“A masterly and elegantly told story that weaves together the Iraqi past and present.”
—New York Times Book Review
“A first-class investigation…that tells the reader more about the tensions of living close to power in Saddam’s dictatorship.”
The Weight of a Mustard Seed is an unprecedented and intimate account of Iraqi life under Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, revealed through the tragic story of one of the dictator’s loyal generals. Journalist Wendell Steavenson writes thrilling nonfiction with a novelist’s flair, offering a new perspective on life inside a totalitarian regime that is as moving, compelling, and dramatic as The Kite Runner and The Bookseller of Kabul.
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About the Author
Wendell Steavenson wrote for The New Yorker from Cairo for more than a year during the Egyptian revolution. She has spent most of the past decade and a half reporting from the Middle East and the Caucasus for the Guardian, Prospect magazine, Slate, Granta and other publications. Steavenson has written two previous books, both critically acclaimed: Stories I Stole, about post-Soviet Georgia, and The Weight of a Mustard Seed, about life and morality in Saddam's Iraq and the aftermath of the American invasion. She was also a 2014 Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Steavenson currently lives in Paris.
Read an Excerpt
The Weight of a Mustard Seed
The sachet family lived in saidiya. saidiya was a district settled mostly by army officers on plots gifted from the government. It was a typical Baghdad neighborhood of cubist concrete houses stretched along highways built in the money-slick boom of the seventies, now sunk under the parched weeds and rubbish drifts and rubble of a flyblown sanctions decade liberated with an invasion.
In August the 133 degree sun switched off at dusk and the baked concrete of the city radiated into the evening. Not a cooling darkness, no puff of wind, but respite enough to venture outside, stretch your legs, sit in a café, sticky-necked in the furnace heat wreathed in kebab smoke, with a fuzzy warm Pepsi and listen to the traffic cacophony of a million second-hand cars flooding over the suddenly open border—no customs duties! No exit visas! No immigration officials! Nothing! Honking jammed in front of the traffic policeman at the intersection, stuck in a forty car line at the petrol station, brandishing a pistol at a line jumper, buying "jellycans" of fuel from the lithe and scabby black-market street boys. The shops cascaded pent-up imports onto the sidewalks: satellite dishes, electric fans (although the electricity was variably on-off—three hours on, three hours off), mobile phones (it was rumored a network would be set up soon), tinsel, gold painted chandeliers, strings of multicolored fairy lights, cherry glitter lipstick, leopard print lingerie (for a woman must look enticing for her husband), pink dolls for daughters and plastic Kalashnikovs for sons. Men sat about, in sandals with crackedheels and loose tracksuit trousers, chain-smoked and complained about the electricity, the water, the Americans, no jobs, no rights; women walked past in long gowns and headscarves carrying kilos of tomatoes; small boys crammed the new internet shops, noses pressed against dusty second-hand monitors, gleefully, heedlessly playing Gulf War One, playing Americans hunting down Iraqis because the game was designed with only one protagonist.
We drove through the shopping throng, ignored the gunshot that might have been a car backfiring except that it really was a gunshot, past the tract of waste ground, right at the half-built mosque, raw and gray under redundant construction cranes, past a small abandoned police post; wove between a palm trunk chicane, a ball of tumbleweed razor wire and a pool of emerald sewage into an unassuming street of small villas with walled front gardens.
Kamel Sachet Aziz al Janabi had been a commander of the special forces, the general in charge of the army in Kuwait City during the Gulf War and a governor of the Province of Maysan, but the family's house was a modest, pleasant, middle class affair and there was nothing of the grandiloquent marble columns and bronze glass of the elite Baathie facades. The formal reception room for guests, where I was received, was large, bright and comfortable; I sat on a sofa in front of a glass coffee table laid with crocheted table mats and a vase of plastic roses, my translator sat next to me. The Sachets were very proud of their father and were happy to talk about him. We met in that first summer, each of us full of curiosity, optimism and excitement. They had a lot of questions for me: Why had the Americans invaded? Was it for the oil? What kind of government would they install? But by the following winter, the Abu Ghraib rumors and detentions and hard knock raids had depressed all of us and I was reduced to apologizing—shaking my head, as abject and angry as they were—for the occupation.
Once or twice the daughters brought me into the private interior of the house, leaving my male translator behind, to show me something: how Ali, the second son, had decorated his room in pink satin and tulle for the arrival of his new wife, a new baby; or how to stuff eggplants. But usually when I visited, once or twice a week, I sat in the reception room and various members of the family would come in to say hello, bring me tea and then coffee, and sit for a talk.
