A local writer, Jan Keating, has released a book that details the story of a Weyburn woman, Sarah Powell, and her life in Baghdad, Iraq, including being married to that country’s prime minister.
The COVID lockdown helped Keating to bear down and write her second book, which is entitled, “A Prairie Girl Living in Baghdad”, which is now available at Amazon.ca.
She first was interested in Sarah’s story in 2010, when she and an artist friend, Janis Eaglesham (daughter of Dr. Fergus and Isabelle Eaglesham) collaborated on an art show at the Allie Griffin Art Gallery, and one of her paintings was of the Powell house.
The house is located not far from the Eaglesham house on Fourth Street, and was home to the Powell family. Harvey O. Powell had moved to Weyburn early in the town’s history as the first general manager of the Weyburn Security Bank, now the home of the CIBC bank branch downtown. Sarah was the only one of the six Powell children to be born in Weyburn, in 1908.
“The reason I wanted to write about Sarah is because I was very intrigued by a young prairie woman who had the courage to move far from home and family to Iraq for the sake of love. A move such as this in the early 1930s was significant,” said Keating.
She found out that Sarah had gone to the U.S. to university, and there met an Arab Muslim man, Dr. Mohamed Fadhel al-Jamali, and fell in love with him. In 1933 she married him and moved with him to Iraq, where he was the Director General of Education. Later he became Director General of Foreign Affairs before finally becoming Prime Minister of Iraq.
“He was very high profile in Iraq, very progressive and way ahead of other men of his generation,” said Keating.
“I was moved by the strength of this woman from her early years through to her final days. She endured many hardships along the way and yet, she managed to keep going,” she said. “I like to think that her early life in our home town of Weyburn had a little to do with her grit and guts to carry forth when things got tough. I wanted the people of Weyburn to have an opportunity to learn about Sarah’s life.”
Sarah and her husband had three children, the oldest a son who contracted encephalitis, and his mental development was arrested at the age of five.
“She was very highly educated, and was the head of English at the university in Baghdad,” noted Keating, and Sarah had to balance this career with raising three sons as well as handling her husband’s career as he rose in the government.
Part of the challenge, said Keating, is there was no place in the Middle East to handle a child with the health issues her son had. Sarah went on to write a book about her experiences, and Keating spent a long time trying to get a copy of her book.
At first, Keating had no interest in writing about Sarah’s life, as she wasn’t a writer. She hoped maybe a play could be written based on Sarah’s life for a community theatre group in Weyburn, but she couldn’t find anyone who was able or interested in writing such a play.
Fast forwarding to the present, Keating had just written her first book, “A Normal Boy: Living in an Asylum”, based on a story she was aware of from Weyburn’s Mental Hospital in the 1930s.
Not long after she released this first book, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and lockdowns were in place, so Keating had a lot of time on her hands — and she revived her interest in Sarah Powell’s story.
She at first thought she would write a fictionalized story based on the Powell story, but she was able to make contact with Sarah’s other two sons, Usameh, who lives in Kuwait, and Abbas Jamali, who lives in Jordan. She was able to have video chats with the sons, and with two of Abbas’ daughters.
She also found a Powell relative, Betsy Powell-Polglase, who had done extensive genealogical research on the family, and also found a woman in Scotland, a personal friend of the Powell family who had a copy of Sarah’s book.
Sarah’s two sons were able to provide a lot of inside information about their mother and their life in Iraq, and helped Keating as she put her book together, ensuring that the facts about the family were correct in their details.
Once Keating has copies of her book in hand, she is hoping to present one to the current resident of the Powell house. She was surprised to learn that the Powell house was not included in the latest virtual version of the Crocus Tour, after it had been a part of the tour since its inception, along with the Eaglesham house and the Moffet house, all on Fourth Street South.
“The Powell house is a beautiful and well deserving of its place on the Crocus Tour as a historical interest. However, the house is just a house until you know the story of the family that lived in it,” said Keating, adding the hope that Weyburn residents will learn the story about Sarah Powell through her book.