MAYADA, DAUGHTER OF IRAQ
One Woman's Survival Under Saddam Hussein
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 orphan- ages. 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 projected 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 accompany 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.
Over the next few weeks I discovered that Mayada was a daughter of the ancient land of Mesopotamia, known to the modern world as Iraq. She was proud of her country, for good reason—for much of its history, Mesopotamia was an ancient paradise with great glory. The culture produced artists, 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.
Although many Mosopotamian reformers strived to improve the lot of the nation's citizens, these judicious rulers were often violently overthrown by tyrants who embroiled the country in violence for generations. Long before the rule of Saddam Hussein, continuous conflict raged across Mayada's land. Blessed with two major rivers in a region known for deserts, a desirable geographic location connecting busy trading centers, and great wealth, Mesopotamia was a prized target. From the ancient Sumerians to the Mongols to the Tamerlane to the Persians to the Ottomans, the country was repeatedly conquered and lost.
To understand Mayada's family, one must know something of the rule of the Ottoman Empire, which dominated the entire Near East from 1517 to 1917, and Iraq itself from 1532 to 1917. This vast empire included Asia Minor, the Middle East, Egypt, part of North Africa and even a sliver of southeastern Europe. And in every region they conquered, the Ottomans appointed like-minded allies to govern. The sultans of the Ottoman Empire were Sunni Muslims, so they were inclined to appoint members of the Sunni sect to positions of authority. This gave the Sunnis, who were a minority group, authority over all other Iraqis, including the Shiite majority. The Ottoman rulers thus set the stage for a permanent pattern of ethnic tensions across Mayada's country. But as long as the Ottomans remained in power, these tensions tended to simmer beneath the surface, rather than erupting into chaos. Once the Ottoman Empire buckled, festering hostilities exploded, and those same unstable forces are still alive upon the land.
The Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, the death knell sounded by the Sultan's decision to side with the German forces during the war. With the collapse of the Ottomans, there was great hope that Arabs—who had tolerated human rights abuses for centuries under Ottoman rule—would be able to build free nations and live lives of dignity. Unfortunately, their torment did not end with the demise of the Ottomans because the British and the French already had their armies poised to fill the abyss. The Arabs were shocked to discover that their new European conquerors believed themselves the rightful owners of every resource in the region, rather than the Arabs. And so the circle of dispossession continued. The British felt more at ease with the Sunni guardians, and so the Sunni minority continued to rule the Shiite majority.
These enormous shifts in the fortunes of the Ottoman Empire drastically shaped the lives of Mayada's grandparents and parents, for their lineage led directly back into the heart of the Ottoman palaces. Both of Mayada's grandfathers had lived as respected citizens of the vast empire and were witnesses to the disintegration of Ottoman rule following the Allied victory in World War I. And in their hope for prosperous and free Arab nations, both grandfathers were also involved in the formation and governing of the new Arab states of Syria and Iraq.
Mayada's paternal grandfather, Jafar Pasha Al-Askari, was an extraordinary man who served as the Commander of the Arab Regular Army, fighting with T. E. Lawrence and Prince Faisal to help defeat the Ottoman Empire. Mayada's maternal grandfather, Sati Al-Husri, was celebrated throughout the Arab world as a genius and the father of Arab nationalism, and was one of the first scholars to call for Arab rule over Arab lands.
Like her parents and grandparents before her, Mayada was born a Sunni Muslim. The Sunni sect is the majority sect of the Islamic faith worldwide, although it is the minority sect in several Arab countries, including Iraq. Mayada's mother, Salwa Al-Husri, was the daughter of Sati Al-Husri, while Mayada's father, Nizar Al-Askari, was the son of the famed warrior and government official Jafar Al-Askari.
Mayada's family's home was a popular "political house," and visits and telephone calls from politically connected world figures were common. Because she was a beloved daughter and granddaughter, her family helped guide her life down a path of learning and privilege; she was expected to pursue a career in medicine or art and to live a life of culture.
But Iraqi political conflicts tended to dramatically alter every carefully laid out plan. In 1968, when the Baath Party came to power, most intellectuals fled to neighboring countries, but Mayada's father was dying of cancer and receiving treatment at a local hospital. Mayada's family decided to remain in Baghdad.
Despite Saddam Hussein's rule, which became more tyrannical with each passing year, 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. Despite these hardships, she always believed that she could live out her life in Iraq, the land that she had loved since her childhood.
On one occasion, we were visiting the children's ward in a hospital in Baghdad. I was so overcome by the misery of those children listlessly handling the special toys I had given them that I had to fight my emotions. Just as I was about to break down in tears, I felt the comforting touch of Mayada's hand on my shoulder. She was sorry to witness my sadness. Then a nurse came into the room and without preparing the children for the needles, began to give them their shots. At the sight of so many screaming children, I became desperate to stop their crying and I began to dance and sing, hoping to take their minds off the painful needles. My foolish behavior brought a few weak smiles from the children and loud laughter from their parents, since I have no talent for dancing or singing.
Mayada asked me to step outside the hospital. I was shocked when she began to confide in me how she detested Saddam Hussein, and her one dream in life was to live to see the end of his rule. She said what we all knew, that he was the main reason for the misery of those children. Not only had the dictator started the wars that brought on the sanctions, but she claimed that Saddam was so eager to lay the blame for infant deaths on the sanctions that he was known to hold back medicine from the hospitals—he might, for example, allow only one cancer drug to be issued for leukemia patients who clearly required two or three different drugs to battle certain cancers. Saddam was also known to display empty baby coffins on the streets, in an effort to inflame the world against the United States.
Afraid that a Saddam loyalist might overhear, I was frightened for her safety and tried to calm her down, but nothing I said could stop her tirade.
I had seen with my own eyes that Iraq had been turned into a big cage by Saddam Hussein. It appeared that every Iraqi was waiting to be arrested and tortured for one state-imagined violation or another, but Saddam's rule seemed permanent, and I had little hope that the Iraqis would know freedom anytime soon. When I asked Mayada why she didn't leave to go to Jordan and live with her mother, Mayada justified her loyalty to her country—but not to Saddam Hussein—when she explained that she must live in the country of her father's grave. As an Iraqi, she belonged in Iraq—regardless of danger.
My visit to Baghdad was fleeting, and after only a few weeks Mayada and I had to say goodbye. It was a sad day when I left Baghdad, but from our first meeting, Mayada and I knew that we would be friends for life. After I arrived back in the States, we settled seamlessly into our long- distance friendship. We wrote letters and telephoned each other, keeping in touch on a weekly basis.
