Monday, July 6, 2009

Weight of a Mustardseed

I just finished reading The Weight of a Mustardseed by Wendell Steavenson, a female British journalist. The book focuses on the life of Kemal Sachet, one of Saddam's top Revolutionary Guard generals who fell from his grace, as so many did. He was killed by Saddam's boys in 1999, but she pieces his life, personal and professional, together well through countless interviews with family, friends and colleagues. Many in Iraq, many in Damascus, Beirut, Amman and London. Her research also allowed her to intertwines life stories, again, personal and professional, of other generals and high level officials in Saddam's regime.

The book follows Iraq through the unbelievable devastation of the war with Iran in the 80s, the unrelenting suffering caused by the sanctions of the 90s, and shots of Sachet family's reaction to the US invasion.

It has much to offer and opens many doors to the inner thinkings of Saddam's generals and the inner workings of the regime; the way some enforced policies and the ways others' legitimized and/or believed in them, in varying degrees. Steavenson states she is looking for a glimmer of regret in each of these men, sometimes she finds it, most times she doesn't, and she never finds it to the extent one would hope.

At the same time, the book leaves much to be discovered. I put the book down fulfilled, but at the same time with countless questions swirling in my mind. I want to know more about the topics she focused on - the high level Baath officials and RG generals - why they did what they did; and much more about the topics she uses as context: the Iran Iraq War, which so shaped a generation, those who fought and those who didn't; the impact of sanctions, Steavenson states that the 90s was the most dire in Iraq (even afte the horror of the Iran war!).

We know that many, many Baath party members, most really, those among the population simply signed a sheet of paper to receive a higher salary, or keep a job - the military (different than the Revolutionary Guard), teachers, lawyers, shopkeepers. But this book seeks to understand the rationale behind those who gave the orders.

In the end, Steavenson's research seems to show that these people, in varying degrees, believed in their mission, or Saddam's mission, or Saddam's Iraq. If they had moral compasses they only worked on occasion, and in specific circumstances. Sachet, for example, thought draining the marshes was going too far. Executions of deserters or general who failed at mission during the Iran Iraq War were also usually frowned upon by those she interviews. But these same men excuse Halabja, if they admit knowledge of it.

The book also raises absolutely critical points about the detrimental effects of Saddam's regime on the Iraqi mind and the Iraqi citizen. What I mean is that Saddam's regime - the dictatorship, the fear, the torture, the violence, the suffering - not only affected an individual's personal life, psyche, but also destroyed their ability or desire to participate in society as a citizen - socially, politically. She also weaves in parts and pieces about Iraq women - the few she discusses wore sundresses in the 70s, but were veiled in the 90s. Again, here Steavenson only scratches the surface; there is much more to be done here. If you're up for another look, Wendell, and need some help, I'm your girl.

New Yorker book club on it here.

Here in NYTimes review.

No comments: