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Mayada, Daughter of Iraq - Jean Sasson

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Genre: Biography / Author: Jean Sasson / Hardcover / 304 Pages / Book is published 2003-10 by Dutton Books

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      23.01.2011 13:56
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      A fascinating book that ends too soon.

      They took me away from my home,
      They slapped me when I cried out for my children,
      They imprisoned me,
      They accused me of crimes I had never commited,
      They interrogated me with their harsh accusations,
      They tortured me with their cruel hands ,
      They stubbed out cigarettes on my flesh,
      They cut out my tongue,
      They raped me,
      They cut off my breasts.
      I wept alone in pain and fear.
      They sentanced me to die,
      They staked me to the wall,
      I begged them for mercy,
      They shot me between the eyes .
      They dumped my body in a shallow grave,
      They buried me without a shroud .
      After my death - they discovered I was innocent .

      - Anonymous

      Mayada Al-Askari leads a pretty priveledged life - with a grandfather that fought alongside Lawrence of Arabia, and another who is regarded by many, including Saddam Hussein himself, as the first true arab nationalist, she's been raised as a respected and admired member of one of the senior familieds in Iraq. Having spent her early years as a child adored by very forward thinking and modern parents, she was lucky enough to have an education and career, unlike many Iraqi women, and in her career as a journalist recieved many awards, some of which she collected from Saddam himself .

      However, all the powerful connections cannot save her when one day, her print shop is searched by the secret police . Forbidden to even call her young children to let them know what is happening, she is bundled into the back of a Toyota, and spirited away to Iraq's now notorious Baladiyat, where she is crammed into a tiny cell with 17 other women .

      Living in a filthy cramped cell with a shared toilet and a diet of mouldy bread and lentils, the only things that while away the time and distract the women from the fear of being tortured, and the sound of others being tortured, is to share their stories - the tales of their lives before prison, and the people they knew in their free lives. With Mayada being something of an Iraqi socialite, her stories naturally fascinate the other women confined in her cell - but Mayada also tells the other womens stories too .

      I found the book very fascinating . Some Dooyoo-ers may already know this, but at one point I was married to an Iraqi, and he had his own tales to tell about his country under Saddams regime. This book was a fascinating insight into the injustice of the Iraqi secret police in a country where even hearing a bad word spoken against the premier was a crime punishable with a long prison sentance.

      As interesting as Mayadas story was, it was actually the stories of the other women in the cell I found the most fascinating . After all, Mayada was lucky, spending only a month in the prison and being tortured only once . Some of the other women had been there for years, with one woman being tortured so long with low voltage electricity that her insides actually begun to smoke .

      One woman in particular really stood out for me - a stunning lady called Samara, who despite being in prison still took pride enough in her appearance to wash her clothes every day. Taking the role of the groups morale officer, she spends all her time trying to cheer everyone up, and encouraging them to build up their strength against whatever torture might be coming next. At one point Samara recites a poem that was carved by an anonymous dead woman into the wall of a prison she was previously incarcerated in - the poem really stood out for me, and seemed to sum up the fears of all the women in the cell so well . That poem is, of course, the one reproduced in part at the top of this review .

      The book is very well written, although I do wonder how many of the words are from Mayada, and how many are the imaginings of the writer, Jean Sasson. I find it hard to imagine, for instance, that whilst being violently bundled into the back of the car, Mayada would have taken the time to note the colour of the sky, or that in her panic she would have gazed long enough at a mural of Saddam to take in every tiny detail .

      I feel the book ended rather abruptly when Mayada was freed, and was very dissapointed that it did not follow up the stories of the other women in the cell . I really was interested in Samara and whether she managed to obtain her freedom, and I also wanted to know whether Sara suffered any lasting internal damage from the electricity torture .

      Overall, I do think this is a good, readable book. I do think it ended rather abruptly and for this reason felt incomplete, and for this I am deducting two stars.

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        01.12.2004 10:52
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        I bought this book a few weeks ago whilst buying Desert Royal by Jean Sasson which, as most of you will probably know by now, is the third of a true-life trilogy for a Saudi Arabian princess.

        So, this is the 4th book I have read by Sasson and again it centres on the life of a Middle Eastern woman. Her name is Mayada and the book is about the true story of the granddaughter of two of Iraq’s most famous and respected leaders; Jafar Pasha Al-Askari (Defence Minister and Prime Minister of Iraq ) and Sati Al-Husri (one of the first Arab Nationalists and also a government minister). This book gives a brilliant insight into the history of Iraq and I gained so much knowledge from reading it.

