Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam

Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam

by Zainab Salbi, Laurie Becklund


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Zainab Salbi was eleven years old when her father was chosen to be Saddam Hussein's personal pilot and her family's life was grafted onto his. Her mother, the beautiful Alia, taught her daughter the skills she needed to survive. A plastic smile. Saying yes. Burying in boxes in her mind the horrors she glimpsed around her. "Learn to erase your memories," she instructed. "He can read eyes."

In this richly visual memoir, Salbi describes tyranny as she saw it - through the eyes of a privileged child, a rebellious teenager, a violated wife, and ultimately a public figure fighting to overcome the skill that once kept her alive: silence.

Between Two Worlds is a riveting quest for truth that deepens our understanding of the universal themes of power, fear, sexual subjugation, and the question one generation asks the one before it: How could you have let this happen to us?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781592402441
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/17/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,245,315
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.75(d)
Age Range: 18 - 14 Years

About the Author

Zainab Salbi is the founder and president of Women for Women International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing women of war and civil unrest with the resources to become self-sufficient citizens and promote peace. She holds degrees from George Mason University and the London School of Economics, and she has publicized her work widely in the media, including six appearances on Oprah.

Laurie Becklund is a Los Angeles journalist and author. A former Los Angeles Times reporter, she wrote the first story about Salbi in 1991, when Zainab was a young woman stranded in America after a failed marriage during the Gulf War.

Read an Excerpt



My mother grew up in a grand house, with a courtyard and sixteen rooms, on the Tigris River. The house belonged to my grandfather, who died before I was born. Mama inherited from him a modest fortune—a share of the house and his factories, a quantity of gold, and a family name that means something still. But the one physical object of his that I ever really cared about was a gold coin forged a thousand years ago by Abbasid caliphs who moved the political and cultural center of the Islamic empire from Damascus eastward to Baghdad. Baghdad yields its secrets reluctantly, to those who dig, and a friend of my grandfather's discovered a bag of the coins in the course of demolishing an old building. He gave three to my grandfather, who gave one to each of his three young daughters. Mama, the youngest, designed a frame for it in the shape of a small chain and wore it around her neck always. It had a dent on one edge I can still visualize because I so often wondered what sort of blow might have caused it.

She was a teacher when I was little and when she came home from school she would take a nap on the sofa. She had the gift of being able to fall asleep almost instantly, and she radiated utter peace as she slept. I would squeeze in next to her, take in the slightly sweaty smell of the classroom she brought home with her, and try to make my breaths match hers exactly. Between her full breasts lay the Abbasid coin. I remember breathing to the rise and fall of that ancient coin against her skin, its worn symbols gleaming softly in the afternoon light. I assumed I would wear it when I grew up and became, hopefully, as smart and beautiful as she was. Of course, I also assumed back then that Iraq would always be my home.

Though it is hard to imagine, given all that has happened since, growing up in Baghdad was for me probably not unlike growing up in an American suburb in the 1970s. I spent many hours driving around with my mother, running errands and shopping, driving to and from school, going to piano lessons, ballet lessons, swimming lessons, and just tagging along. She kept a busy social calendar then, and in the car was the place I got to spend time with her. She loved Baghdad—she was of Baghdad—and as we drove back and forth along the boulevards lined with palm trees heavy with dates, she would tell me a little about each neighborhood as we passed through it. I took in my city through the passenger-side window—old Baghdad with its dark arcaded souk where men hammered out copper and politics, and the new Baghdad with its cafes and Al-Mansour boutiques. What I learned of my heritage, as was true for almost everything else in the first nine years of my life, I learned through her.

We happened to be driving down the Fourteenth of Ramadan Street one day with Aunt Layla in July 1979 when an announcement came on the car radio saying that Ahmad Hassan Al-Bakr, the gray-haired man whose portrait had hung in all of my elementary school classrooms, was stepping down from the presidency in favor of his cousin, Vice President Saddam Hussein. Aunt Layla and my mother were in the front seat talking about the news, which seemed to make them ecstatically happy. I think they were giggling.

“That's the last we'll ever see of him!” Aunt Layla said.

“No . . . more . . . Aaaahmmo!” Mama whooped.

This puzzled me. Did they know the man who was going to be the new president? Was he an uncle—an amo? Was I related to him? If our uncle was the president, why would they be happy about not seeing him anymore? I didn't understand. I asked about this puzzling new development and got a clear directive from my mother.

“Some things aren't meant for little ears, honey,” she said over her shoulder. “Some things that enter one ear need to fly straight out the other. They need to be erased from your memory.”

I learned the concept of guided imagery at age nine and a half.

Mama's elliptical answer only made me more curious, of course, but I had a lot of time to myself in the backseat with two women as chatty as my mom and Aunt Layla in the front. So, as we drove, I practiced. I pictured this thought that they had just shot into my right ear as an arrow and tried to make it shoot straight out my left ear without leaving anything behind in my head. But each time I asked myself if the thought was still in my brain, it would pop right up again. I obviously didn't master this skill because I remember the whole scene quite clearly today, down to the route we were taking through the Khadhimiya district past the old shops selling twenty-four-karat gold that led to the mosque with the turquoise and gold dome. But, I wondered even then, if I managed to erase that thought from my brain, how could I tell?

