leave everything behind is the promise of what she has developed and built through the extensive email correspondence - frienship and filiality. Towards the end of the book Bee openly admits to May that she (Bee) experienced moments of doubt and confusion earlier in their correspondence, but eventually overcame her misgivings and was ready to do all for her "sister."

Of the two, it is May who is the most complex individual - she is rich with stories about her life, her unique experiences, and she also provides the backgroun information about Iraq to educated the Western reader. But it's Bee who is the core of the narrative, the one who learns along the way, is transformed by the email exchanges and the developing friendship.
There are basically two processes of involvment for the reader: one, the reading of the email correspondence between two women, and two, the reading of how Bee is comprehending/interpreting May's stories recounted in the email messages. Bee's evolving point of view, as she gradually comes to a better understanding of May (and the Iraqi crisis) is the driving force of the narrative, even though May's stories are what makes this book worth reading.

There are moments of tension when the two can't seem to communicate on the same intellectual level, despite their earnest efforts. There were times when I wanted to tell Bee, you just don't get it! May herself was patient. Maybe her teaching experience helped; at times Bee seemed to be as clueless to what actually goes on in the "world out there" as the university students in Baghdad that May was responsible for.

Even before I started reading, I knew my response to the book would be filtered through the prism of my personal experience. Although for disparate reasons, I was predisposed to feel a strong connection with both May and Bee.
During my formative years I was exposed to varied living conditions, from the creature comforts of a military base in the Far East to the dangers of a Middle Eastern city that - as with Baghdad - was once a flourishing cosmopolitan city where many faiths co-existed but became divided and deprived by civil war. Like May, I learnt to live without electricity and other amenities, slept in stairwells and hid under school desks while rocket shells exploded nearby, survived risky border crossings during last-minute evacuations, experienced being a 'refugee in transit' on board rescue ships or hotels while waiting with dread as the Red Cross processed our travel papers so that we could reach safety.
During those years, the BBC World Service was an indispensible companion, primarily for the breaking news but also for the diversion it provided in difficult but boring times - the audio books, music and even quiz shows helped to keep us sane.

However, from the very first pages of this book I became impatient with Bee's perspective. It was troubling to me that despite her best intentions and her heartfelt compassion and generosity, and in spite of the (one would assume) basic requisites of her news media job, Bee's lack of familiarity with the particular region and the historically documented complicity of her own nation in the crisis that May was trapped in, made itself evident time and time again. (Especially the entry 16.04.08 Thoughts on government.)
All credit goes to May for the patience and the effort she demonstrated to 'educate' Bee in this regard! It made me simultaneoulsy smile and cringe as I read May's extensive explanations and clarifications. Sometimes I wondered if Bee actually ever "got it" (especially on matters of May's personal dignity and national pride).
Granted, Bee is open-minded and eager to learn (in fact she is indeed knowledgeable about other places/cultures), but by the book's end I still felt a sense of dismay that Iraq and the Middle East in general will continue to be perceived through the lens of the white man's burden - misrepresented, misunderstood, misjudged, and viewed with fear.

Towards the end of May's visa ordeal, Bee writes "The best way is to simply present the facts as you see them. World Service does this better than anyone as there are strict codes on the use of adjectives, value judgments and subjective language (famously, the word 'terrorist' is not used unless it is quoting someone else)." (15.09.08 More thoughtful but still got butterflies).
In practice though, the reality though is far from this ideal, with regards both to the BBC, and to Bee herself. Ironically, on the very same page/email as the above statement, Bee betrays her own linguistic bias when she recounts, "On Thursday when I was at work...in walked Alan Johnston, the guy who had been kidnapped by the Palestinians..."

Earlier statements indicated her tendency for distancing herself intellectually and emotionally from critically challenging events:

"Lebanon is horrible and I'm glad I'm not at work having to think about it." (25.07.06. Tale of Two Cities)

"I'm single-handedly chasing annoying little stories interspersed with big miserable stuff about Zimbabwe." (25.06.08 Back again)

Journal Entry 19 by okyrhoe at bookray, By Post -- Controlled Releases on Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Released 6 yrs ago (7/1/2013 UTC) at bookray, By Post -- Controlled Releases

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On its way by post to imawinn2. Enjoy!

(P.S. I am sorry for the delay. I had the envelope ready to go early last week, but mislaid it. It finally went out today with another bunch of BC books.)

