Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Jasmine Nights includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Julia Gregson. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Saba Tarcan is a talented but naïve young singer stuck in Tiger Bay in Cardiff, while World War II rages on around her. So when she is offered a position with Entertainments National Service Association’s traveling group to sing for the troops behind enemy lines, she jumps at the chance. She leaves her overprotective family and a budding romance with Dom—a young fighter pilot she met in a hospital where he was recovering from a near-fatal crash—behind.
But Saba is never far from Dom’s mind. When he is transferred to the Desert Air Force, the two are reunited. Yet starting where they left off proves difficult: Saba has been recruited to spy on the Nazi elite, while Dom is flying increasingly treacherous missions. Set in the most exquisite cities of the Middle East during one of the most dangerous eras of world history, Jasmine Nights is a story of intrigue, heart-pounding encounters, and ultimately of the sacrifices made for love.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. When Dom first watches Saba perform at Queen Victoria Hospital, he sees her as “half imp, half angel.” (p. 12) Do you agree with Dom’s description? Do you think Saba truly has a dual nature? How is she different from the other women Dom has encountered before? Why is she different?
2. After he is shot down, Dom realizes how lucky he was to survive the crash. Why does Dom feel guilty about surviving? How does the crash change Dom?
3. Compare Saba’s love for singing to Dom’s passion for flying. How do Saba and Dom feel similarly about these passions? How do they feel differently? When do they bond over their separate callings and when do their careers cause a rift in their relationship?
4. Discuss the theme of working women in Jasmine Nights. How has the war changed the lives of Saba, Arleta, and Mrs. Tarcan? How do their fathers, husbands, and boyfriends react to their new professions brought on by the war?
5. Consider the introductions of key characters like Arleta (p. 56) and Dermot Cleeve (p. 111), as well as key events, the first time Saba sang in front of Ozan and the first dinner Saba and Dom shared (p. 215). Do you find any similarities in these descriptions? How does the jasmine flower weave its way into the narrative of the novel?
6. Compare where Dom and Saba came from and the kind of households they grew up in. What do Saba and Dom learn about marriage from their parents? What regrets do Saba and Dom’s mothers hold? How do Saba and Dom try to live and love differently than their parents?
7. Reread Saba’s letters to her father on pages 53, 126, and 195. Why do you think Saba’s father reacted so harshly to her leaving? What was his motivation? Is it pride? Control? Jealousy? Do you think they ever reconcile? Why or why not? Consider what Mr. Ozan’s wife, Leyla, tells Saba on page 369 in your response.
8. “Arleta was everything your mother had warned you never to be, the perfect mixture of damage and glamour, and men adored her for it.” (p. 146) Consider Arleta and Saba’s friendship. Why are they so drawn to each other? Were you surprised when you learned that Arleta had a son?
9. When Max Bagley hears Saba sing, he says, “But the problem for me is I’m not getting you. Not yet.” (p. 168) Discuss how Saba’s singing and performances change over the course of Jasmine Nights. How does she react to Bagley’s criticism? What does she learn from her lessons with Faiza?
10. Dom’s mother warns her son about Saba: “If she’s like that, her life will be as important as yours. You will have to understand this and it will be very, very hard for you.” (p. 187) Do you think Dom’s mother sees something of her former self in Saba? Why or why not?
11. As Dom falls in love with Saba, he realizes: “With her, he would have to fly blind.” (p. 187) How much does Dom know about Saba at the beginning of their relationship? What leaps of faith must he take in order to be with her? What sacrifices?
12. Saba sings in a number of settings—from gloomy hospitals to smoky back rooms to outdoor pavilions. Which of Saba’s performances was most memorable? Why?
13. “Part of her knew she wasn’t a natural spy.” (p. 371). In what ways is Saba a “natural spy”? When do her espionage skills falter? What are the costs of her decision to spy for her country?
14. “In certain lights, Severin’s ascetic face looked both innocent and lost…It was confusing to know that if he hadn’t been German she would definitely have talked to him, had fun with him; become, at the very least, friends.” (p. 410) What are your reactions to this passage after knowing what transpires later in that night and between Severin and Saba?
15. After being rescued by a traveling tribe of goat herders, Dom reflects: “He already felt ashamed of the man he’d been who’d first come to North Africa…who’d looked at people like these from the air, and seen tiny toy-like figures moving their animals around. They’d given up their land for foreign soldiers to fight in and he’d barely spared them a thought.” (p. 484). Did this passage make you think differently about Dom’s character? About the war? Compare the description of Ozan’s house on page 276 to the description of life among the nomads. What does the war mean to Ozan? To Dom? To Karim and his family?
16. Consider the role jealousy plays in Saba and Dom’s relationship. How does Saba react when she sees Dom talking to Jacko’s former girlfriend on their first date? How does Dom handle his feelings of envy when he sees Saba perform for the troops?