Every instinct in me—survival, loyalty, anger, horror, resentment, guilt, and most of all, fear—conspires to prevent me from speaking Saddam Hussein's name out loud. The fact that I use his name now, acknowledge a personal connection to him at all, is for me a watershed no matter how trivial that might seem. He wasn't related to me or my family by blood, but some of my childhood and virtually all of my teenage weekends were merged with his nonetheless. I was taught to call him Amo and he treated me like a niece. Though it disturbs me, I can still reach back and conjure up a few fond memories of him. I would convict him of crimes against humanity without a second thought, but not because he singled me out for unkindness.

Technically, he was just my father's employer. My father was his pilot, a commercial airlines captain Saddam drafted to serve as his personal pilot in the early 1980s. When I was growing up in Iraq, people used to refer to me as the “pilot's daughter.” I hated that term. I still do. It stole from me my very identity, everything I wanted to be. It defined me in terms of my father and defined him, in turn, by his most infamous passenger: a despot millions of Iraqis feared. Had I stayed in Iraq, there are people who no doubt would be calling me that still, though my father stopped being his pilot many years ago and no longer flies. Instead, because of a chain of events Saddam Hussein set in motion, though I did not know it then, I found myself stranded in America by the Gulf War. That was the most painful time of my life. For very good reasons, I had come to trust no one, not even my mother. I had just turned twenty-one, and I found myself all alone for the first time as fresh new fears were heaped on all the old ones. I did what I needed to do in order to survive, though it was not nearly as simple as I make it sound: I erased the pilot's daughter and started over. I creased my life down the middle like the spine of a book when you bend the pages back very hard. You could read the first half of the book of my life, then read the second half, and not know they were lived by the same person. I wanted it that way. I needed it that way.

I created a whole new identity for myself as the founder and president of a nonprofit women's organization called Women for Women International, which supports women survivors of war. For over a decade now, I have gone around the world, meeting with victims of war and the awful mass rape the world seems to accept as an inevitable consequence of war. Seeing the criminal patterns behind such violence, I began encouraging women to break their silence and speak out so their oppressors could be punished. Yet, I have been unable to break my own. It's remarkable, really. I appear on television and give speeches around the world, but I still can't say the words Saddam Hussein on my front porch. The many reporters who have interviewed me never asked if I knew Saddam Hussein personally—why would they? So, I was permitted to remain silent, telling other people's stories and never my own, hiding in plain sight, ever fearful someone would recognize me someday and say hey, there she is, the pilot's daughter, the friend of Saddam.

When Saddam Hussein was finally captured in 2003 in that hole he had dug in the dirt, I found myself fighting tears. I didn't want to enjoy another person's humiliation, even if it was my enemy's. I think my tears were more for me than for him, to protect my own humanity against feelings of vengeance and hatred. I happened to be at a conference in Jordan that day, and everyone erupted in cheers. One of my friends cheered in the name of her father, an official who had been publicly executed by Saddam. Another vowed to charge him with genocide to avenge Kurdish relatives who were among thousands he had gassed. I yearned to seek redress on behalf of my mother. But who would charge Saddam with crushing human souls? I thought of all my beloved aunts, the spunky ones, the stylish and determined ones the West still gives him credit for liberating, and I wondered, who would remember, given the countless people he killed, the seemingly trivial wounds of those he allowed to live? Would women once again fall beneath the radar screen of history, which preferred to measure war in terms of incident reports and expenditures and kilotons and battles and casualties? How long would women continue to be complicit in their suffering by remaining silent?

For the first time in years, I could feel the girl that I had been nagging at me, bringing back memories I had struggled, at great personal cost, to suppress. I wanted to make myself whole again. I wanted to come clean. I wanted to do my job without feeling like a hypocrite. But I had been afraid for so long I didn't know how to get rid of the layers of fear inside me. Because I had survived by hiding my past, even from myself, I had never really pieced together the story of my own life. Which of the things that had happened to me were causes and which were effects? Which were common to all Iraqis, and which were unique to my family? Certainly, I had never come to terms with the big questions, like how Saddam Hussein had managed to stay in power for a quarter century when most Iraqis hated him and there were ongoing plots to kill him. Certainly there were guns. Certainly there was funding early on from the U.S., European, and Soviet governments, each pushing its own geopolitical agenda. But not even he had enough bullets to kill twenty-five million people. How did he manage to dictate the way virtually every Iraqi spoke, loved, married, prayed, played, smiled, learned, dressed, ate, deceived, despaired, celebrated, and died? Make decent people like my parents complicit in their own oppression? Turn my mother from a free spirit into a premature matron who managed to fit in at palace parties? Keep me scared to death of him long after he had no power to hurt me?

When did it all start? I suspect the answer to that question is this: the moment a mother is afraid to answer a young child's question honestly. By the time I left for America at age twenty, so many silences and half-answered questions had accumulated between Mama and me that I blamed her for certain ugly turns my life had taken. Only when she was dying, and I had learned how to listen to women who had survived other despots, did she tell me secrets she had kept from me for most of my life. I still cry when I think how young she was, just fifty-two. She was unable to speak, and the only means she had of communicating was by writing. I asked her then about what her life was like during the two decades she and my father lived under his thumb and she wrote her thoughts to me in a drugstore notebook. Writing was very difficult for her, and her observations were often short and dispassionate. I include some entries here to give a sense of how much she spared her children. I keep her notebook in a white carry-on bag I used to sit on in airports. I open it rarely because it is the only thing I have that brings back the smell of her.

