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Coming of age under the tyranny of Saddam

In a new book, "Between Two Worlds,"  Zainab Salbi tells the story of her life growing up as a palace insider under Saddam Hussein. Read an excerpt.

Coming of age in Baghdad in the '80s, Zainab Salbi was an insider in Saddam Hussein's palace when her father spent several years as Hussein's pilot. Zainab called the dictator "Amo," or uncle, but the relationship took a heavy psychological toll on the entire family. Now Zainab has written a book to answer questions about her relationship and why a family — and a nation — succumbed to Hussein. She was invited to discuss the book, "Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny, Growing Up In the Shadow of Saddam," on “Today.” Here’s 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.

Excerpted from "Between Two Worlds: Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam." Copyright 2005, by Zainab Salbi. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Gotham Books, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.

To learn more about Zainab Salbi's organization: Women for Women International, you can visit the Web site at: