Saturday, August 27, 2016

Between Two Worlds: Growing up in the Shadow of Saddam by Zainab Salbi (Book Review #40 of 2016)



Between Two Worlds: Growing up in the Shadow of Saddam - Zainab Salbi

I recently reviewed a host of books on the history and development of Islam and Middle Eastern history (list at bottom of this post). I also read several which included some critiques along with views to the future and reform. I then worked through a list of books by Muslim women, most of which bring light to and critique inhumane practices found in their home countries. Included in this list was Nick Kristof's Half the Sky which looks at women's rights globally, and I'm also including another by someone who left Islam after an extensive intellectual and spiritual search. This book review is in the context of all of those books as a whole. The list (some reviews forthcoming):

Reform and human rights:
Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali (4.5 stars)
Heretic - Ayaann Hirsi Ali (4 stars)
Headscarves and Hymens - Mona Eltahawy (4 stars)
I Am Malala - Malala Yousafzai (5 stars)
I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali (4.5 stars)
In the Land of Invisible Women -  Qanta Ahmed (4.5 stars)
Between Two Worlds - Zainab Salbi (5 stars).
City of Lies - Ramita Navai (3 stars)
Half the Sky - Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (4 stars)
Seeking Allah Finding Jesus - Nabeel Qureshi (4.5 stars)

This really is a great autobiography. It is a fascinating and intimate portrait of growing up under the watchful eye of "عمو"(uncle) Saddam Hussein, and the scars left by decisions made by Salbi and her parents who lived in his nightmarish world. It is also a portrait of women's rights and how Salbi was eventually moved to start Women for Women, a charity reaching out to rehabilitate women sexually abused in war. I first heard of Salbi's work from Nick Kristof's Half the Sky.

The authors parents were not political, but got introduced to Saddam via their mostly secular, upper middle class network in Baghdad. Salbi's father is a good pilot, he becomes Saddam's personal pilot. Salbi's mother is a Shi'ia and Salbi claims Shi'ia Islam. As Saddam gains unchallenged power by murdering the former President, he consolidates power by drawing his contacts closer and pitting them against each other, a strategy of "divide and conquer" that he takes sadistic pleasure in watching. What she describes is similar to the Soviet Union or North Korea, where neighbors and family are always afraid of being spied on the Baath party required spying in order to advance. Everyone lives in fear of one another. In her case as an adolescent, youth compete for "Uncle's" affections and favor. 

Saddam revels in his own personality cult and celebrity. He comes making random house calls late at night, meaning all families have to be prepared to serve at all times. Saddam liked to drink. Apparently, he had his own reality TV show where these house calls were televised, along with the occasional political execution; Salbi was only nine when she saw her first live execution.

Salbi is just a girl as Iraq and Iran go to war; her mother had been fond of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who her family apparently had some connection to. Salbi's parents stay married despite pressure for her father to divorce her mother, for which Sunni Iraqi men were being paid 2,000 dinar to do. Salbi learned not to pray like a Shiia, to abandon Shiia holidays (like Novruz) and the like. At one point, Saddam demands her father go to the front for a few months to prove himself as a man and a loyal Iraqi. Her parents never fled, something Salbi later has a hard time forgiving them for, and they engaged in an "abusive relationship" with the dictator. All families felt pressured to host and give gifts to "uncle," while their own poverty increased. Saddam built lavish palaces on the backs of the Iraqis. He forced them to use their grandfather's first names as a last name, changing everyone's identity overnight. In the worst of times, Zainab's mother tried to commit suicide.

The author's family was one of many families who would spend long weekends and holidays at Hussein's "farm house" complex. The parents would be expected to entertain the dictator and the children would be called on to perform a piano recital or some other amusement at a moment's notice-- or sometimes "uncle" would not show up at all. There are parties there and everyone puts on a plastic face. When Salbi is 16, she and a friend were driven by Hussein to the farm compound after he made a house call when her parents were out. She learns later that she was quite fortunate not to have been a rape victim during this visit, and it was then that her parents decided they needed to get her out of the country.

Saddam promoted his own relatives and uneducated countrymen to high positions, particularly in the security service. When her father faced accusations of being a traitor after a mechanical accident, he retires from his position and chooses "friendship" with "uncle" instead. Salbi describes Saddam Hussein's sadistic side, his duck hunt massacres, his massive collections and constant gifts of guns to his friends. She describes the fear of Uday's "rape palaces" and the consequences for the girls who were kidnapped by them. Most would have to be sold off or shipped out of the country quickly, their lives ruined. Yet, many young girls still fantasized about being the one that Uday actually loved. Saddam Hussein himself engaged in these acts and, late in life, after her mother has passed away, Zainab wonders whether her mother was a victim herself.