Iraqis have a saying about Saddam Hussein. They say he wooed us in the 1970s, we endured the 1980s, and we paid the price in the 1990s and beyond. I have always thought of myself as the lucky one, and one of the many reasons is that I grew up in modern Iraq's most promising decade. While the West struggled with the oil embargo of the early 1970s, petrodollars poured into our nationalized oil monopoly. The Iraqi dinar soared, electricity lit up mud villages, modern schools and hospitals mushroomed, Japanese cars sped across new highways, and whole office buildings rose up while we were away on summer vacation. Iraqi students went abroad then on government scholarships and Saddam's socialist-based Baath Party instigated a massive compulsory campaign to combat illiteracy (and spread his ideology) that taught so many people to read so fast that Iraq became a model for the developing world and won a UNESCO prize. I try not to dwell on how Iraqi faith was squandered or how my parents' generation deluded itself into assuming it came with no price tag.

My parents were married on the cusp of all this progress in 1968, shortly after my mother graduated from college and my father graduated from a pilot's academy after studying in Scotland. My favorite picture of the two together is a black-and-white snapshot taken at their engagement party that shows them standing against a garden trellis with white wrought iron furniture in the foreground, my father trim and debonair in a suit and my mother a dark-haired beauty wearing Piccadilly makeup and a 60s miniskirt. An English term springs to mind for which I can think of no adequate Arabic equivalent, and it almost breaks my heart when I think of it. They were happy-go-lucky.

I was born the year after they were married, the same month my father was promoted to captain by Iraqi Airways. New subdivisions were being laid out in Baghdad at the time, with names like the Professors Neighborhood and the Engineers Neighborhood (as well as neighborhoods with smaller lots for blue-collar workers) and government incentives were offered to people in those fields to move there. My parents took advantage of his promotion to build a home in the Airlines Neighborhood and were proud that they were able to do so without help from their families. Because my birth coincided with my father's promotion, my parents referred to me as “the child who brought blessings,” baraka, to our family, and that small superstition would follow me as I grew. Whenever there was a new moon, Mama would ask me to smile at her, saying my smile would bless the upcoming month as my birth had blessed their first year. Five years later, they would have a son, Haider, and five years after that another, Hassan. With each birth, my father would plant a palm tree in our backyard, and they would name the palm tree after the child. My father was the gardener in our family. Our backyard was filled with his gardenias and narange, limes and sweet lemon—native citruses I often crave and rarely find outside Baghdad.

Mama started a scrapbook for me when I was a baby, a white quilted volume I still have, with a glittery stork and a lavender puppy on the cover. Inside are pictures of our family, my childhood birthday parties, and casual snapshots of friends like the Christian neighbor who used to ask my mother for advice on her daughter's Muslim boyfriends—all defined for whatever reasons by their inclusion in this album as relevant to my birth. I noticed after she died that there is not one picture of Amo in this book, though many were taken, and I wonder if she took them out or never included them in the first place. She was always selective in her choice of memories to preserve for me.

I sometimes forget how close my father and I were then and how easily he made me laugh. In one photo of us together we are modeling twin dishdashas, long cotton tunics that are worn by both sexes. How many fathers have matching outfits made for them and their two-year-old daughters? I called him Baba, the word for “Daddy” in Arabic, but his name is Basil. Most of his pictures show him on vacation, mugging for the camera with a child's plastic swim tube around his waist at a tropical beach, perched atop a statue in Thailand, chatting like an old friend with the statue of a bearded miner at Knott's Berry Farm. To cool off on scorching late summer afternoons we used to go swimming at the Hunting Club or go with my cousins on my uncle's boat to Pig's Island, a large sandbar in the Tigris that must have been named for wild boar. My father had spent time there as a boy and our outings seemed to bring out the little boy in him. Some of my fondest memories are of calm summer nights in that place filled with the peaceful sound of the Muezzin calling evening prayers, and laughter; my mother's strong and engaging, my father's mischievous as he dropped ice down my mother's bathing suit, and the normal shouts of a gaggle of children. After sunset, the lights from the riverside cafes on the Corniche would come on and reflect in lazy lines of blue, green, white, and red on the river. The colors would sparkle if the breeze picked up and I imagined fairies were dipping their wings into the water.

I was loved, educated, and spoiled. Thanks to airline perquisites and the fact that my parents were descended from the same line of prosperous merchants, we traveled the globe—Brazil, Greece, Japan, and a dozen other countries. Culturally I was probably as much Western as Middle Eastern. Harrod's was purportedly the source of my first solid food when I was a baby. I knew the theme song to Happy Days and informed my father that Wonder Woman could beat the Six-Million-Dollar Man because, well, she was a woman. When my father returned to Baghdad from flying passengers to foreign capitals, he brought me back the latest toys, clothes from foreign boutiques, chocolate you could never get in Iraq, and Big Macs he kept fresh in the galley refrigerator. Because he was away from home so much, he came to take on, in my mind, qualities of the mythic Santa Claus, another romantic figure in a uniform who flew through the skies bearing gifts.

