An Interview with Zainab Salbi

“I don’t want to be innocent. I have to own my own shadow.”
Military leaders mentioned in this interview:
Robert E. Lee
Ulysses S. Grant
Ashurnasirpal II
Nebuchadnezzar II
Suleiman the Magnificent
Saddam Hussein

An Interview with Zainab Salbi

“I don’t want to be innocent. I have to own my own shadow.”
Military leaders mentioned in this interview:
Robert E. Lee
Ulysses S. Grant
Ashurnasirpal II
Nebuchadnezzar II
Suleiman the Magnificent
Saddam Hussein

An Interview with Zainab Salbi

Jonathan Meiburg
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Zainab Salbi’s energy is formidable. Even standing still, she seems to be leaning into the wind. Her short-cropped pepper-and-salt hair, expressive eyes, and quick, bright laugh lend her a youthfulness that belies both her age (forty-five) and the chilling past she evokes in her 2005 memoir, Between Two Worlds (cowritten with the Los Angeles Times’ Laurie Becklund). It’s a remarkable book. It describes the surreal and scary experience of growing up in Saddam Hussein’s inner circle: Zainab’s father, for a time, was his personal pilot. She and her family spent their lives immersed in a bizarre cocktail of luxury, coercion, and fear, including unannounced late-night visits from “Uncle” Saddam in which he held court in their living room, got drunk, and slow-danced with women in front of their husbands. It was a world she ultimately escaped, with her mother’s help, through a brief and unhappy arranged marriage in the United States. When she emerged, she had no idea what to do, or whom to be.

She found her feet, however, with astonishing speed. At the age of twenty-three, driven by a desire to help the victims of sexual violence in Bosnia, Zainab founded Women for Women International, a nonprofit that provides support to women survivors of war. It grew to become the largest international women’s organization in America after Planned Parenthood, distributing more than $108 million in direct aid and microcredit loans in its twenty-plus-year history, and as its leader, Zainab became a sort of icon for the global women’s movement. She has testified before Congress, appeared on Oprah ten times, and still turns up regularly on MSNBC, Al-Jazeera, and other mainstream media, often to represent an Iraqi perspective on current events.

But an icon isn’t really a human being. The tension between these two modes kept finding its way into her life, and she stepped down from her own organization in 2011 when she felt she was at risk of becoming a figurehead. I met Zainab at the vast Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where we spent three hours, mostly in its Ancient Near Eastern and Islamic Art galleries, discussing her life and the past and future of her home region and culture. Lucid, upbeat, and endlessly philosophical, Zainab frequently checked in with me by saying, “Do you see what I mean?”—or with herself, by tapping her breastbone with two fingers. It’s a gesture she makes with such force that in a quiet room she resonates like a drum.

Zainab took a few swigs from an aluminum water bottle, but otherwise talked indefatigably from one end of the museum to the other—even though she’d just returned from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro as part of a personal quest to visit a new country every year. As we walked, we free-associated about the museum, the mind-set of dictators, grappling with your demons in public, and, above all, about the inspiring and seductive power of images.

—Jonathan Meiburg


The Temple of Dendur. Built around 15 BCE, given to the United States by Egypt in 1965. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org.

ZAINAB SALBI: To bring this here seems the same as putting animals in a zoo. It’s like, We want to make it convenient, so we’ll bring the whole thing here rather than keep it in Egypt.

THE BELIEVER: Well, it would be underwater in Egypt; it was going to be drowned by the Aswan High Dam.

ZS: But Egypt has land as well!

BLVR: Very true. I think this was actually a gift from the Egyptian government to the US—though you could debate whether or not they should have given it away. But what gets me is all the graffiti on the temple. Look at this: L.B. 1891 of New York, U.S. And there’s a Royal Navy one in there…

ZS: Eighteen twenty. Wow.

BLVR: People—Westerners mostly, from the look of it—would just walk up to it in the desert and carve their names on the thing.

ZS: That’s pretty cool. Well, no—it’s not cool, but it’s interesting.

BLVR: The graffiti gives the building more of a life in time than it might have without it. But it’s also kind of unsettling.