        Mayada had spent all of her life in Iraq and recounted many episodes depicting her privileged youth. She became a highly respected reporter for a local newspaper, married a man of her own choice and had two children. Her mother was also a very well respected person in her own right; in fact, she held a high government post.

        Her mother impressed Saddam with her knowledge and was a very smartly dressed woman who could afford “designer” labels from Italy and the rest of Europe and it was because of her high fashion sense that Saddam asked her advice before he chose his own suits and he coerced her into helping his uneducated wife, Sajida (mother to 5 of his children), to develop into a sophisticated lady – an unenviable task for anyone and one which Mayada’s mother didn’t want but dare not refuse for fear of reprisal.

        Saddam had been an admirer of Sati Al Husri and had also received teachings from Sati and therefore had some respect for Mayada and her mother.

        The head of security, Dr Fadil became a good friend of Mayada’s family and he often called at their home to sit in the library to read Sati’s teachings and books.

        Mayada, through her association with Dr Fadil, was able to help people and on several occasions she was able to assist acquaintances in locating the whereabouts (prison) of their loved ones. Dr Fadil didn’t like Mayada asking for assistance but he usually helped because of her status in society. It seems so strange that here was a man who ordered the torture of prisoners and yet he did have a small streak of compassion in him.

        Saddam liked reading Mayada’s newspaper articles and she received writing awards from him. The book does have a section showing black and white photographs of Mayada’s family but we do see one of Mayada receiving an award from Saddam.

        She Interviewed Chemical Ali and saw his true nature – she didn’t like him at all and was horrified at the scenes she witnessed at a “democratic” ceremony. This particular chapter of the book was very disturbing.

        Mayada’s mother leaves to live in Amman, Jordan as she knows the Iraq she loved was becoming a very dangerous place to live in and begs Mayada and her children to go too, but Mayada wouldn’t leave her beloved Iraq believing that she was safe until one day the security forces arrested her in her printing shop and she was taken to the worst prison in Baghdad, Balidiyat.

        She hadn’t done anything wrong but that didn’t matter in Saddam’s Iraq. Lots of innocent people were put in prison and tortured.

        Sasson records the experiences of Mayada’s cell mates known as “the shadow women” in Cell 52 – the place which was now home for Mayada.

        I must tell you that it is horrifying. Really, truly, despicable.

        The guards are animals. In fact, I am doing an injustice to animals because they kill to survive – these guards maim and kill for pleasure. The torture given to these women (and also men) is inhumane and I don’t know how most of them survived. Mayada was lucky – her sole experience of torture was nothing compared to that of the other shadow women and it was Saddam who eventually ordered her temporary release.

        Through Mayada’s in-depth knowledge of Saddam, she was able to tell stories to the shadow women and this book gives the reader a glimpse into his notorious family revealing that his wife, Sajida, was a sadist too. For example, a playmate of their youngest daughter, Hadi (who was the only member of the family who didn’t have a heart of stone and who tried to help the Iraqi people) had to do light housework duties whilst Hadi was at school. One day this young girl was hoovering in his Sajida’s bedroom when she realised that a small article had been sucked into the hoover. She found it was a large diamond ring and she promptly gave it to the housekeeper who returned it to Sajida who, in turn, gave it to the young girl in payment for her honesty.

        You might think that this was an extremely nice gesture but, as with anything to do with Saddam and his family, there is a sting in the tale!

        The ordinary Iraqi families were kept at deprivation level; sanctions were in force and Saddam deliberately kept his people hungry. To receive this ring meant that the girl’s family could sell it and buy food and other necessities for survival so this is what they did. A few weeks later Sajida summoned the girl and demanded the ring back as she had been informed that it was a very expensive piece of jewellery. The girl told her what had happened but Sajida didn’t believe her and accused her of stealing. The guards were summoned, the girl was held down onto the floor, her long, flowing hair was shaved off. The girl was crying and Sajida was furious that the girl wouldn’t admit that she still had the ring. The guards were ordered to get an iron and make sure it was plugged into the electricity and was piping hot. The girls hands were held down and the guards ironed the girls hands until the flesh melted from her hands. Sajida told the girl that she wouldn’t need the ring now because she wouldn’t be able to get it on her fingers.