But it was Mama and her friends who showed me what life meant and how it should be lived. There was a network of women in Baghdad who, in the Iraqi tradition of respect for all elders, I grew up calling aunts or khala. There were many dozens of them over the years, friends and extended relatives, mothers of my friends, artists and teachers, wives of other pilots, women from the Hunting Club and overlapping social circles. While post— World War II socioeconomic forces pressured American women to retreat into their homes, inverse pressures created by Iraq's socialist industrial models gave my mother's generation the opportunity to leave them, breaking molds that were centuries old. Rooted in ritual Islam, my mother and most of her friends were nonetheless culturally secular. Photographs I have of these women, hands encircling each others' waists, remind me how invincible they seemed, allies out to define womanhood, stylish and independent, who spoke two or three languages and saw no reason they couldn't have it all: advanced degrees, fulfilling jobs, children, travel, a good time, and husbands who loved them.

No law spelled it out but Saddam's Baath Party discouraged women from wearing the traditional abaya, the long black robe worn by my grandmother and more traditional women in rural areas. Many of my “aunts” pushed the envelope and wore miniskirts. My mother and her friends preferred London to Paris and either to the new Baghdad boutiques that were stocked with the identical red-haired, industrial-strength Russian mannequins that seemed designed to inspire the “glory of Iraqi womanhood.” Amo loved that phrase. Iraqi women were all the more glorious, of course, because they continued to run their households while they manned his factories and ministries, and organized political meetings.

Our home was the site of frequent potluck dinners, where fifteen or twenty women would gather at any given time, filling the air with laughter and chatter, steaming casseroles, and foreign perfume. Ripping tiny cellophane strips off their packs of Kents or Virginia Slims, they would light up and a blue-gray haze, which seemed romantic to me then, would hover just below the ceiling. I wandered among them, listening to their laughter and stories, knowing I was welcome unless they adjourned to our aromatic garden, where they gathered in a tight circle and passed on in whispers whatever new gossip or secrets seemed to bind them. Irreverent, spontaneous, sometimes a little profane, Mama was inevitably the one to break things up so the dancing could begin if the talking went on too long. “Life is like a cucumber,” she might say. “One day it's in your hand, the next day it's in your ass.” Everyone would laugh and the tension would ease. Mama always laughed louder than what was considered polite for women in Iraqi society. Her laughter was like a geyser that started deep down and fairly erupted.

In Iraq, as in much of the Arab world, men and women socialize separately. Women dance together throughout their lives, a joy most Western women miss out on. One of the most enchanting images in all my memory, the one that symbolizes for me carefree moments now lost, is of my mother handing out dozens of exuberantly colored scarves to her friends. Then, with Arab music turned all the way up on the stereo, these professional women would belly dance in their ridiculously heavy platform shoes and Vogue outfits, pull bright strips of chiffon against their hips and shoulders, and ululate at the top of their lungs. Aunt Samer, my mother's tall and graceful older sister, moved her hips in slow classic patterns of seduction. Mama was the most raucous and fun to watch. Her body shimmied faster than a tambourine in tight little waves no one else could match, her long dark hair shining as it whipped around her head like a halo playing catch-up.

My father was a fabulous dancer as well, and particularly adept at bop and rock. Popular and outgoing, he and Mama were famous for hosting “couple parties” that were considered Bohemian in conservative social circles. Observant Muslims refuse alcohol, as it is forbidden by the Quran. At our house, drinks were passed to men and women who mingled easily over the sounds of Western and Arabic music and plates of fresh pistachios, almonds, and pomegranate seeds. Baghdad's famous masgoof fish from the Tigris would cook slowly on tall sticks over open fires and the carved rosewood table we brought back from Thailand would fill up with great quantities of rice, lima beans and dill, lamb stuffed with almonds, and fruits and chestnuts. Watching these parties from our roof in the arms of my grandmother, my only fear was that I would never live up to the standards my mother had set, never emerge from my shyness to learn to dance like her or laugh with such unadulterated joy.

Iraqi heat is so intense that much of Baghdad slept on the roof during the summer. The sound of heavy mattresses being brought upstairs and thumped out onto specially made metal bed frames each night is one of my clearest memories of childhood. Because the main meal of the day is served midday in Iraq, we always ate lightly at night. On summer nights, you could look across the Airlines Neighborhood and see families with children eating watermelon or cheese and bread before bedtime on their rooftops.

We stopped sleeping outside when Abu Traib, the “Machete Murderer,” began terrorizing Baghdad for a time in the 1970s in a crime wave that seemed to foreshadow some of the violence that was to come. A serial killer, he invaded wealthy Baghdad homes, reportedly along with his own wife and children, hacking families to death and stealing their belongings before disappearing into the night. Many of these homes had walls and guards, yet Abu Traib somehow outsmarted security measures. Rumor spread that he must have entered through the rooftops so we sealed the doors to our roofs and let fear drive us into our sweltering homes. Because I couldn't imagine anyone in our social network doing such horrible things, I imagined Abu Traib as a peasant with scary, focused black eyes and a white head piece held in place by a black rope. In my mind's eye, his wife wore a black headscarf and a peasant dress. Their sons dressed like him and their daughters dressed like their mother. While he and his wife murdered the adults, I imagined their children murdering other children—all as their victims slept peacefully in their beds.

