—The Times of London
—The Age (Melbourne)
—Chicago Sun Times, The Book Room
—Perceptive Travel (perceptivetravel.com)
—The Sunday Tribune (Chandigarh India)
—The Northern Leader>
—The Asian Review of Books
—South China Morning Post
A good book can take something that seemed impenetrable and make such elegant sense of it that readers wonder why they never saw order in all that chaos before. Malcolm Gladwell did it for snap decision making. Jared Diamond did it for the rise of civilizations. Now Lynne O’Donnell, with High Tea in Mosul, does it for sniper fire and kidnapping threats. Four years into the war in Iraq, she captures with stark simplicity what it’s like to live with ceaseless fear and violence.
High Tea in Mosul follows two Englishwomen, longtime friends Pauline (a pseudonym) and Margaret (her real name), who married Iraqi students they met in England and moved in the 1970s to the ancient northern Iraqi city of Mosul. In 2003 they met the author — an Australian then covering the war for the Irish Times — shortly after coalition troops freed the city. O’Donnell’s book is a brief, devastating account of how these women’s lives change over three increasingly grim decades in their adopted country.
Margaret and Pauline’s early years in Iraq are a time of relative comfort, of trading tips with other expats on where to find potatoes and Western clothes. War with Iran brings increased state propaganda and a clampdown on dissent that makes Iraqis distrustful of neighbors. Then, in 1990, international sanctions bring food shortages and ration lines. Operation Iraqi Freedom seems a godsend, but optimism fizzles when there’s no new order to fill the post-Saddam vacuum. By 2005, the women are all but trapped in their own homes, depressed, often without electricity, scared of random violence and of violence targeted at foreigners, and terrified that their family members will be kidnapped for ransom. Pauline’s days, writes O’Donnell, “were punctuated with the constant phone calls she demanded from [her son] Jamal — when he got to college, as he moved from class to class, as he chose a taxi for the short trip home.” She tells the author: “There is nothing in my life. I never do anything or go anywhere.”
Seen through the eyes of these two ordinary women, Iraq’s victims and villains are richly human, with clear and comprehensible motives. Margaret’s husband joins the ruling Baath Party in the Saddam years because it’s the best way to advance his career; U.S. soldiers break down doors and drive tanks through generator lines because they’re too focused on insurgent attacks to worry about what’s in their path.
The great strength of High Tea in Mosul is to reveal that flesh-and-blood world behind the impersonal blur of headlines. O’Donnell, keenly aware of the quotidian reality of life in Iraq, cautions against “knee-jerk anti-Americanism,” remarking: “It doesn’t do Iraqis any favors. The focus should be on making Iraq a place Iraqis want to live.” Today, Pauline and Margaret have both left Mosul. Their stories — of hastily packed suitcases thrown in cars at dawn — are a sad reminder of just how unlivable their former home has become.
No doubt those who conceived, promoted and prosecuted the war in Iraq were moved by high political principles, but at ground level in the streets of “liberated” Iraq it must seem like business worse than usual —corruption, extortion, death and injury, terror, infighting, food shortages and unreliable utilities. O’Donnell tells the stories of two Englishwomen in Mosul, married to Iraqi men, who have lived and dealt, within their family structures, since April 2003, with the consequences (perhaps unintended) of war. The political and human reality of their courage and endurance is immediate and visceral.
Pick of the Week: When Australian journalist Lynne O’Donnell was covering the war in Iraq for The Irish Times, she met and befriended two Englishwomen — Pauline from Lancashire and Margaret from Durham. Both women had married Iraqi men and lived through what the rest of us merely know as the “news” (Saddam, Iran-Iraq, and both Gulf wars). Most of the book is set in Mosul and is a close-up and personal account of the impact of the 2003 war, which has since become a civil war, and which O’Donnell has no qualms about calling a “debalce”. It’s not just the snipers’ bullets, the chaos and twitchiness of daily life, it’s the effect of the conflict on two families that gives an immediate sense of life behind the headlines. Along the way, she gives us the histories of the two women and a potted history of Iraq. This is a tale about the human cost of a misguided war.
