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 (Cyan Books, 207 pages, $21.95) ...
... 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's head 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.