Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein
An eleven-year-old boy is preoccupied by video game villains and real-life dictators in this accessible story about the everyday realities of growing up in Iraq during the Gulf War, perfect for fans of A Long Walk to Water and I Am Malala.
A young girl growing up in the Lodz ghetto during the Holocaust. A teenage boy genius with Asperger Syndrome. A video game-loving boy living in Iraq during the first Gulf War…
These are some of the characters whose stories I have told. Writing them required research and interviews and more research because thankfully, unlike Syria in “Yellow Star” or Ali in “Playing Atari With Saddam Hussein,” I have not had to endure the horror of war. And unlike Nathaniel in “Mindblind” I am neither a genius nor on the autistic spectrum. But my protagonists are counting on me to tell their stories, so I can and describe their experience – what they hear, smell, taste, feel… and see.
In “Playing Atari,” I got the opportunity to look through the eyes of eleven-year old Ali, a boy from Basra, Iraq. (This is where I get to introduce my co-author Ali Fadhil, whose real life inspired this book.) Ali, meet children’s literature. Children’s literature? Meet Ali.
Now that you’ve met, I’d like to share how I met Ali. My twin sister, author Julia DeVillers introduced us. Julia’s husband was one of three American prosecutors at the trial of Saddam Hussein. (!!!)
Ali Fadhil was an Arab-Kurdish-English translator at that trial. David told Julia about Ali. Julia thought I should be the one to write Ali’s story, as I had experience writing about survivors of war. And, fortunately, Ali agreed.
It took over two years to research and write “Playing Atari.playing-atari-with-saddam-hussein” So when my editor Elizabeth Bewley sent me an email with the subject: “Cover,” I couldn’t wait to see how illustrator [x] interpreted the words visually. It was just the black and white sketch, but I was already blown away. The stark scene was so right for the time and place in which the story was set. But I knew this wasn’t a black and white cover. I recalled my own time in the Middle East, (Israel with views of Syria, Jordan and Egypt and an accidental drive over the border into Lebanon.) I requested the obvious – the sandhued tones of the desert. But I had never been to Iraq, so Ali gave his input, of course, too.
And then the full-color cover arrived.
In Ali’s own words,
“I could immediately smell the old city of Basra coming out of the picture. It’s just how I used to see it on the street. I used to walk to school. The building design, the kids playing soccer… it’s as close as it could be.”
My own reaction was “wow!” The addition of color gives the impression of being on the outside looking in and being on the inside looking out. Each of these perspectives relate to an aspect of Ali’s personality. Ali feels different from other kids, with his passion for all things American. He feels trapped in a country that doesn’t understand him, and he is looking for a way out.
The cover evokes two moods – light and dark. Ali was a light-hearted boy playing soccer with his friends until Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and brought the wrath of the United States military on his country, his town.
Finally, the artist used the sandy desert tones that I had hoped for. But he also applied orangey reds and blues that give the cover the modern feel that a book with a game console in the title deserves.
Ali is a character that deserves to be seen and heard. I am honored to be the one to share his story and – (wait for it!) – the incredible epilogue! “Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein,” an Arab/Jewish collaboration, is an invitation to peer inside one young boy’s world of fear and hope and resilience. And videogames.