Journal Entry 20 by imawinn2 at Neenah, Wisconsin USA on Tuesday, July 16, 2013
This book arrived yesterday. I am just about done with a bookray and will be starting this one right after I finish the one I'm reading now. Thanks for sending it my way okyrhoe. I love the stamps on the envelope. :-)

Journal Entry 21 by imawinn2 at Neenah, Wisconsin USA on Friday, August 09, 2013
This was a good read and I had a hard time putting the book down. It follows the emails between a British journalist and mother of three (Bee)and an Iraqi professor (May). What started out as an interview between the two women turned into a deep friendship as we read about a lifesaving scheme and journey to get May and her husband Ali out of war torn Iraq. I found the emails touching, sad, occasionally humorous and gripping. At times, I thought Bee's emails could be a bit whiny about mundane stuff, compared to May's description of her day to day life and the horrors she was experiencing. Then I realized that Bee's emails of her daily events, like balancing job and child-rearing, the ups and downs of marriage, potty training, parties and vacations, was a breath of fresh air for May who dreamed of living a normal life again. Bee's correspondences transported May to a safe world which gave her hope. May's emails were an eye opener for the reader as to how life was prior and after the fall of Saddam Hussein. These emails told of a life full of deadly dangers such as bombings, gun fire, assassinations of friends, neighbors and co-workers, a life where just going down the street to get a hair cut could cost a person their life. I was especially interested in May's point of view of the U.S. military's occupation in her country. In my opinion, this book is worth reading.

I have goldenwattle's address and will get this mailed when I get back from my vacation (next week).

Journal Entry 22 by imawinn2 at Neenah, Wisconsin USA on Monday, August 19, 2013

Released 5 yrs ago (8/19/2013 UTC) at Neenah, Wisconsin USA

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This book is now on a long journey to Australia where goldenwattle is waiting to read this story. Happy Travels! Happy Reading.

Journal Entry 23 by winggoldenwattlewing at Canberra, Australian Capital Territory Australia on Friday, September 06, 2013
This book arrived safely today. Thank you Imawinn2 for posting it and the postcard with the fish. Impressive teeth. And thank you Sfogs for starting the ray. I look forward to reading it.

Journal Entry 24 by winggoldenwattlewing at Canberra, Australian Capital Territory Australia on Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Released 5 yrs ago (10/1/2013 UTC) at Canberra, Australian Capital Territory Australia

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An interesting read. It would be awful to be living May's life in a war zone, but she sounded a strong woman. It must have been such a relief to escape, but sad to leave her country behind. I imagine she would have had mixed feelings. I did get bored a bit with Bee's recounting of her children's antics. And Bee, over seven billion people in the world. Do you really need that fourth child?
Thank you for the opportunity to read it.
I posted this book today to Azuki in the USA. It's going airmail.

Journal Entry 25 by wingAzukiwing at Miami, Florida USA on Thursday, October 17, 2013
The book has arrived safely with a beautiful postcard. Thank you!
I read the intro and I'm hooked already. Such an interesting story!!
I currently have 2 rings ahead of this but I look forward to a good read.

ETA: 12/2 - Yikes!! I have this book since Oct? OK I will really ramp up my reading speed. I was to post to say that sorry but with some guests visiting (in turn) and busy work (like 11 hr days) I haven't been reading much but I think I am gathering momentum and enjoying the book. Now I realize that I am hoarding it I will do my best to squeeze in more time to read here and there and get it moving on.

Journal Entry 26 by wingAzukiwing at Miami, Florida USA on Sunday, December 08, 2013
Towards the end I just have to read through the pages to find out the ending. I "enjoyed" learning about life in Baghdad as told by May - how Ali could not go to the hospital, the jokes, I also liked to read about Bee's life as a mom with three girls - I don't have kids so it was interesting to me.

I did cringe a bit when Bee was so forthcoming about May's situation should she arrive in England. I thought only Americans are so frank but I guess not. Anyway, I couldn't imagine someone be so brute, and I think in May's culture it's unusual too?

While it was kind to end the book with a picture, which truly says a thousand words, I am also very curious about May and Ali's lives in England. Especially Ali's, as he would be totally among strangers, in a country and culture he hadn't been in before and knew little English. He would have a much harder time than May and it would be worse than staying at home in Baghdad while May worked. Although it was easy to find plenty of info and pictures of Bee and Justin, as they are with BBC (apparently they did have a fourth child and as they wish it's a boy named William), I could only find a couple of articles about May, who completed her PhD, but nothing on Ali. I do hope he and May are together still, after all they've been through, and that he is enjoying his new life.