In the horror that is the Iraq war reporters usually broadcast from the safety of the vast Green Zone where Coalition civilians eat, sleep, make policy and issue statements. What we see on television are pictures taken by non-white photographers; the face-to-camera commentary sually comes from within the Zone. We can only surmise what life is like for Iraqis and along with the guessing there creeps in an I-don’t-want-to see-anymore fatigue.
Now comes Lynne O’Donnell who, as Joseph Conrad insisted about good writing, above all makes us see. A foreign correspondent with considerable experience in China, she now works for Agence France-Presse in Hong Kong. In 2003 O’Donnell found herself in the northern city of Mosul a few weeks after the American invasion of Iraq. There she met two English women, married to Iraqis, who had lived in Iraq for about 28 years. The meeting was accidental but good reporters see and take their chances. Although she says she does not want to ‘rake over the coals of the political manipulations and machinations that led to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq’, O’Donnell does just that at just the right length. Her bibliography lists the books and articles you can read to educate yourself on Iraq; but most of all, she says, ‘I wished to investigate the life of ordinary Iraqi people through the eyes of two women whose perspectives straddle the cultural, racial, linguistic, religious and geographic lines dividing Iraq itself.’
Pauline and Margaret were northern working-class girls, from Lancashire and Durham respectively, when they met their future husbands, who were studying in England. By the late Seventies the women had travelled to Mosul with them. Although they immediately moved straight to the comfortable Westernised social apex in Iraq — Pauline’s husband was a British-certified doctor and Margaret’s an academic and member of Saddam’s ruling Ba’ath Party, who became president of Mosul University — the two women might just as well have moved to Neptune. Food, dress, language, and, above all, family life were wholly different. ‘The tradition of marrying within the family had been unbroken for more generations than could be counted back.’ Pauline’s doctor husband saw plainly the genetic results — blood and muscular disease, mental retardation, learning difficulties — of generational cousin marriage, ‘and never intended to marry in’. But both women experienced warm welcomes and inclusion into their husbands’ families, making for the contentment that began eroding during the Iraq-Iran war of the late Eighties. The Iraqi losses were enormous and the women told O’Donnell how everyone listened to Iranian radio hoping to hear that their soldier loved ones had been captured, not killed.
But the real breakdown of life in Mosul came with Gulf Wars One and Two. The sanctions of Gulf One caused hunger, disease and suffering, especially for children; the food admitted was either sold or consumed by Saddam’s network. During Gulf Two, American bombing, American shooting up civilians, and frightened American soldiers kicking in doors became normal. Entering family homes without women soldiers present was a disaster, said Pauline. ‘The women here are not used to being in the presence of men who aren’t members of their families. It’s terrifying. People hate it and hate them.’ Yet more hideous were the daily kidnappings, ransoms, gangsterism and murder that characterise the multi-factional civil war. The cruelty that began under Saddam spread down to children killing small animals, and across the social, clan and religious divides. What Pauline and Margaret saw every hour eventually drove both families from Mosul, Margaret back to England, Pauline to ‘safety in Dohuk, 25 miles and a universe away in the
Books about war have never interested me. Reading about battle strategy and political conflict will send my eyeballs spinning toward the back of my head and knock me out cold.
It’s not that I’m not interested in the subject matter; I just don’t want to read about it. I’d much rather see a documentary or even a feature film dramatizing specific events. It humanizes war for me, which helps me to better understand the overall cause and effects of such drastic actions, especially these days as our troops are still fighting a questionable war in the Middle East.
The human element evident in High Tea in Mosul: The True Story of Two Englishwomen in War-torn Iraq is what drew me to the book. That and the whimsical mental picture of two proper English ladies taking time out for a spot of tea in a war zone.
Author Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist who’s written all across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. While covering the war in Iraq, she was among the first Western journalists to enter the city of Mosul after it fell to U.S. troops in April 2003. It was there that she met Margaret al-Sharook and Pauline Basheer, both of whom met Iraqi men in their native England in the 1970s, married them and moved to Iraq.