When Abu Traib was finally caught, he turned out to be a high-ranking member of the security forces, giving rise to plausible speculation later that the whole bloody rampage was a government experiment to instill fear and gauge its travel through the city. Except for his thick black hair and scary eyes, he looked little like what I had imagined. He was clean shaven with a huge black mustache, and appeared on television in a white shirt and sports jacket. He was later executed, yet he lived on in urban legend. It was Abu Traib who taught me that fear outlives its origins.

“Abu Traib has chocolate-colored skin and coarse black hair,” our servant Radya told me authoritatively at least three or four years after he was dead. “He has very deep-set eyes—cat's eyes—so he can see at night. And all his family has coarse black hair and deep-set eyes too. Even his children can see at night like little cats.”

Radya was the daughter of a security guard who watched our house sometimes when we were away. She came to live with us when she was just fourteen, a common way of providing income and improving living conditions for poor girls. I wasn't used to having a servant so near my age and one afternoon shortly after she arrived, I ordered her to bring me lunch. She snapped at me and we started arguing. “You're the servant,” I told her. “That means you have to do what I tell you.” “No I don't!” she screamed and ran out of the house crying. When my mother came home, she scolded me in front of Radya, made me apologize, and gave me my own household duties.

Radya always wore long clothing that covered her arms, even in summer when I wore sleeveless blouses and shorts. One day I finally asked her why and she shyly showed me her arm. “I help my mother bake bread,” she explained, revealing a scar from wrist to shoulder. I felt bad for her that she felt so ugly she had to hide her body. She had very dark skin and I later told her that women in America who looked like her were beauty queens. Mama told me I was to treat Radya as a sister and we eventually became good friends, but I knew we would never be sisters. We went everywhere; she went nowhere. I played basketball in our cul-de-sac with my cousins; she worked in the kitchen. I went to school during the day; she went to school at night.

Our family helped enable Radya to graduate from high school, but it wasn't until I went with my mother to drop her off for a weekend that I saw how her family lived: eight people in a two-room house of yellow sun-baked mud on government land near the airport. There was no privacy. I wondered where she did her homework and where her parents had sex, which I had some knowledge of because I had peeked through my parents' bedroom keyhole. Radya's mother wore a black abaya and a small tattoo on her chin and spent her days baking bread in a mud oven to bring in a few extra coins. Radya's salary was their family's only steady income. It would take years of working with women in other countries for me to question what I had accepted as a given in my own home: that girls like Radya could be sent away to help pay for the education of a brother selected for his potential to help raise the family out of poverty. There were thousands of poor families like Radya's living on government tracts. Abu Traib was famous for targeting wealthy areas of Baghdad, yet fear of him seemed to persist in her neighborhood. When she returned from her weekends at home, she often brought back ghoulish new stories about his exploits.

“Do you know how smart Abu Traib is?” she whispered to me one afternoon when we were sitting together on the blue sofa in our living room. “He is so smart he can hear through walls. He can probably hear what we're saying at this very moment.”

My parents gave their largest party of the year on my birthday when the worst heat of summer was past. Before the adults took over with their live bands, they would bring in a puppeteer with stringed marionettes for all my cousins and friends. One of the photos in my scrapbook is of my sixth birthday party. It shows the backs of little girls sitting on the grass with their heads tilted up toward a puppet stage: me in short, curly dark pigtails on the left, and a taller girl with a long, chestnut-colored braid reaching to her waist on my right. Basma, my best friend. I had dark skin and hair like my mother. Basma had the hazel eyes and fair complexion so prized by Iraqi society. She was shy like me, and when we found each other we became inseparable, often playing without even the need to talk. She lived in the prestigious Al-Mansour neighborhood, and her house was enormous, far more extravagant than our three-bedroom home with ranch-style kitchen and family room. Her father was a government minister, and armed guards had to open the gates for me before I could run up the stairs to her pink bedroom, which was filled with even more toys than my own. That year Basma gave me my favorite birthday present, a large doll I named after her that had the perfect combination of beauty: dark skin like my mother's and hazel eyes like hers.

We attended Al-Ta'aseeseya School, a modern school run by the British when they ruled—or tried to rule—Iraq in the early 1900s. The school, with its vast grounds and elite student body, was considered the best grade school in Baghdad. Basma sat in the front row where teachers tended to seat kids with prominent parents. I used to tease her about the way teachers sweetened their voices with honey when they spoke to her, “Oh Basma, dear, just bring your homework in tomorrow.” I never got such treatment. My family was well-to-do, but we weren't famous or important; I would get yelled at if I forgot my homework.

There was a great religious diversity among Iraqis then, and our schools, which had been nationalized in the mid-seventies to ensure we all followed the same government curriculum, were secular. Islam was one of the subjects we studied, but students who weren't Muslim could leave class during those periods if they chose. One day when I was in fourth grade, shortly before Saddam Hussein became president, our religion teacher told us we were going to learn Islamic prayers. She told us to bring a white dishdasha to school and to ask each of our parents how they preferred to pray because different families prayed in different ways. On the day we were to learn our prayers, I happened to arrive early—the lights weren't even on yet in the classroom. There was only one other person in the room, and my heart sped up when I saw him. Mohammed, the smartest boy in class, was standing on the other side of the room by the windows. I can still see him, bathed in sunlight in his white dishdasha with very black hair that contrasted with his snow white skin and hazel eyes. I had a crush on Mohammed, but had never been bold enough to talk to him. As I nervously put my books on my desk, we talked about our homework and I showed him how we prayed, holding my hands to my side as my mother had taught me the night before. He screwed up his face and stared at me as if he had just seen something repulsive. “Oooh,” he said. “You're Shia.”