A year after our first meeting, Mayada disappeared. There was no answer at her home telephone. I received no response to my letters. But just as I was feeling desperate, she called me. She was home in Baghdad, and she told me that she had been in "the can"—that she had been in prison. I knew better than to ask specific questions, and it was only after she fled to Jordan that I was able to learn the full story of her arrest, torture and escape.
After her arrest, a chain of events set this book in motion. In 1999, Mayada escaped Iraq. In 2000, her daughter, Fay, escaped Iraq. In 2001, New York and Washington, D.C., were attacked by terrorists. That same year, President George Bush sent American forces to root out terrorist factions. In 2002, Bush determined that the Iraqis had suffered enough under Saddam Hussein, and in early 2003, coalition forces removed Hussein from power. That year, Mayada decided that she wanted the world to know the truth about Iraqi life, the truth as told by someone who had seen Iraq from every angle, from Saddam's palaces to Saddam's torture chambers. After discussing the possibility of this book for weeks, Mayada asked me to write the story of her life, and I agreed.
While writing this book I have come to know and love many members of Mayada's family. These great men and women played vital roles in the creation of modern Iraq, and although those wonderful people who came before her are now gone, I am comforted by the fact that all of the history of modern Iraq flows through Mayada Al-Askari's genes, and it is through this remarkable woman that the real truth of modern Iraqi life will stream through the ages.
At about 8:45 on the morning of July 19, 1999, Mayada Al-Askari was driving to her office at full speed. Mornings at her print shop were always the busiest time of the day, and from the large number of orders that had streamed into her shop the day before, Mayada knew this morning would be an especially hectic one. When she opened her business the year before, she had purchased the finest printers in Iraq, and for this reason, the work produced at her shop was considered the best in the entire Mutanabi area. As a result, Mayada had more business than she could handle. She accepted a wide variety of jobs, designing logos and writing text for milk cartons, boxes and bottles. She printed books as well, as long as the print order arrived with a stamp of approval from the Ministry of Information. Mayada ran such an efficient business that many other printing houses in the district outsourced their work to her, their competitor, and passed off her work as their own.
Mayada glanced at her watch. She was running late. She careened around corners, but made certain she didn't exceed the speed limit. She glanced through the windshield at the sky. It was growing dark with blowing sand, looking much like a foggy day in England. The wind was beginning to gust, rising and falling in heated blasts. July was an unpleasant month in Iraq. Mayada yearned to escape the heat and fly to the mountains of Lebanon for a holiday, but she no longer had extra money for vacations, so she pushed those thoughts aside. She parked her car on the street and stepped to the sidewalk. To keep the wind from stinging her eyes and irritating her throat and lungs, she tilted her head down and placed her hand over her mouth, walking rapidly. To her relief, the door to the shop was unlocked. Mayada's dedicated staff was already at work. She had a committed group of employees, and not only because she paid higher salaries than most other printing offices. They were simply a well-educated, serious bunch.
Mayada took a quick look around the office. Hussain, Adel and Wissam were already at their computers. Her eyes strayed to the little kitchenette at the back of the shop. There was Nahla, making coffee. Nahla smiled and walked toward her, holding out a cup. Before Mayada could raise the cup to her lips, she was approached by Hussain and Shermeen, both talking at once about the graphic design projects they were working on. They were interrupted by a new client who rushed through the unlocked door, anxious to start a conversation with Mayada. The young man said he was a Tunisian student and that he had been referred to her by another shop owner in the area. He wanted her to translate and prepare a questionnaire for him. Mayada was discussing his job when the front door flew open and three men strode into her small office. Her heart skipped a beat, sensing instantly that the men were too rigid to be customers.
The tallest of the three men asked, "Is your name Mayada Nizar Jafar Mustafa Al-Askari?" His question astonished Mayada, for few people knew her full name. She used "Mustafa" particularly rarely, though it was a name she bore proudly. It harked back to her great-grandfather Mustafa Al-Askari, who, like her grandfather Jafar, was an important officer in the once-great Ottoman army.
Mayada stood quietly, searching the eyes of the men before her. For a moment she considered fleeing or lashing out, but her father was dead and she was divorced. Mayada did not have a man in the family to protect her. She uttered a weak reverberation that sounded enough like "yes." The tall man curtly informed her, "My name is Lieutenant Colonel Muhammed Jassim Raheem and these are my two colleagues. We will search this place."
Mayada found her voice by this time and managed to ask a simple question, "What are you looking for?"
The lieutenant colonel lifted his neck only a little and the loose skin swung one way and then the other before he answered, discharging each individual word like so many bullets: "You tell us." Mayada was silenced. She did not know what words or actions might save her as the three men began to tear her small business apart. Waste bins were emptied; the undersides of the chairs were scrutinized; telephones were opened with screwdrivers. Then the men seized her cherished computers and printers. Mayada knew she would never find the funds to replace them as she watched the men load the computers into the trunks of their two white Toyota Corollas, the choice vehicle of the Iraqi secret police. Helpless, Mayada slowly crumpled the Tunisian student's papers she held in her hand, watching as the men destroyed her future.
She took a quick look at her frightened employees. They had gathered in a corner of the room, not daring to breathe. Nahla's face was pale and her lips trembled. The Tunisian student tittered, rubbing his hands, his face filled with regret that he had come into her shop.
Mayada did not doubt she was the next item to be loaded into the ominous automobile and she begged the lieutenant colonel for one phone call. "Can I please call my two children and tell them where you are taking me?"
He gave her a sinister look, then shouted, "No!"
She spoke as gently as she could. "Please. I must call my children. My children have no one but me."
Her heartfelt plea failed to touch the man. "No!" He snapped his fingers and his two cohorts surrounded her.
Sandwiched by the two men, she was led away. At the front door of her office she turned her neck and looked back, wondering if she would ever return.
From the backseat of the Toyota, Mayada saw the sympathetic eyes of a passerby steal frightened glances at her before he scurried away.
As the Toyota sped through the busy streets of Baghdad, she grew lightheaded. She willed herself to concentrate on the orange and yellow sky outside that swirled with billowing dust. The sandstorm now fully cloaked the city. Normally her only concern when churning sands approached Baghdad was to protect her home by blanketing windows and shoving papers under the doors. She would wait out the fury of the windblown sand and then seize a broom and dust cloth to fill small buckets with sand, which she emptied into her garden. Mayada's stomach plunged. She glanced out the car window and watched as tattered but once-proud Iraqis passed. Twenty years ago when she was a young woman, Iraq had hummed with promise. The country boasted splendid avenues, fine shops, beautiful homes and a promising future. But under Saddam, Iraq grew diminished and dilapidated. Corruption clogged every government department. Iraqis were even reduced to standing in long lines for miserly tins of flour, oil and sugar dis- tributed as rations in exchange for Iraqi oil exports under the U.N. 661 agreement.