The book takes its title from the afternoon teas these women organized with other foreign wives so they could maintain some semblance of “normalcy” in a place entirely different than what they’d known all their lives.
The best parts of the book–O’Donnell’s first–are when the author delves into the histories and the day-to-day lives of her subjects — where they grew up, how they met their husbands, how they assimilated into the traditional Iraqi culture.
Chapter 3, titled “A Boiled Sheep’shead Too Far,” is where the book really got my attention. O’Donnell writes of Iraqi cuisine, of Margaret and Pauline’s constant craving for potatoes and their mutual distaste for patcha, the haggis of Iraq.
Among the ingredients required to make an authentic patcha are: 1 sheep’s head, 2 sheep’s stomachs and the intestines of one sheep. Throw in some minced meat, chickpeas, rice and spices and you’ve got yourself a party, Iraq-style.
Surprisingly I got through the ingredients list without gagging; it was when I read the cooking directions that I became a little queasy. The very first thing you must do is: “Ask the butcher to clean the sheep’s head.” (Don’t try this at home!) From there you must cut the intestines, stuff them–ditto with the stomachs–and boil the whole mess in a massive pot. Doesn’t sound like it would smell very good, let alone taste good. But the second to last directive made me chuckle: “Serve on flat bread with lemon wedges.” (Yes, indeed, don’t forget the lemon wedges, as if a little squirt could mask the fact that you’re eating sheep guts!)
O’Donnell’s reporting is certainly thorough as she saw much of the action firsthand; she witnessed the looting and the initial invasion by U.S. forces into Mosul. These chapters can get bogged down and confusing–again, give me a good documentary any day–but I suppose that for those on the front lines, that’s exactly how it feels. The only other complaint I have is that there is no context provided with the photos that appear throughout. No IDs, no information at all. Otherwise, this is a powerfully engaging story of two women with families, trying to lead as normal a life as possible in circumstances that would have sent most of us packing long before they ever set out to escape.
“The true story of two Englishwomen in war-torn Iraq” is the subtitle of this fascinating and often poignant narrative. It’s another excellent book that seeks to tell a personal story from inside a conflict zone, and in the process forces its readers to see the realities of war for everyday people.
While covering the Iraq war in 2003, Australian journalist O’Donnell stumbled across two ordinary Englishwomen who had extraordinary stories to tell. Pauline and Margaret, from Lancashire and Durham respectively, each moved to Iraq from their native England with their Iraqi-raised and English-educated husbands about three decades before O’Donnell met them for the first time.
“Pauline and Margaret came to call this country home in similar ways,” says O’Donnell, “meeting and falling in love with Iraqi men who were studying in … England in the 1970s. In those days, Iraq was among the wealthiest and most modern of the Middle Eastern states.” From cross-cultural meetings of minds in industrial England to the women’s nervousness about acceptance by their husbands’ extended families and ancient traditions, O’Donnell tells the women’s stories with care and meticulous detail, integrating interview-style pages and a little drama with straight narrative.
It’s the details that make the book. While Pauline and Margaret both expected cultural differences and traditions, little things like the inability to find good potatoes — a staple of the English diet — never crossed their minds. O’Donnell uses her journalistic and research skills to their fullest in this book, taking her time to tell the women’s stories, including their thoughts and opinions about the choices they made and the challenges they faced.
They both claimed luck as being on their side in initially adjusting to life in Iraq: the marriages of many of their Western friends failed, sometimes because the men changed when they returned to Iraq, reverting to stricter, religious-dictated traditions, sometimes because the family wouldn’t accept the newcomers, and sometimes because the women simply found the differences in habits, expectations, and little things like plumbing too hard to adapt to.
Pauline and Margaret’s candid tales of their lives under Saddam Hussein can do much to re-balance the world’s view that Iraqi life pre-US invasion was always stunted at best and horrifying at worst. Their honesty refuses to gloss over life in a dictatorship, but it also refuses to magnify its personal effect on them. But Pauline and Margaret are only part of the story.
