Rosamund Burton heading
Friends in Deed | Good Reading | June 2009

One day Selma Masson asked her friend Michelle McDonald to write her life story. It changed both women’s lives, as they tell Rosamund Burton.

The Persian rugs and wall hangings inside the modern pale-brick townhouse in West Fairfield create a distinctly Middle Eastern atmosphere. Selma Masson shows me the pomegranates, citrus trees and roses her husband, Mohamed al Jabiri, has planted in the small courtyard.

‘I think it reminds him of his mother’s garden, and also our garden [in Iraq]. We used to have roses, and of course they are the pride of every Iraqi family,’ she says.

Before we discuss The Kiss of Saddam, the book Michelle McDonald has written about Selma Masson’s life, with true traditional Iraqi hospitality Selma suggests we eat a little lunch.

Michelle and Selma met in 2004 at a fundraising party for refugees.

‘She seemed to me a bit exotic,’ Michelle says of Selma, ‘and I was drawn to her.’ Michelle called Selma a couple of weeks later and suggested they meet for coffee and their friendship developed from there. It was a few years later, when Selma and Mohamed were spending the weekend with Michelle at her home on the shores of Pittwater, and Michelle had just won a short story competition, that Selma said to her:

‘I trust you. Would you write my story?’

Michelle describes feeling scared, honoured and a huge sense of responsibility.

‘When writing about someone you are close to and care about it is very important you get it right,’ she explains.

Selma Masson (changed from Muhsin) was the eldest of a family of eight girls and one boy. Her lineage on her father’s side of the family can be traced back to the Prophet Muhammed, and her grandfather was an adviser to King Faisel I of Iraq.

Growing up in Iraq, Selma completed a BA in English literature and, aged 19, took up a teaching position. The same year she was introduced by her aunt to Mohamed al Jabiri, a 34-year-old bachelor living in New York, who was a representative of Iraq in the United Nations and also an aspiring politician. They married the same year, and eventually had two children – a boy, Waleed, and a girl, Maha.

Mohamed was Iraq’s deputy ambassador in Beirut for three years and then was ambassador in Canada and North Korea, during which time he received warnings that he was in danger because Saddam Hussein did not like him. It was in 1980, a year after Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq, that he was called back to his home country. As well as being Iraqi ambassador in Spain at the time Mohamed also headed the United Nations commission looking into the disappearance of people in their own countries, when he disappeared himself.

Unsure of what to do and with two young children, Selma returned to Baghdad. She discovered Mohamed had been imprisoned and knew that only an audience with Saddam Hussein would secure his release. Two years later she secured an interview with the President. She was alone with Saddam Hussein when he grabbed her.

‘He started kissing me. And I looked at him, and I said, “Do you know me, sir?” And he laughed. “Saddam knows every person in Iraq,” he said, and started kissing me again and again…He is kissing me full month and touching me, and I am like a piece of wood.’

Soon after this Mohamed was released. He weighed only 46 kilos and had been subjected to utterly inhumane treatment. He was no longer the confident, outgoing diplomat, but reticent and anxious with bouts of extreme anger and depression. After a long convalescence the family managed to persuade him to leave the house and work in a small kiosk with his nephew, and two years later he rented a grocery store. Then in 1987 adding further sadness to this family Selma and Mohamed’s son, Waheel, died in an explosion in their home. It is unclear whether Waheel’s death was a suicide or a politically motivated murder.

What is apparent reading the book and speaking to Selma Masson is her strength and resilience and how she has quietly supported her family in the face of adversity.

It was not until ten years after Mohamed was released from prison and he had had a massive heart attack that he was finally granted a passport and Selma and he could leave Iraq. In 1995 they settled in Australia.

Selma completed a Teaching English as a Second Language (TESOL) course and began to teach. Initially, Mohamed remained at home until 100 Iraqi men arrived in Australia seeking asylum and Mohamed, who had a doctorate in international law but was not an immigration lawyer, was approached to help them. He wrote submissions for them all, and every one of them was granted asylum.

After this Selma persuaded him to do an immigration law course at University of Sydney, and today aged 76 he has a successful immigration legal practice.

Michelle McDonald has seen Selma reliving her painful memories during the recent interviews she has done for the promotion of The Kiss of Saddam. Despite at times being moved to tears, she says, Selma has great fortitude.

‘She is someone I admire greatly,’ Michelle concludes, ‘and I feel proud of her as a friend.’

The Kiss of Saddam by Michelle McDonald is published by University of Queensland, rrp $34.95.