When Salbi goes to college she meets the poetic Ehud, who she falls in love with and becomes intent on marrying. His family are Sunni and not wealthy or educated, nonetheless Ehud goes through a six-month security check by Saddam's forces and then the engagement begins. Once Ehud proves himself to be a crazy, abusive person, whose family believes that Shi'ia have tails, she gets out of the marriage-- a major problem for a woman in Muslim context.

The author got to travel to Chicago once with her mother, and while there they made contact with a family who later asks for Zainab's hand in marriage. Her mother was anxious to get her out of the country and jumps at the chance, even though they have no idea what this man will be like. Zainab's mother raised her to be strong, educated, and independent-- never to take abuse from a man. But, under Saddam's thumb, Zainab sees her mother's spirit wear down and her parents move toward divorce. Now her mother is trying to marry her off. In the car from the airport to the prospective groom's house, Zainab's father expresses his wish not to marry her off. Zainab's mother insists she can never go back to Iraq. Later, Zainab learns that her parents saw that Saddam had been eyeing her; it was only a matter of time before he acted. But this moment where they gave her off to a total stranger would be difficult for her to forgive later, when she found out what a monster he was.

Fakhri promises Zainab to be a good husband, to allow her to finish her studies, and treat her with respect. The promise vanishes on the wedding night, when Zainab experiences a long period of rape, physical, and verbal abuse. Her husband is devout Shi'ia and hates Zainab for being a "friend" of Saddam, taking out his hatred for Saddam on her instead. Her mother had taught her that sex was a gift from God, and Zainab knew verses in the Quran and hadiths that spoke of such, but for her it becomes pure abuse. His family is of no help to her. She escapes "from prison in Iraq, only to be in solitary confinement in Chicago." At the encouragement of a friend, she runs and files for divorce. She gets a job and starts a new life.

It's 1991, and America is now leading a coalition against Saddam. Zainab is actually interviewed in the local paper, she assumes a different identity-- saying that she came from Iraq before the war began and was stranded in the US now that war had started. She wanted to highlight the strife the average person in Iraq was facing as the bombs were falling. Salbi leverages her fame by lining up a job working for the Ambassador to the League of Arab States. It would be a long time before she saw her parents again.

Zainab meets and falls in love with Amjad Atallah (now with Al Jazeera). She learns that women have the right to write a marriage contract before the wedding, and Amjad supports this; he comes across as ideal. Her parents divorced, but she entered into a new marriage and her mother is able to come to the wedding after Amjad flies to Jordan to meet with representatives of Salbi's family to get their blessing. Zainab is finishing her studies and refuses any chance to be a spokeswoman for the Iraqi people. She hates war, hates the plight of innocent civilians. During the Balkans War, she hears of rape camps by Slobodan Milosevic, and Milosevic suddenly becomes a proxy for her hatred for Saddam. She and Amjad form Women for Women International to try and highlight the war crime and connect women abroad with women in the US who can mentor and help. It is an amazing and challenging work.

But Zainab has to face her own demons, at one point attempting suicide just as her mother. She is diagnosed PTSD and eventually a psychiatrist gets her history out of her. She enters therapy and dealing with childhood. She struggles to find closure with Iraq, her parents' relationship, unanswered questions, and hates her parents for not fleeing Iraq and for her eventual abusive marriage. Zainab eventually returns to Iraq before the 2003 invasion, and back afterward to set up her charity. In this time, she gains reconciliation with her remarried father and reconnects with family. It is only then that she learns the truth of what her parents were protecting her from and is able to forgive them. Even so, she is left with many unanswered questions.

I was sad to learn that Zainab and Anjad divorced after 18 years; Zainab has also stepped down from CEO of women for Women in 2011. They apparently parted on amicable terms ("a love divorce," she calls it). It makes me sad that she still faced this loss. I imagine she is horrifed to see that weaponized rape has become even more widespread under ISIS.

This book is a remarkable portrait for life growing up close to Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and adjustment to a new identity afterward while reconciling with the past. I give it 5 stars out of 5.

A History of Islam, The Middle East, and Arab nations:
A Very Short Introduction to the Koran - Michael Cook  (4.5)
A Very Short Introduction to Islam - Malise Ruthven (3 stars)
In the The Shadow of the Sword - Tom Holland (4 stars)
In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire - Robert G. Hoyland (4 stars)
Great World Religions: Islam (The Great Courses)- John Esposito (1.5 stars)
Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes - Tamim Ansary (4.5 stars)
Brief History of the Middle East - Peter Mansfield (3.5 stars)
History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (4.5 stars)
The United States and the Middle East 1914-2001 (Great Courses) by Salim Yuqub (3.5 stars)
Islam Unveiled - Robert Spencer (1.5 stars)
Lawrence in Arabia - Scott Anderson (5 stars)

Reform-style:
Desperately Seeking Paradise - Ziauddin Sardar (5 stars)
Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz - Islam and the Future of Tolerance (1.5 stars)
Reza Aslan - No god but God - The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars)

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