17. Dom and Saba keep secrets from each other—Dom never tells her how Jacko died and Saba never discusses what happened with Severin. Why do they keep these silences from each other? Would sharing these secrets draw them closer together or further apart?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Create a playlist for your book club discussion inspired by Jasmine Nights. Download or stream some of the songs that Saba sings in the book, like: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “My Funny Valentine,” “All the Things You Are,” “Get Happy,” “Strange Fruit,” “Over the Rainbow,” and “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.”
2. Listen to an NPR radio segment about Umm Kulthum, titled “‘The Lady of’ Cairo” that features audio and video clips of the legendary singer’s performances with your book club at www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124612595.
3. Set the scene for your meeting with the smell of jasmine and by cooking Middle Eastern snacks. Serve pita triangles with any of these simple mezze or small dishes: www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2007/jun/24/foodanddrink.features3. If fresh jasmine is not available, light a jasmine-scented candle to summon the mood of the Middle East.
4. Take a virtual tour of Alexandria, the “Pearl of the Mediterranean.” Take in the the city’s sites and learn about its incredible history here: www.egypt.travel/city/index/alexandria.
A Conversation with Julia Gregson
Readers can sense the depth of research that went into Jasmine Nights—from the setting to the songs Saba so passionately sang. How did you gain so much knowledge about the history and culture of the Middle East? Did you visit any of the cities described in Jasmine Nights?
One of the deep pleasures of writing a book like this is the research trips. I’d been to Turkey before, to research my first book, Band of Angels, but this time I travelled on my own. First stop was Istanbul, a fabulous city. I stayed in the oldest hotel I could find—a beautiful old wooden Ottoman building not far from the Bosphorus. I found a guide who knew the city well; most helpful of all, I made friends with a well-known Turkish singer, Sema, who sings many of the famous songs of the forties. She took me to a Russian restaurant where over dinner she explained the complexities of being a female singer in Turkey and the Middle East. I went to her concerts. On other days, I wandered around alone, discovering the shores of the Bosphorus, or poking around alleyways looking at shops, markets, people, all senses on red alert, which is why I love this kind of travel, you are looking not just for information, but for smells, sights, feelings.
I took a second trip to Egypt, to Cairo, and then a boat trip up the Nile on a thirties paddle steamer, one of the loveliest experiences of my life.
Further back, Jasmine Nights came from the two years I spent as a teenager in the Middle East, on the island of Cyprus. My father, who was in the Air Force, was posted there. It was in Cyprus—I’ve only just thought of this—I kissed my first boy in a garden full of the scents jasmine. Going back to a freezing boarding school in England was always a dreadful shock to the system. My friends say that the “research trips” they always put in inverted commas are simply excuses for a damn good holiday, but they are essentially teasing me. You have to feel, smell and see the places you are writing about.
Was it common for entertainers to serve as spies during World War II? Did you come across any true stories of espionage that inspired Saba’s story?
Female entertainers were an essential part of espionage for both the Germans and the Allies. Josephine Baker was perhaps the most famous. Apart from being the first African American to star in a major motion picture, she worked during World War II as an unofficial spy. She had moved to France, was married to a Jew, and was regarded by the French Resistance as extremely useful—she could travel widely, and mingle without comment with high society in both France and North Africa.
In Cairo, Hekmet Fahmy, a famous belly dancer, was a spy. Her glamorous houseboat on the Nile was the scene of many parties, where she used her charms to extract secrets from the English and pass them on to the Germans.
The Syrian Druze singer, Asmahan, was said to have done vital espionage work for the British. Her job was to inform her people that the Free French and the British would be invading Syria through their territory and to persuade them not to fight. In return, the British and the Free French promised the independence of Syria and Lebanon on the day of the invasion.
The famous British explorer and travel writer, Freya Stark, was also fluent in Arabic, and a fixture of the Cairo social scene. She joined the Ministry of Information, and created an important propaganda network, which aimed to persuade Arabs to either remain neutral or support the Allies.
Saba, Arleta, and the other female characters find new, professional opportunities during the war. Do you see similarities between women’s careers during World War II and the working women of today?
The big difference is that during the war women were allowed to work, today we expect to. During WWII, my own mother joined the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce and worked at Fighter Command, a job she found both liberating and frightening. To be suddenly allowed the kind of freedom and expanded horizons we now take for granted took a lot of women by surprise. The genie was out of the bottle. After the war it shocked many women to realize that this period of their lives was over. Full stop. Their life’s work now was to be in the house or raising children.
The magic of wartime music comes alive in Jasmine Nights. Did you find it challenging to depict the sounds and emotions of music in words? Did you listen to any particular songs while writing?
I listened to all kinds of music while writing Jasmine Nights. Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald, Umm Kulthum, Sema, Vera Lynne, Asmahan. The particular songs that will stay with me are “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Deep Purple,” also, Sema’s album of Turkish favorites, Ekho, which I heard in Istanbul.
What inspired you to write about the wartime heroics of the Desert Air Force? Did you learn about the pilots and planes of World War II?