ZS: You know, this is the crisis of the Middle East. Not this piece, but this history. Because if you go to Egypt, for example, or to Iraq, there is a very proud history of that era.

BLVR: Ancient Egypt?

ZS: Oh my god. I mean, every other word in Egypt is “We are the pharaohs!” And I’m like, I know, but that finished two thousand years ago, and we’re in a bad situation right now. There’s a great attachment to “once upon a time.”

BLVR: What do you think that does to people?

ZS: It’s like heaven. You get attached to something that you cannot have access to, because it’s too scary to look at reality right now. And that is part of the disconnection in the Middle East: we are still living in that past.

BLVR: There’s that famous line from Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” He was from the American South, which was conquered in the 1860s by what they regarded as a foreign army—and thank goodness it was. But that world’s still alive in the psyche of some people there—including my own relatives. My great-great-grandfather was a private in Lee’s army when he surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.

ZS: You know, the first time I went to the South—I can’t remember which state—I was shocked at how people are still present in that story.

BLVR: They’re still arguing about the state flag in Georgia, where my parents live.

ZS: Right! Georgia is where it was, actually. So imagine it’s the same thing in the Middle East: people are living vicariously through the history of victimhood or greatness. I mean, this is what ISIS is doing, the greatness of “once upon a time a great Islamic caliphate…”

BLVR: I was just going to say that ISIS seems involved in this kind of wish fulfillment.

ZS: Everyone is involved. When there is an injustice, it allows people like ISIS to take advantage of this emotional crisis—this identity crisis. Because every single Muslim talks about the time when Islam had spread everywhere in a glorious way—that’s how we were taught. Now, Muslims also pillaged and raped and took concubines and slaves. We don’t talk about that; it’s just embedded in the history. We talk much more about the prosperous empires that brought science and art and all of that. We don’t talk about the shadow of it. And what is ISIS doing? They’re bringing the story back to life. But they’re only bringing back its shadow.


BLVR: [Looking at a facsimile of a tomb scene from Egypt] This is three thousand years old. Isn’t it funny that depictions of humans have changed so much in art over the centuries, while animals almost always look like themselves?

ZS: Animals are usually themselves. And this is a compliment to them, I think. When I was in Tanzania last week, I saw a giraffe. And I wanted to be close to the giraffe. And I know that the only way I can be close to an animal is if I silence my mind. In Islam, the devil is “the one who whispers bad thoughts”; it’s the brain, right? So I anchored my heart in the giraffe, that was my strategy. And all of a sudden I feel like—ahh!—this connection. And with that connection, I was able to get this close to this wild giraffe. I think animals are much more anchored in themselves and in the earth than we are.

BLVR: They’re in paradise, in a way.

ZS: Yes!

BLVR: How long ago were you standing on top of Kilimanjaro?

ZS: Exactly a week ago. Now, mind you, it is nothing to brag about. It’s like the most humbling thing. By the time I arrived at the top I was sobbing. Just from awe and gratitude that I could make it, you know?

BLVR: What did you take away from that trip?

ZS: Every day you hike seven to eight hours, and then the last day to the peak is twelve hours. So you are reflecting on life, and one thing I thought was that we constantly think of heaven as something outside of us, in the hereafter, when we die. But it’s just here. It’s the most equalizing factor for everyone, poor or rich, and we miss out on it because we keep thinking it’s somewhere not available.

BLVR: Jesus supposedly said things like this, that the kingdom of God is here.

ZS: I don’t know what God is, but I believe there is something. I love God, let’s say. I love God, but I don’t know what God is. And I grew up with my mom telling me God is in the tree, God is in the leaf, God is in the sand, don’t think of God as somewhere up there.


Mesopotamian relief panel, circa 883–859 BCE. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org.

ZS: [Looking up] Assyrian. Or is this Babylonian?

BLVR: This is the audience chamber of the palace of Ashurnasirpal II, one of the ancient kings of Assyria. What do you think of it?

ZS: Look at this guy, with his feathered wings and his beak. And he’s also a man. In Iraq we actually grew up with these images, all over. Saddam revived the narrative that we are the Babylonians and the Assyrians, you know, like the Egyptians have the pharaohs.

