Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein: Based on a True Story

Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein: Based on a True Story

by Jennifer Roy, Ali Fadhil


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At the start of 1991, eleven-year-old Ali Fadhil was consumed by his love for soccer, video games, and American television shows. Then, on January 17, Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein went to war with thirty-four nations led by the United States.

Over the next forty-three days, Ali and his family survived bombings, food shortages, and constant fear. Ali and his brothers played soccer on the abandoned streets of their Basra neighborhood, wondering when or if their medic father would return from the war front. Cinematic, accessible, and timely, this is the story of one ordinary kid’s view of life during war.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544785076
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 02/06/2018
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 27,856
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)
Lexile: 560L (what's this?)
Age Range: 10 - 12 Years

About the Author

Jennifer Roy is the author of the highly acclaimed Yellow Star, which won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature, was an ALA Notable Book, a School Library Journal Best Book, and a NYPL Top Book. She is also the author of Cordially Uninvited and Mindblind and the coauthor of the Trading Faces Twitter:@Jenroybook

Ali Fadhil grew up in Iraq and survived two wars by the age of twelve. He worked as an interpreter at Saddam Hussein’s trial and with the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lives in Dublin, Ohio.

Read an Excerpt


Wednesday, January 16, 1991—Day 1

The afternoon the bombs start falling, I get my highest score ever on my favorite video game.
     “Boys!” Mama yells. “It’s time!”
     I ignore her, too busy taunting my brother Shirzad.
     “I am the champion of the universe!” I tell him. Shirzad reaches out, trying to grab the controller from my hand. But I don’t let him have it. Not yet. First I need to put my name up as the high score.
     A-L-I. I maneuver the stick and buttons and then hit Enter. My brother’s initials drop down to second place.
     “Give me that,” Shirzad grumbles. “It’s my turn and I’m going to take you down.”
     “Boys! What is wrong with you?” Mother appears in the doorway. “Put that garbage away and get to the safe room. It’s almost time for the war.” She turns and is gone.
     The war. It’s really here. The adults have been talking about it for weeks and weeks. It had seemed about as real as the virtual war I was just playing onscreen.
     Until now. The United Nations deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait has expired. It’s time for war.
     I throw the controller into the box that holds all our game stuff. Shirzad shuts down the Atari console.
     “Race you,” he says, and takes off running. I’m right behind him. It’s hard to run on the tile floor when I’m just wearing socks, and just before we reach the “safe room” I slip and slide. I crash into my brother and we land in a heap on the floor.
     Right at the feet of our father.
     “What kind of example are you setting for your younger brother and sister?” he says. “Stand up and stop acting like animals.”
     “Yes, Baba,” we say together.
     Shirzad and I get up. At the last moment, Shirzad stretches his longer legs and steps ahead of me into the room.
     “I win,” he whispers to me. But it’s a hollow victory, because the first person in the safe room is the first person Mama puts to work. She tells Shirzad to help Baba move the bed away from the window.
     I’m tasked to shut the remaining windows and close the curtains. I go over to a window that looks over the side yard. Baba has already removed the metal air conditioner from the window. If a bomb hits nearby, flying glass will be bad enough, but a flying air conditioner would be worse. A warm breeze is blowing in. Even in January, the weather is mild.
     The sun has set. I can still discern the outlines of the date and palm trees in the yard and the gray stone privacy wall that surrounds our house. Beyond the wall is our city of Basra, wrapped in an eerie silence, waiting.
     “Mama!” My younger sister, Shireen, bursts into the room. “When will the war start?”
     “They said on the radio it will start sometime during the night,” Mama says. “Where is Ahmed? He was just here.”
     “I’m back,” my younger brother says, careening into the room. “Shireen made me go get this heavy basket. What’s in here, anyway—​rocks?”
     “No, it’s a picnic,” Shireen says. “Flatbread, tomatoes, olives, hummus, and Coca-Colas. And date cookies for dessert.”
     A picnic for a war? Shireen is only six. She doesn’t really remember what war is like. I’m eleven, and I know all too well. This is already my second war.
     I go around shutting the windows. Normally, at this hour we kids would be getting ready for bed. It should be a school night, not a war night.
     “Ahmed,” says Mama. “Stop fooling around.” Ahmed is clutching a small rolled-up rug, running into the wall and bouncing off. Run! Bash! Fall! He comes to a halt and walks over to a pile of small rugs stacked against the wall.
     My job is done, so I go over and help Ahmed lay the rugs around the room. Five rugs for Mama and four kids. One bed for my father.
     “I still can’t believe that we are at war with the United States of America,” Ahmed says. “What could Saddam be thinking?”
     “For sure he is not thinking about his own people,” I say.


