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       Mayada, Daughter of Iraq: One Woman's Survival Under Saddam Hussein, p.1

           Jean Sasson
Mayada, Daughter of Iraq: One Woman's Survival Under Saddam Hussein

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page


  Chapter 1 - The Shadow Women of Cell 52

  Chapter 2 - The Four Black Doors

  Chapter 3 - Jido Sati

  Chapter 4 - Saddam Hussein

  Chapter 5 - Saddam’s Wife, “The Lady” Sajida

  Chapter 6 - Chemical Ali and the Veil

  Chapter 7 - Torture

  Chapter 8 - Dr. Fadil and Mayada’s Family

  Chapter 9 - The Chirping of the Qabaj

  Chapter 10 - Dear Samara







  The Rape of Kuwait

  Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia

  Princess Sultana’s Daughters

  Princess Sultana’s Circle

  Ester’s Child


  Published by the Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

  375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

  Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Penguin Books Australia Ltd., 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia

  Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2

  Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, Cnr Rosedale and Airborne Roads, Albany, Auckland 1310, New


  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England

  Published by Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  First printing, October 2003

  Copyright © The Sasson Corporation, 2003

  All rights reserved



  has been applied for.

  eISBN : 978-1-101-11918-1


  Names of certain individuals portrayed in this book have been changed to protect privacy.

  Obituary: Reproduced with permission of The Times of London 02.11.1936

  Speech: Reproduced with permission of Curtis Brown Ltd, London on behalf of Winston S.

  Churchill. Copyright Winston S. Churchill 1921.

  Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the written permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

  This book is printed on acid-free paper. ♾

  To Samara

  and all the shadow women of cell 52


  Meeting Mayada

  Distant places have always called me. So when I received an opportunity to travel to one of the most exotic and dangerous parts of the world, I accepted the challenge.

  I was a young woman in 1978 when I left the United States to work at a royal hospital in Riyadh, where I remained until 1990. While living in Saudi Arabia for twelve years, I developed a strong network of friendships with Saudi women. Through these friendships, I began to understand what it meant to be a woman in a male-dominated society, with little recourse or protection from individual acts of violence and cruelty.

  Since that first trip I have traveled throughout the Middle East: Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Israel, Palestine, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Kuwait. Everywhere I went I would speak to women and children. I would visit the hospitals. I would visit the orphanages. I would attend parties. Thinking back on my success at getting to know the locals, I believe they were as intrigued by me as I was by them.

  My only frustration was that many of the Middle Eastern lands I visited were plagued by hardship; but regardless of the palpable poverty, the people I came to know always extended a welcoming gesture, cheerfully opening their homes and hearts to an American traveler.

  After the 1991 Gulf War, the entire Middle East became even more tumultuous, but particularly Iraq. I’d been interested in the Iraqis since the Gulf War, curious about the people who had lived through wars and sanctions brought about by their own president, Saddam Hussein. Propelled by this interest, I decided to visit Iraq in the summer of 1998.

  As the author of a book critical of Saddam, I knew that I would never be issued a visa by a government official, so I wrote directly to the Iraqi president and sent him a copy of my book, The Rape of Kuwait. In the letter I told Saddam that I hadn’t agreed with his invasion of Kuwait, but that I was concerned about the well-being of ordinary Iraqis who were living under the sanctions. I wanted to see for myself how the Iraqi people were faring.

  Within three weeks, I received a telephone call from Baghdad informing me that my visa would be granted through the Iraqi U.N. Mission in New York.

  I packed my bags with wartime supplies—canned goods, flashlights and candles—and left for Baghdad on Monday, July 20, 1998. With the U.N. sanctions in place, planes were not allowed to fly into Iraq, so I would have to start my voyage from a neighboring country. Considering the distance to Baghdad from other major cities in the area, and the unrest that still plagued the northern and southern regions of Iraq, Jordan appeared to be the perfect place to start my journey.

  The nation of Jordan was created by Great Britain after World War I, during a refashioning of the weakened Ottoman Empire. Today, Jordan occupies an area just over 37,000 square miles (roughly the size of Indiana) and is home to four million people, the majority of whom are Palestinian. The tiny country serves as a highway between Syria and Saudi Arabia, connecting the Syrian city of Damascus and the Saudi Arabian holy city of Medina, in much the same way it served as a natural meeting point for the caravan trails of antiquity.

  Seven hours after boarding Royal Jordanian Airlines flight 6707 from London, I arrived at Jordan’s Queen Ali International Airport, a forty-five-minute drive from the capital city of Amman.