BLVR: Well, what’s carved on all these panels in this strange-looking triangular script is a record of Ashurnasirpal’s achievements, mostly his conquests, really. They’ve translated one little quote that says, “I, Ashurnasirpal, the king whose glory is mighty, took Kalhu and changed its ancient mound… for my royal dwelling and for my lordly pleasure I founded therein, I adorned and made glorious.”

ZS: He sounds very much like a dictator.

BLVR: Funny you say that, because most of the rest of the inscription, which they don’t translate, is—

ZS: A pillage.

BLVR: Yeah, exactly. Flayings, mounds of bodies, rapes of women and children, cutting off soldiers’ hands, poking out their eyes—the most awful stuff. And the museum surely knows this.

ZS: Why not mention it, at least?

BLVR: It’s like they decided to paper over brutality with beauty. That’s the question, I guess. Is there beauty here?

ZS: Well, is there justice? This guy is a victorious guy. He built a statue for himself. But who builds a statue for himself? A megalomaniac. But it’s the statues that survive, and we put them in a museum! We took something ugly and now we celebrate it as something beautiful. There’s a Talmudic saying, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”

BLVR: What the museum’s presenting here isn’t the court of a scary tyrant; it’s a pleasure dome.

ZS: Right. It’s a reflection of our discomfort with seeing, and addressing the shadow and the ugliness of things. So when ugliness happens, it’s because of them, not us—which is just what ISIS thinks, by the way.

BLVR: These statues were taken from about thirty kilometers south of Nineveh—right across the Tigris from Mosul. So we’re actually standing in ISIS-controlled territory right now.

ZS: And history is repeating itself, in a way. When I was a teenager, I saw, as we entered one of Saddam’s palaces, three golden helmets over the door. And I remember knowing this is my mother’s, and all the other women’s, gold that he took. He took our stories away from us, and he molded them into a stupid golden helmet. And then later on, after America invaded, I went back to these palaces, and it was the strangest experience. I knew these palaces. And this time there were American soldiers in them.

BLVR: The cast had changed, the play was different, but the set was the same.

ZS: And I had walked in both times. And I saw the soldiers drawing graffiti outside, like we just saw—

BLVR:—at the temple of Dendur.

ZS: Yes. They were desecrating it; they were sleeping under the stairs and everything.

BLVR: Do you think it’s possible that years from now, anything Saddam built might be considered beautiful?

ZS: People already talk about it as “Well, during Saddam’s time we had all these things; we had art and glory and poetry.” But he was one of the worst dictators! Hello? Within ten years we’re already changing the story. And if Iraqis can’t remember a dictatorship ten years later, how do we expect the museum to remember the dictatorship of this fellow here?

BLVR: But we know what Ashurnasirpal did, or what he says he did. It’s no secret.

ZS: So is it our fascination with power, then? Why do we constantly adore power and forget to ask about the consequences of that power?

BLVR: I think almost everything in this building belonged to someone with power, or was built at the whim of someone powerful—up to and including the museum itself.


BLVR: Have you seen this before?

ZS: [Quietly] Of course, yes. Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar. When you were reading the quote about the palace, I thought about how Saddam rebuilt Babylon.

BLVR: Saddam’s almost become a figure of fun these days—at a distance, he seems sort of campy and ridiculous. But your book reanimates him as a very real and frightening character. What do you think produces a person like this?

ZS: We can all become like this, easily. Look at Saddam’s story: no one knows who his father is, so the rumors around him are that he’s a bastard, in a very conservative society. His stepfather beat the heck out of him, he whipped him, he did not send him to school. He did not even have underwear until the age of nine. There’s a traumatized child in there. I remember one time he told my parents, “When I grew up I did not have shoes, and so I am going to make sure that every single Iraqi has shoes.”

But my parents grew up with shoes, and I remember my mom telling me, “But we had shoes when we were growing up. He just took them away from us, and gave us his new shoes!” Do you see what I mean? That’s the power of marginalization. He came from the consequences of classism, of abuse, of village against city, of no education, of poverty. He was a product of that. He got stuck in it.

BLVR: Saddam comes across in your book as a virtuoso of fear.