Given equal weight is Mosul itself — a city often overlooked in the daily updates from war-torn Iraq — and the impact of war on its population. From Biblical days through the Ottoman empire, to the wealth of oil and the rule of Saddam Hussein, and finally through the appallingly short-sighted mistakes made by the US occupation, O’Donnell presents a city that is beautiful, proud, rich in ancient tradition and culture, educated, and finally almost completely destroyed by war.
For centuries Mosul was a center of religious culture in the Ottoman empire. Its growth and stability was often threatened, but never destroyed, by power struggles and invasions. During the 1980s and into the 1990s it grew into a modern city until, like most of Iraq, its basic supply chains were crippled by economic sanctions. But it wasn’t until 2003, post-invasion, that power lines were consistently cut, hospitals and schools closed, and professionals fled the city in droves, leaving a frightened and helpless population.
Like much of the country, Mosul had fallen not to a foreign power, but to a vacuum that gangs and religious fanatics rushed to fill. Kidnappings, especially of professionals and their families, became common, as did execution and extortion. As of the book’s end in 2006, Pauline and Margaret had both left, and the city had little to hope for.
O’Donnell’s journalistic tone sometimes halts the flow of High Tea in Mosul’s narrative, but her expertise becomes invaluable when chronicling the descent of Mosul into anarchy and violence following her initial visit in 2003. She’s an outsider, and so can’t give Mosul life the depth and richness that a native or long-term ex-pat could, but the native couldn’t untangle the mess that followed occupation as well as this clearsighted journalist did.
And she uses insiders’ knowledge to make some sense of the situation: “‘The governments in the West, in London and Washington, thought it would be just like Desert Storm, quick and easy and all over in no time,’ Pauline said as she looked back on how the debacle developed. ‘Everyone in Iraq knew it would end up like this, with people coming from abroad to exploit the chaos, and people here fighting each other … Everyone here could see it. … Those who wanted to come back from overseas and become the new government couldn’t see it because they didn’t understand the nature of the people, they’d been gone for so long and didn’t know what Saddam had made of people here, how they hated him, hated each other, hated themselves. … It was people who didn’t know taking advice from people who didn’t know.’”
O’Donnell watches the deterioration of the city and people’s lives from a distance, but she can’t help inserting a personal note of anger and despair. In the end, she, like any native, is left asking only ‘why’: “Like most Moslawis, Saleh and Khalid [Pauline’s neighbors, vegetable sellers anonymously warned to stop buying vegetables in a nearby town or face death, no reason given] have left the dictatorship of Saddam behind, wishing it good riddance. But now they live in a society terrorized by the anonymous, for reasons they cannot be sure of. … Every second of every day entails precaution and forethought. … Today the people of Mosul are yoked by another tyranny, but this one goes by the name of freedom.”
They arrived with a suitcase in their hands, with the men they’d fallen in love with. It was to a land they’d soon grow to love. It was a journey, they hadn’t quite imagined. There were no potatoes. Unthinkable. Like so many others, they were journey women. Is it an ordinary story?
Not when you put two Englishwomen in an Iraqi landscape, one that in the years to come would be marred by war, violence and conflict.
Pauline and Margaret’s journey into this world began when they fell in love, got married and followed their Iraqi husbands back to Mosul, which was their home for almost 30 years when journalist Lynne O’Donnell met them.
It started with a High Tea, served with love, hope, anticipation. It blossomed into a friendship, sounds familiar? Then like a true friend, Lynne narrates this story that could have easily run the risk of being a mushy surviving the war tale with the deepest conviction.
She goes all out to protect the identity of one of her characters and that of her family because freedom has meant “Iraq is no longer a safe place to live.”
With the access she has, Lynne takes you into their world, a world that sounds so much like yours and mine: “Sometimes they would make cakes, whatever was their speciality…and they’d brew pot after pot of tea while they bellyached, and moaned and gossiped, and laughed…and play Scrabble, drink coffee and reminisce. And at the end of the afternoon, they’d go back to their own homes, in time for their children to come in from school, to get them started on homework…knowing that no matter how tough things got or how lonely they sometimes felt, they weren’t alone; they had friends who saw things the same way they did, who would look out for them, who loved them. And so, for a little while every now and then at least, the burden of being a foreign wife had been eased and everything felt better.”