I wanted the ground to swallow me up. I felt humiliated and I didn't even know why. When the other students arrived, the girls with white head cloths and the boys with white alakcheen, or woven hats, the teacher took us outside and we lined up on the grass in front of the garden faucet to learn the ablution, the ritual cleansing required before prayer in Islam. We lined up before the faucet as each one of us practiced. It was a beautiful day. The school yard was full of flowers, and I loved watching the water from the faucet as it reflected the sunlight. When it was my turn to practice ablution, I took my time as I rinsed each hand, my face, the top of my hair, each ear, and each foot as the teacher taught us. It was a hot day, and the water felt not only cooling, but spiritual. I was enjoying that moment until Mohammed belittled me again, this time in front of everyone.

“This isn't bathing, Zainab,” he said. “This is ablution! Don't you know the difference?” Afterward, when we went into the gymnasium where we were going to practice praying, I looked around and saw that some kids were holding their hands at their sides like me and others were holding their hands over their stomachs like Mohammed, and I remember feeling newly drawn to those who prayed like me, if only because I had been judged inferior by someone who prayed like Mohammed.

I asked my mother about this when I got home, and she gave me the standard schoolteacher answer: “In Iraq, we have people who are Shia and people who are Sunni, but we're all the same, we're all Muslims.” That was the first time I can remember thinking my mother wasn't exactly telling me the truth. I knew there was a difference. I had seen it in the sneer on Mohammed's face. I thought about Mohammed's behavior before I went to sleep that night and came to the conclusion he had been rude to me, a major transgression in Arab culture, and I privately decided to penalize him by not liking him anymore. It would be years before I dared to let myself have a crush on another boy. Only later when I was living in America did I come across an expression that described exactly how he made me feel. He made me feel like I had cooties. If I had to come up with a way to describe a child's first premonition of danger, that would be it: she would feel as if she had cooties, and she would fight the instinct to hide.

On July 22, 1979—Saddam Hussein made sure his cameramen were there to record the date—my mother was sitting at the kitchen table staring at the screen of our little black- and-white TV. I stood at her side and watched over her shoulder. A tall man in a suit with a large black mustache, our new President Saddam Hussein was standing on the stage of a large auditorium filled with men I would later understand were ruling Baath Party members and government officials. Looking very stern and sad, as if one of his children had disappointed him by doing something very bad, he announced that he had come upon “disloyal” people in the government. He brought out onstage a stiff-looking official who confessed to taking part in a plot to overthrow him. He began announcing his “co- conspirators,” and as he called out their names, armed guards went into the audience, found them, grabbed them by the elbows, and walked them out the door. I remember the faces of only two men of the hundreds who were present in that hall. Once was a man who was screaming his innocence as he struggled with guards as they took him away. The other was the man I later came to know as Amo, who watched it all onstage with a paternal expression on his face. He was smoking a cigar.

After the president had the last of these “traitors” taken into custody (effectively eliminating his principal political opponents) he praised everyone left in the hall for their loyalty. The men shifted uncomfortably in their seats. I could see how scared many of them looked. Then, group by small group, they stood to applaud him. Whether they approved of his actions or were just terrified of being next, they gave a standing ovation to the man who was about to execute friends and colleagues who had been sitting next to them just minutes before.

The event was broadcast and rebroadcast around the world. Saddam Hussein never tried to hide what he did that day. He wanted those men and others like them to be afraid. I have seen the tape since then, so it is hard for me to distinguish what I saw then from what I have factored in as an adult. I know I didn't fully grasp as a nine-year-old that those men were about to face a firing squad—or understand that the man who was ordering their execution was the “Amo” my mother and Aunt Layla had been talking about a week before. But I felt fear stream out of that small television screen and chill our kitchen, where until that moment I had always felt safe. I remember exactly the look on my mother's face. I remember her eyes growing very round and fixing hard on the screen. I had never seen that look on her face ever before, but I recognized it anyway: it was horror.

When the session ended, Mama sat there, still, before turning off the television. I could see her trying to gather her thoughts before she looked across into my eyes and spoke to me. I was small enough then that when she was seated and I was standing, our eyes were at the same level.

“Honey, things are going to be different with Basma's family from now on,” she said. “You can still be friends. You can see her at school, but I'm afraid you can't go to her house to play anymore and she probably won't be able to come here.”

“Why not, Mama?”

She took both my hands in hers and leaned close.

“Zainab, her father was one of those men who was grabbed and taken away,” she said. I wonder if I cried for Basma—or for myself at the restriction on our friendship. I don't remember. We flew to Seattle, as we often did in the summer, for my father's two-month pilot's training at Boeing. The next time I remember seeing Basma was when school started in September. She was sitting at the back of the classroom. Teachers avoided calling on her. Other kids avoided her altogether. We spent recess walking around the playground holding hands and looking down at the ground. A terrible thing had happened, but I don't think either of us named it. One day Basma didn't come to school, and I never saw her again. By the time I met the man who had ordered her father's execution three years later, I had taught myself to forget her last name.