ZS: He is. He was. But you know, if you look at it from his perspective, he grew up in that fear. So he just re-created it for all of us.

BLVR: I don’t know if this is common to people everywhere, but something I always notice in the US is that we’re very quick to brand people as “monsters” or “animals.”

ZS: I was part of that process, by the way. I thought, Saddam is evil, and everyone else is good. This is what I thought when I came to America. And then it took me a long time to realize that there are evil people here, too. And now I think the light and the shadow are in each one of us. Which one we choose to feed more is our choice.

BLVR: I feel like looking at the later images of him in court, in prison, it’s almost possible to glimpse a version of him who could have been good, in a different life.

ZS: Every time I mention his name, in my head there is the word amo—uncle. When he got executed, I cried. And I cried for him. I mean, I cried for the country, too, because I thought his trial was an opportunity for us to have our own version of truth and reconciliation. And when they cut his trial short and executed him, that was a loss for the country. But I would lie to you if I told you I did not cry for him. There was the human in him, the amo in him, who wanted to be loved. Who so desperately wanted to be loved that he terrorized people into loving him.

BLVR: He also was a master of guilt, it seemed.

ZS: I’m not sure if it’s him, but the guilt I always felt, which I reacted most of my life to, is that I knew the wealth I was growing up in was unjust. I knew there were people who were suffering as I was eating caviar, in the same day.

BLVR: You don’t make eating caviar sound like much fun, in your book.

ZS: It doesn’t matter. I mean, I grew up with a waiter behind every single one of us at dinner. The cake was cut with a sword, not a knife! [Looks at a quote from Nebuchadnezzar painted on the wall] I have to tell you, though, I never really thought about this part of history. In Iraq, Nebuchadnezzar is like a glorious man. We had to memorize what he said. But I’m reading this and I’m like, he’s a dictator. [Reading aloud] “At the entrance of its gates I set massive bulls and fearsome dragons…” It’s fear. He was building fear. So when Saddam built Babylon again—

BLVR: Wait. He literally rebuilt it?

ZS: Yes. Modern bricks on top of the historical bricks. And he wrote on every other brick, Rebuilt During Saddam Hussein’s Era. So Babylon the city was completely rebuilt and we had a major exhibit and festival there, and bands from all over the world came and performed, and I remember thinking, I think he just ruined it.


BLVR: This is a strange thing. It’s a page of a Quran that’s six feet tall. If we believe the plaque here, it was made by a calligrapher after he failed to impress the emperor Tamerlane with a Quran so small it could fit under a signet ring. So he made one so large it had to be brought to the palace on a cart.

ZS: But you know what it says? It says “God gives blessing to whoever God wants to give blessing to, and those who do not appreciate us [in reference to God], who are wanting greatness in this life, and corruption in this life, we reserve hell for them.”

BLVR: That’s what this says?

ZS: “And as for those who bring good in this life, and who avoid doing damage in this life, that’s where heaven is reserved.” It went to a caliph? [Laughs] That is very ironic. I would say it was a nuanced message in there.

BLVR: I wonder why they didn’t post a translation on the wall?

ZS: “We reserve heaven to those who don’t care about greatness”—that’s the message here. I grew up in a very secular family, as you know. And I never read the whole Quran. I mean, there were verses you had to memorize in school, and I remember only that, right? But now that I’m re-reading it, I’m curious. And it’s a fascinating book because it’s very spiritual, very loving, loving, loving, and then it drops into—

BLVR: [Gestures at a jeweled sword from the court of Suleiman the Magnificent]

ZS: Exactly.

BLVR: I didn’t even know until recently what the Quran was. That it’s the text of the revelation to Muhammad, written in the first-person voice of God.

ZS: Yes. Muhammad was illiterate. He goes to the cave, he receives the revelation that is supposedly literally God’s voice and dictates it, and that’s his miracle. How could an illiterate man write such poetry? Beautiful, right? But also, the third caliph burns all other versions of the Quran but one. So—you know how there are versions of the Bible and Torah and all of that?

BLVR: Yeah, some became canonical, and some were thrown out.

ZS: So to avoid what happened to Christianity, he burns all the versions and he keeps one. I’m always curious about these other versions.

