1. Archive


It was odd growing up in our house in a Baghdad cul-de-sac, but what has happened to our home since then is weirder still.

New York Times

The house I grew up in was nestled in a grove of eucalyptus trees at the end of a Baghdad cul-de-sac. Built by my parents in 1969, the year I was born, it is a simple, two-story, middle-class home. I spent a lot of my childhood in my second-floor bedroom, watching the trees and the street outside.

In my earliest memories, the cul-de-sac is teeming with water. While my parents bemoaned the lack of proper drainage in the city, I welcomed the floods. My brothers and I would splash through the rainwater, surrounded by enormous boats that my father lovingly constructed out of newspaper.

It was in this cul-de-sac, long after I went to bed, that Saddam Hussein used to park his car. At the time, Hussein, then vice president, was courting Baghdad society, and my parents were considered part of the "hip" crowd. My father had studied in Scotland and traveled the world as a commercial pilot, accumulating a collection of record albums; my mother was a fashionable, intelligent teacher who loved parties and dancing.

Most important, they weren't interested in politics. So Hussein never viewed them as a threat to his power, and this made it safe for them to entertain him, though they never let on how hard it was to refuse any of Saddam Hussein's wishes, even then.

After he became president, Hussein made my father his personal pilot. The president's visits to our house became official affairs. One car in the cul-de-sac morphed into an entourage of black Mercedes, and armed security guards patrolled the neighborhood. (This was during the war with Iran.) Watching from my window, I wondered about the white car hidden amidst the eucalyptus trees day and night.

The president showered us with gifts, but also monitored our every move. We knew that our house was bugged, and we knew many family friends who had been executed for saying the "wrong thing" about his policies or his mistress. Looking back, I think of Hussein's presence in our life as a poisonous gas that leaked into our home. We inhaled it gradually.

In the summer of 1990, I left Iraq for an arranged marriage in the United States. (My mother was adamant that I leave at any cost, and marriage was the safest way to do that with the president's approval.) I convinced myself that it wouldn't be long before I could return to my family's house.

But that August, Iraq invaded Kuwait and the country plunged into war yet again. It took me nine years to return.

The occasion was my mother's funeral. In the intervening years, my mother had left my father and fled to Jordan, Hussein had fired my father (thankfully, a rather lenient punishment for my mother's departure) and our house had fallen into disrepair. Its decay reflected not only our family's pain but also the suffering of a country which had endured widespread sanctions.

The second time I visited Iraq was in January 2003, on the eve of the U.S. invasion. After the regime fell, possibility infused the air. My younger brother decided to marry and live in the house. In preparation for the wedding, he repainted the walls and reupholstered the furniture. On the day of the celebration, friends and family, dressed in colorful clothes, danced in our cul-de-sac.

But the security situation deteriorated and my brother faced kidnapping threats. In 2005, he, his wife and our father moved to Jordan, hoping, as I had, that they would someday return. Soon, our neighborhood, Al Mansour, was taken over by the Mahdi army - insurgents loyal to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Shiite families were allowed to stay, while Sunnis were driven out or killed. In the middle of the night, Sadrists barged into our house, and transformed it, according to our neighbors, into an execution center.

It is impossible to describe the bewilderment I felt. All I could think to tell my father was, "Let us just thank God that it is the house and not our family that is witnessing these atrocities."

By last summer, Iraqi and American troops had driven the militias out. In the increasing stability, a group of prostitutes moved into the house. At first I was relieved - and then I became sickened, thinking of the men using the room I'd grown up in to take advantage of women forced by circumstance into prostitution.

Just last fall, my father went back to Iraq, wanting to see for himself what had become of his country. He found that our home was no longer an execution center nor a brothel; it was being used by the Iraqi army.

Soldiers demanded $30,000 from my father before they'd leave. He contemplated selling, giving up hope for good, but he is waiting them out. In this respect, he is like many Iraqis - aware of the progress made, pleased that American troops have withdrawn, but worried about renewed violence and unsure of the future.

The only constant is the house, which has witnessed the best and worst of Iraq's recent history. A place that was once filled with the happiness of my childhood, the fear of Saddam Hussein, the loss of my mother, the joy of my brother's wedding, the horror of the execution center, the pain of the prostituted women and weapons of the army, still holds my family's hopes and dreams.

Zainab Salbi, the co-author of Between Two Worlds: Escaping Tyranny, Growing up in the Shadow of Saddam, is the founder and chief executive of Women for Women International.