Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein: Based on a True Story
Blurb from Goodreads: At the start of 1991, eleven-year-old Ali Fadhil was consumed by his love for soccer, video games, and American television shows. Then, on January 17, Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein went to war with thirty-four nations lead by the United States.
Over the next forty-three days, Ali and his family survived bombings, food shortages, and constant fear. Ali and his brothers played soccer on the abandoned streets of their Basra neighborhood, wondering when or if their medic father would return from the war front. Cinematic, accessible, and timely, this is the story of one ordinary kid’s view of life during war.
My thoughts on this book:
Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein is inspired by the true story of Ali Fadhil, a boy living in Basra, Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991. Ali was like other children and went to school, loved to play football, read comics and play video games, but what set him apart from others was that he had a myriad of things to worry about, including a war right on his doorstep. Rather than living a life of peace, Ali had to deal with living in a safe room with his siblings and parents in fear of bombs. He had to endure food and water shortages and wonder about whether or not his father would make it back home. With all this anger and frustration inside due to all that’s happening, he has to refrain from expressing his true thoughts, because if you’re caught speaking against Saddam Hussein, you risk being killed. It was nightmarish and somehow he still managed to find some optimism in his life.
“I have fighting blood in my veins. I may not be able to directly fight with my fists or a gun but I have…I have…
I love my country. I love my family. I love life.”
It’s declared that the book is slightly fictionalized and I’m unsure exactly which parts of the narrative are fiction, but I can say that all of it felt authentic to me in every way. I can still remember sitting in front of the television as this war was heavily televised for all to see. It was enough to cause anxiety to those living on the outside of the war, let alone what the people must’ve been experiencing living in Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein and smack dab in the heart of the war. There was no way out for them and they didn’t ask for the war, they were against it.
“I hate Saddam,” my sister, Shireen, says loudly. “He’s ruining my life.”
The circumstances and experiences that Ali and his family must endure are eye-opening and I think this is an excellent book for middle-schoolers to get a sense of what life is like in war. It’s written well and told from Ali’s point of view so readers will disern his feelings and emotions throughout the book. I loved some of the educational references which shed light on the different religions and groups to help readers understand the differences with their cultures, histories, and belief systems. Of course, I also enjoyed reading about Ali’s love for stuffed grape leaves and baklava because these were foods I grew up with in my own childhood due to my Syrian ancestry. I too experienced a love for Atari as Ali was just a few years younger than me so there was even a little nostalgia here. A post-script and epilogue which reveal fourteen years later during Saddam’s trial and where Ali Fadhil is today ties up everything nicely. With that said, there was an upsetting event or two in the book that might be a bit too much for sensitive readers (one that includes public executions), but it’s short-lived.
Overall, this book kept me engaged. There’s so much discussion to be had after reading it and it definitely belongs in every middle-school classroom. After reading this with my kids, they now have a better understanding of life in war, what it’s like living under a dictator like Saddam Hussein, and about Operation Desert Storm in general. My rating is 5*****.
- Age Range: 10 – 12 years
- Grade Level: 5 – 7
- Hardcover: 176 pages
- Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (February 6, 2018)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 054478507X
- ISBN-13: 978-0544785076
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