BLVR: I wanted to talk for a minute about a central image of your book: the Abbasid gold coin your mother wore around her neck that Saddam forced her to give him, and then melted down.

ZS: Yes.

BLVR: Your mother was Shia, right?

ZS: Yes.

BLVR: But the Abbasid caliphs carried the banner of Sunni Islam.

ZS: Yes, but we never looked at that time as Sunni and Shia. It was more the fact that it’s a historical object, and that a prince from Iran came and gave it to my grandfather. It didn’t matter that they were Sunni or Shia. It was the history, that it was a gift, and there was a story in it.

BLVR: If she were alive now, do you think she would still wear it?

ZS: Absolutely. My mom was the kind of woman that once she liked the necklace, or she liked the dress, she kept on wearing it forever until it just fell apart. It’s interesting that you mention the jewelry, because you know we had to give Saddam all our jewelry. But he also gave us a lot of jewelry. And it’s been in a safety deposit box ever since I arrived here.

BLVR: What are you going to do with it?

ZS: I don’t know! I cannot touch the jewelry he gave us. Even when I got married, I told my husband, “You cannot give me any jewelry, no gold, no diamonds, nothing.” Someone suggested I melt it and make a new piece out of it. But I was like, even if I melt it, it can’t be for me, it has to be for Iraqis—because it’s theirs. But my mom would still be wearing the coin, absolutely.


“Muhammad Revives the Sick Boy.” Folio from a Falnama (Book of Omens), Iran. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org.

BLVR: As far as I know, this is the only image of Muhammad in the entire museum.

ZS: And they scratched it.

BLVR: I don’t think so. I think it was painted without a face, with a veil.

ZS: Oh, this is a veil.

BLVR: It’s disconcerting at first, this faceless man with his head in flames! But it makes me think how, during all the shouting about depicting Muhammad, I didn’t hear anyone point out that images really do have great power, sometimes terrible power, and that prohibitions against them might spring from a pretty healthy suspicion of that power. A Syrian filmmaker recently said that when images of a leader in a country exceed a certain size, war is inevitable.

ZS: I mean, that’s the case with Saddam. There were images of him everywhere. But that’s what I like about Islam. It’s not about Muhammad; Islam does not allow images of leaders to be shown. So what does Saddam do? He goes to the pre-Islamic Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations, and he claims that history to justify making images of himself.

BLVR: I hadn’t thought of it that way.

ZS: It’s interesting, right? I remember one time, when I was leading Women for Women, I came back to my office and there were posters of me in the corners of the room, and it horrified me. And I was like, “Why did you put up my picture?” and they were like, “You’re our leader.” And had I not grown up inside Saddam’s palaces and known what these pictures create, I would have said, “Oh, OK,” but I said, “You have to take it down.” And I forbid anybody to put my picture in any of the offices. But you know how easy it is to slip? Because people say, “No, we need you to inspire us,” or “We use it to inspire other people.”

BLVR: Was it a temptation for you?

ZS: For me the pictures were not the temptation, because of Saddam and all his pictures. But I remember that Women for Women had a partnership with Kate Spade one time, and they gave me a couple of dresses for free, right? And I accepted. But after a year I panicked. I was like, “Ahh! I’m losing myself.”

BLVR: What did you do?

ZS: I gave them all away to Afghan and Iraqi women immediately, once I caught myself. That’s the truth, you know? And it’s not Kate Spade’s fault. They are used to that mechanism. We all have different points of vanity. So mine, thank god, was wearing a brand dress, and nothing else. I’m not being hard on myself; I’m being honest. That’s where I slipped.


BLVR: Poor Jonah. His tomb was destroyed by ISIS, I think, two weeks ago?

ZS: ISIS is our version of the Taliban. It’s the same. They destroyed the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, remember?

BLVR: Yeah, the Bamiyan Buddhas.

ZS: I think it did act as a wake-up call for Iraqis to say, Our Iraqi identity is more important than our division. I hope. Inshallah. I don’t know.

But for Jonah, where my head frankly went was that we are getting to an era where we’re valuing only actions, only doing. Jonah was in the whale’s belly, I don’t know how long, but there was inaction in that space. Or Mandela was in prison for twenty-seven years. Or Gandhi spinning cotton hours a day. Not-doing has a value. These great leaders changed the world, and there was a lot of not-doing in their lives.

