Saturday, December 20, 2008

Review of "Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam" by Zainab Salbi

Salbi, an Iraqi who with her family was in the inner circle of "friends" of Saddam Hussein, doesn't tell you what two worlds she is between until near the end of Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam. But the reader can imagine many "two worlds" as they read this fascinating book.

In a way, Between Two Worlds is the coming-of-age story of a young girl growing up in a privileged family in a the 1980s. In another way, the book reveals the paradox of Saddam Hussein, a man who loved to party and loved having friends, yet partied and communed by coercion. While living a life that most Iraqis couldn't enjoy - cars, good schools, travel to Europe and the US - Salbi and her parents and relatives did so under a constant cloud of fear. Fear because their "special status" allowed them to stay in Iraq...and to live...because Saddam Hussein held them close as "friends" on his whim. Her father, Saddam's pilot for a while, at one point is asked to choose between being a pilot and friendship with Saddam because of a contrived slight. Fearing no answer was correct, he chose friendship, knowing that friendship would mean privilege but also fear. Her life, and that of her family, is an illusion of happiness, an "artificial life."

Throughout the book we see a young girl slowing realizing that Amo...Uncle...was not only leader of Iraq but a murderer, a rapist, a terrorist to his own people. A man who she "ultimately came to realize" did things "specifically designed to cause fear and hurt." She would realize the depth of this only after her mother marries her off at 20 to a much older Iraqi man living in the US...a brutal man she leaves after he rapes her. So now alone in the US when the first Gulf War (1991) pushes Saddam back out of Kuwait and starts a long decade of difficult times in Iraq, she starts to see life from another world.

To me, the focal chapter in this book is the one called "Becoming Zainab." Here she discovers real love and compassion, the pain of others, and her mission in life. She decides she must give back to the women who were abused physically and mentally. She begins Women for Women International and it becomes her passion as she travels to places like Bosnia and elsewhere to help women escaping from "rape camps" and other control methods often sanctioned by totalitarian governments. She fights against the idea that in some countries "violence against women was somehow expected."

She ends with "[b]etween the world of right-doing and the world of wrong-doing there is a meeting ground. There is a garden where women no longer need to whisper. I know it. Your real country is where you're heading, Mohammed said, not where you are."
I found this is be a powerful book. The earlier portions where she describes her childhood will appeal more to women readers than men, but men will in particular find the growing dread as she discovers more and more about the real "Amo." To both it provides a valuable insight into both Saddam's mind and the mind of a woman coming to understand how other woman are abused. A woman who dedicates her life now to helping other woman.

When I first saw Salbi's photo on the cover she seemed familiar. By the time I finished the book I felt I was beginning to know her.

I highly recommend this book. The insights are incredibly valuable as we face similar dictators...and similar abuses on other countries of this world.