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The Weight of a Mustard Seed: The Intimate Story of an Iraqi General and His Family During Thirty Years of Tyranny Hardcover – March 17, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Early in this portrait of Iraqi general Kamel Sachet, Steavenson (Stories I Stole) warns, In Iraq, there was never one story, there were always many stories, layers of episodes, each one a wound. She examines the life of General Sachet from his humble beginnings to his rise in the Iraqi army and his growing closeness with Saddam Hussein. Sachet was commander of special forces and the general in charge of the army in Kuwait during the first Gulf War. His life was one of service to his country, and his moral compass set by a military code. Yet his obedience, Steavenson reveals, came at a price: as his repulsion for the demagoguery of the Baath party and Saddam's sadism grew, the terror tactics of the regime kept him and his peers paralyzed. Steavenson is a talented writer and her reconstruction of Sachet's story is staggering in its revelation of a collective psychological trauma that continues to grip a nation. (Mar.)
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From Booklist

Steavenson, a journalist who has lived in and reported from Iran and Iraq, seeks to discover why underlings continued to serve during Saddam Hussein’s regime, even as they saw firsthand the terror he perpetrated on the innocent. “How had they lived with themselves?” she asks. She investigates the career and ultimate demise of one famous general, Kamel Sachet. Born in 1947, he joins the police in 1975, then the army, and is later promoted to the Special Forces during the war with Iran. In 1983, he is inexplicably imprisoned. Steavenson deftly interjects interviews with those connected to Sachet through the years into her story, including a Dr. Hassan, who was accused of disloyalty and became Sachet’s cellmate. After Sachet is released, he is called before Saddam himself, who, inexplicably, promotes him—one of many examples of Hussein’s use of the rod and reward, banishment and reinstatement. Steavenson finds the “flicker of conscience” she seeks with the discovery that Kamel Sachet steadfastly kept his sons out of the military before he himself was assassinated in 1998. --Deborah Donovan

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1St Edition edition (March 17, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061721786
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061721786
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,729,765 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 34 people found the following review helpful By E. T. Veal on February 3, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
It's hard not to feel positively toward a writer who risks traveling to dangerous places in the pursuit of journalism. An Anglo-American woman who lived for months at a time in post-Ba'athist Iraq, during the most dangerous phase of the terrorist uprising, deserves double kudos. Though not fluent in Arabic - she refers several times to depending on translators - Wendell Steavenson has gleaned from interviews with many Iraqis this impressionistic and episodic account of the career of General Kamel Sachet Aziz al-Janabi, who rose high in the ranks of Saddam Hussein's military before being executed for unknowable reasons in December 1998.

As a picture of the turbulence and precariousness of life in the upper ranks of the Saddamite regime, The Weight of a Mustard Seed is admirable. Unfortunately, Miss Steavenson's informants, primarily General Sachet's family and close friends, provide more specifics about his private than his public life, and overlay their data with apologias. His roles in the Iran-Iraq War and the invasion of Kuwait remain cloudily heroic. His tenure as a provincial governor is praised for relieving oppression and attending to the needs of the poor. Yet the incompetence of the Iraqi Army, as well as its resort to chemical weapons, is notorious, and Sachet governed a province whose wetlands were being drained to destroy the lifeways of the rebellious Marsh Arabs. Was the hero a shining light of competence and rectitude against this dark background? Maybe, but the author does little to question or probe the encomia of her sources.

Also left unclear is the extent to which her narrative is founded on solid fact rather than her own speculative imagination.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By George P. Wood VINE VOICE on January 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Kamel Sachet was a famous Iraqi soldier. As a special forces officer during the Iran-Iraq War, he distinguished himself through bravery and was well-regarded by his troops. He was promoted to general and commanded the army during Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Following Iraq's defeat, he was appointed governor of the Maysan Province, in which role he helped put down the intifada against Saddam Hussein's rule.

Knowing these facts might dispose you to judge Kamel harshly for his complicity in Saddam's reign of terror. Wendell Steavenson certainly doesn't excuse his sins. But she paints a morally complex portrait of a patriot who came to loathe Saddam and find solace for his sins in an increasingly strict observance of Islam.

The Weight of a Mustard Seed tells Kamel's story through interviews with family members, friends, colleagues, and subordinates. The backdrop of these interviews is the March 2003 American invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, during which the long-suffering Iraqis suffered some more. Many of Steavenson's interviewees, like Kamel, were soldiers and members of the Baath Party. Their stories are as morally complex as his. On the one hand, they committed atrocities. On the other hand, they were victims of atrocities. Most of them, like Kamel, were arrested and tortured during their tenure of service in the army. Kamel himself was executed by the regime in December 1998.

From the comfort of America, with our long traditions of open government and the rule of law, it is easy to critique the Iraqis for their complicity. But what would you do if the regime arrested you, tortured you, targeted your family, and otherwise used the carrot of security and the stick of insecurity to get your compliance? Steavenson asks these questions.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Robert W. Smith VINE VOICE on January 28, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"The weight of a mustard seed", written by Wendell Steavenson, is a book that is well worth the read for individuals who wish to gather a sense of what it was like living in Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein. In this expansive story which covers multiple decades of the life of who was to become General Kamel Sachet, the author describes various events throughout his life as explained by third person observers. The was, in my opinion, a very good, sound addition to the literature. In a quite subjective manner, Steavenson writes, often in a flower-esque manner various events of his life. Other reviewers criticize that this book apologizes for Sachet's role in atrocities committed by the Hussein regime. It does. That's part of the fascination with this book. It helps us, neutral third parties, to see a different perspective than our own. That's cool and it is achieved quite effectively. It is also noted by another reviewer that the only references to the United States were negative. While I hold tremendous honor and respect for the brave men and women of the United States military who have risked or, in many cases, given their lives, I also believe that the point of this book is to transport the reader to a different perspective, a different culture, a different belief system. It really does help to know the world around us and its peoples. It might be understandable, in my mind, to hear statements that are negative about the United States, following two major military actions and hundreds of minor military actions over the last 18 years and after hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers died in almost unilateral military conflict with the United States.Read more ›
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