BLVR: Or you could think of it as a different kind of doing.

ZS: God knows what came to him in the belly of that whale, you know?


Saint Firmin Holding His Head, circa 1225–75 CE, France. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org.

ZS: [Gasps]

BLVR: We’ve left the Near Eastern gallery, but I had to show you this; it’s my favorite thing in the museum.

ZS: And your thoughts?

BLVR: Well, just looking at it, it reminds me—there’s a writer I love, Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote about walking across Europe in 1934, when he was nineteen years old. And in describing the architecture of an Italian monastery, he says, “Paradox reconciles all contradictions.”

ZS: What does that mean to you?

BLVR: I think it means that sometimes two things can occupy the same space at the same time. Like, what strikes me here is that the head and the body both look perfectly alive, despite the fact that there’s clearly a problem! And yet it’s not funny somehow; it’s profound. But beyond that, don’t you ever feel like this guy sometimes?

ZS: [Laughs] I felt like this before, but not now. I hope I don’t go back to it. I created Women for Women out of my own desire to help the poor, right? I was so angry at injustice, and I created an organization as big as my anger, you know?

But I remember sitting in my office one day; one of my staff came in and saw me crying. She was telling me my schedule, and I looked at her and I said, “I have created my monster.” For the world, or at least for the community of women activists, I was [points at Saint Firmin]. I was like a robot, even. A statue that carries my face, and it just talks. I let people dress me up, and I was managed, and I was this close to losing myself. And I think that’s what no one talks about in the social justice movement, how we lose ourselves in the process of fund-raising, and having to do this and that.

BLVR: Turning yourself into an image—

ZS: —to serve the cause. You tell yourself it’s not for your ego, it’s to serve the cause. But they need you to give you money. They want to see you to give you money. And you want to raise the money so that you can give it to the people you care about. But in the process you lose your soul. That’s the emotional underpinning of why I left. But I also left because of what is happening in the Middle East, and because I know what I want to do next.

BLVR: Which is?

ZS: This is as bad as it has ever been in the Muslim world. This is our dark age, you know? It’s like we’re being held to the fire, and we’re boiling. But we have 60 percent of the population there under the age of thirty. They’re young, they have a new form of identity, which combines their individual identity as well as their religious identity. Look at her, for example. [A young woman walks by wearing headphones and a loose-fitting head scarf.] Modern, Muslim, all of these things. But they are not being heard. They are saying similar things individually, but there is no platform for them. And I really believe the saving grace is going to come from that generation.

What I learned, working in wars and trauma, is that healing starts with acknowledging people. We need to acknowledge the stories of what’s happening, particularly with women and youths. So I’m doing the same thing as I was, but I’m doing it through the media this time, because the image, self-image, is what Arabs need the most, not humanitarian aid. They need to restore a good sense of the self.

BLVR: You’re working on a new book now. Is it also concerned with this?

ZS: [Deep breath] No. My book addresses my shadows. It is a book where I am not the good character in it.

BLVR: Really?

ZS: Absolutely. You know, in my first book I’m the victim in it, sort of. But to tell you I’m only good is a false statement. The essence of this book is Radiah, who worked as a cleaning girl at my house. She was a child laborer; she was only two years older than me—and I was five when she came. Just before I left Women for Women, I got an email from one of my colleagues in Iraq with a picture of me and her as teenagers, and he says, “Is this you?”

And my heart drops. I haven’t seen her or talked to her for twenty years. And then he sends me a letter from her to a woman who is sponsoring her in America—through my organization. But because I did not let anyone use my picture or my name in our local offices, she does not know I am the founder—and she is describing how she grew up with this girl called Zainab, and she’s trying to find her. Find me.

So the book is the story of me and her, where she is the maid and I am the spoiled child. Take The Help, for example, where the white girl was [presented as being] innocent of the oppression—in this case, I don’t want to be innocent. I have to own my own shadow. Unless I own it, I am not a complete person, I’m just a head, you know? But the process is hell. I do not mean to romanticize it whatsoever.

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