Star Iraqi Prisoner Exposed


The January 2005 issue of Esquire has a gripping and maddening tale of Iraq war propaganda exposed, by Sara Solovitch. Some might remember the tales of woe told by Jumana Hanna, most memorably in this Washington Post story from July 2003, with such reporter's-goldmine material as:

Hanna was hung from a rod and beaten with a special stick when she called out for Jesus or the Virgin Mary. This is where she and other female prisoners were dragged outside and tied to a dead tree trunk, nicknamed "Walid" by the guards, and raped in the shadow of palm trees. This is the place where electric shock was applied to Hanna's vagina. And this is where in February 2001 someone put a bullet in her husband's head and handed his corpse through the steel gate like a piece of butcher's meat.

This nightmare was all because she dared attempt to marry an Indian man in a tribal, tyrannical Iraq. She was, in one of her best novelistic details, beseeching Uday Hussein himself for official sanction for her forbidden love when she was snatched away for the beginnings of her rape, torture, and imprisonment.

Conservative columnist Ross McKenzie said her tale was "justification alone for Bush's Operation Iraqi Freedom." The Wall St. Journal's Opinion Journal said that in the face of Hanna's horror, any carping about misleading statements Bush may have made about Saddam seeking nukes in Niger were mere "kerfuffle."

Sara Solovitch too was beguiled by Hanna's tale, and began working with her on a book-length memoir. Hanna and her family were kept under U.S. military protection in the Green Zone of Baghdad for months, then she was airlifted to a new life in California, where she has been dining out–quite literally–on her tales of Iraqi women's prison horror ever since.

Turns out that the original Post piece was a mine of fool's gold, and the very long Esquire story–read the whole thing–details how Hanna's story frayed, ripped, and blew to the wind once Solovitch tried to verify it. Hanna remains throughout a fascinating, vivid, and real character: I think Solovitch should still be able to glean a book from this story.

My favorite detail for dark comedy:

I received information about her husband, Haytham Jamil Anwar–whose corpse had been handed through the prison gate like a "piece of butcher's meat," as the Post put it. Family members in Iraq insist that he is alive and well–though destitute–in Baghdad. Indeed, his two children, Sabr and Ayyub, on several occasions told their teachers in California that they had seen their father right before they moved into the Green Zone. The teachers had assumed that the kids were in denial and arranged a service on a sunny day in which balloons were released into the sky so that Sabr and Ayyub could say goodbye to their father up in heaven.

Solovitch's article is not meant to mock or belittle whatever tyrannies and agonies did occur in Iraqi prisons. But it is a cautionary tale of how horror stories that support a dominant narrative of enemy perfidy and inhumanity should not be uncritically embraced just for that reason. (Especially when you read that men were actually arrested–then later, fortunately, released–based on Hanna's made-up testimony.)