“He was handsome and charming—no one who meets him ever denies he is attractive.” Thus Saddam Hussein, up close and personal.
The quotation comes from the diary of Salbi’s mother, Alia, a vivacious secular Iraqi whose husband, Salbi’s father, was an airline pilot turned advisor on aviation matters, and for a time the former Iraqi leader’s personal pilot. “Technically,” Salbi writes, “[Saddam] was just my father’s employer,” but he was a friend of sorts, too; “Uncle” liked to show up at their home late at night with a few boxes of Chivas Regal to talk and dance the night away. He was jovial in those days, too, though he confided to Alia that he had killed one of his mistresses when she became involved with another man, never a good strategy with a murderous dictator. The message did not go unheard, and who could deny the leader whatever he wanted? Thus was the milieu in which Salbi grew up, though there is much more to her memoir than all that. She affectingly describes, for example, her childhood discovery of sectarian frictions when a Sunni classmate begins to shun her (“He made me feel like I had cooties”); more strongly still, she recounts the loss of another childhood friendship to politics when a young classmate’s father runs afoul of and is dispatched by the Ba’athist regime. “By the time I met the man who ordered her father’s execution three years later,” she writes, “I had taught myself to forget her last name.” Childhood passes, and when Hussein begins to take closer interest in the adolescent Salbi, her parents send her off to an arranged marriage in America, where she finds herself more or less exiled at the outbreak of the Gulf War—and therein lies another story of challenge overcome.
Though the writing is flat, Salbi’s story has value for those hoping to understand the strangeness and ubiquity of Saddam’s regime.