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The Weight of a Mustard Seed Hardcover – 1 Jan 2009
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"'A sparkling, poetical hymn to the most romantic and dangerous land in the world.' Simon Sebag Montefiore 'This is the first published book of a practiced and very gifted writer, a young Kapuscinski with a literary future ahead of her...an immensely talented writer.' Neal Ascherson, Observer"
About the Author
Wendell Steavenson is the author of the acclaimed Stories I Stole (Atlantic Books, 2002), which was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. She has worked for Time and written for a variety of publications including the Telegraph, Granta, Prospect and the New Yorker. She lives in Paris.
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In the process she explores and opens up the psychology of dictatorship and how the system destroys the lives of all of the people subject to it and in particular those closest to the centre. Kamel Sachet was a loyal servant of Saddam in his war against the Iranians. That is clear. He benefitted from the dictator's rewards but also suffered from being close and within range of his rage. The extent of his complicity in the suppression of the Kurds or other internal suppression is not clearly spelt out but this is no fault of the author's. Those to whom she speaks relate their version of events, with an eye to their own past, and she is always sifting their evidence to try to distinguish 'truth'. It is a difficult task.
When no longer exposed to war with the Iranians, or retreat from Kuwait under the US onslaught, Kamel Sachet seems to have engaged in some personal stocktaking. When governor of the former Marsh Arabs his reputation as reported to Ms Steavenson was that of benevolence to the weak and poor. When he returned to Baghdad he built mosques and lived an apparently simple and ever more austere and orthodox islamic life. He developed his religosity when his proximity to Saddam made him more personally vulnerable to the whims of Tikriti inner circle. Why did he do it? Did the realisation of his own mortality come home to him and was this his attempt to earn merit in a vain attempt to balance the scales of eternal justice? The author asks the question but of course it is impossible to know the answer.
This is a very powerful book, beautifully written and it asks difficult questions. Wendell Steavenson might have finished this book with a conclusion on Kamel Sachet, but she doesn't. She leaves it to you to make up your own mind. I think I have, but I won't share that thought here.
It's yet another book about Iraq and Saddam, except that, it's not really. It's a story of one man's life - indeed one family's life - under the patronage of Saddam Hussein. The author has pieced together a very moving and evocative story about General Kamel Sachet, much decorated, a courageous military man (a previous member of their Special Forces) who was in charge of the Iraqi army in Kuwait during Desert Storm, amongst other military accolades.
That he was Saddam's archetypical soldier/hero for many years who then became one of the many Saddam had executed, ostensibly for treason, is the raison d'etre for this book.
However, exactly why he was executed is still not clear and the author has relied on secondhand accounts from friends and/or enemies outside Iraq for the most part. What is clear is Sachet's unwavering devotion to his large family, to his religion (he was a Wahhabi) and, until latterly, to Saddam.
There are ringing overtones of Germany before the Second World War and the plea of 'what could I do?' when you read about Sachet. Was he really lily-white? I'm not so sure and perhaps we'll never know.
However, if you want a book about Irag which is not about the physical conflict, rather the human characters on a road to nowhere which provides a compelling account very well written, try this book for starters.