Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam

By Zainab Salbi and Laurie Becklund

Gotham. 295 pp. $26

Fear, raw and real, entered the Salbi family kitchen on July 22, 1979. Young Zainab Salbi felt it arrive, felt it change her life in Baghdad forever. The 9-year-old girl was with her mother that day, watching Iraq's new president, Saddam Hussein, on a small black-and-white TV. Tall, mustachioed and puffing a fat cigar, he stood on a stage in a huge hall filled with petrified Iraqi politicians, lamenting the presence of traitors among them. A frightened man at Hussein's side was forced to point out others suspected of being disloyal. One by one, guards snatched the men from their seats. Salbi remembers one in particular, a man who begged and pleaded as he was dragged away.

"I felt fear stream out of that small television screen and chill our kitchen, where until that moment I had always felt safe," Salbi writes. "I remember exactly the look on my mother's face. I remember her eyes growing very round and fixing hard on the screen. I had never seen that look on her face ever before, but I recognized it anyway: it was horror."

Her mother, a teacher, turned to her and said, "Honey, things are going to be different with Basma's family from now on," referring to Zainab's best friend. "You can still be friends. You can see her at school, but I'm afraid you can't go to her house to play anymore and she probably won't be able to come here."

"Why not, Mama?"

Her mother took her hands, leaned in close and said, "Zainab, her father was one of those men who was grabbed and taken away."

Early in Salbi's memoir, the tableau of fear is set. One knows from the limits placed even on children's play that Iraq's people will tragically contort themselves and their morals to cope with the atmosphere of fear, suspicion, brutality, rape and humiliation. When Salbi's father becomes the dictator's personal pilot, the noose tightens further.

The Baathist reign of terror is well-trod literary territory, but Salbi delivers much in "Between Two Worlds" that is freshly poignant and newly galling. Hers is a personal, intimate look at the soul-crushing impact of Hussein's Iraq. Writing with journalist Laurie Becklund, Salbi deploys a straightforward, easy prose that is powerful in its simplicity.

The Salbis become props in Hussein's tyrannical drama, forced to accept unannounced late-night visits, to sit and listen to him describe the murder of a mistress and her mother, to dine with him, to travel with him, even to live in his presidential compound; forced to smile and nod and be whatever the despot desired them to be. Her parents teach Zainab and her brother to become chameleons. To survive, they must lie. They must behave as faithful subjects. They must call Hussein Amo (uncle) and act as if they love him.

The pulse of this memoir derives not from the ever-present threat of death but from the maddening forms of compromise that nearly break the Salbis. The mother attempts suicide. (There are intimations that she has been "hurt" in some way by Hussein.) The father numbs himself with strong drink. Both have been expertly trapped. They seem to know they are done for and want only to protect their children.

One night Uday Hussein, the elder of the tyrant's thuggish sons, descends on a party where Zainab, now a teenager, is a guest. Her date knows a way out, and they manage to escape before Uday's security detail locks all the doors. Meanwhile, word circulates back to her parents that Uday has taken over the party; Zainab arrives home to find her father out searching for her, her mother in hysterics, the phone ringing constantly from aunts and women friends fearful of what Uday could be doing to her. She didn't understand all the commotion, she writes. "The women of Baghdad knew what I did not fully comprehend at fifteen or sixteen: Uday, the elder of Amo's two sons, would later become infamous worldwide for his 'rape palaces' where he raped and tortured women." She thought that her family's relationship with Hussein made her immune. She dropped that naive notion the day Uday showed up during her tennis lesson and watched her in her short skirt. Older and wiser, her mother took no chances. She arranged a marriage for Zainab and sent her off to the arms of an Iraqi exile in Los Angeles, who offered a prison of a different kind.

Why didn't the family just flee Iraq long ago? That's truly the rub here. The Salbis were part of the Baghdad elite. They were accustomed to a lifestyle of affluence and influence but ill-equipped to withstand Hussein's many connivances. As Salbi's father explains, "By the time he took over our lives, it was too late for us to leave and too dangerous for the family members we would leave behind."

Even after Saddam Hussein was deposed and captured, Salbi still felt it too dangerous to talk about him. She had grown into a prominent and feted human rights campaigner, leading Women for Women International, a Washington-based nonprofit group giving aid to female survivors of war. She coaxed battered and raped women to tell their stories, but she could not tell her own. Virtually no one knew she was the daughter of a man trapped in Hussein's personal orbit.

Now, with her chilling memoir, the lies end.