What happens when we hide the truth? We risk losing the very essence of who we are, says author and humanitarian Zainab Salbi. Growing up in Iraq as the daughter of Saddam Hussein’s personal pilot, Zainab had to keep a lot of secrets. It was only when she reached out to close female friends for emotional support that she finally found the courage to tell her difficult story.
LIFENOTES Your father was Saddam Hussein’s personal pilot, and as a young girl you had to address Saddam as “Uncle.” For many years, you didn’t feel you could share even a word of this story. What finally gave you the courage to write Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny, your first book, about your life in Iraq?
ZAINAB Each life journey has a challenge. Each life phase has a challenge. For the longest time, that story, that time, was my biggest challenge and my biggest secret.
In my professional life, I was working with women survivors of abuse and conflict and realized I was preaching to them to break their silence and speak up, but I wasn’t doing it myself. I caught myself in one important moment feeling like a hypocrite. I realized I could no longer talk to other people about what they needed to do, other women in my case, if I am not willing to walk that journey myself. So either I resign from my work, or do what I’m asking them to do.
By the way, in this divisive moment in our time, in our history in America, and worldwide, I actually tell everyone to not preach to others about what they need to do. You have to walk that talk first, to be humbled by how hard it is to walk the talk, how complex. In that humility, you actually become more compassionate towards others, even those you disagree with.
But telling my story was hard and scary. I had to face my shame, and fear, and judgment, and family honor. It’s not easy to break your silence.
LIFENOTES You created a support system to help you do that. Can you tell us about how important it is for everyone to have a support system?
ZAINAB Having the support of others is critical. No one can do it alone. No one. Whether that support is your therapist or it’s just a friend, you need to create a support team around you.
LIFENOTES When you were writing Between Two Worlds, you found that being able to rely on one “anchoring person” really helped you. And you also had a support team. Can you explain how that worked?
ZAINAB When I wrote my book, my lifeline was a friend who was there for me day and night, as I was crying and writing. Most recently, before writing my second book, Freedom Is an Inside Job, I was going through another very tough moment in my life. Then, I relied on a therapist, a nutritionist, and a friend who helped me get through the process.
My philosophy is to always create a support team of three people who do not know each other. If I am getting the same input from three individuals who do not know each other and they are telling me the same thing, then I can conclude I am on the right path.
I know we all want an easier recipe, but all I can say is this is how I did it. I created support systems of three: Some of them were very close. Some of them were not very close. In the last phase of my hard time, the three people included someone I talked with every week, someone I talked with once a month, and someone I talked with every now and then (every two or three weeks basically). That was my support system.
LIFENOTES Most of your support has come from other women. Eileen Fisher says there’s something special — maybe even a kind of magic—that happens when women come together. Have you experienced that?
ZAINAB It’s something about safety. Women have a lot in common with each other. There’s a pattern throughout our stories, regardless of where we are from or our ages. We understand certain things. We understand the meaning of discrimination. We understand the meaning of having a period. We understand certain emotions because we are cut from the same fabric.
I’m also a believer in women’s circles. I have a group of women and we get together every quarter and we have an overnight together. We chat, and we cook, and we talk, and we stay up until midnight talking. We literally sometimes sit in circles and share our vulnerabilities, and our dreams — it’s a safe place where we can witness each other’s stories without judgment, and process them together. Many of those stories are similar so we understand each other in a very special way. That’s why I believe, and agree, that there is magic when women get together.
LIFENOTES There is a healing that takes place when we take a risk and reveal what we’ve been afraid to reveal. Can you talk about this and the other amazing benefits you experienced when you fully shared your story with others?
ZAINAB We have two choices: Either keep our secrets of shame — and, with that, our imprisonment to that story — or take a leap of faith, own the story, tell it, and own our own liberation. The latter may sound scarier, but it will be your route to freedom.
And something else happens as well. Whenever we tell our truth and break our silence, we become like candles that light the way for others out of their darkness until they can find the courage to speak up themselves.