Escape routes

<strong>Out of Iraq</strong>

Lewis Alsamari <em>Bantam Press, 320pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 05930582

This is a remarkable story, but, unfortunately, an unremarkable book. From a young age, Lewis Alsamari was determined to leave Iraq - Out of Iraq is his account of how he made his escape. Thanks to his own persistence, courage and immense good fortune, Alsamari made it to the UK in 1995 and then went to such lengths to get the rest of his family out that he committed fraud to raise the funds for their passage. It is an undeniably dramatic story, a testament not only to the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime, but to the suffering of anyone seeking asylum. Yet it is told with such emotional detachment and lack of context that it fails to engage.

Alsamari spent part of his childhood in Manchester, where his father had a government scholarship to study for a PhD. He returned to Iraq after his parents separated, and became determined to get out as soon as he could. He is deeply critical of his father, whom he portrays as at best indifferent and at worst deliberately obstructive. The hero of his story is Uncle Saad, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war. Saad first attempts to help Alsamari escape Iraq when he leaves school and has his one chance to leave the country legitimately, on the Iraqi version of a gap year. But they are foiled by the deliberately complex bureaucracy. So Saad offers to help smuggle his nephew out of the country. When Alsamari is drafted into the army, as punishment for failing to attend his university course, it looks as if his chances of escape are over.

Military training is brutal and brutalising: in one of the many degradations, the soldiers are forced to carry out mock interrogations in which they have to assault each other. Alsamari's knowledge of English attracts the attention of a senior officer and he is recommended for a transfer to intelligence - a career move that threatens to entangle him in the totalitarian web for life. He deserts the army and his uncle arranges to have him smuggled out of the country.

Alsamari is blessed with the most extraordinary good luck: he survives being shot while escaping the army and narrowly misses being attacked by wolves as he crosses the desert into Jordan. People help him throughout his journey, but above them all towers Uncle Saad, who is tortured for helping his nephew.

It seems ungenerous to criticise such a harrowing tale of survival. While the stories of brutality are shocking, Alsamari gives little texture or atmosphere to the narrative. Given that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, that is perhaps not surprising. He remains a two-dimensional figure, and we get no sense of his family's personalities - not even that of Uncle Saad. There is little historical or political context. Dates are included sporadically in the book, which is frustrating. As a reader, one would like to be able to place the events of Alsamari's personal story in the wider context of the long-running stand-off between Iraq and the UN, not to mention the run-up to war. Most perplexing of all is the failure to make any mention of the invasion or the aftermath, except all too briefly in the epilogue. Yet one of the most dramatic moments in the book, Alsamari's trial for defrauding William Hill of £37,500 to fund his family's exit from Iraq, takes place in October 2003. It's possible that the date is a typo, but piecing together the dates in the narrative, it appears to be correct. The omission makes the story seem sketchy.

Perhaps the book's most important achievement is the harrowing glimpse it offers of the shadow world of asylum-seekers and traffickers - the desperate experience of statelessness and the trauma of trying to find refuge in an indifferent world, where the most valuable item you can possess is a passport. Alsamari's noble attempts to rescue his family, driven by a sense of responsibility and the debt he owes his uncle, lead initially to disaster. His family end up imprisoned in Malaysia, then are deported to Iraq and sent to Abu Ghraib. This is certainly one of the most memorable scenes in the book - the misery of his family is palpable. Yet again, however, one craves more detail.

Alsamari is now an actor. He changed his name from Sarmed to Lewis and was rewarded with the role of chief al-Qaeda terrorist in the film United 93. It's a success story, but ironically emblematic, perhaps, to have gone through such hardship to arrive in the west, only to be cast as its number-one enemy.

Jo Glanville is editor of Index on Censorship