One Woman's Survival Under Saddam Hussein

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Iraqi Prison Abuse Allegations Put 'Mayada' in New Light

By Rosalie Rayburn
Journal Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2004

Army Pfc. Lynndie England probably didn't read this book before she became a guard at Abu Ghraib prison.

But Jean Sasson's retelling of the prison experiences of Mayada, a prominent Baghdad journalist, has become a different reading experience as a result of England's (and others') alleged prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

The dim and squalid world of Saddam Hussein's Baladiyat prison that Sasson portrays resonates all the more unpleasantly since the media publication of pictures from Abu Ghraib.

Daily torture sessions at Baladiyat included jolts of electricity that left one of Mayada's cellmates breathing out puffs of smoke. Until the pictures of Abu Ghraib were released, U.S. readers could take comfort in the belief that our side didn't condone torture.

"Mayada, Daughter of Iraq" is familiar territory for Sasson, who has made personal stories of the tribulation of well-connected Arab women her stock in trade. Sasson spent 10 years working in Saudi Arabia where she befriended the princess who became the subject of her best seller "Princess, A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia." In her newest book, Sasson retells the sufferings of Mayada Al-Askari and her prison companions at the hands of a cast of sadistic guards and interrogators in the Baghdad headquarters of Saddam's secret police.

Mayada is a divorced mother of two young children who comes from a prominent family that played a pivotal role in Iraqi politics. Mayada has been a successful journalist and owner of a small printing business. She's accused of printing anti-regime pamphlets and imprisoned before she can make arrangements for someone to take care of her two children.

As in her earlier books, Sasson focuses on the empathy that unites Arab women, whether they face abusive husbands and repressive social strictures or in this case, brutal prison conditions. While the reader feels admiration for "the shadow women" as Mayada calls her companions in Cell 52, Sasson's treatment of the situation verges on the maudlin at times.

It's hard to believe that almost 20 women crammed together in a cell under primitive and terrifying conditions could maintain the sweet-tempered solidarity that apparently characterized Mayada's prison life.

It's equally hard to believe that some of Mayada's companions don't express more resentment for her privileged treatment during her incarceration. Yet Mayada is only interrogated once and suffers mild torture compared to the descriptions of what the other inmates undergo.

Mayada's companions endure almost daily beatings and torture by electric shock. Thanks to her family connections, Mayada gets off lightly. She helps distract her cellmates with tales of her family and her meetings with Saddam Hussein.

The added value of Sasson's book lies in its portrait of Iraq as a deeply troubled country with a rich and complex history. In her introduction, Sasson outlines Iraq's place as a center of learning and commerce in the Middle East. She recounts how its geographic importance as the crossroads between Europe and Asia made it a target for repeated invasions.

And Sasson says that what is now Iraq was once known as Mesopotamia, "an ancient paradise with great glory." It was a culture that produced "poets and scholars, and some early rulers were mighty builders who were devoted to literature and good works, and who gave the first established laws and freedom to the world," she writes.

Sasson's book provides a valuable insight into Iraq not available on the nightly news.

Rosalie Rayburn is a Journal business writer who has lived in Saudi Arabia.


December 22, 2003

MAYADA Al-ASKARI comes from a long line of prestigious Iraqis. Her famous family was respected by many, including Saddam Hussein. Herself an acclaimed writer and recipient of many awards, Mayada was able to save numerous people from imprisonment and death through her friendship with the director of the secret police. Despite the turmoil and devastation that Iraq suffered under Saddam, her family's prominence and their connections within the Iraqi government kept her safe--that is, until the fateful day she was arrested and thrown into the Baladiyat prison complex by Saddam's secret police. In Cell 52, she joined a group of 17 "shadow women" whose innocence meant nothing to their captors; she was tortured and imprisoned for almost a month without trial.

Her painful story, as documented in this fine book by Jean Sasson, is made even more terrifying by the fact that Mayada was one of the fortunate ones: Sheer luck enabled her to escape to Jordan with her life and her children. We are left only to wonder about the Iraqis who were secreted away to rot in prisons unbeknownst to their loved ones because of the paranoid rumblings of their monstrous president. (Reviewed by Meghan Keane)

Publisher’s Weekly - Book Review

September 29, 2003

MAYADA, DAUGHTER OF IRAQ: One Woman’s Survival Under Saddam Hussein

When author Sasson (Ester’s child; Princess Sultana’s Circle, etc) was assigned Mayada Al-Askari as a translator on a 1998 trip to Baghdad, she had no idea she would form a lasting friendship with this fluent English speaker and member of a prominent Iraqi family. When Sasson returned to the United States, the two women wrote letters and telephoned each other weekly until, in 1999, Mayada was arrested by Saddam Hussein’s secret police for illegally printing anti-regime pamphlets in her Baghdad print shop and imprisoned for nearly a month in Iraq’s brutal Baladiyat prison. Sasson’s candid, straight-forward account of Mayada’s time among the 17 “shadow women” crammed into Cell 52 gives readers a glimpse of the cruelty and hardship endured by generations of Iraqis. Mayada stares down this ugliness as soon as she’s yanked from her meticulously run shop into the prison’s interrogation room: “She saw chairs with bindings, tables stacked high with various instruments of torture…But the most frightening pieces of….equipment were the various hooks that dangled from the ceiling. When Mayada glanced to the floor beneath these hooks, she saw splashes of fresh blood, which she supposed were left over from the torture sessions she had heard during the night.” Sasson’s graceful handling of such stomach-turning material, including an overview of Iraq’s political and social turmoil, is a tribute to her friend, who escaped to Jordan with her children soon after her release from prison. Although Mayada’s story has a happy ending, the unclear fates of her cell mates serve as a painful remainder of how many innocent lives were cut short by Hussein’s regime.

