Zainab Salbi’s life is difficult to pin down in a sentence. Is she “a member of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle who defected to the United States”? Or is she the “founder of the charity organization for war victims ‘Women for Women International’”? Until her book, Between Two Worlds, was published this year, she kept those two spheres almost entirely separate. You might think she would have leveraged her escape from Iraq to build public awareness of her organization, but during the key formative years of the group she kept her links to Saddam a secret, claiming only to be an Iraqi tourist who was stranded in America during the first Gulf War.
Why? And why reveal that connection now, after Women for Women International has already become a successful global charity? To answer those questions, Salbi begins with her early childhood, in a wealthy Shia family in Baghdad in the 1970s. Her mother was an heiress, her father a pilot, and both were at the height of the Baghdad social scene. Saddam had courted their friendship as he rose through the ranks of Iraqi political power—with friends such as these, there could be no doubting that he, as a member of an unremarkable family from the backwater of Tikrit, was worthy of his political ambitions.
When Saddam became president in 1979, he dragged his circle of “friends” into the halls of power. Salbi’s father became the President’s personal pilot; Saddam built the family a vacation home in what was then barren desert, between Baghdad and the airport. The Salbis, like Saddam’s other friends, were expected to stay at the home he built for them every weekend, just in case he decided to pop in for a visit. Instead of dominating the social scene in Baghdad, they were dominated by Saddam as he built his own social circle in the desert.
It is in this setting that we are introduced to the first of the book’s technical difficulties. Is this a book about Saddam, or is it a childhood memoir? The book’s language is often childish and innocent—an intentional artifact to steep us in the experience of being a nine-year-old in a grown-up world? Or the clumsy efforts to patch together an ill-conceived narrative? For the book’s first 200 pages, it seems to be the latter. The strained phrasing and repetitive language, the overuse of clichés, and the colorless dialogue make the book a chore to read, relieved only by the brief, stark excerpts from Salbi’s mother’s notes to her, written years later as she was dying in her daughter’s Virginia apartment. These notes, perhaps only 20 pages in total, offer the only clear window through Salbi’s murky prose to the reality of life with Saddam.
The second issue is one I find in all co-authored memoirs: Whose voice am I reading? How can I be certain that the thoughts expressed here are Salbi’s own? Is this really the story Salbi wants to tell? The fact that the voice itself is so often expressed so ineptly only compounds the problem. Salbi tells us in an afterword that Becklund forced her to write more than she was initially comfortable with about her childhood. This discomfort is evident in the text, regardless of whether the words are Becklund’s or Salbi’s.
Finally, the book suffers from the “supporting cast member” syndrome. Clearly Saddam is the key figure in the book; after all he is the only person named in its title. Salbi herself was a mere wallflower, the daughter of Saddam’s friends. It’s a tough burden to show us why we should be reading a book about her instead of a book about Saddam himself.
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