We Were Saddam's Children

Article excerpt

Byline: Zainab Salbi

The woman I called 'sister' was a child laborer under Iraq's dictator. When the Americans came, her new horror began.

My mother introduced Radya to me when I was 5 and she was 7. "This is your new sister, Zainab," my mother explained. Sister? I wondered. She told that Radya was to work as a live-in maid in our house in Iraq but I was to treat her like my sister. I didn't at first, but we soon became great friends, and Radya became my keeper of secrets. And even though I loved her very much, I always knew she was not my equal. I went to school during the day while she cleaned the house and then went to night school. For every 10 gifts I got from my father, she got one. She sat with the family in the living room while we watched TV but never dined with us at the same table.

It's only now I see that my beloved confidante was in fact a child laborer. And for all the guilt I feel, especially as a women's-rights activist, it was the norm in Iraq. Radya was both maid and adopted child for us.

Over the years, I learned the meaning of poverty through her. My family, you see, was affluent, apolitical, "hip" members of Saddam Hussein's inner circle. We were Saddam's pilot's family. Radya's parents were very poor and lived in a two-room mud house with six children.

Radya eventually finished her schooling and became a receptionist. She lifted herself out of poverty and fell in love with a college-educated man who had done the same.

I'll never forget how she'd tell me about that college boy. She was so excited about her wedding, about wearing my mother's wedding dress. Though there was a line separating Radya and me as we grew up in the same house, it was a fine one.

We both left that home in 1990. She moved back to her family's neighborhood, and I was sent to the U.S. to marry a man I barely knew. I guess it falls short of irony that the poor girl married for love while the middle-class girl got an arranged marriage to escape a political reality. …