BOOKLIST - Book Review

October 15, 2003

Mayada, Daughter of Iraq, One Woman’s Survival under Saddam Hussein

Sasson, author of Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia (1992), first met Mayada in 1998. A year later, Mayada, granddaughter of a revered Iraqi hero who fought with Lawrence of Arabia, a former journalist, modern businesswoman, and the mother of two children, was arrested and imprisoned on allegations that her business was printing antigovernment flyers. Sasson relates Mayada’s imprisonment with 17 “shadow women,” similarly falsely accused and imprisoned and subjected to torture and cruelty under the regime of Saddam Hussein. To distract themselves, the women tell each other stories of their lives, and Mayada discloses her high-born, privileged lifestyle even though her family were not members of the leading Baath Party. She recalls her mother’s acquaintance with Hussein’s wife and their mutual dislike. Mayada also tells of interviews with the cruel and erratic Ali Hassan Al-Majid, Hussein’s cousin and the man who would become known as Chemical Ali. This is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the cruelties suffered by the Iraqis under Hussein. Vanessa Bush

All hell on the eastern front: Reporting Iraq

By Ali Jaafar
Special to The Daily Star
Saturday, May 15, 2004

Book Reviews:

John Keats once wrote of war, "The days of peace and slumberous calm are fled." With the war in Iraq and the continuing uncertainty caused by the "war on terror," one might wonder if the days of peace and slumberous calm have fled for good. Three recently published books, each from a different perspective, attempt to go behind the headlines of the Iraqi conflict, from the first Gulf War of 1991 through to Saddam Hussein's eventual toppling in 2003. Anthony Swofford's "Jarhead" takes the reader on a first person journey through the experiences of a Marine, the eponymous "jarhead" or grunt, sent to liberate Kuwait following Hussein's invasion in 1990. In Jean Sasson's "Mayada: Daughter of Iraq," we witness in graphic detail the horrors of life in Iraq under Hussein, as a privileged Iraqi woman finds herself in the former Iraqi leader's torture cells, awaiting prosecution for a crime she did not commit. Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson's "Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq," throws the reader into the maelstrom of journalists' experiences of reporting on the most recent US-lead invasion of the country.

Swofford's book, perhaps surprisingly, is the most lyrical of the three, his prose alternating between the machine gun banter of a soldier with the wry, wistful soul of a poet: "After we each take a few bites, I throw the pear and when it lands, sand attaches to the moist fruit, like memory to the soft parts of the brain." Swofford, who reads the "Iliad" in the back of a Humvee while on patrol, is a most uncommon jarhead. The idiosyncrasy of his reading material is exposed comically when a fellow "grunt" comments, "That's some heavy dope, sniper. Cool." His sense of detachment extends throughout the book, from his fellow soldiers to his family back home, and ultimately to the country he is supposed to be defending.

Swofford eschews any sense of triumphalism, revealing instead the horrors of war in all its true glory. "These men spread what they call good news, the good news about war and warriors. Some of the men who spread good news have never fought- so what could they have to say about the purity of war and warriors. These men are liars and cheats and they gamble with your freedom and your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and the reputation of your country." It's a measure of Swofford's cynicism that while the journalist John Koopman reminds the reader of his own military background in "Embedded," with the proud words, "Once a Marine, always a Marine," in Swofford's more cynical world, those words are as much a curse as a compliment.

Swofford shares with Sasson a desire to expose the human cost of war and conflict, away from the vainglorious trumpeting of politicians, Arab or American. Sasson's account of the life of Mayada al-Askari, the granddaughter of Sati al-Husri, widely recognized as one of the fathers of Arab nationalism, is a devastating journey into the evil of Saddam Hussein's regime. Though born to a respected, powerful family, Askari finds herself a prisoner of Hussein's jails. Both Swofford and Sasson focus upon the bodies of the dead, with the former Marine writing, "The corpses are badly burned and decaying, and when the wind shifts up the rise, I smell and taste their death, like a moist rotten sponge shoved into my mouth." Where Swofford's landscape of death is limited to the battlefield, for Sasson, this tortured landscape is the city she lives in, and the jail in which she finds herself a captive. "At the top, emaciated men in torn, bloodstained clothing squatted on the floor, their hands bound behind their backs. Every face was bruised, some faces still streamed with blood."

