By Maureen Tai, 3 December 2018
“You have to be patient in war. I learned that the last time, when we fought against Iran. It’s not only about battles and bombs. There’s a lot of just waiting.” – Ali
Ali is an eleven year old half-Kurdish middle grader who lives with his family in Basra, near the Iraq-Kuwait border. It is January 1991. A US-led United Nations coalition of 35 countries is about to launch an attack against Iraq for its invasion and annexation of neighbouring Kuwait. Saddam Hussein is Iraq’s dictatorial president, a brutal, power-hungry tyrant in both the eyes of Ali’s family, and the world. Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein is the story of Ali’s survival over the ensuing 43 days of Operation Desert Storm.
Ali Fadhil is a Superman comic collector who loves American television. He is video game-obsessed and soccer-mad. He also happens to be an ordinary schoolboy living in Basra during one of the most dramatic (and possibly most televised) military interventions in the early 1990s. The on-the-ground account is compelling for its unique perspective and the childlike matter-of-factness of his voice as Ali narrates the daily events between January and February 1991.
School has been cancelled in light of the impending war with the US. The Fadhil children – Shirzad, the eldest boy; Ali, the middle child; and Shireen, the youngest girl – are stuck at home. Their mother, a maths professor, tries to keep her family fed as supplies of food and fuel slowly but surely run out. Their father, a dentist, is conscripted for work at military hospitals and out in the field. By night, the bombs fall, and the family huddle in the “safe room,” the room in their house that is furthest from the building most likely to be targeted by the US army. By day, Ali and his brother join other children on the streets outside, exploring neighbourhoods scarred by the fighting, and playing football. Saddam’s soldiers and henchmen are everywhere. One day, when Ali is lost after running an errand, he is forced to watch a public execution of several men in the street, a grim reminder of the violence and brutality that come with war. Ali is well aware of the possibility of death that lurks in every corner but he is unflinching in the face of it. It is not that Ali is unafraid, or naive, but having spent most of his life living in a country at war, and terrorised by a despotic leader, the boy has learned to deal with his circumstances by indulging in his favourite pastimes: kicking a football around, reading his comics, playing video games and watching television. These simple pleasures sustain him as his life inexorably moves ahead.
The Ali Fadhil of the story is real. The boy-Ali and his family survive and flourish, as does Ali’s love of the English language, and America. The man-Ali becomes a translator, working for the US government, and fourteen years after Operation Desert Storm, he becomes Saddam Hussein’s translator at Saddam’s trial in 2006. The former Iraqi dictator is convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death by hanging.
The writing in Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein is competent and the voice, authentic. Ali’s horrific experiences are described honestly but without grisly details, making this book suitable even for younger middle-graders. Being able to live those few weeks through Ali’s eyes is what makes his story resonate and ultimately, stay with us.
For ages 8 and up.