Saddam Hussein is the president of Iraq. George Bush is the president of the United States. The United States of America is the most powerful country in the world. Iraq, my country, is the most foolish.
     Last August, five months ago, Saddam ordered our army to invade a neighboring country, Kuwait. Everyone knows you can’t just go and take over someone else’s country. But my president did it anyway.
     So President George Bush and a bunch of other world leaders have formed a coalition to stop Saddam and take back Kuwait. Iraq is an ant compared to this coalition. They will crush us like a bug.
     “I hate Saddam,” my sister, Shireen, says loudly. “He’s ruining my life.”
     “Shhh . . .” My parents shush her. What Shireen said would be amusing if it weren’t so important to be cautious. Yes, we are inside our house, among family. But we were taught to never speak against Saddam Hussein.
     He is evil. If he heard what my little sister just said about him, he would probably cut out her tongue. Or his henchmen would do it for him.
     Saddam’s people are everywhere. One of the members of his government lives on our street. We have to be extra careful. A cloud of paranoia hangs over our neighborhood games.
     “Children,” Baba says. “Find a place away from the windows and settle down.”
     I claim an orange and brown striped rug and lay it out next to Shirzad’s gray one. The younger kids sit closer to my parents. I have two brothers and a sister. It goes: Shirzad, me, Ahmed, Shireen.
     We all have dark hair, olive skin, and big brown eyes. My siblings look like a mix of both sides of our family. But me? I am a copy of my mother. I look like my mother in boy form.
     People remark on the resemblance all the time. “Your son,” they’ll say to Mama, “he’s exactly like you!”
     “On the outside, yes,” my mother will respond. Serious and stoic, she is a respected professor of mathematics.
     I hate math. And school in general.
     We went to school most days during the last war. This war? School has been canceled! At least something good has come from the mess Saddam has created.
     “Hey!” I’ve been hit by a rolled-up sock. A smelly sock. I throw it back at Ahmed, who is laughing like a lunatic. Normally, I’d jump him and wrestle him to the ground, but I see my father’s frown.
     Baba is almost as strict as Mama—​his patients love him, but they only see the pleasant, easygoing professional who takes care of their teeth. During the day, my father works his mandatory government job as a dentist. In the evening, he does orthodontics at his own clinic for private clients. He fills cavities for the poor and puts braces on the wealthy.
     Baba left his small rural town in northern Iraq and worked his way through university and dental school.
     “I came from nothing and made myself into something,” he tells us over and over. He calls us kids lazy and spoiled and soft. It’s true, we don’t have to work like he did. Until recently we had nannies and a gardener and a cook to do all the work for us.
     Except for schoolwork. It makes my parents crazy. They expect us to get all As. None of us are A students, but I’m the worst.
     My attitude is, why spend time memorizing dates and doing math problems when the world is crumbling around us?
     My attitude is not appreciated.
     There is one class, however, in which I do get As. English.
     My English teachers think it’s because of them that I’m so good with the language. But really, my best English teacher is the television.
     I’m obsessed with American TV shows. We have one channel that shows them, with Arabic subtitles. Turn that channel on and I’m like a sponge, absorbing American English. My favorite programs are the westerns, but I like the detective shows nearly as much. Everything about America fascinates me—​the food, the celebrities, the freedom.
     “Enough!” My father is breaking up a kicking fight between Ahmed and Shireen. Only Ahmed gets yelled at, as usual. Shireen is spoiled, just as Baba says, and she gets away with everything.
     I look around at my family and feel the walls closing in. Oh, how I wish I had been born in a different place, where people are happy and carefree.
     Where families are not in hiding, hoping to live through the night. For no other reason except their leader is a madman.
     I go to my rug and sit down.
     I could be brave. After all, this isn’t my first war. I survived that one, didn’t I? But I am not stupid. Luck can run out at any time; worlds can be destroyed in an instant. I am scared. I am powerless and I feel betrayed.
     Soon, America—​the land that I love—​is going to try to kill me. I’ll try not to take it personally.

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