For the journalists in "Embedded," on the other hand, such scenes are nothing new. This desensitization to the everyday cost of war is, to some extent, an occupational hazard for so many combat zone journalists, a consequence of seeing such suffering on a daily basis. In one passage the Voice of America's East Africa Bureau Chief Alisha Ryu graphically sums up the process by which one becomes all too familiar with scenes of devastation. "In Africa I have watched hands being chopped off. I've watched a man being roasted alive and his heart eaten. There is so much brutality that I saw that after a while I became numb to it. It is terrible to say but its true. I now have almost no reaction when I see dead bodies." For all her self-professed blase neutrality, the visceral description betrays the fact that these images will stay with her for a lifetime, a permanent tattoo. That the outrages she describes occurred in Africa, and not Iraq, also serves as an unfortunate reminder that no single party has the copyright on brutality when the fog of war descends on a nation.

Sasson writes in her introductory notes that "Mayada lived her life in Iraq. She grew up in Iraq. She pursued a career in newspaper reporting in Iraq. She was married in Iraq. She gave birth to two children in Iraq. She survived the Iran-Iraq War. She survived the Gulf War. She survived the sanctions. Mayada suffered through nearly every phase of modern Iraq's turbulent history." In beginning her story with such panoramic parameters, Sasson is able to imbue Mayada's story with a universality of the Iraqi experience, which makes her plight all the more shocking. Hers is the story of so many other "shadow women" in Iraq, beaten, raped and violated through the 35-year Baath Party rule.

While Swofford's journey ends on the Iraq-Kuwait border, and the journalists of "Embedded" play in the empty palaces of the now departed Hussein, Mayada takes us face to face with the most senior members of the regime. We hear of her meetings with Hussein himself, "when she had even stood close enough to the man to note the dark green tribal tattoo he once wore on the end of his nose," through to Saddam's son Uday as she attempts to flee the country. "Even though Uday hobbled with a cane, he held an enormous Asian tiger on a leash ... He hobbled through the station, spitting on people and screaming at them. He called everyone a traitor for leaving Iraq."

Most chilling of all, however, is her encounter with Hussein's cousin Ali al-Majid, or Chemical Ali as he would come to be known after he gassed the Kurds in 1988 at Halabja. Granted an exclusive interview after Hussein had repeatedly praised her work, Askari is initially struck by Majid's handsome features. Her first impressions are soon forgotten once she witnesses his capacity for cruelty. "Ali frowned menacingly at the woman and said, 'Listen, whore. Today you will be thrown into the no-man's land between the Iraqi Army and the Iranian Army. Your children will be thrown there with you. The artillery shelling is so heavy that eventually you will all be killed. And that will be a good thing for Iraq.' Ali al-Majid suddenly burst out laughing like a child. He shouted, 'I am a kind man. I am a good man." This is a world with no morality, a country with no law, a city reduced to a battlefield where only the strong and well-connected survive.

All three books look closely at the demoralizing nature of war and military conflict. Swofford writes "the most deadly wars occur in the head," and this is mirrored when Sasson writes of Askari, "That terrifying time would never fade from her memory even if she lived to be a hundred years old." Detroit News reporter John Bebow comments on the same indelible agony in "Embedded:" "I saw them without their skulls. I saw them disemboweled. I saw them shot up and raked by helicopter fire." Much has already been written on the horrors of war, yet here we see in vivid detail its equally corroding effect on soldier, civilian and journalist alike.

The trio of books also deal directly with the coverage of conflict, and the responsibility of journalists in a time of war. Dante believed that, "The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who in times of moral crisis remain neutral." It is the curious predicament of the journalist to find himself seemingly obligated by the very nature of his profession to remain neutral in times of war, a paradox examined intriguingly throughout "Embedded," as countless journalists recall in first-hand accounts their experiences of traveling with troops.

Journalists were 10 times more likely to die than the 250,000 American or British soldiers. Their stories range from adrenaline-fuelled life on the front line, where "covering the war was the great, pure, authentic experience of my career. I was in the enchanted forest," through to the hilariously dull accounts of life in US Central Command in Qatar, where "the profoundly interesting thing ... is that nothing happened." One element which runs through Embedded's mosaic of memories is the inherent sense that these journalists wanted "to be a part of history as it happened." For Askari, on the other hand, history is imposed on her unwittingly as she reveals the vicariousness of life as a journalist under Hussein, at first feted for her writing only to find herself locked up for the false accusation that members of her staff are printing anti-regime flyers.

Ultimately, what these three books have most in common, beside geography, is an abiding sense of the futility of conflict, as well as an underlying uneasiness that this war will not be the last. Swofford concludes his memoir with the heartbreaking lament, "Some wars are unavoidable and need well be fought but this doesn't erase warfare's waste. Sorry, we must say to the mothers whose sons will die horribly. This will never end. Sorry." For Askari, however, a witness to so many mothers' tears, she is able to find a prayer in place of an apology. "This was only the second time in the history of modern Iraq that a blank page had been opened in the nation's book ... Mayada gazed to the east as she prayed, 'May Allah guide the hand that writes on that blank page.'" One can only hope, for Mayada's and Iraq's sake, that her prayers are answered.

Ali Jaafar is a writer based in London with the British Film Institute and is a regular contributor to The Daily Star

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