It has been a long, strange trip for Iraqi-born author/activist Zainab Salbi, who grew up in Saddam Hussein’s inner circle, the daughter of the despot’s personal pilot, and today—a quarter-century later—is on the cusp of becoming the Arab world’s Oprah Winfrey.
“I want to get people out of their comfort zone and encourage a more honest, uninhibited conversation,” says the 46-year-old Salbi, who has just launched the first season of Nida’a (“The Calling”), an Oprah-like weekly talk show that is aimed at shaking up the womanly conventions of Arab society and, in partnership with Discovery/TLC Arabia, is beamed into 22 Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
“Culturally, we are very conservative and reserved, and when an Arab woman is talking in her own country she’s afraid of judgment,” Salbi explains, over the phone from Dubai—one of the locations, along with London, New York, and Istanbul (where her show is taped with a studio audience) that she treks to every month.
“I want people to speak freely in a television show and to look at issues from the heart rather than from a political perspective or from judgment,” she says. “This is a show where you can speak about transgender issues or sexual issues in a way that has no judgment.”
Other ordinarily taboo topics to be covered in Season One’s 10 episodes (which feature appearances by Bill Clinton, actress Geena Davis and Oprah Winfrey herself) include Moroccan mothers who protected their daughters from the practice of female circumcision; an Iraqi father’s heart-wrenching story of saving 21 members of his family from the brutality of the Islamic State while losing his 4-year-old daughter when she fell off the back his fleeing pickup truck with ISIS thugs in pursuit; and sex slavery in the Middle East, among other serious subjects.
There will also be a generous dollop of Arab showbiz celebrities, fashion designers, pop music, and cooking segments that comprise the Oprah business model.
At a moment when large swaths of the Muslim world have descended into deadly conflict and chaos, partly generated by a brutal and bloodthirsty brand of supposedly Islamic fundamentalism, it would be difficult to imagine a more counterintuitive, and yet more hopeful, project than Nida’a.
Salbi—who was raised undogmatically in her late mother’s Shia religious tradition and today considers herself more broadly spiritual than a practicing Muslim—says she’s alarmed by Islam’s caricatured image in the United States.
She’s especially disturbed by various statements from leading Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson (who recently declared that a Muslim should never be president), and HBO star Bill Maher.
“Oh my God—don’t even!” Salbi exclaims at the mention of Maher, who has been relentless in criticizing Muslims for their alleged endorsement of violence to defend the Prophet. “It fuels the fire,” she adds.
“Obviously, America is afraid of Islam,” Salbi says, arguing that Americans tend to conflate the tiny percentage of extreme fundamentalists with the planet’s peaceable 1.6 billion Muslims.
“I feel we’re stuck in a very vicious cycle. If you are an American who is afraid of Islam because you have seen X, Y, and Z of things happening, then you act in a prejudiced way. And a prejudiced way hits the wrong person, who once upon a time was normal, and then may join extremism in response to the prejudice that happens.
“We have to break the cycle,” she continues. “I understand the fear factor from Americans, and I understand the anger factor from Muslims—and we have to break away from that...Derogatory racist statements only increase fundamentalism and make people angry.”
Tarring the whole of Islam with the actions of a small minority, Salbi says, is tantamount to conflating Christianity with the Ku Klux Klan.
Naturally, in this and other controversies, Salbi would love to wield even a fraction of Oprah’s socio-cultural power, but she disavows any ambition to impersonate the influential media icon.
“Everyone has to have her own voice; you can’t duplicate,” she says, repeating advice she received direct from Oprah. “You have to be yourself and speak your truth.”
Still, the comparison is unavoidable—not least because four of the Nida’a producers are veterans of the Oprah show (on which Salbi was a frequent guest before its 25-year run ended in 2011), and Oprah has blessed Salbi’s new venture.
Winfrey not only sat for a long interview on the Oct. 24 debut (in which she shared her soul-crushing experience of being raped by a much-older male relative at age 9, and then giving birth at age 14 to a child that died), but also starred in a promotional spot for the Arabic-language program.
“I haven’t been this excited since the Oprah show premiered,” Winfrey tells the Arab audience (via subtitles) while standing arm-in-arm with her protégé on her Montecito, Calif., estate, “because my friend, Zainab Salbi, is bringing a new show to TLC...Don’t miss it.”
Another close Oprah connection: Former Viacom chief and MTV co-founder Tom Freston, who has been helping Winfrey build the fledgling OWN cable network in the years since she gave up her top-rated syndicated daytime show, is also Salbi’s adviser and friend.
“In many ways, she reminds me so much of Oprah Winfrey,” Freston says about Salbi. “She’s a winner. She’s a woman who sees the problem, has lived through both sides of it and can be effective because she’s traveled in both worlds.
