BOOK REVIEW / Mother of all captives: 'Prisoner in Baghdad' - Daphne Parish: Chapmans, 8.99 pounds

Mary Loudon
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:33

IN 1989, Daphne Parish was imprisoned in a squalid Iraqi jail. Her crime? Spending a day in the vicinity of a weapons research site, where her friend, the Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft, took some samples of ash from the scene. Accused of spying, but never given a fair trial, Daphne ('Dee') Parish spent six months in solitary confinement before being moved to a women's prison, and eventually released. Her friend Farzad was not so lucky. He was executed for spying, despite an international outcry.

If this book is a testimony to Dee's bravery, it is also a chilling memorial to Bazoft and others who lost their lives or freedom under Saddam Hussein's government. As an expatriate nurse, Dee enjoyed all the privileges of life in Iraq. When life as she knew it came to an abrupt end, she was shocked not only by the conditions she found herself in but by her previous ignorance of them.

Especially interesting is Dee's adjustment, firstly to solitary confinement, and then to life with other political prisoners. She comes across as a sturdy woman; stubborn, resilient, a coper. Self-discipline obviously helps: her observance of everyday rituals and routines - washing, exercising, thinking - is extraordinary. She is also incredibly resourceful: she makes scrabble and chess sets from old newspapers, and glue from inedible lentil soup.

Her description of an attempt at a happy Christmas in solitary confinement is unbearably poignant: 'I had for weeks been saving the inside sheets of the Baghdad Observer. By tearing the pages into strips and soaking them in water I found I had a very malleable papier mache, and from this I had fashioned a small Christmas tree. Using the same material I had been able to decorate the tree with stars, bells, angels and balls. Beneath it were lumps of compressed paper I hoped looked like gifts waiting to be opened, and on the uppermost branch the traditional Christmas tree fairy stood resplendent on one wobbly, grey, papier mache leg.'

Perhaps most remarkable of all is Dee's integrity. She does not lie to the authorities to save her skin. She later falls in with the customs of the Muslim women in her shared cell, not so much through the desire to fit in, but because of her respect for them.

The best chapter is the one in which she describes her time in prison with Muslim and Kurdish women. Space and resources are scarce, but Dee gives English and yoga classes and impromptu medical advice to the other women. In return she receives extra food, support, and a greater understanding of the culture. Tension is rife, and fights break out, but even they are dispelled with a hearty attitude. Most evenings, the women sing, dance and act out the earlier pains and frustrations of the day, like the breaking of a washing-line, or the stealing of a tomato. 'Without these impromptu concerts,' says Dee, 'the place would have been an emotional tinderbox.' Tuesdays and Fridays are the worst, as hangings take place on Wednesday and Saturdays.

Prisoner in Baghdad, while a fascinating and readable account of a truly terrible series of events, does not have quite the calibre of, say, Brian Keenan's haunting and evocative account of his time as a hostage in Beirut. There is a lack of self-pity about Dee Parish that is awe-inspiring: yet her rationale has a slightly limiting effect on her writing. She is not given to introspection or contemplation, and Prisoner in Baghdad unfolds a little like a newsreel, painting televisual rather than dramatic or poetic pictures. This may a slight drawback in literary terms, but Dee Parish's commonsense personality almost certainly kept her sane - and alive - while in prison.

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