I sent Tchaikovsky a pm on 12/2 but haven't heard back. I just sent another pm again and if I don't heard back soon will skip her.

12/12: found this post from Tchaikovsky: http://www.bookcrossing.com/forum/10/501761/
This explains her absence. She did say that she will be checking emails/pm's so I guess it's just taking a little longer. I've pm'ed bluezwuzl anyway, just in case Tchaikovsky decides to skip.

Journal Entry 27 by winglunaciawing at Sandnes, Rogaland fylke Norway on Tuesday, March 04, 2014
The book arrived today, but I have a few other books that have to be read before I can start this one. Am quite excited aboutbit, though. :-)

The book was sent to me from bluezwazl in Germany.

Journal Entry 28 by winglunaciawing at Sandnes, Rogaland fylke Norway on Wednesday, May 14, 2014
I just wanted to let you know that I AM currently reading this book. But the print is small, and I'm a slow reader, so it takes time. I am enjoying it, though. :-) Just wanted to let you know I haven't forgotten about it!

Journal Entry 29 by winglunaciawing at Sandnes, Rogaland fylke Norway on Friday, June 27, 2014
This was a very interesting read! Thank you for making this bookring, Sfogs!

My review can be read here:
http://www.hiddeninabook.net/?p=285

The book will be on its way to mirthful soon!

Journal Entry 30 by winglunaciawing at Sandnes, Rogaland fylke Norway on Saturday, June 28, 2014

Released 5 yrs ago (6/28/2014 UTC) at Sandnes, Rogaland fylke Norway

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Mailed off to mirthful today.

Enjoy!

Journal Entry 31 by mirthful at Trondheim, Sør-Trøndelag fylke Norway on Tuesday, July 01, 2014
It's here! And it's next on the TBR-pile.

Journal Entry 32 by mirthful at Trondheim, Sør-Trøndelag fylke Norway on Wednesday, March 04, 2015
Review snipped from my blog post (http://www.sandlund.net/bookblog/2015/03/talking-about-jane-austen-in-baghdad-bee-rowlatt-and-may-witwit/):

Bee Rowlatt is a producer for the BBC World Service and comes into contact with May Witwit while searching for English-speaking Iraquis to interview in the run-up to elections. While their e-mail correspondence starts out with a purely practical purpose, the two women soon start "chatting", about work and about life and a friendship develops. As life in Baghdad is hardly a bed of roses, they soon start discussing possible ways for May and her husband to get out of the country, and eventually hatch a plan to get them to Britain.

So far so good. Now, I have a few gripes.

Firstly, the spiel on the outside of the book goes on and on about how unlikely the friendship is and how "they should have nothing in common". Really? Two intelligent women with "intellectual" careers should obviously have nothing to talk about. Turns out they do.

My second gripe is more serious, I suppose, and that is that the book is around twice the length the "plot" and language can support. Let me elaborate. The "plot": Not much happens. Bee talks about her kids, her globe-trotting husband and trying to balance career and family. May tells her about her life and about the everyday struggles of living in Baghdad (serious enough, don't get me wrong, but even life in a war zone gets pretty mundane and boring in the long run). The title promises literary discussions, and, frankly, the bits where May relates how her students react to the books she teaches are the most interesting parts of the books, but they make up perhaps four pages of text all together – out of four hundred. And while both women write clearly and intelligently (for the most part), this is a real e-mail conversation, so, let's face it, we're not talking Nobel laureate quality of language and imagery here. The form does not make up for lack of action.

In other words, I lost interest about half way through. I vaguely wondered whether May would make it out, but I would have simply skipped ahead to the last page to find out if it wasn't for the fact of this being a Bookcrossing book and I was loath to give up on it after having kept it so long.

Incidentally, my father happens to be reading Reading Lolita in Tehran at the moment. He saw my picture of Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad on Instagram and commented that it seemed to be a case of one title being a rip-off of the other. I don't know which title came first, but I do know that if you were to ask me which one to read I would go with Nafisi's book every time.

Journal Entry 33 by wingSoozreaderwing at Joensuu, Pohjois-Karjala / Norra Karelen Finland on Sunday, March 15, 2015
Thank you very much for this book and for the delicious chocolate!:)

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