  The dilapidated baggage area of the airport reminded me that Jordan is considered by many to be nothing more than a place to wait for the next connection. Yet Jordan is a land of compelling contrasts—from Aqaba, the source of T. E. Lawrence’s extraordinary adventures, to the gravel plateau of the Syro-Arabian desert, where Bedouin tribes from centuries past graze their animals, to the legendary Petra of the rose-red Nabatean tombs, where elaborate buildings and tombs were carved out of solid rock by a nomadic tribe.

  After a rapid pass through Jordanian customs, I stepped outside the airport. It was still quite warm—the hot July sun had set only moments before the plane touched down.

  I studied the waiting crowd and soon spotted a middle-aged Arab man in well-worn beige trousers and a blue shirt, who held a large white sign with my name written in bright blue letters. I settled into the backseat of his rather exhausted-looking Peugeot 504 station wagon for the forty-five-minute drive to the Inter-Continental Hotel in Amman and, after a few moments of polite conversation, sat back and quietly stared out the window.

  Twilight had set in, and the local desert plants proj
ected their sharp outlines against the peony-pink sky. As is their custom, many Jordanians had driven to the outskirts of the city, where they spread their colorful Oriental rugs on small mounds of dirt for their evening picnics. Dozens of small fires blazed, lighting up the shadowy silhouettes of women grilling chicken on spits. Tiny firelights flashed as Arab men gestured and emphasized with their lighted cigarettes, and small shadows scooted here and there as children played in the endless sand. I lowered the car window and heard the crackling of the fires mingling with the muted voices of family gatherings, and for a fleeting moment I wished to belong to one of those families.

  Amman is an appealing city set among seven hills. We soon arrived at the Inter-Continental, which is in the heart of the diplomatic area set atop one of those hills. I had selected the hotel for no particular reason, other than the assumption that it was a safe place with decent food where I could purchase supplies and organize the 650-mile land journey to Baghdad.

  That first evening I slept fitfully. After several telephone calls the next morning, the Jordanian owner of Al-Rahal arrived at the Inter-Continental in a white Mercedes. His quote for the Amman- Baghdad-Amman round trip was $400 U.S., with half to be paid prior to departing Amman and the other half to be paid prior to departing Baghdad. I paid him the first $200, and was told to expect a four-wheel-drive vehicle the following morning at 5:30. I would be driven by a Jordanian named Basem.

  The people I met that day were rather startled when they discovered that I was traveling alone into Iraq. There were legitimate reasons for their concern. The summer of 1998 was a time of enormous tension between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the United Nations’ chief arms inspector, Richard Butler. Mr. Butler was a persistent character, a man determined to discover and destroy Iraqi weapons, and he had earned the nickname “Mad Dog Butler,” coined by Saddam Hussein himself. Hussein was equally relentless and unwavering in his quest to protect his long-sought and well-guarded weapon supply, of course, and Western news reports made it apparent that Richard Butler was clearly exasperated with the lack of cooperation from Iraqi officials. Everyone in the area feared that something unpleasant was bound to happen between the aggressive dictator to their east and the determined foe to their west. In light of the rising tension and Saddam’s growing animosity, few members of the American media even considered travel into Iraq that summer, and those who did usually chose to travel in disguise, generally under the pretext of working with humanitarian organizations.

  But I have always embraced adventure, and I find it best to travel alone. So it was with great anticipation that I departed Amman at the appointed hour—I felt the sense of an adventure beginning to unfold dramatically.

  Amman was soon behind us, and we passed through the Zarqa district before coming to the Al-Azraq oasis, known for its bumpy, potholed highway. The narrow road, churning with large trucks and buses, stirred terror in my heart. My mouth dried with apprehension as I noted the large number of charred bus and truck carcasses by the roadside—they resembled huge beasts who had suffered agonizing deaths.

  For long hours, Basem and I traveled through land so endlessly monotonous that it appeared to have been scoured clean by high winds. We traveled at eighty miles an hour, yet seemed incapable of escaping the flat beige of the dusty land and its wretched little trees and thorny plants.

  The terrain remained rough, but eventually and dramatically changed shape and color to round, black-lava boulders that sparkled under the midday sun. Unfortunately, we soon reentered the monotonous, featureless terrain of stark, sandy flats.

  As the morning wore on, we sped closer to the Iraqi border. From the days of ancient Mesopotamia, the country now known as Iraq has played a pivotal role in the entire region, and as a result has been invaded and conquered many times. From the Mongols to the Ottomans to the British, many foreign powers have attempted to make the beauty and convenience of Mesopotamia their own. With the end of World War I, the British created the modern nation of Iraq, forcing Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites to come together unnaturally as one.

  After crossing the border and easily passing through Iraqi customs, my heart began to pound with excitement. Before long the ancient Euphrates River came into view. We passed through the region called Al-Anbar, an area dominated by Iraqi Sunnis, chiefly from the Dulaimi tribe. These people sided closely with Saddam Hussein. Even after the senselessness of the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam was so warmly received by the people of the area that he reacted in an uncommon manner for a man burdened with paranoid impulses—he emptied his revolver into the air, leaving himself defenseless.