It was a bitter time for nearly every Iraqi. Even Mayada's mother, Salwa Al-Husri, a strong, intelligent woman intent on supporting Iraq, could no longer maintain her faith that Iraq would soon rebound. Salwa had finally given up on her country and left to live in nearby Jordan. Mayada's real troubles began after she divorced her husband, Salam, in 1988. The year after, she had left her job as a newspaper columnist and gone into the printing business for herself. But the Iraqi dinar had been drastically devalued and she lost everything. Once again, and in a weakened job market, Mayada was seeking employment. After the wars and the sanctions, few Iraqis had jobs. But for women, the challenge of finding work was even more daunting than for men. An unspoken government policy kept as many men working as possible, but evinced no concern for women who did not have a husband to support the family.
With two children to support and on the verge of complete financial collapse, Mayada asked God for a small miracle.
Her miracle came in the human form of Michael Simpkin, a television producer for Britain's Channel 4. He sought Mayada's mother in Amman and asked Salwa's assistance to meet Prime Minister Tariq Aziz or Minister of Defense Sultan Hashim. Salwa's contacts and influence in Iraq were deep, and she still knew the private telephone numbers of high Iraqi officials. She placed a few calls and established Michael Simpkin as someone government bureaucrats should meet. The British journalist met with Aziz, Hashim and Saad Qasim Hamoudi, the man responsible for foreign relations in Saddam's palace.
Salwa also encouraged Simpkin to meet her daughter Mayada while he was in Iraq, and Simpkin paid a visit to her home on Baghdad's Wazihiya Place. While there, Simpkin told Mayada he needed to hire an interpreter. Once he learned of Mayada's credentials as a journalist and heard her fluent English, he hired her, agreeing to pay her salary in U.S. dollars.
Simpkin's TV program, "War for the Gulf," was a success, and the moment the British journalist departed Baghdad, Mayada formed a plan to go back into business. She had been capable of running her own business, which was destroyed only because of Iraq's precarious financial situation. The business failure had been no fault of her own. She would simply try once again. She had never been so joyous as on the day she slipped her dollars into her handbag and entered a store to purchase six computers and three printers. The joy surpassed even that of her wedding day, when in an elegant white suit she felt beautiful for the first time in her life.
With her dollars and her determination, Mayada reentered the world of commercial printing. With time, and after long hours each workday, her small business grew profitable. She was feeding and educating her children, without any assistance from anyone. With her success, Mayada came to believe that the worst of times were now behind her.
But she should have known better, she told herself now. Over the past few years, Baath officials had become increasingly suspicious of printing companies, because printed flyers were proving a popular method of attacking Saddam's weakening government. Although she took great care to keep her business above official reproach, innocence alone did not keep one safe.
When she leaned slightly forward and looked through the front window of the car an awesome fear such as she had never known gripped her mind. She was on the way to the "Darb Al-Sad Ma red," the "road from which there is no return."
She knew by the route the car was following that she was being taken to Baladiyat, the headquarters of Saddam's secret police, which also served as a prison complex.
Mayada had never before been inside this compound, but during the time the prison was being built, she had frequently passed the construction site in the mornings on her way to work. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine she would one day be imprisoned there. But the unimaginable day was now upon her and she feared that death awaited her at Baladiyat. Within minutes, the main entrance of the prison compound came into view. The automobile passed through a huge, grotesque black gate decorated with two hanging murals. In the gold- plated murals, Saddam overlooked the Iraqi people as they toiled in fields, factories and offices. The driver stopped directly in front of a large building with small windows centered high atop the structure. Mayada went weak with dread, and when the two men lifted her from the Toyota, she noted the black sand clouds had completely obscured the sky. Her fear made her dizzy but she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, admonishing herself to remain in control of her senses. She found use of her muscles and forced herself to look up. The face of Saddam Hussein stared back from every compass point.
Mayada had been in Saddam's presence more than once. 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. Baath party slogans were plastered on posters everywhere. "He who does not plant does not eat." Mayada couldn't help but wonder if she would ever be hungry again. As they pulled her into the building she looked upward to say a small prayer. "God, keep Fay and Ali safe and return me to them."
A man on either side of her guided Mayada up the stairs. At the top, emaciated men in torn, bloodstained clothing squatted on the floor, their hands bound behind their backs. Every face was bruised black; some faces still streamed with blood. No one squatting in the hallway spoke, but Mayada felt an aura of sincere compassion follow her awkward progress as she was dragged down the hall and into a nearby room.
By this time Mayada was stumbling and weeping in absolute terror.
Unlike many Arab women who were long burdened by cruel fathers and other men, Mayada had never known male dominance or masculine outrage. Her father, Nizar Jafar Al-Askari, had always been a gentle man. He never once favored the idea of sons over daughters, even though in Iraq a man surrounded by females is often pitied.
When Mayada was born, her father felt concern even for the reaction of Scottie, the much-loved black Scottish terrier he'd acquired in England. Mayada's father lifted Scottie in his arms and took him into the nursery to sniff at Mayada's feet. He advised Scottie that the feet of his daughter had been designated as his limit for the time being, but that one day soon Mayada would be old enough to play with him as his companion.
Deep in Saddam's secret police headquarters, Mayada was overwhelmed by the wish to have her peaceful father by her side. She had never felt so alone in forty-three years of living as she did at that moment.
Someone shoved her from behind and Mayada was propelled into a room with a fierceness that loosened her sandals. She barely managed to catch her footing without sprawling on the floor. A man stood behind a desk and shouted into a telephone. The skin on his face was youthful but his hair was completely white.
He slammed the phone down and glared at Mayada, then shouted, "And what do you think you were going to accomplish by this treason?"
Mayada began crying even harder at the word "treason," for she knew that such a charge would mean certain death in Iraq. She clutched her hand to her throat and sputtered, "What do you mean?"
He screamed loudly, "You lowlifes have the guts to print leaflets against the government!" She did not understand this charge. Her small print shop had never been asked to print leaflets criticizing the government, and even if it had, she would have refused. She knew such a thing would gain the attention of Saddam's secret police and would end in the deaths of every man, woman and child associated with her shop. Only revolutionaries with a mind to overthrow Saddam became involved in such unlawful activities. She was a law-abiding citizen who was careful to stay far out of reach of political controversy.
As she stood there petrified, the white-haired man shouted, "Take this lowlife woman away! I will tend to her later!" Mayada feared what he meant, but her thoughts shifted to Fay and Ali. In Iraq, when a family member is arrested, the family's children are often taken away to be tortured, as well. Mayada summoned all her courage and asked the white-haired man, "Where are you sending me?"
He looked at her and shouted, "Detention!"
Mayada's background gave her the courage to ask, "Can I please make one phone call?"
