‘Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad’ by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit
The title is what caught my attention, but the content is hardly about Jane Austen or for that matter even about books. What unfolds is the harsh reality of a life under siege, the helplessness and frustration of living under occupation and a stigma that has been imposed on ordinary people for no fault of their own.
Bee, a London mother of three and a producer for BBC World Service Radio, sends an email to May, an English lecturer in American occupied Baghdad, for an interview. What follows is how amazing relationship grows, nurtured through mails and an occasional phone call over a period of three years. While Bee’s letters are more often about her life , husband, kids, her extended family and her work, May’s correspondence opens up a world of hopelessness, frustration , sadness , disappointment and anger at a life that has been thrust on her.
As they correspond with each other, slowly a plan emerges to get May and her husband Ali out of Baghdad and the two become more than just friends. For Bee, it becomes almost a mission, it is as if her own sister is caught in a country from where escape seems almost impossible. The real eye opener is the reality of a normal citizen’s life in what was once a peaceful country. May writes about how one day they woke up suddenly to find their country at war with Iran, a war that continued for eight years. They heaved a sigh of relief as it ended only to find themselves at war again soon, this time with Kuwait. What happened to Iraq after that is known to all, but what many of us may not have realized is how the lives of common people changed. The irony is in the fact that the West raised an embargo on Saddam Hussein to teach him a lesson and his life was the least affected by it.
In spite of being an academic who has spent her initial years in the UK, the stigma of being from Saddam’s country follows May and she shares the depth of helplessness and anger as she writes,
“To be honest, Bee, I’d rather be killed in Baghdad than become a beggar on the doorsteps of other countries. Especially when these countries are the ones who have shattered our lives, exploited our national wealth and put us through all this misery.”
Bee is unwilling to give up and at the same time, exhorts May not too raise her hopes too much. At times, she comes across as a little harsh, but then you realize she is right in doing so, May has to be prepared for the realities and the tough path ahead before she can , if at all emigrate to the UK.
Another aspect that comes out in May’s letters is her relationship with her second husband Ali. But for him, May would have been able to get out of the country relatively easier. But she is sure that Ali’s love is something that she would not be willing to give up , even for the unthinkable freedom she could have out of her home country.
The part where May writes about her students and what she has to teach about is as ironical as the rest of her life. She is met with blank faces as she lectures about human rights and democracy and it takes her some time to understand the reason.
“I realized that it was impossible for these oppressed young females to comprehend that there are freedoms granted to humanity in general. It was like describing colors to the color-blind, I thought to myself.”
May has to face several unforeseen and totally unexpected setbacks before she and Ali can make it to UK, several times she reaches a point of complete breakdown and disappointment. One of her notes to Bee at this stage would be an echo of any ordinary citizen in a ravaged country like Iraq,
“Do you remember, Bee, when in my ‘Apology to Hemingway’ I said that they keep defeating you until you’ll gladly want to destroy yourself? We have never ceased to struggle. It is as if we are living under constant punishment, lasting from the cradle to the grave. Is such a life really worth living? Where are our rights as individuals? Why do other countries assume that we have no feelings?”
The book reiterates some of the questions that even you might have had, “Who or what gives the right to certain countries to decide what is good for others? What makes them think that they are the only ones who know what is right for the world? ”
Verdict : A must read, makes you thankful for even the little things in life that you so take for granted.