From Alia's Notebook

We weren't excited about this friendship. We did not accept his invitations many times and managed to be away from him for two years while he befriended other families we knew, but we couldn't avoid him forever.

We stopped by a friend's house after leaving a party around 11 p.m. and Saddam was in his living room. We spent three hours that evening listening to what he was saying. I will always remember his eyes. They focused on each one of us, examining each person very closely. We talked about many things, including different hobbies and particularly hunting, as it was one of his favorite. When we arrived home that night, we were surprised to find a hunting rifle that was sent by him as a gift. This was his invitation to friendship.

In the days before he was president, he would visit us alone or with the company of only one guard. He often spent the nights roaming in the streets of Baghdad visiting one family after the other. It wasn't unusual to get a call from him in the middle of the night to say that he is coming in a few moments and to ask us to invite so many friends to join us. One had no choice but to invite him and manage to entertain him even if one was in the middle of sleep.

He was a heavy drinker. Chivas Regal Scotch Whiskey was his favorite. He always made sure to bring boxes of it to all the parties he attended. He loved dancing, particularly to Western music. He never got tired of dancing despite the fact that he was not a particularly good dancer nor drinker. He was a strong man with energy equal to ten men. I don't deny his strong personality. While we liked him for his charming personality, we were also afraid of him for we couldn't say no to any of his requests.

He often told us his youth stories during these nights. He talked about his childhood and how he escaped his stepfather's torture one night in his uncle's house: how the dogs followed him, how the darkness of night did not manage to scare him as a ten-year-old child. He was determined to go to school and he knew only his uncle could help him accomplish that. He started first grade when he was ten years old. He often talked about how excited he was wearing underwear for the first time in his life. That day in school, he kept on lifting his dishdasha to show his schoolmates his underwear. He thought that it was the best thing anybody had and he wanted to brag about it. He also talked about his days of political activism and these stories took hours of narration as we sat around and listened to him carefully.

We were not sure how things would change when he became president. He surprised us with a visit to our home at 8 p.m. one night in July 1979. I remember he told us, “I got rid of the old man” (referring to the president at the time, Ahmed Hassan Al-Bakr). He was very happy and merry that night. Saddam despised the fact that Al-Bakr used to consult with his fortune-teller before he held his meetings. He hated the fact that this blind fortune-teller, who lived in an area known as Al-Doubjee, had so much influence on political decisions. He told us that he had sent for her at the palace and killed her himself. “She knew too many secrets and I had to get rid of her,” he told us.

He talked about friendship that night and how death would be the punishment for any friend who betrays a friend. We were silent and focused on what he was telling us. It was both a threat to us as well as a reference to his killing of one of his best friends, Mahmoud Al-Hamdanee, who was the Minister of Education at the time. Saddam had had dinner with Mahmoud the night before he killed him.

