Zainab Salbi is the creator of Women for Women International, a group she birthed out of her own personal pain. Daughter of a highly placed Iraqi family (her father was Saddam Hussein’s pilot) who escaped to the US by submitting to an abusive and loveless marriage, Zainab felt drawn to war zones: “I kept going back to the bullets.” This book is her way of reconciling the disparate parts of her past, and of offering a ray of hope to other women trapped in oppressive situations.
It was not until long afterward, after Zainab had become an icon to many for her work on behalf of displaced and victimized women and was in love with a kind man who appreciated her gifts, that she learned the truth about her arranged first marriage from her mother. Her family had wedded her off to a cold, domineering man in order to get her out of Iraq, out of harm’s way. “Harm’s way” had a name: Saddam, whom the family affectionately called “Amo.”
Amo’s shadow fell over everything that the family did for most of Zainab’s childhood. He asserted his dominance by giving favors and taking them away, by making his favored ones constantly fear his wrath with the veiled threat of destruction. With a word he could tear lives apart. Murder of his enemies was not unknown.
What was known, but never spoken of, was that Amo and his inner circle, including his notorious son Udday, were rapists. Saddam enjoyed humiliating his enemies by raping their wives. He routinely raped the gypsy women who were ordered to his palaces to entertain parties of men. He would ask his car to stop on a street corner and pick up any woman who caught his fancy, taking her back to his lair to have sex with her, willing or unwilling as she might be.
Zainab’s motherAlia believed that Saddam, who lavished gifts on her daughter, was circling his prey, turning on his most dazzling and empathic smiles for the naïve teen. Though Alia and her husband had capitulated in order to survive and were forced to do whatever Amo demanded, she believed that she might save Zainab by arranging a marriage to an Iraqi who lived in the US. “If Mama had told me why she had married me off to Fahkri, she would have destroyed any hope for what had seemed to her a good marriage…this was the only (hope) many Iraqi mothers perceived that would spare their daughters from rape by Udday, and, apparently, Amo himself.”
This book tells the agonizing story of Zainab’s struggle to regain her sense of self after being pulled in many directions by her disintegrating culture and her loving but terrified parents. It is interspersed with telling and emotional excerpts from her mother’s journal. Its message is one of accomplishment arising out of the ashes of desperation. It is intelligently written and almost embarrassingly confessional.
Zainab said that her best teachers were the women she sought to help. “They had the wisdom I was hungry for.” She has become a worthy teacher with this revealing, if harrowing, account.