        How can any woman do this to another human being?

        Imagine how this poor girl suffered and she was innocent.

        The majority of stories told in the prison were of innocent people and it was the sheer determination to see their families again that helped them get through the daily torture sessions.

        Cell 52 encountered its own routine each day, mundane as it was and Samara, who suffered routine terrible torture, was the person who mostly gave them all the will to live. If it hadn’t been for the friendship of Samara, I don’t think Mayada would have survived.

        Mayada is one of the very few lucky prisoners – because of her connections she was released after only one month and one small bout of torture (compared to that of her fellow prisoners) and her fellow shadow women were so happy for her. She had to memorise all the contact numbers for these women did this. All telephones were “tapped” and she must just quickly say where the women are and that their families needed to bribe a guard. Samara advised her that, under no circumstances, had she to give her own name or else she would be put straight back into prison.

        Mayada used her cunningness and did contact the families of the shadow women.

        This book is gripping reading, you cannot put it down.

        I recoiled in horror at reading the torture sessions on the shadow women but could only admire them for being so brave. I don’t think – in fact I know – I wouldn’t have survived any time in that Cell 52. Some of the women had been in Cell 52 for 3 years. Can you ever imagine what 3 years of torture has done to these women? I really don’t know how they have survived and so I can only admire them for doing so. Not only do they bear the physical scars of torture but their minds can’t ever rid themselves of the mental side of the torture either.

        I think it is good that Mayada has been able to tell her story to Sasson and that the world now knows what has been happening to the “shadow women”. Most women reading this book will recall in horror, as I did.

        This book is by far the most enlightening that I have read by Sasson and gives us an insight into the brutal regime of Saddam and Chemical Ali (his cousin) but it also lets us know how Iraq used to be, how it was before Saddam and his cruel regime took over and how England played a big part in Iraq.

        As Sasson seems to specialise in writing about Middle Eastern women, I found myself comparing the lives of the Iraqi women against those of the Saudi women. Her heroines come from the upper echelons of society and so, in both regions, they are accorded much more privileges than their common counterparts and are ‘cushioned’ to a certain degree.

        There are vast differences between the two countries and the books show that women in Iraq are, in some respects, treat more courteously than in Saudi Arabia. Iraqi women do not seem to be stigmatised if they divorce their husbands; they are encouraged to have an education and a career. This is generally not allowed in Saudi Arabia – only a few women are allowed to work. Iraqi women can drive and walk in the streets without a male escort so they do have much more freedom than the Saudis.

        However, under Saddam’s regime, Iraqis (both men and women) were subjected to so much heartache. The sudden disappearance of a husband, wife, son or daughter and not knowing where they were imprisoned and why or whether they had been murdered. Innocent people tortured and killed. Iraqis living under constant threat of imprisonment for perhaps saying something negative about Saddam and his regime and even perhaps just looking at someone. The pressure that they lived under must have been immense. How could they trust anyone? I know I would not have been able to do so. Even family members could turn against each other.

        I know that I could only imagine what it must have been like for the poor, ordinary Iraqi.

        My imagination just didn’t touch the surface of the reality of the treatment of the ordinary Iraqi.

        After reading this book, I have gained a deeper depth of understanding about the lives of the Iraqis. When thinking of Iraq previously I would automatically think “Saddam” and think that most Iraqis were like him.

        But they are not.

        Most are ordinary people, like you and me, who try to live in peace and harmony and just want to be educated and have their family lives but have been unable to do so.

        Let us hope that soon the people of Iraq can once again lead a “normal” life without fear of reprisal and torture.

        I sincerely hope they can but I think it will not be for a long time.

        My last thought – I wonder if any of the shadow women of Cell 52 survived? In 2003, Mayada wrote an “open letter” to Samara telling her what happened to her after her release from prison and urging Samara, if by any chance she was to read this book, to contact her.

        My heart went out to these shadow women and I would dearly love to know what happened to them all. Who died? Who survived? The book was published 4 years after Mayada’s release and I am sure that some of the women could not have endured another 4 years of torture. Could anyone? Samara, are you alive?

        Sasson must have made money from the publication of this book and I think it is her duty to try and find out what happened to the shadow women.

        Don’t you?

        I bought this book at my local bookstore for a reduced price of £5.99 but it can be also bought from Amazon.


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