It is details like these, it is in those fleeting moments of normalcy captured in a time when everything else is falling apart, that make High Tea in Mosul stand out. The war changes everything, death threats, kidnappings, ransoms, movements curtailed and the final straw inflicted by the Operation Iraqi Freedom-all of this is evocatively captured.
Lynne was among the first Western journalists to enter Mosul after it fell to US troops in April, 2003, and she takes you through the most sweeping changes there through this story.
It’s impossible not to love it. Her characters are strong, they are resilient and they teach you almost everything there is to life along the way: “I do not regret anything. Life is what you make of it. You have good and bad experiences and you learn from both. I think regret is a wasted emotion.”
If you think that resonates, then go ahead, read the book and don’t leave without heading to the High Tea in Mosul blog, http://www.highteainmosul.com/blog/, where the most recent entry in the Dohuk Diaries tells you that potatoes are back. Life does come full circle, slowly but surely.
“Journalist and foreign correspondent O’Donnell dexterously combines the tumultuous accounts of two Englishwomen living in Iraq with first-person narratives to create an impartial tale about life in Mosul, a mixed-religion city northwest of Baghdad. In the late 1970s, Pauline and Margaret, the British wives of an Iraqi heart specialist and future Mosul University president, respectively, assimilated into daily Middle Eastern life by learning to adapt to overbearing extended families, complying (or not) with secular rules and dejectedly tolerating meals of mutton. By degrees, over the next two decades, Saddam’s iron hand tightened; Iran and Kuwait were invaded, while censorship, food rationing and international sanctions ensued. In 2003, Mosul crumbles, and the lives of these Englishwomen become attuned to air raids, bombs and the shudder of explosions. O’Donnell’s emotional narrative examines Iraqi life in its entirety and shows that there is more to the country than violence and war. She chronicles friendship and family with stories about everyday life. A thorough look into Iraqi’s past and present, O’Donnell’s tale adds a human element to the developing history of a turbulent nation. (Aug.)
“Today I sat on the floor of my garage with my children and little dog and cried openly for the people of Iraq.” So reads the diary entry of “Pauline Basheer” for April 5, 2003, the 17th day of the second Gulf War.
Pauline was not watching the events unfold on the television, as we were. The wife of an Iraqi man, she was living through the terror of daily air-raids and heavy fighting in the city of Mosul.
Pauline, from Lancashire, had been in Mosul for 30 years. Together with her doctor husband, Ali, she had two children Noor, 21, and Jamal, 18. Pauline’s friend, Margaret, was from Durham. She had been married to Zahair for nearly three decades, and had four children, including twin boys.
Both had met and fallen in love with men studying in the industrial north of England in the 1970s. Romance was to lead them to move to Iraq, at first enjoying life in their husbands’ homeland. Later the idyll was to turn to nightmare as Iraq descended into fear and oppression under the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein, the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war, the First Gulf War followed by poverty caused by sanctions, and finally the total anarchy of the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
It was during this second war, as the northern cities were falling, that journalist Lynne O’Donnell first met these two British expats. Collective insanity had gripped the city of Mosul. Two ordinary British women who had traveled across deep cultural divides to create stable, loyal marriages, and who had lived through the excesses of Saddam’s regime now faced living in a place where all semblance of normality has ceased to exist. The city had experienced decades of dictatorship, deprivation and dread. Now it was to experience death.
In this deeply moving, and very human tale, we follow three decades of the history of Iraq from the viewpoint of two foreign women who lived through it, determined to be good wives and mothers, and courageously trying to give their families a normal life. It is a tale that will strike a chord with every woman in a cross-cultural marriage, and that will give answers to everyone who asks what it has been like for ordinary people facing the extraordinary circumstances in that land.
Pauline had met Ali at a dance at Burnley General Hospital in 1977. He soon qualified as a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians as a heart specialist. Margaret met Zahair in 1971 when he was studying zoology, on an Iraqi government scholarship.
When Zahair left Iraq to go to university his mother, in an interesting role-reversal of the Western lady moving to work in the Middle East, warned him “Don’t go marrying a foreigner.” He wasn’t allowed to, anyway, as this was a condition of his scholarship and the law banned him from employment for a few years after graduating if he did. So Margaret and he could not marry until 1976.
When new bride Pauline saw Mosul for the first time she was shocked by the poverty and wondered if she had made a mistake. Life was lived as it had been through the centuries, in a rural setting, moving to the rhythm of the seasons. But their car was welcomed by a crowd of relatives, clapping and singing — the women and children kept hugging and kissing her: “From that moment on I knew it would be all right.”
Unconditional love and support were the greatest assets the two women had for married life. Patience and understanding from their husbands provided them with a solid platform from which to negotiate the strange customs and expectations. Pauline had married into a community of Kurdish farmers, Margaret’s new family were comfortably off Arab intellectuals. Pauline’s Ali resisted his family’s desire to change how his British wife dressed. Margaret’s Zahair was secular and liberal in his outlook. The unwavering respect each man has for his wife as an individual was fundamental to the enduring success of these marriages, when many cross-cultural marriages they saw failed.
Life as a foreign bride in Mosul had its highs and lows. Struggles with adjusting to having to be accompanied by male relatives when they went out, the only TV programs being Ba’ath party political party broadcasts, having relatives drop in at all hours and treat the house as their own were offset by the joys of picnics until 2:00 a.m. along the banks of the Tigris and spending monthly savings on a copy of “Women’s Own” magazine!
But this is more than just a history of two marriages. It is a history of the country that these two British ladies grew to love and call home. Saddam Hussein rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s the West supported him in the Iran-Iraq war. Foreign residents had to take Iraqi citizenship or leave, English was banned in schools, ordinary people were forced to give their savings for the war effort, and men of all ages were drafted to the front in rotation. In the 1990s Iraq slipped into Third World levels of poverty, as the UN’s oil for food program benefited only smugglers and extortionists, and people of all classes were forced to line up for monthly rations of everything from soap to flour.
During this period the ladies learned discretion and political correctness to survive. At home they had to very careful not to let their young children hear them say anything against Saddam — many nursery school teachers would be spies. Any sort of grumble was anti-government sentiment, so had to be bottled up. The only time they could let down their hair was at high tea with other foreign women: “And so, for a little while every now and again, the burden of being a foreign wife in Iraq had eased and everything felt better.”
By 2003 two generations of Iraqis had known only oppression and violence that were the monopoly of Saddam’s state; a generation had known only war. Most foreigners had left. Then guerilla warfare followed the fall of Saddam.
For both Pauline and Margaret, who had stayed during the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war, who had suffered the shortages of the sanction-period, and who had protected their children through the anti-Western sentiment of the First Gulf War, life now became unbearable. As a university dean, Zahair had by necessity been a member of the Ba’ath party. Now a witch hunt ensues, and in order to find the safe future she wanted for her family Margaret had first to accompany them on one of the most dangerous road trips in the world: across Iraq to Jordan. Pauline’s husband stays at his post for years after colleagues deserted, but they too flee after a kidnapping threat. Whereas Margaret and Zahair sought safety abroad, Pauline and Ali escape to Dohuk, a peaceful town further north in Iraq. Both make the astounding statement: “I arrived with two suitcases, and 30 years later I left with two suitcases.”
Poignant and well-written, often tragic, never excusing the failings of the Western powers, and always insightful, this story is the human face of the headlines concerning Iraq. What is the first thing Pauline asks Lynne when they meet in war-torn Mosul: “Would you mind if I used your phone to call my mother? I haven’t been able to get in touch with her. I just want to tell her we’re all right.” And when the satellite-phone carrying journalist is introduced to Margaret, a phone call to her relatives is similarly priority: “It’s not as bad as it looks on the telly, love.”
Like many foreigners in the 1970s, two British women went to live in Iraq as wives of Iraqi men. What happened under Saddam Hussein’s rule, the war and the aftermath, is seen through their eyes in a book by journalist Lynne O’Donnell. She talks to Women’s Editor Sarah Foster.
