The entire affair began with sheep brains and falafel — Saddam Hussein’s favorite dish.
CIA operative Rik Bogart is trying to impress famed TV correspondent Ingrid Johansson at lunch one day in downtown Baghdad when the dubious delicacy threatens to rocket right back up into Rik’s bowl. Thankfully, he steadies himself with a firm look into Ingrid’s lustrous, approving, emerald eyes and the two continue getting to know one another on the outdoor restaurant patio in pre-war-torn Baghdad.
It’s a strange way to start a romance — and an even stranger way to begin a clandestine relationship, feeding each other choice bits of information from highly placed sources.
“The desert winds have shifted,” she says enigmatically one evening. The remark proves to be prophetic and sets off a flurry of frantic activity at the U.S. Embassy where Rik is headquartered. Sensitive files are burned and hurried plans are made to leave Iraq, under threat by Saddam’s secret police.
But what’s the cause of all this dire activity?
It is the eve of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of neighboring Kuwait, and this thrilling book gives a true-to-life account of covert activity surrounding the event, weaving in some very realistic diplomatic dialog from 1989.
You’ll swear you are standing beside Rik through every agonizing moment of uncertainty, fear and outright intimidation by Saddam’s goons as he makes plans to go to Riyadh to escape almost certain death. But in the end, he stays in Baghdad to save the woman he loves.
Problem is, she has gone to the Kuwaiti front with a news crew, leaving a bewildered Rik at the mercy of the sadistic Tariq Yuhana, head of the Iraqi State Police.
The price Rik pays for his devotion to his departed love is 19 months inside Abu Ghraib — the prison of the dead.
The author’s description of Rik’s time in his dreadful, cramped cell is excruciating, watching his body shrivel and his mind slowly wither with it. Indeed, this is a grim highlight of the book as the author vividly illustrates what happens to political prisoners in places like Iraq. It’s beyond brutal.
He has all but lost hope when word comes of the cease-fire. He is released in cast-off clothes with nothing but a plane ticket to New York in one hand and a bottle of expensive wine — a whimsical parting gift from Yuhana — in the other. He still hopes to find Ingrid and share a toast to his release.
The remainder of this fine psychological thriller details Rik’s return to civilization and his new life as a nightclub owner in the Big Apple ten years later. Inevitably, Ingrid walks through the doors of Rik’s place in 2001. The reunion does not go well, and they part company once again — only for Ingrid to court a disastrous end when the World Trade Center collapses.
What ensues will prevent you from putting this book down — even to sleep — as Rik sets off on a new quest, as a favor to an old friend. The surprise ending is delicious.
This is a tense, methodical look at what went wrong for U.S. policy in Iraq, and the devastating effect it had on the men and women who were there just prior to the first Gulf War.
But it’s also a study in dogged determination: one man persevering in the face of deprivation and long odds to finally build a new life for himself after his country turns its back on him.
It also speaks eloquently about such vital issues as patriotism, comradeship, and the lengths to which love will go.
Five stars for Rik’s. This gritty read will ring true with any follower of America’s foreign interventions — and then deliver a stunning affirmation of life in the end.
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