I have to say that if it wasn't for this being a book group choice then I don't think in all honesty I would have read or even heard of `The Weight of a Mustard Seed'. I might have been intrigued by the title and quite possibly the delightful cover (it's the materialist in me) but the genre would have put me off as I am not the biggest fan of non fiction. What's more the blurb hinted that this was a tale of a General who worked for Saddam Hussein during his dictatorship of Iraq and the aftermath, which I wouldn't have thought would have been my sort of book at all.
I have to say I think that `The Weight of a Mustard Seed' has to be one of the most interesting, engaging, horrifying and moving non fiction books that I have ever read. Although Wendell does indeed spend a lot of time with and writing about General Kamel Sachet and his family this is a book that actually tells of the history of the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, how he controlled the people he did (whilst also oddly humanising him from time to time), how fear can rule any man and how the country has been left since. The latter for me was actually one of the most shocking parts of the book.
I did have a few small qualms with the book and these are small ones. Despite Wendell being incredibly good at engaging the reader and making you read on I did think that on occasion question her motives, find her slightly patronising now and again and thought she expected you to know more of the history of Iraq than I did, however most people who would go to read this would know a lot (there is of course always google) which occasionally made things a little confusing for me as the book isn't always in chronological order.
Having said all that it's a minor criticism and I do believe you have to work at some books and I do think that Wendell was trying to make the point that it didn't matter when the atrocities and conflicts happened it's the how and the why she was illustrating to the reader and that is the power of this book. It's real, it's difficult and it's happening still right as you read this, that leaves you both moved and with a lot to think about.
This book is a revelation in the story it tells and its insights into what life was really like under Saddam Hussein but also in leaving the reader thinking would they behave any different if they ever found themselves in the same difficult situation.
The book is a well pieced together biography given limited data to start from. It is built up from years of interviews inside and outside Iraq post the US invasion with many Iraqis who had themselves performed different roles under the Saddam governance infrastructure. With little other hard evidence to use, the author weaves it all together by building a friendship with the family of an Iraqi general who was probably typical of many of his fellow countrymen caught under the long reign of Saddam Hussein.
From humble village origins, he was clearly a very brave soldier with his early accomplishments in the Iran/Iraq war which brought him to Saddam's notice and rapid promotion. As the years wore on he was firstly a victim of the purges of military leaders and after being rehabilitated, he slowly became an incorruptible influence as he was put into different military and government roles by the country's leaders in Baghdad. Involvement in the Kuwaiti invasion and its badly managed aftermath and then as governor of an area in the South of Iraq where the marsh Arab community was seeing its livelihood destroyed under Saddam's retribution for their disloyalty, saw him increasingly move closer to Islam as an alternative salvation with the financing and building of mosques. His death near the time of the US invasion of Iraq like much of the rest of his life story can only be guessed at as to what really happened.
However in addition to the many insights of what life under Saddam was actually like over the decades he was in power with the Baath party, the book also probes the deeper quandary of what would anyone else have done (or been allowed to do) in similar circumstances. The general's innate loyalty to the state, even under the apparatus of Hussein's family, was irretrievably broken by the corruption and incompetence seen under the invasion of Kuwait. Yet even before that shift in the story it is also clear that attempts to judge how one would behave made from the comfort of a long established western democracy which Iraq had never experienced are pretty inappropriate. That sad truth is at the nub of much of Iraq's subsequent suffering at the hands of the US, who completely misunderstood what might happen in Iraq once Saddam's state apparatus was dismantled without any viable alternatives in place.
Like the previous reviewer I came across this book almost by accident, and very much enjoyed it though it is not the kind of book I would usually pick up.
I found it an easy, compelling read as interviews with different people were used to draw the life of the general for us as well as throwing light on the broader context of conditions and the coping strategies and ordinary lives of those struggling to live in Saddam's regime.
This is a book that has a lot to say about the military and also the state of mental health in Iraq but it is also intensely personally and it is that synthesis that makes it so gripping.
I hope we can expect future books from Wendell Steavenson. This book tells the story of how an Iraqi family survived - and were complicit in - the Baathist system from the 1960s to the invasion of 2003. And then how some family members reinvented themselves in the US occupation.
For me though Iraq was the backdrop. Steavenson asks some deep questions, not least why people allow these totalitarian systems to take shape and function. To that end she cites a number of psychological experiments undertaken in the US in the 1970s, including the famous Stanford prison experiment. This provides some interesting answers, not only in terms of Iraq but other regimes too.