Previously: Sabah and Lamia marry despite strong objections from Lamia’s family. As newly weds, they move to Medina Saddam, named after Iraq’s charismatic new leader, Saddam Hussein.
In early 1979 when President Bakr was preparing to bring Syria and Iraq together in a move that would have rendered Saddam Hussein powerless, Saddam Hussein forced President Bakr to resign and declared himself president. Saddam Hussein quickly eliminated all threats to his power. Twenty-two members of the Ba’athist Party were sentenced to death, executed by fellow Ba’athists, an effective lesson on the price of dissent.
‘The communist party was there since the 20s and until 1979. That’s when the Ba’athist came and …they killed thousands, maybe tens of thousands of communists. My father was imprisoned and tortured by them,’ Iba interprets for Lamia.
‘1979. Imprisoned for being a communist,’ says Sabah.
‘You were jailed for being a communist?’ I ask, taken aback.
‘Yes,’ says Sabah.
‘You were a communist?’ I ask again.
Perhaps seeing my surprise, Iba explains, ‘The communist party in Iraq is different to the one in your country,’ he says, probably assuming that I am from China. ‘It’s not strict. It’s not bad. It’s very, very good. They are very educated people…Think of the communist party in the time of Lenin.’
I try. But it is the Cultural Revolution under Mao that comes to mind instead. And after that, the guerrilla war that the communists waged in Malaya, resulting in a state of emergency from 1948 to 1960. Trying to think of Lenin doesn’t help me but I can understand the attraction of the communist ideal of equality for all men.
With Sabah in jail, Lamia was left without an income and with one-year-old Rua to care for. Cut off from her own family, she was forced to return to Baqubah to live with Sabah’s family – his parents, his brothers, their wives and children.
Afraid of what my question might unearth, I ask if Sabah was treated ‘OK’ in prison. Iba giggles. Then he laughs, ‘Yeah, they welcome him.’
‘Allah,’ mutters Lamia under her breath.
‘What do you think?’ asks Sabah.
I feel like a dim-witted child. ‘I don’t think so.’
They are all laughing by now. But then kindly, they humour me. Sabah speaks and Iba interprets, ‘The treatment in prisons in Iraq is very, very bad, especially in Saddam Hussein’s time. You can’t feel that you are living as a human being because of the insults. They were cruel as if they were treating animals.’ And just in case I still haven’t grasped the point, Iba tells me that animals are not treated kindly in the Middle East.
Sabah was released after one month in prison and from that time onward, he became a critic of the government. For example, in his play The second sequence of blood, a scientist invents a mind-transference device, capable of elevating humanity to the highest levels of knowledge and thinking. But instead of using this for good, the university president forces the scientist to transfer the mind of the president’s pet dog into all the academics in the room.
Iba interprets for Lamia, ‘We were choked up. It was Saddam Hussein. He was a dictator. We didn’t have freedom of speech. We didn’t have freedom of anything else. My father spent eight years in the Iraq-Iran War from 1980 to 1988. My mum was alone with us, and after that the Kuwait War in 1990.’
In some ways, Sabah had been trying to dodge conscription from birth. His father, Abood, was a soldier, always absent from home. He was a major, fighting the Kurdish separatists in Suleymania in the north. Soldiers typically fought for a few weeks and then had a week off to go home.
In 1952, when Abood heard that another son had been born to him, he sent word home that Sabah should be registered as being born in 1954. Abood foresaw that a new war would erupt between Kurds and the Iraqi government and he hoped that by taking two years off Sabah’s true age, this son of his would be spared the life of a soldier.
When Sabah opted to study literature at university, it seemed that Abood’s wish was granted and his son would make his living by the pen, rather than the gun. But in 1980, just three years into his married life, Sabah was stationed around one hundred kilometres from the Iran-Iraq border, keeping watch outdoors, at all hours, for Iranian fighter aircraft. Sabah’s job was to inform his superior, a colonel, of the location of enemy aircraft. The colonel would then give the order to fire at the aircraft.
‘Why are we fighting? We don’t know,’ the soldiers used to say, but in their hearts they knew that this was a quarrel between Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini. No one believed the official line that the Iraq-Iran War was for the defence of their respective countries.
Sabah’s pay as an army officer was paltry pittance and Lamia began sewing at home for a few extra dinar. With a sewing machine and copies of ‘The Patron’ magazine (which came with elegant and easy-to-follow Burda dress patterns), Lamia began accepting work from friends. Her eye for beauty ensured that she had no shortage of customers. When her customers could not afford to buy cloth, Lamia recycled their dresses – unpicking the stitches and reusing the fabric to update their wardrobe. As the Iran-Iraq War dragged on, Lamia’s customers begged her for discounts, so that she sometimes charged no more than the cost of her materials.
Sabah was usually given one week’s leave every month. But if fighting was intense, leave was cancelled. Once, when Sabah came home, young Iba took a look at him, standing at the door in military fatigues, and greeted him ‘Uncle’, a generic name for an older man.
‘The war stole the most beautiful years of my life. It took me away from the love of my life,’ says Sabah.
Lamia speaks. Iba searches for the right English words, ‘My mum … these wars killed…The loneliness because of these wars tortured my mother,’
If the life of a man and a woman deeply in love is like a piece of music, the bass giving depth and rhythm to the melody, then the war compressed every four bars of music into one intense bar, leaving three bars empty – void not of sound but of meaning – filled with the howling wind of the Kurdish mountains, the roar of enemy aircraft and the silence of loneliness.
Sabah and Lamia’s story will be continued next Friday 20 September 2019 in Refuge #29 Safe games such as chess. This is part of the serial online release of the book Refuge, a collection of true stories. Subscribe for free to receive links to new instalments delivered to your inbox.