Kamel Sachet's wife was Um Omar, Mother of Omar (her eldest son), mother of his nine children. In rough order: Shadwan, Omar, Ali, Sheima, Amani, Ahmed, Zeinab, Mustafa, Zaid—and a burgeoning number of toddling grandchildren. She was a warm matriarch. Kissing her hello was like putting your arms around a feathered divan; when she moved it sounded like a swishing quilted curtain. She was firm and yielding; soft and bulky and upholstered in voluminous black velvet. She had aged into house-mother doyenne, indulgent of her family brood and prone to twinges of nerves. From time to time she suffered acute but nonspecific complaints: sleeplessness, problems with her stomach—not exactly a cramp but not exactly an ache. Once she went to three doctors in a week and came back with a bag of medicine, sleeping pills, anti-depressants, antibiotics and, bizarrely, typhoid tablets. I brought a doctor friend of mine to give her some proper advice. She felt dizzy, she felt sick, but she had not been sick, yes, it happened once before like this, and it was very bad, that time she had fainted, maybe it was stress—yes, she nodded as my doctor friend explained the intersection of psychosomatic and physical. He told her to relax and not to worry and then some bomb banged distantly as if in ironic response.The Weight of a Mustard Seed. Copyright (c) by Wendell Steavenson . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
Author's Note 1
1 His Wife 11
2 His First Victory 29
3 His Eldest and Favorite Daughter 35
4 Inside 42
5 Yes, But 59
6 His Third and Most Religious Son 90
7 "Are You Sure It's Not Kut?" 106
8 Euphemisms 129
9 Uprising 141
10 The Good Caliph 151
11 Mosque 171
12 His Sheikh 178
13 Shame 199
14 Pride 204
15 Waiting 210
16 The Carcass of an Abandoned Refrigerator 220
17 Collection 238
18 Generals in General 247
Cast of Characters 275
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I highly recommend this book to get a better understanding of the culture in Iraq.
While I did have some of the same problems as other reviewers (sentence structure, haphazard switching of times and places, particularly), wonder if resultant bewilderment and confusion were intentional. There are too many questions, yet, about how people can be brought into such situations and anyone in the west would be hard-pressed to empathize with such an environment. The book was a difficult journey that probably could have bene edited into ease, but it's a difficult story, too.
Because Wendell Stevenson not only hops manically between decade and circumstance, but she also assumes her audience knows a great deal of Iraqi culture, military and political history. Because the ideas present here are not unbiased although Stevenson is a journalist. And finally because this book is as much about Kamel Sachet as any Iraqi Stevenson could interview. I¿ll do you a favor and give you and sum up THE WEIGHT OF THE MUSTARD SEEDGeneral Sachet was an important Iraqi general who ascended the ranks of power by slowly compromising his morality. He was the same as most Iraqi¿s being that he either committed heinous crimes or witnessed such crimes being committed and did nothing. All those interviewed pushed the agenda of the regime and reaped the rewards did so not for political gain but because they were afraid for their families and their honor. Iraqis will be Iraqis, and they are very good at being duplicitous, so the rest of the world should simply let them handle it. All in all, I had a tough time getting through this book. It was neither compelling nor particularly informative.
The Weight of A Mustard Seed attempts to chronicle the illustrious and often perilous military career of General Kamel Sachet, a man who was not only a decorated and respected Iraqi military leader, but was also a favorite of Saddam Hussien. In a series of informal interviews with his friends and colleagues, author Steavenson ventures to create a picture of a man torn between his morals and his duty, who struggled constantly to keep his integrity while still following his orders. What emerges from these interviews are not only snapshots of Sachet's life and service, but the hidden insights of men and women brutalized by their country's regime and their frightening egomaniacal leader. Amidst confusing shifts of loyalty, torture and imprisonment, the story reflects the horror that Kamel and others faced. With only their resiliency and determination to cling to in the storm of the extremism of Saddam's policies, they began to commit frightening and horrible crimes. In addition, the book explores the ramifications and repercussions of the Iran/Iraq war on the Iraqi people, examines the disastrous invasion of Kuwait, and explains the people's hostility to the military occupation of Iraq by American forces. In her investigation, the author repeatedly tries to understand how a man can resist while still colluding, how he and others like him can justify their complicity in the barbarous destruction of Iraq and it's people, and how each can live with the realities of their collaboration.To be quite honest, I found this book to be quite contentious. While I appreciated what the author was trying to accomplish with her investigation into the life of Sachet, I felt that the actual book began to take a different turn very quickly. It ultimately became the author's quest to figure out why and how all these atrocities had taken place, and to question her subjects about their roles in the fiendishness of the regime. While investigating these questions, it began to seem that the author in some ways tacitly absolved these conspirators. Everywhere I looked, these men were trying to exonerate themselves of their responsibility. Many of the men said that that if they were just following their orders, and that they entertained no thoughts of resistance, that it was kill or be killed, that it was human nature, what could they do? Some of them committed truly awful crimes against their countrymen, from kidnapping, rape and extortion, to mass execution and torture. In fact, at times this book was nauseating to read. The description of these men's crimes were awful and soul searing, but the author seems to give them the easy out and agrees to let them downplay their roles in these crimes. She asks the tough questions but never requires the tough answers, and in the end it seems that she seems to acquit them of their crimes, allowing them to blame their leader and his policy instead of themselves as a group for following his orders. In fact, most of the men don't seem too shaken up about what they have done. Most of their concern centers on their own survival and their ability to emigrate out of Iraq, some even leaving their wives and children behind. Over and over again, these men refuse to take responsibility for their part in this horrible mess, hiding behind their orders and their fear and ignoring the fact that they perpetrated heinous crimes. They seemed to use every excuse in the book to justify their actions, never really convincing me that they were remorseful or penitent for what they had done.The focus on Sachet's life was brief and scattered. I never really got a whole picture of the man as an officer, father or husband because it seemed that the author was so busy pursuing other areas that little actual information about the General was gleaned from her subjects. What I did find out about him was speculative, for the author acknowledges that most of her conversations were in the realm of hearsay or rumor. In the beginning of the book, she a