Mayada was well-born, and knew that every Iraqi was aware of the prestige associated with her family. Operating on instinct, she delivered her own threat by adding, "My mother is Salwa Al-Husri."
The man's foot was raised inches from the floor, and he paused in that silly position to look at her. As he considered his response, he continued to hold his foot elevated. At any other time in her life Mayada would have laughed at his ridiculous posture, but the moment was wholly devoid of humor. Still, she felt the smallest glimmer of hope. Was it possible that the white-haired man did not know who she was? His apparent utter surprise gave her hope that her words might change the course of events.
She told him, "Sooner or later you will have to answer to someone. My mother has many contacts at the highest ranks."
As in slow motion, he placed his upheld foot back on the floor. But she could see that he was still thinking. Without a word, he handed her the telephone.
Her trembling hands were so pale she wondered if somehow the blood had left them. She took the phone and dialed her home, praying that her children would answer, praying that they had not been taken. The phone rang and rang.
There was no answer.
Without looking into the man's face, she fought her panic and dialed a second time, hoping that in her jumbled mental state she had misdialed her home number.
As the phone continued to ring, the man stood and watched, tilting his head first one way and then another.
Suddenly he grabbed the phone from Mayada's hands. The fears of every bombing raid she'd endured during the war years could not compare with her terror at the idea that the secret police might lay a hand on Fay and Ali. But she would be left without an answer. With a smirk, the white-haired man gestured for her to leave.
Mayada had to make a second pass of the prisoners still squatting in the hallway, and she steeled herself with the knowledge that she was now one of them. And worse, no one outside Baladiyat knew where she was.
The two guards pulled matching, black-tinted sunglasses from their pants pockets and placed them across their eyes. They crowded around her, walking along with solemn expressions and nudging her shoulders with their hands to urge her forward. She was escorted out of the building and across the prison grounds.
Since she had never been to this compound before, she found herself comparing this new center of operations to the old secret police headquarters, a place she had visited a number of times during the 1980s, when family friend and mentor Dr. Fadil Al-Barrak worked there as Director General. At that time, she'd had no idea that the place she visited held such horrors. As far as Mayada knew, Dr. Fadil, as she called him, was a man in charge of Iraq's security, a man who protected Iraqis from dangerous opposition groups or internal terrorists. When she visited Dr. Fadil at the secret police headquarters, she went there to discuss his books or to explore her writing career.
But now Mayada felt overwhelming guilt for benefiting from her family's relationship with Dr. Fadil—she now understood that he had presided over a place where thousands of Iraqis were tortured to death. She now knew that she had deceived herself about the reality of her government's shameful activities, and that in her youthful na├»vet├ę she could not see her country as she should have. She compared long-forgotten things that she suddenly remembered from the old headquarters with what she was now seeing at this new center. Everything was different, and the new buildings reflected those changes.
When Dr. Fadil was Director General—or, as he was called by everyone in the secret police service, "Al-Sayid Al-Aam," or "Mr. General"—the secret police headquarters was in Al- Masbah, close to Park Al-Sadoun, a Baghdad area that was once inhabited by Jews and Christians. The homes in that area were built in the old Bagh- dad style, with ornate shutters and large balconies, and generous gardens where laughing children would play games of hide-and-seek and hopscotch.
One beautiful Iraqi morning, government officials had unexpectedly arrived and confiscated those fine old homes from their owners, then built a high fence around the neighborhood and turned the area into a warren of buildings and streets with hidden chambers.
Dr. Fadil, who had ruled over the entire department and answered only to Saddam, had built himself a modern office in the midst of these old homes. The ground floor of his office building was a garage filled with new Japanese automobiles, which Mayada knew had been given as gifts by Saddam Hussein. Dr. Fadil's office was furnished with a huge mahogany desk and a dark leather couch, with two lofty chairs and glass coffee tables. The ceiling was constructed of small metal squares decorated in a pop-art image so dazzlingly bizarre that Mayada imagined it suitable for a dance club. His huge office had every modern convenience, including numerous monitors on which he could view every aspect of the rambling prison. Dr. Fadil's office also boasted such luxuries as video machines, which were then very rare in Iraq, as well as a small movie screen on which he invited close friends to view the latest Hollywood movies. He even had a large swimming pool constructed at his office.
In the spring of 1984, Dr. Fadil had been promoted and transferred to the Iraqi Intelligence Service, and his new offices were located at Sahat Al-Nosour, in the Al-Mansour area. Mayada had visited him in his new headquarters at various times until 1990, when Saddam ordered Fadil's arrest. She knew that if Dr. Fadil were still in charge she would be a welcomed visitor to Baladiyat, rather than a frightened prisoner.
Mayada and her two guards arrived at a solid block of concrete buildings. As she passed through the door she was taken into a spherically shaped office to the right of the entrance hall. There a small-boned man with a wrinkled face sat behind a circular desk. She eyed him closely. His face was wrinkled by worries, not by time. She could not explain how she knew that the man had been aged by what he had seen, rather than by the number of years that had passed, but somehow she knew.
He suddenly spoke. He ordered her to give him her possessions. He registered each item calmly: a ring, a watch, a wallet with 20,000 Iraqi dinars (about U.S. $10), a workbook with assignments for printing and design, a telephone book, a compulsory identification card, her keys and, finally, a note from her daughter Fay reminding her not to forget the luncheon date they had made for that day.
Another man suddenly came out of nowhere, grabbed her right hand and crushed her thumb onto an inkpad. He stamped an impression of her thumb on the list of her belongings. A second man then came into the room, and the two guards took her to the prison cells.
After passing a double door, she found herself in a long corridor lined with cell doors. The men stopped in front of the third door on the right. Mayada stood nervously while the thickset man unlocked the heavy padlock and gestured her to enter. Then she saw it. "52." Terrified, she cried out, "Noooooo."
She trembled in disbelief as she reached out toward the number. They were going to lock her into cell number 52. Her eyes began to prickle, then her flesh began burning from her toes to the top of her head. The number 52 pressed against her heart like an iron fist—52 was an unlucky number that had pursued her family for generations. Her beloved father had died at age 52, in room 52 at the Nun's Hospital. Her father's father, Jafar Pasha Al-Askari, had been assassinated at age 52. And now she was being locked into cell 52. Mayada felt certain that her arrest was as good as a death sentence. No! She could not enter that cell. No one could make her. She planted her feet firmly on the floor and looked around for something firm to cling to.
The pock-faced guard shouted. "Go in!" Mayada's voice was jerky, the words she spoke almost inaudible. "I cannot. I cannot."
The guard's jaw tightened. "Go in, I said!" The second man gave her a violent shove.