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Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
raxxq on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I devoured this book. Zainab's story is so compelling, and the mission that she's taken from her experiences give me faith in humanity.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Tails awoke to find himself strapped to a bed, ptting him in a most awkward situation. He blushed brightly, and struggled still. <br> "Ah, youre awake." His captor revealed himself. <br> "Shadow?!" The kitsune struggled that much more. <br> Shadow merely sat down in a chair beside the bed. "Where is he?" <br> "Who-" <br> "Sonic of course!!" The emo growled. <br> "Why?" Tails turned away from Shadow. <br> "Because he stole something from me and I need it back of course." Shadow stood back up. <br> The kitsunes stomach growled suddenly. <br> " must be hungry." Shadow turned around, red eyes ablaze. "I guess I should feed you..." He then left. <br> .:-Later-:. <br> The hedgehog came back with a PB&J. "Is this suitable for your kind?" He sat down in the chair again. <br> "y-yes..." Tails stuttered. <br> Shadow placed it on Tails's stomach. "Go on then. Eat it." <br> "I cant with these handcuffs..." The kitsune gestured by shaking his arms. <br> Shadow grumbled and unlocked the handcuffs. "Now eat." <br> Tails nodded, and began to eat, not wishing to upset the hedgehog anymore than he had already. <br> "Now...wheres Sonic?" Shadow prompted. <br> Tails sighed and took a bite of his sandwich. "He went off to stop Eggman." He chewed and swallowed. <br> "And he didnt take you with him?" <br> Tails suddenly lost his appetite. "N-no..." <br> "Why?" Shadow noticed how Tails was no longer eating the sandwich. "Surely youre a big help-" <br> "I dont want to talk about it!" Tails hissed and threw the sndwich at Shadow. <br> "..." Shadw caught the sandwich and placed it on the nightstand. "Alright then." He locked Tails's hands back up. "Goodnight now." <br> Tails looked out the window, it was was already past sunset? How long had he slept? "Wait-" He protested, but Shadow was gone now. <br> The poor kitsune began to cry, feeling more lost and lonely than ever before. <br> TO BE CONTINUED...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very inspirational and eye-opening.  Zainab is an example of how one woman can make a huge difference in this world.  I could feel the shadow of Saddam hanging over me as I read her memories.  I am very grateful she shared her story with such honesty.  I also recommend reading Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.  I will never view the world the same again.  I first read about Salbi in Half the Sky and that prompted me to search for her memoir.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is a good book about the inner strength of womem
Tami Grande More than 1 year ago
ive read this book about a dozen times and each time i read it i amazed all over again! great read i recomend this book to any avid reader i meet
Nisreen Sumrean More than 1 year ago
A great book that truly explains what iraqis went through under husseins regime........ i would recommend this to anyone!!
andreamhall More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. The book is written incredibly well. It was very interesting to read about how Saddam Hussein treated those people that were closet to him and the fear that they lived. Great read.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
A very good read! Finished it in a weekend. I learned a lot and it just solidified my feelings that lie beneath, suppressed because of the hate. The story is about the tragic lives of those around Hussein who had to act a certain way, be a certain way, always in fear. This young girl grew up too close to this dark world of a tyrannical, manipulative dictator, and the religious wars surrounding her.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down. It was a very interesting and insightful personal story. However, if you are looking for an informative book about the Iraqi dictator, this would not be a good choice. This book raises many more questions than gives answers.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was profoundly touched by the story. It¿s a sincere, emotional, sensitive, and reality book. I touched the author pain and anger throughout the pages. The author describes the tyranny under the regime of Sadam. Zainab finally overcome the fear and speaks up for her right and rights of others for letting people know what Iraqi people went through. And that was very hard step to take. It¿s hard to be imprisoned for a long time and that what she, her family, and all Iraqi were. They always lived in fear for their lives and the life of their families and were not themselves. They always have to be careful what they say and what they do because there always eyes watch and ears who listen and can tell (spies or informers). Some were able to escape abroad, others could not. She and her family decided to stay and suffer and not suffer in some ways. During that time, violence created in many ways: Rape, assault, killing, imprisoning, classification (racism+ discrimination+ ethnic cleansing), transferring, etc. There were no boundaries for violence. Being a president of Iraq at that time or a high authority allowed people to act as they wish without laws. They are the ones who implement laws for themselves. Her mom asked her: ¿Not to be a bird in cage. Be independent and free, never let anyone abuse you.¿ Zainab mom staid in the cage for a long time, even before she died and was not able to tell Zainab enough about what happened to her. But Zainab was able to escape the fear and to do what her mom could not do. Her mom was so proud of her. I sensed the tremendous bond between a mother and daughter. It touches a person heart. It was hard to put it down. There are times you will laugh and times you will cry. I highly recommend this book A+++ Darling book lots of people can relate to it in many ways: love, hate, loss, gain, fear, escape, silence, voice¿ups, downs. Enjoy:)
Guest More than 1 year ago
A+++ book Sincere and reality book. Describes the tyranny under the regime of Sadam. Zainab finally overcome the fear and speaks up for her right and right of others, for letting people know what Iraqi people went through. It¿s hard to be imprisoned and that what she, her family, and all Iraqi were. They always lived in fear for their lives and the life of their families and were not themselves. They always have to be careful what they say and what they do because there always eyes watch (spies or informers) and ears who listen and can tell. Some were able to escape abroad, others could not. Her mom asked her: ¿Not to be a bird in cage. Be independent and free, and never let anyone abuse you.¿ Zainab mom staid in the cage for a long time even before she died was not able to tell Zainab enough about what happened to her. But Zainab was able to escape the fear and to do what her mom could not do. Her mom was so proud of her. I sensed the tremendous bond between a mother and daughter. It touches a person heart. There are times you will laugh and times you will cry. Very emotional, sensitive, and sincere writer who made me touch her heart for awhile and feel her pain and anger. To the writer: I wish I can meet you someday and I wish you can read my message. Thanks ya 3asal (in Arabic ya 3asal means, honey). I was touched profoundly by your story. I really appreciate your courage, personal, and what you are doing. Darling book, highly recommended lots of people can relate to it in many ways. I could not put the book down. Thank you so much!!!! And I hope that all people live in peace and not to be racist and classify people hopefully people become more human and learn from history..And not because a person is a president or in a high status, that allows him or her to be cruel or create violence. God bless you and all women such you are who likes to make the world different!!! Sincerely, Fida
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book chronicles the life of a priviledged girl living under Sadaam's rule of tyranny. She details how tense and uncertain life with Sadaam really was. Her life story is amazing and her accomplishments are a testament to her courage and perspective. The story is very well worth the read. Unfortunately the writing isn't as spectacular as the life behind it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am so glad that I read this book - I learned a lot. The author tells an amazing personal story while sharing about the country and culture of Iraq. She acknowledges that her experience was from a privileged perspective, but she humbly takes you into the reality of Iraqi life under Saddam Hussein for all people. The recounts of her personal meetings with him are chilling and her family's struggle to come to terms with the relationship is very human. Salbi is an extraordinary person who is not only a survivor but has excelled by the incredible things she has done for others through her organization and her personal relationships. Her strength in caring for others is a wonderful lesson in the human spirit. Thank you to her for sharing her story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I could not put down this book. It records the author's life in Iraq in a family close to Saddam Hussein, her life after she was sent to America to escape him, and the formation of Women for Women International. The author is an extraordinary person, who, after suffering in her own life, decided to help women in countries where they have also been persecuted and set about organizing an effective charity. This book helps to illustrate the insidious evil of Saddam, charismatic as he was, and it reads like a good novel. It deserves to be a best-seller.
1020 More than 1 year ago
A good look at a life of turmoil described by a courageous woman.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This shows how strength and love can sustain a family in any situation. Our own leaders and policy makers should read this book.