My late father was a Battle of Britain pilot. Before he was 23 years old, he’d been shot down three times. The last time, he hung burning in a tree for 20 minutes before he was rescued and taken to hospital where he stayed for a year. He rarely talked about his experiences, and I regret not asking him more. Dom is not my father, but parts of this book are quite definitely attempts to talk to my Pa from beyond the grave if that makes any sense! I always feel if he’d had a son he would have made a better job of it, or at least asked him more. Dilip Sarkar, an aviation historian, helped with the intricacies of airplanes, slang, uniforms squadrons and so on.
A chapter set in Saba and Dom’s room in Alexandria begins: “There are rooms you know you won’t forget; they are like songs that are part of you.” (p. 304) Are there rooms and songs that feel like part of your own identity?
There’s nothing like “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” to make me feel eight years old again. “Moon River” returns me to a balcony overlooking the sea—my first party in Cyprus—the kiss, the Jasmine blossom came later. Otis Redding’s “My Girl”—the soundtrack for my first love. Tom Jones, “It’s Not Unusual”—don’t get me started. What about the songs you played obsessively when you broke up: Van Morrison’s “Madame George,” Bob Dylan’s “The Last Thing on My Mind.”
Rooms: a sunlit bedroom in Australia. A loft in New York with a resident mouse from the bakery next door. My kitchen now in Wales—oh, one could go on and on—it’s a surprisingly revealing question.
East of the Sun, your second novel is set in India, while Jasmine Nights spans much of the Middle Eastern region. How was the experience of writing these two settings different? How was it similar?
India is overwhelming in every way: its poverty, its richness, and its exuberant friendliness. The first time I went, for safety and for fun, with my husband and daughter. We went to Rajasthan and then took the tiny single-track train up to Simla where the last scenes of East of the Sun were set. The second time I deliberately went on my own to Mumbai in order to try and feel an echo of the terror my girls would feel at being adrift in such a chaotic foreign seeming city. The surprise was how friendly and warm the people were: by day two, I happily went out to eat on my own after dark, but I also, at times, felt frightened and foreign and out of my depth. It’s a country that asks a lot of you.
By contrast Turkey, even Cairo, felt more familiar to me, possibly because I’d been there as a child.
You have worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent. Were you as excited and awed by foreign travel as your character Saba when you first began traveling? Can you share a favorite memory from your travels abroad?
As an Air Force brat, we traveled from an early age constantly—good preparation for my later life as a foreign correspondent. My job in New York led to some unusual experiences: a week with Muhammad Ali in his training camp; an interview with the Great Train robber, Ronnie Biggs, in his prison cell in Brasilia; orphanages in Vietnam; homes for raped women in Bangladesh, but my favorite memory comes from a holiday I took with my husband in Morocco.
We were staying at a hotel on the edge of a walled town called, Taroudant. The hotel was lovely, but it felt isolated and insulated. Inside the city walls were bazaars and spicy alleyways, jugglers, and beggars.
I was walking into town alone one day when our maid stopped me. She told me she was going to the Hamman, the traditional ladies bath in the centre of town. She asked if I’d like to join her. My first flash was no way! What if I were robbed, or caught Moroccan ferukas? What would my husband say?
Half an hour later, I was stripped to my underwear and sitting in a gorgeous, scruffy high ceilinged room at the end of a long alleyway. About 50 Moroccan women sat with me, gossiping, washing themselves, their children’s hair, my hair. It was like a veil being drawn back on another life and I learned so much in that brief hour. One girl, who had worked as a nanny in London told me how much she pitied her Western boss: always so busy, no time for fun or relaxation, no aunties in the house. Another asked me if I’d like to do some break dancing afterwards to Michael Jackson! Another woman cried as she told me she’d recently lost her husband. The whole experience was so interesting, so real, so unexpectedly exhilarating. That night my husband and I went back to the girl’s house and met all her family. For me, I long for that moment in each country I go to, that moment when you think, ah! This is what it’s like.
Jasmine Nights does not have a typical happy ending—Saba and Dom quarrel about their respective professions up to the last chapter. Why did you keep these lovers in conflict to the very end?
I wanted to keep it real and not wrap it all up in a conventional saccharine ending. It was terribly hard for most people after the war to carry on being the person they were before it. My own parents struggled with this: a sense of real anti-climax: they were so poor, they hardly knew each other, and England was in the grips of rationing until way into the 1950s.
Also, I didn’t want Dom and Saba to settle too quickly for domesticity. They knew they were soul mates, that they were destined for each other, but both were unconventional too, and crucially had found work they were passionate about. Theirs was never going to be a stereotypical love story, and I wanted the ending to reflect this.
What are you working on now? Have you found another exotic setting for your next novel?
I’m working on another novel set in India, and the Far East. It’s set in 1947, shortly before Independence. Its principal character is a mixed race girl, and though it’s not a sequel to East of the Sun, some of the same characters appear.