Mayada flew sprawling into cell number 52. She groped at the cell wall with her fingers to keep from falling. Her vision blurred as she slid her fingers over the cool wall.
She heard the slamming of the door and the click of the lock behind her. She was trapped. With her palms pressed hard against the wall, Mayada regained her balance. She stood in the middle of a small, rectangular cell.
Flushed and panting and confused by the fluorescent lights on the ceiling and the dancing shadows all around her, she broke into tears when she realized that the shadows were not actually shadows at all. The images formed into women, and one of the women walked toward her. In a voice filled with kindness she asked, "Why are you here?"
The woman who moved toward Mayada stood silent, aside from her question, giving Mayada time to gather her wits. She made an effort to respond to the woman's simple question, but could not speak. Instead, she flapped her hands and arms up and down. She did not know why she responded like this, and she worried what the other women must think. Genuinely frightened, she was afraid that the other women would call the guards to take her away to a mental ward. To avoid that fate, Mayada made a great effort to clear her lungs, which were bursting with tension. She struggled to force saliva onto her swollen tongue and into her dry mouth; she had had no water to drink since her morning arrest. She blinked her eyes several times in an attempt to adjust to the light. Mayada was too confused by the poorly lit interior of the cell to tally the indistinct silhouettes that she now knew were other prisoners, but she believed there were more than a dozen dark "shadow women." For some reason, their presence gave Mayada a feeling of unexpected consolation.
She later learned that she was prisoner number eighteen in a cell meant to hold eight prisoners, but as Mayada looked around at the overcrowded rectangular cell, that number might as well have been eighty. A toilet had been purposely placed in the cell's one spot that lay in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, the point toward which she was supposed to take her five daily prayers. This was an intentional insult against every Muslim, because all Islamic architecture takes great care to locate toilets as far away as possible from the direction of the Kaaba.
Mayada's mind was now moved from her thoughts of prayer by a terrible stench. She had never smelled such a disgusting odor, even during the worst of the war, when rescuers were tugging at burned bodies that had been concealed under concrete ruins for days. The cell's vile odor was so overwhelming that she could only imagine that it must have arisen from vomit covering the floor. She was so convinced that she stood in piles of filth that she lifted her sandals and examined the soles, but they were clean. She cautiously inhaled and decided that the odor was everywhere. She could only assume that the stench of lentils cooking in the prison kitchen had seeped through the cement of the cell, where it merged with the scent of unwashed bodies and the strong stench of the frequently used toilet. Before turning her attention to the woman who had spoken, Mayada took another long look around the cell. Red, black and gray graffiti was scrawled on the walls—she hoped that the red messages weren't written in blood. She saw a glimmer of sunlight coming through a tiny barred window at the top of the back wall. Two iron benches that she presumed were bunks ran along the sides of the room.
The owner of the sympathetic voice stepped closer and a hand gently touched Mayada's shoulder. "Why are you here, little dove?" she asked.
Mayada looked into the woman's face and saw that she was beautiful. The woman's skin was extremely fair. She even had a few freckles scattered over her delicate nose. Her vivid green eyes shone.
The beautiful woman spoke again. "I am Samara. Why are you here?"
Other shadow women stepped forward to listen, and the expressions on their faces conveyed compassion for Mayada.
Mayada looked into their faces and shared the official explanation for her arrest. "The white- haired man told me that my printing company had printed something against the government, but that is not true. I have printed nothing against the government."
Hearing her own words caused Mayada to crack. The faces of her two children flashed before her eyes. She was going to take Fay to a luncheon and then to the dentist. Ali needed to go to the barber shop. Afterward they were going grocery shopping. Now she was frantic that Fay's infected tooth was hurting.
Only two days before, they had celebrated Fay's sixteenth birthday. Mayada had spent more money than she possessed to make her daughter happy. She had arranged for a birthday celebration in the Alwiya Club, a fashionable social club in Baghdad. Mayada's own grandparents and parents had held many celebrations in that club, so it was always fun to party there, a small way of anchoring Mayada and Fay and Ali firmly to their past. Now, with her arrest, all of their lives were jeopardized in a way that would have seemed unbelievable yesterday. Mayada could no longer restrain the sorrow eating away at her and she cried out, "My children! There is no one to take care of them!"
Samara took one of Mayada's hands into her own and said, "Listen, you need to build a wall around everything you left behind. For now, you must think only about saving yourself. Otherwise, you will go crazy."
Mayada couldn't think normally, and she knew that nothing would ever make her stop worrying about her children. But something told her to take a deep breath and to listen. Samara could help her survive. Mayada nodded, but tears continued to stream down her cheeks. Mayada winced when she noticed for the first time that other than Samara, every face looked pale and hopeless. It was clear that Samara was a practical woman when she ignored Mayada's tears and asked her, "Are you hungry? We will share what we have with you."
"No. Thank you. No, no." The thought of eating was nauseating.
Samara was so kindhearted that she insisted, "You must keep yourself strong. During the interrogations they try to break our spirit along with our bones."
When Samara saw a look of complete terror wash over Mayada's face, she placed her hand on Mayada's back. "Put the thought of your children in a little compartment for now. Surely someone on the outside will tend to their needs. Think only of yourself until you get out of here. They will bring us some lentils or rice soon, and if you do not want to eat now, I will save you a plate. But here is some advice." She leaned toward Mayada and whispered in a conspiratorial tone, "Never eat the eggplant. They served eggplant soup a month ago and we were all poisoned and could do nothing but lie on the floor writhing in pain for many days. We later heard that many prisoners died, although everyone in our cell survived."
Samara's advice chilled Mayada, and she thought she was going to collapse. Then, at first quietly but growing in volume, Mayada heard the most exquisite voice drifting through the cement walls of the prison. A male voice was reciting Surah 36 of the Quran, Al-Yasin. In the Muslim faith, it is believed that whoever recites those particu- lar verses is granted the blessing of a wish. The beautiful voice was chanting, "For that my Lord has granted me forgiveness and has enrolled me among those held in honor!"
Mayada leaned her head against the gritty cell wall with the other shadow women and listened to the soothing verses.
The voice continued with the words of consolation, "Verily the companions of the garden shall that day have joy in all that they do. They and their associates will be in groves of (cool) shade, reclining on thrones (of dignity)."
A tall woman with big brown eyes muttered, "They are going to kill that poor soul if he doesn't stop."
Samara looked at the brown-eyed woman and said, "Roula, pray for him."
Her curiosity aroused by the superb voice she was hearing, Mayada lifted her head and asked, "Who is that?"
"That is a young man named Ahmed," Samara answered. "He's a Shiite who has been arrested because he converted to the Wahhabi sect."
The strict Wahhabi sect originated in Saudi Arabia. The Iraqi government forbade Iraqis from joining the group, which was considered dangerously radical by most other Muslims.