“She’s trying to gently bring emancipation to females in the Arab world, and she does it on her own terms. She’s a force for change. She’s a fighter. She’s got a loveable personality and a wonderful heart.”Another pal, fashionista Donna Karan, tells The Daily Beast: “Zainab has the ability to touch women and give them the space and place to communicate and express their innermost thoughts and feelings. She embodies a deep understanding, to connect East and West. She is truly is a woman of the world, understanding women and the barriers they face. She gives them a platform to express and create their innermost desires and dreams.”
Salbi surely has a knack for making friends and influencing people—famous friends, important people—with a high-powered circle that includes not just Winfrey and Freston, but also movie star/director Angelina Jolie, Daily Beast founder Tina Brown, and Bill and Hillary Clinton—whose presidential campaign she passionately supports, having become a U.S. citizen in 1996.
“It would be a great thing for America and for the world—and definitely for women—if she wins,” says Salbi, who is a fixture at Clinton Global Initiative meetings and was honored at the White House in 1995 after the first couple read about her humanitarian work helping women in warzones via Women for Women International.
Salbi co-founded this humanitarian organization at age 23 with her then-husband, Palestinian-American lawyer and current Al Jazeera America executive Amjad Atallah, traveling to Bosnia and other war-torn locales where women and their families were victimized and suffering.
Exhausted and emotionally drained after 18 years, she resigned as CEO in 2011, not long after their amicable divorce.
“It was a love divorce,” Salbi says. “We went to divorce court holding hands. We exchanged gifts the night before. It wasn’t like my first divorce. My first divorce was ugly.”
As she recounted in her best-selling 2005 memoir, Between Two Worlds—Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam, Salbi was only 19 when her mother tried to save her from her “uncle” Hussein’s unwelcome attentions by sending her into an arranged marriage with a 32-year-old Iraqi man in Chicago.
It was hardly a stretch for Zainab’s mother to believe that no one was safe from Saddam’s lust, to say nothing of his psychopathic sons, Uday and Qusay.
Iraq’s homicidal dictator, Salbi writes, would regularly hold audiences with distressed female citizens, donning a doctor’s gown to listen to their troubles; if he found a woman attractive, Dr. Saddam would take her to a private room and have his way with her.
But Salbi’s banishment to Chicago—the start of a nine-year separation from her parents and two brothers—was a cure worse than the disease.
Sexually inexperienced, Salbi recounts that she was raped on her wedding night, and escaped the nightmarish situation after three months of violent abuse; she blamed her mother for betraying her, and the two didn’t reconcile until her mother’s final year, 1999, when she died in the United States of Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 52.
Nine years earlier, Salbi had to take odd jobs to support herself and ended up in Washington, D.C., where she found solace and friendship at All Souls Unitarian Church.
“I left that marriage with $400 in my pocket,” she recalls. “I worked at a Hallmark store, temped as a secretary, worked at the Arab League, any number of odd jobs, and went back to school at George Mason University,” Salbi says, mentioning the college in nearby Northern Virginia.
She discovered a self-sufficiency that she never needed to draw upon during her cossetted, privileged upbringing in Baghdad, where she lived in a house full of servants and spent every weekend during her teenage years in a gilded cage with her omnipotent “Amo” (the Arabic word for uncle).
Her family existed at the top of the Iraqi ziggurat—a position of high status and great peril, dependent on the whim of the monstrous Hussein.
They were always under his scrutiny; their house was bugged.
Zainab quickly learned to laugh when Amo laughed, cry when Amo cried, and never look into his eyes—Saddam could see too much, her mother warned her.
Indeed, her mother found the oppressive atmosphere so unbearable, Salbi says, that she once attempted suicide to escape.
“We dined with him, he liked us to go fishing with him, I called him uncle,” Salbi says. “But he was brutal to his people, including to my family, but in a much milder form. I think he was like a poison gas leak into our home, and we breathed him in slowly and died slowly—and he did the same thing to our people. But I have very complex emotions on this issue.”
For instance, she couldn’t bring herself to feel joy when Saddam was finally captured—pulled out of a muddy hole in the ground by U.S. troops during the second Gulf War—and later executed by hanging.
In a deeply unsettling and intimate way, he was the ghost of her bizarre childhood.
“He represented the shadow side of myself,” she says. “It’s easier to demonize someone else when you don’t know him. He was a dictator—there’s no apology about that. But then, it’s easy for all of us to think, “I would do this and this, and I am good, and that person is bad.’ Because of him, I was so afraid of power. I was in the heart of power, and saw its corruption at very close range.”
As Salbi writes in her memoir, “I can still reach back and conjure up a few fond memories of him.”
But now the power is hers—and Salbi is determined to use it for good, just as forcefully as Hussein used his for bad.