The words are simple and straightforward, without the politician’s spin or the clever angle of the journalist. They come from Pauline Basheer’s journal and in their crudeness and their honesty, express the horror of attack with startling eloquence.
“The worst day so far,” declares the entry for April 5, 2003 — day 17 of the second Gulf war. “From 1.30pm until 7pm bombing with cruise missiles near my house. Today I thought that my time had come. I sat
on the floor of my garage with my children and little dog and cried openly for the people of Iraq.
“What we have done to deserve this I cannot imagine. We are very frightened and if I live through this I will sue somebody for this suffering we have had to endure. I just want my Hershey Bar — they
say when you get a Hershey Bar the war is over.”
This moving passage appears in Lynne O’Donnell’s book, High Tea in Mosul, which charts conditions in the city as seen through Western women’s eyes. As well as Pauline, who comes from Lancashire, she features Margaret Al-Sharook, who is originally from Consett. That she encountered them at all was a surprise.
“When I met the women in Iraq I was with the Irish Times covering the war,” says the veteran journalist, who’s also worked for The Times and the Wall Street Journal. “It was completely serendipitous. I was going
to the hospital to find out what was going on in Mosul at the time and the doctor there said ‘would you like to meet my wife?’ and I said ‘yes, of course I would’, and there was Pauline sitting in a big billowing dress. It was such a great surprise because I didn’t expect to meet anyone from anywhere other than Iraq.”
Yet while the meeting was a shock, in the 1970s, with government schemes to send its students overseas, some met and married foreign women, who then accompanied them back home. That few chose to stay is unsurprising — as well as leading Arab lives, they had to cope with the privations that went with Saddam’s rule — and yet despite the daily trials, some did adapt. The women in Mosul, in the North, would
take high tea, when they would air their moans and take comfort from each other.
“The women who sat around the high tea tables came from England and Wales, Germany and Ireland, America and Sweden,” writes Lynne. “They complained that they couldn’t go shopping by themselves; that their relatives wanted them to wear headscarves; that their husbands were retreating into their religion; that they couldn’t find Oxo cubes or decent potatoes…
“They would laugh about their own shortcomings, sometimes they would make cakes, and they’d brew pot after pot of tea while they bellyached and gossiped and laughed. And at the end of the afternoon, they’d go
back to their own homes knowing that no matter how tough things got or how lonely they sometimes felt, they weren’t alone.”
At least in Pauline’s and Margaret’s cases, they married into loving families. They’d met their husbands, Ali and Nassir, while both were studying in the UK, and Margaret travelled to Iraq with her possessions in a caravan. The scenes she saw on that trip are told vividly in the book. “The landscape is dizzying — much of it is flat and expansive, covered in rubble that, to one gazing out of the window of a speeding car, appears to move in eddying swirls,” writes Lynne of the Kurdish region.
When Margaret reached her destination, she found an overwhelming welcome. “All the family were there, they had their cars and they were tooting their horns and clapping and singing — all the men and the
children came up to greet us and welcome us home,” she tells Lynne. “Luma, Nassir’s youngest sister, was there at Dohuk. I remember she took my hand, and that was it. That was it.”
Yet by the time the war broke out, life had begun a downward spiral. Iraq was living under sanctions and what was meant to ease its suffering — the oil for food programme — was ineffective and corrupt. When Lynne arrived at Pauline’s house for a home-cooked meal she was appalled by what she saw.
“I’d been living in a hotel, then I went into her home and saw the way they were living and the food they had to eat and it was very shocking and humbling,” she says. “I was expecting to have a fabulous
home-cooked meal and it was worse than anything I could have expected.”
The war brought Mosul to a standstill and as in any kind of conflict, it was the innocent who suffered. As Lynne points out, the British women were no different from the rest. “That’s what the book is all about — it’s trying to give a perspective from an ordinary Iraqi point of view because these women experienced whatever Iraqi people experienced,” she says. “They can provide a perspective that we can understand because they come from where we come from.”