A third shadow woman, sitting on a metal bunk brushing her long red hair, added, "Ahmed has been here for six months. Every evening he recites the Quran. Every evening they take him out and beat him. His screams shatter the walls of our cell but the moment they return him to his cell, he begins reciting once again. He is very defiant." She nodded her head sadly.
"Yes, Wafae," Samara noted, "and he steadfastly recites even as they are beating him." Mayada was now so exhausted that her legs could no longer support her frame. She slowly slipped downward, until she sat crumpled on the cool cement floor like some of the mentally disturbed beggars she had seen sitting on Baghdad street corners.
The other shadow women gathered around Mayada, and three or four lifted her from the floor and led her to one of the iron beds, as though she were a helpless baby. They tenderly sat her down, and she felt the comforting touch of a cotton cloak as it was laid upon her shivering body.
Iraqis can readily gauge the social status of another Iraqi, an intuition no prison cell can erase. Despite her exhaustion, Mayada overheard one of the shadow women, addressed as Asia by a second woman, whisper, "This may be our lucky night. With one of the well-born bunked in this cell, perhaps the guards will increase our quota of food."
Mayada was so dispirited that she lay in silence while the shadow women continued to gently question her. She did not wish to appear ungracious, but she could not find the strength to utter a single word in response to their inquiries.
Samara settled on the floor beside the iron bed and began to tell Mayada her story. "I am a Shiite. Despite the guaranteed difficulties awaiting Shiites at every official Iraqi corner, I am proud of my background.
"I've been told by family members that I was born an unusually pretty child. My maternal grandfather favored me from the first moment. So he asked my father to let me carry his name forward. My parents agreed, because they had more children than they could feed." Samara smiled. "Besides, I was but another daughter, not as valued as my brothers. So my official Iraqi identification papers were issued in the name of my grandfather, rather than my father's." She added proudly, "I grew up a bit of a legend in the region because many people claimed that I was very beautiful."
Mayada nodded in understanding. Iraqi society values nothing more than great beauty. And this shadow woman was a raving beauty.
"When I reached puberty, many men asked my grandfather for permission to marry me. So I was married at an early age to the best man of the lot. I had known him from childhood. He was a good man. And, although we were poor, we had no troubles until the Iran-Iraq war began. As you know, Shiites were not given the advantage of any government benefits, yet our men were expected to slip on their army fatigues with the enthusiasm of someone enticed with a plate of gold."
She turned her green eyes toward Mayada. "My husband, like every other man in the village, dutifully went off to war. I was grateful that he was allowed to come home several times a year, but his war breaks meant I became pregnant each time he visited." Her eyes suddenly narrowed. "Several days after the birth of my third child, I received word that my young husband had been killed during an important battle. Whether the battle was important or unimportant, nothing mattered to me but the fact my husband was dead. I was a young woman left alone with two sons and a daughter to feed. I became sleepless with worry.
"A few weeks after my husband's death, the government returned a coffin that they said contained his body. The accompanying official warned us not to open the coffin. We assumed the man was protecting our feelings, that he had been maimed. I didn't want to see my husband. I was afraid he had been so disfigured by those Iranian artillery shells that my eyes would be haunted by the sight of him. But one of my husband's brothers insisted that the coffin be opened." Samara turned to stare at Mayada. "When my husband's brothers disobeyed government orders and opened the coffin, what do you think they found?"
Mayada shook her head and asked, "What did they find?"
Samara's mouth flew open. "The coffin was filled with dirt!"
Samara clenched her jaw. "Yes. Dirt. Can you believe it?"
"What did you do then?"
Samara gestured, raising a hand in the air. "What could we do? If we complained about that dirt, then everyone would have been arrested for disobeying direct orders."
Samara continued, "The family had the burial service and everyone cried. We could never stop mourning, wondering if my husband was truly dead, or if he had been taken prisoner by the Iranians and was rotting in some Iranian cell. To this day, the truth of my husband's body remains a mystery."
Samara bristled at her memory. "That is Iraq for you."
Mayada sat silent and motionless, a great sadness overwhelm- ing her.
"Then a second man proposed marriage soon after we buried that dirt. I was lucky once again. My second husband was a reasonable man who was kind to my poor, fatherless children." Mayada looked thoughtfully at Samara. Most Arab women widowed and left with three children would have a difficult time finding a husband willing to assume the responsibility of another man's children. But this woman's flawless beauty was so striking that many men would want to marry her, Mayada was certain.
"We only had one problem. My second husband was not comfortable with the fact that I carried the name of my grandfather, rather than the name of my father. In his opinion, it was a sign of a father's shame that his daughter would owe immediate allegiance to another, even to her mother's father. So to make him happy I changed my official papers, in precisely the way the town officials advised."
For just a moment, Samara's face wore a sorrowful expression, then she smiled and patted Mayada on the arm. "You see, after the Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf War and U.N. sanctions, my husband found it impossible to find any work. Then by 1997 we were so desperate that we decided to leave the children with my first husband's family and go to Jordan. We had heard of other couples who had done this. So we bought cigarettes at a cheap price and sat on the pavement of Al-Hashimi in downtown Amman. We made a nice profit on those cigarettes. Not only were we able to support ourselves, but we had money left over to send back into Iraq, to help his family and mine. But we were stupid. We were so caught up in making enough money to feed everyone that we neglected our official papers. We overstayed our visa. We found ourselves stranded in Jordan. We didn't know what we were going to do. But after the sad death of His Majesty King Hussein in February 1999, his son Abdullah, the new sovereign, graciously pardoned all Iraqis without proper papers. In our desire to remain legal, we decided to return to Iraq in order to get our passports stamped. Our desire was to return to Amman after a visit with our family in Iraq." Her voice became wistful. "We loved Amman. I felt as free as a bird in that place."
She sighed deeply. "And so we came back to Iraq. I remember that trip like it was yesterday, even though so much has happened since then. I admit that my husband and I were feeling particularly happy on that day. We were relieved that our documents were in order and we knew we would soon see our loved ones. It had been nearly two years, you know. We made plans to treat his family and mine to some special fish and rice. But those dreams failed miserably. The minute we stepped inside Iraq, we were asked to step aside at the Iraqi border station. We were both startled and frightened. Despite our cries of innocence, we were detained and led away to prison. We were held in a shared cell in the Al-Ramadi secret police headquarters, the one near the Iraqi/Jordanian border. For six weeks. I was not tortured during our stay at Al-Ramadi. But my poor husband was beaten daily. After two weeks had passed, his torture got worse. The torturers at that place began to hoist him to the ceiling by his hands. Some days he was thrown back into our cell unconscious. I had nothing there. No water. Nothing. I remember I used to spit on his face to try to revive him."