  Finally, after eleven hours of riding, the low ridge of Baghdad came into view, with palmtops and rooftops rising above the flatland. In silence I gazed at the small beige houses, which, after the bleak desert, assumed the dimensions of a great civilization. Small mosques with huge domes were scattered across the skyline. Homes with balconies and courtyards peered tantalizingly from small cross streets. Occasionally I saw a straggle of scrawny violet or white flowers struggling to grow under the shade of a palm tree.

  Street corners were crowded with pedestrians threading their way through busy city streets. Sadly, the old, quiet streets of Baghdad had turned chaotic, with aging autos on bald tires dawdling behind limping buses that belched black smoke. I knew that the wars and sanctions brought about by the Iraqi government had isolated the Iraqis from the rest of the world, so the sight of generally somber-faced people wearing worn clothing was not a surprise. When we stopped at red lights, I studied the Iraqi faces, knowing I was in the midst of a nation of people who had lived unimaginably dramatic lives. An Iraqi man or woman close to my own age of fifty years would have witnessed rebellions and revolutions, the crowning of kings, numerous government coups, the discovery of oil, the promise of great national riches, wealth wrecked by brutal wars, a repressive police state and crippling sanctions.

  With the dying light I heard the voice of the muezzin calling Muslims to the sundown prayer. I looked up to see a small citadel facing the street. The muezzin’s low-pitched, musical voice soared from the top of the citadel as the sun slowly set. Basem turned in at the Al Rasheed Hotel. I had arrived safely.

  Iraq was a fascinating study in contrasts. Although repressed, the Iraqi people were surprisingly open and friendly. The employees at the Al Rasheed Hotel were unfailingly polite, bringing me photographs of their family members and showering me with small gifts that I knew they could barely afford. Employees at the Ministry of Information invited me into their homes, where I ate their food and met their friends. The guards outside the Ministry followed me to my car to tell me stories of their families. The mothers and fathers of children dying from leukemia at a nearby hospital shared small snacks when I visited the children’s wards. My new driver, hired through the manager of the Al Rasheed, accepted no other employment during my stay and sat for hours in the lobby in case I needed anything. And after three unfamiliar men knocked on my door during the first night of my stay, the hotel management provided a full-time guard outside my room.

  But the most wonderful part of the trip was yet to come. Two days after arriving in Baghdad, I met the unique and unforgettable Mayada Al-Askari, a woman who has become closer to me than a sister.

  My good luck in meeting Mayada owed much to my determination that a woman, rather than a man, would translate for me while I visited Baghdad. After my first day in the city, I wondered why no one from the Ministry of Information had paid me a visit—I had read many stories about their intrusions on foreign guests. By the second day, I had grown impatient and had my driver take me to the Ministry, where I planned to request a translator. I was told that a man by the name of Shakir Al-Dulaimi headed the Ministry’s press center.

  I walked into Shakir’s offices and joked that I had heard that foreigners were followed by Iraqi minders, but that no one seemed to know I was in town. Wasn’t I important enough for a minder? Shakir seemed amused, and told me that if I liked, he would have an Iraqi man ac
company me.

  Because I was interested primarily in Arab women’s issues, and knowing from my years of living in the Middle East that no Arab woman would speak openly in front of an Arab man, I told Shakir that I would have to decline his kind offer. I insisted that I would only accept a female translator. After some friendly bickering, Shakir raised his hands in the air and shrugged, an Arab sign of friendly defeat, and agreed to my demand. (I later learned that official government policy was to hire only male translators.)

  I returned to Shakir’s office the next morning, where I met an Iraqi woman modestly dressed in an ankle-length garment, her face framed by a black scarf. She was average height and slightly overweight, her face was pale with rosy cheeks, and expectation shone from her light green eyes. We studied each other. She then looked at Shakir and back to me.

  The woman seemed kind, and I smiled hopefully, hoping that she might be my guide for the duration of my stay in Iraq.

  She acknowledged my smile with a tentative one of her own.

  Shakir looked at me and announced, “Jean, here is your woman.”

  In a pleasant and lightly accented voice, she said, “I am Mayada Al-Askari.” She told me later that she hadn’t been employed by the Ministry for several years, that the men in charge would almost exclusively hire male translators. I felt glad—and I think she did too—that I had reacted stubbornly to Shakir’s original suggestion.

  Mayada and I became fast friends. I quickly discovered that she spoke fluent English and had a wonderful sense of humor. She was the divorced mother of a fifteen-year-old girl named Fay, and also had a twelve-year-old son named Ali. Mayada shared my passion for animals—she was the proud owner of two house cats, one of whom had just given birth.

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