When Mahmoud Saeed’s Saddam City opens it is a Monday and the main character of the story, Mustafa Ali Noman, is ready to go to work, while his kids are getting ready to go to school. “On a day like this our Prophet was born. Dad, is it true that nothing bad happens to children on the day of the prophet’s birth?” his daughter Abeer asks him. But if it may be true that nothing bad happens to kids on Mondays, the same thing may not be valid for adults. A terrible fate awaits Mustafa: he will be kidnapped by Saddam Hussein’s security and arrested. Unsure about the reasons of his arrest, thinking there’s been a mistake of some kind, Mustafa keeps on claiming he’s innocent, before discovering that all his efforts are useless: in Saddam’s prisons, there are hundreds if not thousands of people who are equally innocent or arrested for absurd reasons. The most common one seems to be driving with missing car plates: since most of the population lost their car plates, the prison is overcrowded.
Mustafa starts his slow descent into hell, is continuously transferred from prison to prison, from Basra to Baghdad, Mosul, Dahouk and so on, and realises that there is one terrible characteristic that all these places have in common, torture.
In this short but compelling book, Saeed describes the fear and the pain, the loss of dignity and humanity in Saddam’s prisons. The author, born in Mosul, was imprisoned in 1963 for political charges and later suspended from employment for three years. He was incarcerated a sixth and final time in 1980 and later emigrated to the United Arab Emirates and as a refugee to the States.
Saddam City won many awards and it’s perhaps the best book to read now that Saddam is in the legal custody of Iraq and will be tried by an Iraqi special tribunal for charges that will include war crimes relating to the use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, the massacre of Shia Muslims in the failed revolt that followed the 1991 Gulf war and the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Hamid al-Bayati, now Iraq’s deputy foreign minister, previously tortured in Saddam’s jails, recently stated that everyone who lost loved ones to Saddam will want to see the trial. We could add that everyone who would like to know more about Iraq and Saddam Hussein will want to read Mahmoud Saeed’s works.