Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein: Based on a True Story by Jennifer Roy with Ali Fadhil

Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein: Based on a True Story by Jennifer Roy with Ali Fadhil


This 165 page AR 3.9 book about the 42 days in 1991 that Iraq was at war with the United States is told from an 11 year old half Kurdish Christian boy’s perspective, but he mentions that he has friends that are Muslim and culturally and historically the book is relevant, important, and engaging as well.  I had my 9, 11, and 13 year old read it to gain perspective of the Gulf War, the difference between politics and people, and to see diverse religions co-existing despite stereotypes, especially in the middle east.


Ali gets the highest score on his Atari console the day that the bombs start falling.  Ali and his brothers Shirzad and Ahmed, and sister Shireen along with their parents retreat to the safest room in the upper middle class home to hopefully stay safe.  With experience of surviving the Iran-Iraq war which ended just three years earlier, the kids camp out at night in the room farthest from the nearby school and spend their days playing soccer in the abandoned streets.  The safe room was determined by knowing that Saddam uses his own people as human shields and places military installments in public service locations so that he can use propaganda to try and convince people that the enemy is bombing schools and hospitals intentionally to harm the innocent.

When the electricity goes out and the water cuts off, the family is forced to accept government rations.  Their dad is a dentist, but as he is essentially property of the state, he is forced to work as a medic and is often absent from home.  The family lives in Basra, which is in southern Iraq and near to the invaded Kuwait, thus all the troops pass through the city and the children spend their days keeping up their house, playing soccer with their friend Mustafa and trying to avoid the bullies Omar and Umar who’s father is in Saddam’s Ba’ath Party.

Ali speaks English because of his love of American TV and feels that if he can meet some US soldiers he will convince them that he should be in America not in Saddam’s Iraq.  He loves Superman, video games, soccer, his family, and his country, but the people, not the leader, he loathes Saddam, even though he knows he can’t ever speak ill of him.

A trip to get rations results in Ali seeing public executions and a colleague of his math professor mother’s getting hauled away.  A visit from their cousin gives them news that their father is missing. Life is not easy for the family, and yet they know they have it better than a lot of other people.  After the war, once again the family will have to put back together their lives and carry on.

The book concludes with a 14 year jump and Ali translating at the trial of Saddam Hussein where the leader who has been hiding is found guilty and sentenced to be killed by hanging.


I love that Ali is so relatable, he could really be a kid anywhere which makes what he sees and hears and experiences all the more intense.  The way that the book shows how the soldiers are forced to be soldiers, the citizenry at the mercy of the government, and the inability to speak freely so very real and frightening, is strong, but not traumatizing to the reading audience.  Even Ali being forced to observe the killing of  people in the street is handled with the target audience in mind.  They are Kurdish and had to deal with that within Iraqi society, which is a nice added layer to understanding that Iraqis are not a single monolith.  I love how the family had to go to the governor’s house and how nice his son was, even though, they are all Ba’ath Party members and part of the larger oppressive system.  It shows that things aren’t always black and white, and to convey all this to eight and nine year olds so clearly is quite remarkable.

I also like that the book holds up over time.  My kids had no idea what Atari is or was, but they could understand that it is a video game, and that it was an escape during the night for Ali to imagine he was playing a game trying to catch the falling bombs as a way to be brave and endure.


Execution, death.


I would consider this for a middle school book club, it is a bit short and definitely more middle grades, but it would allow kids to identify and imagine and discuss war through the fictional characters and voice their understandings of an authoritarian government structure, which would be interesting.

Author’s Reading Guide:



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