Samara looked at Mayada. "I really did that. I spit on my poor husband's face. But that spit was out of love, not hatred." She tilted her head and looked to the ceiling. "We would have done anything to stop his torture. But how could we stop the torture if we did not know what it was we were accused of doing? Strangely enough, the guards didn't even know. When my husband asked them what it was he had done, they said they didn't know. The only thing they knew was that orders had come down to arrest us. But no cause for the arrests had been given, even to them. "I truly thought my husband was going to die from those beatings. But just when I thought, this is the end for him, we were transferred here, to Baladiyat. But then there was another big shock. They separated us. Now I haven't seen my husband since March." She counted on her fingers. "Four months. It's been four months now. I don't know if he's dead or alive. And as far as I know, not a single member of my family or his knows where we are. They probably believe we're dead. Or, perhaps the government has returned a couple of dirt-filled coffins claiming that our bodies are inside." She then leaned down and whispered, "During my first interrogation here at Baladiyat, I finally discovered why we had been arrested in the first place." Samara paused and took a cup of water offered by Wafae, the shadow woman with the long red hair, and held it against Mayada's lips.
Mayada insisted, "No. No. Really. I can drink nothing. Later."
Samara frowned but drank from the cup before continuing with her story.
Samara looked around at the peeling walls. "When I was called in for interrogation, I thought perhaps government officials had discovered we were innocent of all wrongdoing. The officer who questioned me was so polished and polite and nothing like the men who had imprisoned us at the border prison. He even asked me to sit down and have a cup of tea. He treated me like I was the lady of the house and he was the servant."
Samara continued. "This is what he asked me: 'Tell me, would you like to wear some earrings or would you like to wear some pantaloons?' "I began to relax. His behavior convinced me that he was going to present me with a government- sanctioned gift for all the hardship I had endured. But I was embarrassed at his talk of pantaloons. I told him that ladies from my region did not wear pantaloons, but I let him know that I would be pleased with earrings, something I could sell for cash in Baghdad to buy presents for my children. "He seemed relaxed, as well. He leaned on the edge of his desk. He smiled at me and then stood up. I thought he was going to get the earrings. My heart leaped with hope when he said, 'Our esteemed guest requests earrings, and earrings it will be.'
"I sat there like a fool with a big smile, but that smile left my face in a hurry. That man called in his assistants and they began to tie me up. They bound my hands and feet to the chair I was sitting in. Then, imagine my horror when they hooked a battery charger up to my ears. Before I could protest, that polite man turned the electricity on full force and stood there laughing at my pain and terror. The pain of that torture was far beyond that of childbirth. Each time the pain eased slightly, he flipped the switch again and again. Suddenly he stopped and I thought the nightmare was over, but then he said that in his opinion my feet needed some attention."
Samara held one small foot up in the air and Mayada thought that she had never seen such delicate white feet. But when Samara flipped her foot to the side, Mayada gasped in horror. The bottom of Samara's foot was crisscrossed with vivid scars of red that cut deep into her flesh.
Samara said, "Those pantaloons he mentioned now came as a surprise. As I sat there limp, waiting for the wood-like taste in my mouth to disappear, one of his assistants entered with a big pair of black pantaloon-like slacks that they slipped over my legs. I was picked up in the air and laid down on a special table. Those pantaloons were used to restrain my legs and feet. Then my feet were bound together in a wooden restraining device. That same evil man began to beat the soles of my feet with a special stick, and I soon found out what it was they believed I had done. He shouted at me as he beat my feet, 'Why did you change your name? Why did you change your papers? Who are you spying for? Is it Israel? Is it Iran?'"
Samara surprised Mayada with a smile and said, "For many weeks I had to lie in bed like a baby and couldn't even hobble to the toilet. The beatings took all the flesh from the soles of my feet. Then they became infected and I believed I was going to die. But I slowly recovered, and now I can walk again. Since that first day, I've been called in on a daily basis. Some days they just question me. Other days they beat me on my back. Then the next day they beat me on my feet. Sometimes they will put me on the electricity. They ask the same questions. I give the same answers."
Samara bent her head over her drawn-up knees. "I've told them over and over. I am a simple woman. Fate made me the favorite of a doting grandfather. This grandfather wanted me to carry his name. My second husband asked me to go back to my father's name. And that is the only reason I changed my documents. That is the whole story."
Samara's face crumpled. "They have told me that I will stay here until I confess to being a spy, but I have nothing to confess. I am not a spy, and no matter how many times they shoot me with electricity or how many times they beat me, I will never say I am something I am not."
Samara was in an impossible situation. The men of Baladiyat would not stop the torture until she confessed to spying for Iran or for Israel, yet if she admitted such a thing, whether true or false, she would be put to death.
Samara looked at Mayada and smiled widely. "The only positive thing that has happened to me in the last week is that my torturer has been transferred to oversee a prison in Basra, and the man who has replaced him is not as obsessed with the stick or with the electricity. Be glad for that, because the first man was so evil that I believe if he were bitten by the most poisonous snake, the snake would die!"
At that moment Mayada felt a rushing pain down her arm and into her chest. It was the first time she had ever suffered such throbbing, but she knew such running pains were the symptom of a heart attack. In the next second, her fingers began to go numb. She reached for Samara and told her, "I believe I am having a heart attack. Can you get a doctor, please?"
Samara leaped to her feet and grabbed an empty pot made of iron. She ran to the metal door and began banging with the pot and shouting, "We need help!"
After a long moment someone came to the door and opened the little slot. "What is the problem?"
Samara shouted, "I think this new woman is having a heart attack!"
Mayada suddenly realized that none of the shadow women even knew her name. She tried to push herself up on her arms to gain their attention. She wanted to tell the women something of herself, so that if she died she could depend on any woman released to search out her children and relieve them of the anxiety of not knowing how their poor mother had left this earth. She told them, "Please, please listen. I am Mayada Al-Askari and I live at Wazihiya Place and my phone number is 425-7956. If I die, or if I do not return, please have someone call my daughter Fay and tell her what happened to me."
One of the shadow women scrambled to find a small piece of charred wood they kept for such a purpose. Samara grabbed it from the woman's hand and asked, "Repeat the information." Samara wrote the details on the wall with the charred stick. She told Mayada, "Do not worry. You will return to your children. But if for some reason you do not, your children will be informed, by the first woman to gain freedom, that you were here."
The man had left without saying what he might do and Mayada suffered the sinking feeling that she was going to be left to die. But in a few minutes two new men arrived, although it was clear they had been interrupted while eating. One was still chewing and the other was using his fingers to pull some food caught between two teeth. The one chewing swallowed, and asked, "Who is the troublemaker?"
