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Between Two Worlds by Zainab Salbi

Between Two Worlds. Escape From Tyranny : Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam - Zainab Salbi, Laurie Becklund

I would not have read this memoir but for my world books challenge, and that would have been a loss, because it is a fascinating book.


Zainab Salbi grew up in a prosperous and well-connected Iraqi family in the 1970s and 1980s – as it turned out, they were too well-connected, because Saddam Hussein was determined to keep her parents and, by extension, the whole family, in his orbit. I initially assumed that the title, “Between Two Worlds,” referenced the author’s immigration from Iraq to the United States, but when this phrase is used within the book, it’s actually to refer to Salbi’s feeling of being caught between two worlds within Iraqi society: between the dictator’s elite inner circle and the regular middle-class world that he terrorized. She and her family shuttle between the two, spending weekends in one of the palace compounds and playing their prescribed roles at official events (a performance, in which they can't afford to ever let the façade drop), and weekdays in their own neighborhood, where Salbi can't let on to friends that she knew Saddam as “Uncle.”


Although most of this book takes place under a bloody dictatorship, and some of it during wartime, it’s not a violent story – and yet, we see how Salbi and her family are torn apart by the constant fear, stress, and need to pretend in order to protect themselves. One of the questions she wrestles with throughout the book is why Iraqis allowed such an oppressive regime, and more specifically, why her parents stayed, knowing what a dangerous situation they put themselves and their children in. She compares it to an abusive relationship – at first they thought they could handle it, and then they were in too far and afraid to leave – and that’s not a comparison Salbi makes lightly, because in the course of extricating herself from her childhood she also experiences interpersonal abuse. But she is an immensely strong person who is able to extricate herself from ugly situations and ultimately help others.


So I found this to be an enthralling story, from the details of life in Iraq under Saddam’s rule to the author’s personal journey of healing and self-discovery. In general I am leery of ghostwritten books (I assume that as “collaborator,” journalist Laurie Becklund did most of the writing), but here the collaboration appears successful: the writing feels personal and immediate, with Becklund’s contributions presumably being the clear and readable style and organization. At the same time, it's written with a good dose of self-awareness; Salbi recognizes that many other people were worse off than she, and she deals fairly with people who turned out to be unsavory.


At any rate, this is another win for reading outside my natural comfort zone (my comfort zone is expanding). Recommended.