Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit, Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad, Penguin Books 2010 (Sognando Jane Austen a Baghdad, Edizioni Piemme 2010)
|Book cover of the English version|
I’ve literally just this minute closed the book on its last page and I can’t explain how deeply moved I feel. I’m profoundly touched by its happy ending. Maybe, it is because it’s not a novel but a true story and the thought that all I have been reading really happened moved me to tears more than once while reading . I’m getting older and at the same time more sensitive, I know. But what can be done to change that?
Honestly, I bought this book thinking there would be much more Austen in it. In fact, there was very little. However, I’m not disappointed, I liked it a lot. More than liked it, loved it!
What is this book about? It is an exchange of e-mail messages (from January 2005 to October 2008) between two very different women who, little by little, develop a firm friendship based on a strong feeling of sympathy.
May teaches English Literature at a university in Baghdad, to a class of girls and, even though nothing could be farther from the reality surrounding them, she leaves her house every day to talk to them about Jane Austen. Old times’ skirmishes vs real war.
|May and Bee - Good friends thanks to Jane Austen|
At the same time, May tries to lead an ordinary life, going shopping or to the hairdresser’s, challenging the possibility of being involved in a bomb explosion each time. She has to cope with on and off electrical power supply, black market and the government’s repression against intellectuals like her, or different ethnic groups like her husband’s.
Bee is a journalist living in London and her challenge is to run her life between her three little daughters and her work at BBC World, with a globetrotter as a husband.
May and Bee couldn’t be more different. Culture, religion, kilometers separate them. Yet, when they get into contact through e-mail, because Bee wants an interview with May, they become friends. They tell each other about their routines. May’s messages become a sort of diary of the life in troubled Iraq. A schizophrenic country where girls put on their make-up and unveil or untie their hair once they get to school, and then cover or compose themselves again before going back home , or where a daughter can still be rejected by her family for marrying a younger man of an inferior rank. Yet a country in which Jane Austen is not so impossible to read and appreciate as an escape. Jane Austen or Dickens, but it is not an easy task to read "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne with them. What those girls could never be able to understand is the idea of freedom or that of real democracy.
|Bee and May in London|
After the initial lightness , May’s messages become more and more dripping of fear. For instance, “We were in Dorset for 10 days and had loads of people coming, so I thought it would be exhausting,” Bee Rowlatt writes. “Just as I was making tea and preparing breakfast a bomb exploded outside,” May Witwit answers.
A race against time starts in order to save May and her husband, Alì. Bee feels guilty when she sends May her tales about balancing a career with bringing up young daughters , about the stress of a free woman coping with her little troubles or her jealousy towards her own husband’s freedom to focus on his career . No bloodshed, no bombs, no violence, no poverty . She feels guilty , but to May those stories are both escape and hope. May hopes and dreams of joining Bee in England one day, to start all over with a different life in a different country. So Bee begins to worki and fight for her friend, so that May’s dream may come true.
May Witwit lives in England with her husbands now.
I highly recommend this book to all those of you who love literature and the classics, as well as a well - written tale of real life from a female point of view. I found May’s and Bee’s attitudes to life very enlightening . Both of them have their own personal, original , involving writing style. They’ve learnt much from books and use that knowledge to face the hardships in life. "A book can save your life", be it Jane Austen or Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Hawthorne or Hemingway . Not simply a saying. It seems books , together with Bee's friendship and solidarity, really helped May to survive in the hell of Baghdad.
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