Samara told him, "It is not a joke." She then pointed to Mayada. "That woman is having heart problems."
The man sighed with irritability, and marched toward Mayada. He stood and stared at her face for a minute, then took his finger and poked her in the chest as if he could that way ascertain the seriousness of her condition. He shouted for Mayada to get up and follow him. Samara and another shadow woman who was tall and strong came to Mayada and pulled her to her feet. Slowly the two women walked to the door with Mayada before releasing her to the two men. The hospital was only one building away, but Mayada had to pace her steps due to the escalating chest pains. One of the two men kept whining about his supper growing cold and the second complained about her rate of speed. He asked her why a young woman walked with the gait of an old woman. Since Mayada believed she was going to drop dead of a heart attack, she voiced her opinion of their conduct, telling them that they should be ashamed to treat an ill woman this way. Her bold words won her a slap on the side of the head from one man and a shout from the second man.
Mayada and her guards finally reached the hospital. Although the exterior of the building was new and modern, the interior was untidy and filthy. The two men led her to an examining room. One of the guards said, "I'll go find Dr. Hadi Hameed," before walking away.
The other guard stood at the door, watching her.
The guard quickly returned with a white-coated doctor who was walking with his head down, staring at his feet. His demeanor gave her the impression he was elderly. But when he raised his face to her, she saw that he was a young man with a handsome face and dark eyes. The doctor startled Mayada when he expressed concern for her situation. Then he politely asked her to sit up on the examining table, and he proceeded to take her blood pressure. The doctor looked at Mayada with worry in his kind eyes, and told her what she already knew: Her blood pressure was dangerously high. Searching his caring face, Mayada reminded herself that her prison experience might cause her to adopt an unreasonably simple view of human nature. She must remember that many Iraqis were forced against their will to join the Baath party. These same people were coerced to accept government jobs that were unsuitable for anyone with a compassionate heart. She believed that this doctor was one of those people.
He proved Mayada right when he glanced over his shoulder and noted that the two men had stepped away. The doctor spoke to her in a low voice. "There is nothing wrong with you that release will not cure. But since your fate is not in my hands, I will give you some tablets that I believe will settle your heart." He then turned to open a drawer in a metal cabinet and selected a packet of small pink pills, handing them to Mayada and instructing her, "Put one under your tongue and let it dissolve. Anytime you feel a chest pain, you should do the same thing." But he cautioned, "Do not to take more than one pill every few days if you can avoid it. These pills cause severe headaches."
The pill was already in her mouth. She nodded.
The doctor turned away and began to document her visit.
As the pill dissolved, Mayada looked around the room. She noted that the examination table was covered with black plastic, and the plastic was covered with the heavy dust of that morning's sandstorm. That sand might now work in her favor, Mayada mused. This doctor's caring manner had given her an idea. Confident enough to take a risk, she used her finger to write the telephone number of her children's grandfather—who had remained friendly to her and the children even after the divorce—in the dust. Mayada then appealed to the doctor's kind heart. She asked him, "Dr. Hameed, please call this number and tell whoever answers that Mayada has been taken to Baladiyat. Tell them to call my mother, Salwa, in Amman. She will know what to do." Mayada stared at the young doctor.
Dr. Hameed gazed at Mayada for a long moment. His expression clearly displayed the internal battle raging between his head—which warned him of the dire consequences of discovery—and his heart, which was shattered by the human despair he was forced to witness. Dr. Hameed stared down at the number Mayada had written in the dust. She breathlessly watched his lips move. He was memorizing the number, Mayada realized. The doctor looked over his shoulder once again, then picked up a cloth to wipe the dust and the digits from the plastic. He gave no sign as to whether his head or his heart had prevailed. Yet Mayada knew that whether he called or not, he wanted to have the courage to call. She must remember that the two of them—and all Iraqis—now lived in a terrible time, and this good man could be tortured to death for deviating from Baathist Party rules of conduct.
Mayada opened her mouth to ask if she could rely upon his humanity. But at that moment, the two guards returned, insisting that they must return her to her cell. Mayada froze, fearful that Dr. Hameed might be so anxious about the safety of his own loved ones that he would tell these men of Mayada's request for assistance. But the doctor said nothing. Instead, he looked her straight in the eyes and said, "You will be better, so go back and try to get some sleep." His words gave Mayada hope that he would make the call that might save her life.
The men rushed her back to cell 52, although she asked them to walk slowly to accommodate her chest pains. But the two paid no heed. The rapid pace made her heart throb, and she was surprised at the sense of relief she felt upon reentering cell 52.
Samara rushed to Mayada's side and helped her back to the bunk, and several shadow women gathered around to make her comfortable. Mayada was given a folded blanket for a pillow, while another was placed between her and the cold bunk. A third blanket covered her body. The women had been served their supper while Mayada was in the hospital. As promised, Samara had saved her a plate, but Mayada could not eat.
The women began talking about their own lives. Mayada learned that the woman named Rasha was a Shiite from the south. Another woman named Safana was a Kurd. Another nameless woman was a Sunni from Baghdad. They asked Mayada to tell them everything she had seen while outside the cell. Mayada sighed heavily as she told them she could not yet speak, but that tomorrow she would gladly answer all their questions.
One of the shadow women spoke up and asked the question that Mayada had been expecting since relating her family name. "Just tell us, are you related to the great Jafar Pasha Al-Askari?" Mayada paused, thinking about her answer for a moment. She considered denying the fact, because people would often begin to behave as though she considered herself better than others, which was not the case. And some people, upon hearing of her lineage, would turn into devoted enemies for no reason at all. Still others would shift their normal behavior and treat Mayada with reverence, as if she were a member of a royal family. But looking into the kind eyes of the simple women who shared her cell, Mayada was struck with a deep certainty that they would remain the same considerate women, no matter whose bloodline she shared. "Yes," she admitted with a weak smile, "Jafar Pasha was my grandfather, the father of my own father, Nizar Al-Askari."
The shadow woman reached down and touched Mayada's cheek with a decided tenderness and told her, "My grandfather once met your grandfather when he came to the south collecting votes for King Faisal I. He always said Jafar Al-Askari was a great Iraqi. Many times I heard him say, 'If only we had men like Jafar Pasha still among the living, we Iraqis could have avoided this nightmare.'"
As if those words had unleashed their voices, the other shadow women began to exchange memories of a time when Iraqis had hope for a better future. Mayada overheard several others declare quietly that Jafar Pasha had made beneficial differences in the lives of their own families, too. Samara looked down at Mayada and smiled. "We will repay that great man by taking good care of his granddaughter."
Reprinted from Mayada: Daughter of Iraq by Jean Sasson by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © The Sasson Corporation, 2003. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.