“Munem, how can we ever go to Iraq now?” These were the words of a young Englishwoman, Pauline Knowles, to her Iraqi fiancé in July 1958 as they watched in horror the black and white TV news of overthrow of the monarchy in Iraq. But it was inevitable that Munem Samarraie would eventually return to Iraq from England, where he had been sent by his government on a scholarship. Three years later he left for Baghdad, having completed his studies in engineering at the University of Birmingham.
The following year Pauline, whom he had married not long after the coup, joined him in Iraq with their young son Mazin. It was the first time this unsophisticated young woman from the town of Halifax in the north of England had ever flown in an aircraft.
“I didn’t even feel the slightest twinge of anxiety or fear when faced with the prospect of a new culture, a new language and a new country with a history as old as Time itself,” Pauline Knowles-Samarraie writes in “I Never Said Goodbye: A Mother’s Memoir of Love and Brutal Loss Inside Saddam’s Regime”, published recently by Andre Deutsch of London. She was “like a blank page, all ready for the story of my new life to be written upon it.”
Pauline could not have known that the story of her life over the following four decades would have tragedy and loss written on its pages, in parallel with the bloody trajectory of Iraq’s modern history. Her husband Munem would fall foul of the Saddam regime and would, like so many others, be killed. And as if that was not enough, her son Mazin would be imprisoned in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison and she would only find out his terrible fate years later.
But these tragedies lay far in the future, and when Pauline first arrived in Baghdad her new life lived up to her expectations. She quickly made friends, and was given a job in the English section of Iraq radio. In their free time she and Munem would travel around Iraq seeing the sights, including his home town of Samarra.
More than 40 years on, Pauline lives near Brighton on the south coast of England, far from the horrific turmoil of Iraq. She wrote her memoir in collaboration with Karen O’Brien, Arab World Regional Editor for the BBC World Service and author of biographies of singers Kirsty MacColl and Joni Mitchell.
The memoir includes accounts of political and economic developments in Iraq alongside Pauline’s personal drama. The first coup Pauline experienced was in 1963. When she returned to her broadcasting studio she found it had been “turned into an executioner’s chamber: the walls and floors were smeared with dried blood.”
Munem rose within the oil industry and the family moved to a new house near the Dora refinery. They enjoyed a rich social life: there were gatherings in friends’ houses, poolside parties at embassies, nightclubs on the banks of the Tigris, open air cinemas and Thursday night dances at the Engineers’ Union. “We were a cosmopolitan group in the Swinging Sixties and we loved the social life.” Pauline gave birth to her second child, a daughter Nada.
Saddam Hussein made his presence increasingly felt. Pauline remembers his coming to her in-laws’ house to pay his condolences after the death of Munem’s brother Bedri in a London hospital. Saddam was a friend of Munem’s oldest brother, Faleh, and was already regarded as something of a hero because he had been among the group of Baathists that had tried to assassinate the leader of the 1958 coup, Abdul Karim Qassim. Pauline conveys his almost movie-star charisma.
Just as Saddam came to take over Iraq and to impose his ruthless power, so he came to dominate the life of Munem Samarraie and his wife. In 1972 the Iraqi oil industry was nationalized which gave the Ministry of Oil new power and status. The sharp oil price rises after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war brought Iraq the riches to embark on ambitious economic development. Munem was intimately involved in the development of the oil industry.
Saddam telephoned Munem so frequently that “my husband came to dread the sound of the ringing telephone.” Munem never had a break from work and Saddam would phone him at all hours of the night to demand “Why didn’t you do this? What’s happening about that?” Pauline writes: “Later we would realize just to what extent Saddam was able to use people but, in using them, he destroyed them. He cleverly hid his cruel streak initially; so many people – millions in fact – were completely taken in by him.”
The intolerable pressure on Munem at work put the couple’s relationship under much strain. According to Pauline, Munem took his frustration out on his family. And yet when she and Munem were invited to a reception by Saddam, “like every other women in the room, I was completely drawn in by the aura of power exuded by this handsome man.”
Nowadays biographies published in Britain are expected to give a warts-and-all picture of their subject, and “I Never Said Goodbye” is no exception. Pauline tells us how she found a candid love to Munem letter from a European woman, whom she calls Anita. He assured her it was just a brief fling, long over. Some time later Munem told Pauline to take the children back to England and then wrote telling her that their marriage was over and that she should not return to Iraq. After Pauline wrote to his brother Faleh, she received new tickets and she and the children rejoined Munem. Later on she discovered a large bundle of hidden letters that had been sent to Munem at his office address by several women in England, France and Germany whom he had met during his long trips on government business. Munem blamed her and seemed unrepentant, but he refused to let her leave him.
Pauline’s depictions of Munem are tinged with bitterness. It is as if the discords of her marriage have blighted her assessment of a man who was remarkable in a wider context. As she recognizes, he had a deep commitment to his country and developing its potential. Indeed, one of the things that first attracted her to him when he was studying for his A-levels in Halifax was his determination, and the way he seemed so assured about himself and his path in life.
Munem was clearly courageous. He realized he must get his family out of Iraq, but knew this plan would be blown if they all left at once and in any case Mazin was at that time in the army. He therefore insisted that Pauline and Nada leave first, as if they were going on holiday to England.
The last time Pauline saw Munem was in a hotel room at Heathrow airport where he had stopped off during a business trip. He was sitting with a number of friends who had left Iraq and now lived in England. Munem told Pauline that Saddam had told him to leave Iraq, but that he could not do this because he did not want to endanger Mazin and his family. She later found out Munem was imprisoned when he returned to Iraq, and executed without trial on August 19 1986. She suspects he had got into trouble for speaking out against something that outraged him. “Munem had gone back to Iraq for that final time in defiance of Saddam, purely to protect his son. It was tantamount to signing his own death warrant.”
Pauline lost contact with her son, and found out he was in Abu Ghraib prison. Years later, in 1995, she revisited Iraq and it was only then that one of her brothers-in- law, who had also been in prison, told her: “Saddam hanged him”. She realized the extent of her in-laws’ deception since Mazin’s disappearance.
Throughout her book Pauline paints her in in-laws in generally negative, unsympathetic tones. Of course, we only hear her side of the story. During Munem’s absences from Baghdad on business, she and the children would be expected to stay with his family. She tells how early in her married life his brother Badir objected to her makeup and Western clothes and smashed the wardrobe mirror in her room. It took her years to reach a modicum of understanding with the great matriarch of the family, her mother-in-law Umm Faleh.
One gratifying outcome of the publicity marking the publication of Pauline’s memoir is that it has prompted some Iraqis who knew Munem very well to record their own memories of him. A moving and deeply-felt tribute from the London-based Iraqi oil analyst Muhammad-Ali Zainy was published on April 15 on the blog Iraqi Mojo .
Zainy describes Munem as his dearest and best friend. Both of them graduated from Birmingham University, and they were long-time colleagues in Iraq’s Ministry of Oil. He writes in his lengthy tribute: “Yes they executed Munem, for a ready-made but sham accusation, bribery! What a tasteless joke! Munem lived a poor man and died a poor man. He was most patriotic, most honest, and most incorruptible. He was a true democrat and a strong believer in human rights. His only sin was that he was against the regime and that was a medal of honour for him and for all Iraqis who were martyred for the same reasons.”
Zainy proposes that some time in the future when life in Iraq goes back to normal, the Ministry of Oil should make an oil and gas museum. “The museum should include a big room for all those oil and gas Iraqis who got martyred for one reason or another, from the beginning of the Iraqi oil industry till this day; and the late Munem al-Samarraie should have a statue in that room.”
Saudi Gazette 7th May 2007