The Pilot’s Daughter

The Book

Hidden in Plain Sight: Growing up in the Shadow of Saddam

Author (s) 

Zainab Salbi and Laurie Becklund



What it says on the back cover

Zainab Salbi was eleven years old her father was chosen to be Saddam Hussein’s pilot and her family’s life was grafted onto his. Zainab’s mother taught her the skills she needed to survive. A plastic smile. Saying yes. “Learn to erase your memories,” she said. “He can read eyes”.

Zainab later agreed to an arranged marriage in America, unaware it was to save her from Saddam’s growing affection. Fleeing her abusive husband but stranded by the Gulf War, Zainab rebuilt her life in the States, and created an organisation to fight on behalf of the female victims of war.

In this fascinating quest for truth, Zainab describes tyranny as she saw it: through the eyes of a privileged child, a rebellious teenager, a violated wife and ultimately a public figure fighting to overcome the skill that once kept her alive: silence.

“This may be the most honest account of life within Saddam’s circle so far”. Publishing News

“A remarkable, astonishing memoir”. Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple.

What made me pick up this book?

Having lived in the Middle East (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) during the start of the second Gulf war, I could only imagine what was happening across the border from me. I remember staying up as early as two or three in the morning watching the war unfold before my eyes on Al Jazerra, one of the Gulf’s leading news stations as it went to air. Naturally my heart went out and I went to bed with the knowledge knowing that this was something serious. Zainab grabbed my attention whilst looking for other women’s organisations across the world when I was part of a group called Business and Professional Women. Her group had devoted itself to help women who had become victims of war and named themselves Women for Women International, an organisation that Zainab created together with her second husband in 1993.

Is this book worth buying?

Imagine yourself being carefree and young without a care in the world. Happy and content and born to a family that loved you and you them. Then imagine yourself at eleven years of age, your father comes home and tells you and your family, he has been recruited as an airline pilot and a pilot to Saddam Hussein at that. Zainab’s story is a story of putting on a brave face each day that you face the world, putting on a mask that showed that you were happy and still carefree. A face that would hide pain, frustration, anger and despair and a face that showed a smile to the world that all was well…when really it wasn’t.

A book such as Zainab’s makes one aware of how a man such as Saddam could have such a profound on not just one person or one family but on many families. How whatever he said was final, how women would fight over who had given him the best gold, the best gift and how he could break families apart that were once so loving and tear couples apart which sadly happened to Zainab’s parents who did everything they could to avoid being a part of Saddam’s socialist Baath Party. Zainab does not want pity but she wants women to have a voice. This story shows us how it feels to live in a bubble, a home that was known as a farm house yet felt nothing remotely like a farm house and where Saddam could drop in when he saw fit and take Zainab and her girlfriends out for a drive unbeknownst to her family who were sleeping and became worried when they awoke and unaware of Zainab’s whereabouts. Saddam known as Amo (Arabic for Uncle) throughout the book was a man who could demand anything and get anything just with a look and where he could read people’s eyes just as her mother had taught her.

As Zainab approached her late teens little did Zainab know but her mother had arranged for her to marry a man in the United States just so Zainab could escape Saddam’s watchful eye and the growing attraction he had for her. This marriage which Zainab left her beloved Iraq for the United States was to be violent and not the fairytale that Zainab had wished as a child and soon she found herself escaping her husband only to find herself with no money and very little in a country so far removed from her own. In Christmas of 1991 Zainab had surrounded herself with all her most valuable possessions that she owned and took a train to Washington wrapped in her Dior coat and a Persian rug at her feet, she had to escape the marriage that she was in. Fortunately she had a job to go to and then as she became acquainted with the city she made new friends and a man her later was to become her second husband.

Zainab’s story is full of courage, a woman who had experienced hardships of her own but in different ways to many of her fellow country women back home. Desperate to help these women and other women who have been affected by war, Zainab, together with her husband created Women for Women International helping them regain their lives again by teaching them new skills, giving them a sense of purpose, helping them rebuild their lives again through learning about how to take care of their health, their well being, make money for themselves and their families and to connect with other women worldwide.

This book is a book that you will remember long after you have finished reading it as you may find yourself wanting to learn more about this incredible lady and the work she has done to support those who have been marginalized and had otherwise lost hope again to another part of war and the tragedy that it creates in so many different parts of the world.

For further information please visit Zainab’s organisation

Women for Women International

and Zainab herself talking about growing up under the shadow of Saddam Hussein.

“Always, always, you would smile. With my mother, the only person I could ever talk to about Amo with any honesty at all, I called it my “plastic smile”… weekends were Amo’s designated downtime, and we were his entertainment, part of our job was to make him laugh at the right moment” (Zainab Salbi, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Growing up under the Shadow of Saddam” 2006).

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