Remembering What Saddam Hussein’s Iraq Was Really Like

I’m always reading something or another and right now, the book of the week is Marci Shimoff’s Happy For No Reason.

It’s not a book about politics, but part of a story she told in there about an Iraqi woman named Zainab Salbi stuck with me.

Today, because of the violence and chaos in Iraq, we often hear foolish people say that the Iraqis would be better off if Saddam were still in charge. Of course, it goes without saying that people who believe that have their priorities out of whack and place too small a value on freedom. That being said, it’s still worth taking the time to remind people of what life under Saddam Hussein was really like and why all of us, Iraqi or American, should at least be glad he’s gone. That’s what this snippet of a story from Salbi does…

“Life was definitely not normal, and at times felt terrifying and perilous. Then, overnight, it became infinitely more dangerous: my father became Saddam Hussein’s private pilot.

When my father was offered the job, he couldn’t refuse; it would have meant prison, even execution. So we tried to avoid the relationship. But like a poisonous gas, Saddam leaked his way into my family’s home. He took over our lives as we breathed him in slowly. Everything about us eventually became associated with my father’s job. My family’s home was referred to as the pilot’s home, the street I lived on was referred as the pilot’s street, and, worst of all, I was always referred to as the pilot’s daughter.

Like all Iraqi kids, I was instructed to call Saddam “Amo” (Arabic for “uncle”) But unlike the other Iraqi kids, I was often invited with my family to palace parties. Being in Saddam’s inner circle was fraught with danger. My mother instructed me never to relax or let down my guard. Many times we’d be sitting in his living room having a conversation and he would casually mention killing a member of his family or a friend or colleague. Then he’d watch us very carefully. Offending Saddam with the wrong remark or facial expression could be fatal, so I learned to match my responses to his. If he was serious, I was serious. If he smiled, I’d smile. For years, my family and I lived in fear of this man and his craziness.

Then, when I was almost twenty, my mother asked me to accept a marriage proposal from a man I’d never met, an Iraqi expatriate who lived in Chicago. I was horrified. Marrying someone I didn’t know and definitely didn’t love went against everything my parents had said they wanted for me: love, passion, and the freedom to choose my own life. At first, I refused, but my mother cried and pleaded with me so desperately, I finally agreed, more to make my mother happy than anything else. What I didn’t know then, and my mother wouldn’t tell me for another ten years, was that she was worried that Saddam might have begun to have amorous intentions toward me and she was frantic to get me out of Iraq and out of his reach.”

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