Mayada: Daughter of Iraq by Jean Sasson @JeanSasson #Iraq #SaddamHussein

One Woman’s Survival in Saddam Hussein’s Torture Jail

Genre: Memoir
Bookxpert Rating: 3.5/5

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People arrested, thrown into over-crowded jails and tortured. For no fault of theirs. This is the world that Mayada discovered when she had to spend a few months in one of Iraq’s most feared jails- Baladiyat.

Mayada-al-Askari belonged to one of Iraq’s most influential families. Her grandfathers on both sides were practically the founding fathers of modern-day-Iraq, widely respected by people of all classes across the country. She and her mother knew some top officials in Iraq. Saddam Hussein had personally rewarded Mayada on three occassions for her brilliant articles in magazines and papers.

So then, how did this lady end up in prison? And how was it that all her contacts were useless to protect her?
These were the questions I had struggled with since reading the blurb and getting to know the above facts about Mayada.

Mayada lived in Iraq during its toughest times. She has narrated the entire journey of Saddam Hussein, from a tribal man to Iraq’s President- who were his closest aides, what they were like behind the facade they presented to the public, she has described it all.

This of course, is a direct result of her lineage- her having access to high profile people. This privilege of her’s also has a con. We get to read about big bungalows, lavish holidays and the latest couture. But not about the struggle of an Iraqi commoner.

When Mayada is thrown into her cell, she notices all her cellmates sitting on the floor, and realises she must too. But she has never before sat on the floor

Aliya settled on the floor with one leg crossed over the other, Iraqi style, and the other shadow women sat beside her. Mayada joined them, but she was not accustomed to floor sitting, because her mother had insisted that only an ill-bred servant would sit in such a way. She had taught her daughters to sit on chairs or sofas with their legs held in a proper manner.
So it didn’t surprise Mayada that within a short time, her legs began to grow numb and she bagan to shift one way or another.

Mayada is cramped in a cell meant for 8 people, with 17 other 'shadow women', so called because they are so malnutritioned and resemble shadows. But they form the best support system ever. When a woman is taken away for beating by the guards, the rest of them become ready to console her and nurse her when she is back.

Mayada looked around. She stood there quietly as, one by one, she studied the faces of the shadow women. Their tiny cell was a world of worry unto itself, with every woman frantic for her family, mothers despairing at the emotional blow of not seeing their growing children.
The sweet-faced Muna was weeping quietly.
Dr. Sabah’s lips were turned down. Her entire countenance appeared pulled downward by the weight of her sorrows.
Aliya’s face was so red that it looked aglow.
While Mayada scanned one expressive face after the other, it was clear to her that deep sorrow was lodged in every shadow woman’s heart. This was prison life, Mayada decided: tears and fears and sorrow.

There are many compelling accounts, some that she herself witnessed, most featuring people known to her.

This is a poem etched in the wall by some 'poor, suffering, nameless woman' who died in prison, and narrated by one of Mayada’s cellmates.

“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 committed
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 toungue
They raped me
They cut off my breasts
I wept alone, in pain and in fear
They sentenced me to die
They staked me to the wall
I begged for mercy
They shot me between my eyes
They dumped my body in a shallow grave
They buried me without a shroud
After my death, they discovered I was innocent.”

Above: Mayada receiving her first writing award from Saddam Hussein in the year 1981
Below: Mayada receiving her third writing award from Saddam Hussein in the year 1983

Sasson has included Mayada's family tree, and maps of Iraq and Iraq and neighbouring countries before starting with Mayada’s narration. There are also some pictures between it’s pages. This was a huge plus point for me. It helped to understand the events of the book, better.

Coming to the shortcomings, I felt that the third person writing style is a huge disadvantage. We feel like a spectator in the entire story, with it being narrated to us. It does not give the story a personal touch.

Since Mayada’s entire story is narrated by her while she is in jail, it keeps jumping back and forth between timelines. Even though years are mentioned for all events, it does get confusing. It kept breaking off my train of thought. Also, a lot of the information feels repeated and redundant.

I had higher expectations from this book. Having read Princess and Daughters of Arabia already, I was expecting something similar. The theme is, being based in the Middle East and focusing on the plight of women. I can't pinpoint what is missing in this book really, but SOMETHING is.

Surprisingly, I found quite some dissent, with people stating they felt happier under Saddam’s rule:

  1. It was better to live in Iraq under Saddam
  2. I Spent My Early Years In Iraq During Saddam’s Worst Days – Here’s What Life Was Like
  3. 15 Years After U.S. Invasion, Some Iraqis Are Nostalgic For Saddam Hussein Era

About the Author:

Jean P. Sasson is an American writer whose work mainly centers around women in the Middle East. In 1978 she traveled to Saudi Arabia to work in the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh as an administrative coordinator of medical affairs. where she met Peter Sasson, her future husband. During their time in the Middle East, the Sassons made many friends, including members of the royal Al-Saud family, who visited the hospital. The most notable of these friendships was between Sasson and “Princess Sultana”, the princess about whose life The Princess Trilogy tells.

What’s good:

  1. The real nature of Saddam Hussein and his associates we get to know through Mayada’s experiences.
  2. Iraq’s conditions we get to see from two perspectives- a sheltered upbringing like Mayada’s, and from that of her cellmates’ poor backgrounds.
  3. Maps, family tree and pictures included in the book.

What could have been:

  1. The book to be in first person and not third person.
  2. Storyline more aligned with actual timelines and not jump back and forth.
  3. Filtering out of redundant information.

Other Stuff :

The Title:- Mayada, the lady whose experiences have been related in this book, and the narrator of them.

Best Line :-

Mayada knew she could never pull back from those shadow women, for she had quickly developed a true affection for each of them.

Genre :- Memoir
Final Thoughts :-
Up Next :- ‘The Onyx Crown’ by Alan Hurst

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