As has been widely documented, the formal ending of hostilities, on
May 1, 2003, gave way to chaos—a situation that remains. While
violence raged throughout the streets, with different factions seeking
power, Pauline and Margaret stayed indoors, becoming prisoners in
their homes. At last they couldn’t bear to stay — a threat of kidnap
frightened Pauline and Margaret’s husband, a faithful member of
Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, now found himself without a job. Each left the
land she’d grown to love, with Pauline settling in Dohuk, a Kurdish
town where she and Ali live in peace, and Margaret moving with her
family back to England.
When Lynne reflects on the two women, and just how much they have
endured, she is aggrieved by the injustice. “They were quite happy to
stay in Iraq for the rest of their lives and it was all derailed by
the war and the occupation,” she says pointedly. “There they are, in
their mid-50s, having to start again and nobody should have to do
She paints a picture of Iraq that seems devoid of any hope. “My
impression is that it’s completely lawless — if you go into Mosul,
you’re taking your life in your hands,” says Lynne. “I think it’s easy
to say we shouldn’t have gone into Iraq but that doesn’t matter any
more. Where do we go from here is a very profound question, and I just don’t know how to answer it because it’s one of basic humanity. There has to be a way — and I’m not sure this is possible in the short term — of making people realise that killing each other is
To many people in the outside world, Iraq conjures visions of death and destruction generated by roving gangs of armed men, be they guerillas or coalition forces. So when ordinary Iraqis make headlines these days, it’s usually as a suicide-bomb body count.
What then, of the man in the souk and – more poignantly – the woman in the veil? The Irish Times’ war correspondent Lynne O’Donnell befriended two women while covering hostilities in the northern city of Mosul, best known as the place where Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay died in a hail of bullets in July 2003. Unusually, the women – Pauline (a pseudonym) and Elizabeth – were both English, had married Iraqis they met in Britain and left their native land to set up home and raise families, despite any misgivings they might have had about living under a totalitarian regime.
High Tea in Mosul is their story. Or rather, it’s part of their story. O’Donnell admits that the women – particularly Elizabeth – maintained a certain reserve while talking to her. As women in a male-dominated society that became increasingly Islamicised during their marriages, their lives were chiefly concerned with running the home and bringing up the children. The more remarkable events that take place in a traditional Iraqi family are sketched only briefly, such as the time one of Pauline’s cousins by marriage – thwarted in his choice of bride – formed a posse of relatives and subjected his previously intended’s house to a fusillade of rifle fire. Pauline’s only recorded comment is that her husband’s family ‘like trouble all right’, leaving the reader longing to know more.
Somewhat short of biographical material, O’Donnell compensates with political and historical backgrounders, and international media reports, while making her own trenchant views on the presidents Bush and their bellicose ambitions in the Middle East abundantly clear. All of which makes for excellent reading, but diverges somewhat from the tale of two Iraqi-wed Brit lasses. A chapter is given over to Pauline’s war diary – time mainly spent sheltering from air raids, praying, and missing her English relatives – but it’s really after the ‘war of liberation’ that the enormity of the devastation that has been forced on Iraq hits home.
Elizabeth’s husband, a hospital administrator and member of the ruling Ba’ath Party, loses his car to looters and then his job in the new, American-induced era of political correctness. Mosul descends into mayhem, as both terrorists and gangsters wreak havoc – bombing, kidnapping and extorting money from anyone they assume to be wealthy. American soldiers storm Pauline’s house to use it as an observation post, breaking down the front gate to gain access. Finally, both families flee, Elizabeth to London and Pauline to the relative safety of the Kurdish boomtown of Dohuk.
High Tea highlights what happened to the ordinary people who lived in Iraq, and who suffered grievously through no fault of their own. On March 23, 2003, Pauline wrote in her diary: ‘We see the pictures of Baghdad [on TV] … It’s an utter disgrace to see such suffering and devastation. Someone should drop a couple of these bombs on the children of Bush and Blair and see how they would like it.’ Sadly, the sights of the incumbents of Downing Street and the White House are set on what they might regard as rather loftier objectives.