Cruelty and Strength

Saddam Hussein’s rule of Iraq is among the cruelest in the world. For more than 30 years he has determined its fate. Despite this, there has never been any work in Arabic literature centered on the dictator himself. Iraqi writer Fuad al-Takarli, it is true, did depict the social changes since the Baath Party took over, in his book Joy and Suffering, which appeared three years ago. But Saddam Hussein remained a figure in the background. And in Fadhil al-Azzawi’s The Forefathers, a generalized portrait of the Arab dictator was sketched out. Now, a few weeks ago, a novel was published with the title The World of Saddam Hussein, written by Mahdi Haidar, a completely unknown author. It is rumored that this name is a pseudonym, and that a known Arab writer is hiding behind it.

The literary qualities of the book, in any case, make this likely. Like an exciting mystery story, with many killings along the way, it tells the story of the boy from the poor village of Al-Odja, near Tikrit, who was often humiliated by other kids in the streets around his home. They threw rocks at the 5-year-old, and jeered at him, because he had no father. Haidar seeks to bring the facts of Saddam Hussein’s biography to life and give the dictator a humane character.

Describing Saddam Hussein’s policies after he joined the Baath Party, Haidar writes: “Saddam understood that he needed to have a group on his side, and that he had to be at its center. He would encourage the group, and slowly expand it. It would expand relentlessly like some mythical beast, until it had spread to cover all Iraq.” This group is the party’s security apparatus, which this young member built and headed. Political opponents—but friends and companions, too—were elimin-ated. This endless string of killings continues today.

In 1959, Saddam played a minor role in an attack on Iraq’s president, Abdel Karim Qasim. He had to go underground and ended up spending two years in exile in Cairo. “During his second year in exile, the young Saddam Hussein observed Nasser’s methods of government,” Haidar writes. “He came to a conclusion, one he never forgot: The ruler may move against parties, and he is permitted to put his allies in prison, under one condition: retaining the ability of convincing himself of the justice of his deeds.

“When one is convinced oneself, then one is able, with enough energy, to convince the masses as well....And he came to another conclusion: Never betray the real extent of one’s power. Before an opponent is aware that you constitute a threat, you are already stronger, and more cruel than he.”

In real life, Saddam Hussein achieved his goal in the summer of 1979. The Revolutionary Council removed President Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr from all his official positions. The man who had for so long been “Mr. Deputy” became the country’s sole ruler. 

A year later, the Revolutionary Council declared war on Iran. “These descendants of fire-worshippers, who nurture deep hatred toward Iraq and the Arab nation, and are engaged in sinister plots, continue to make their mistakes,” as it was said at the time. The Iran-Iraq War did not just cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives and drive two wealthy countries into economic ruin; it also provided an ideal excuse for the president to continue his process of militarization of every facet of Iraqi life. 

Saddam Hussein, who as a youth had tried in vain to get into a military academy, transformed his country into a barracks. Military training now begins in childhood. In his book Democracy as a Source of Strength for the Individual and Society, Saddam Hussein wrote that children do not have any social identity—the state and the party are every child’s family.

Culture is just another cogwheel in this machinery. With guidance from above, a literature of war arose, complete with contests and prizes. Salim Abdulqadir as-Samira’i, a literary critic loyal to the regime, described the Iran-Iraq War as a national war, one that also marked the beginning of a cultural rebirth for the country.

Salam Aboud, an Iraqi writer and literary critic living in Sweden, analyzed this so-called “rebirth” in his book The Culture of Violence in Iraq. In the poetry and prose that arose at that time, there were no doubts about the war. The literature did not deal with destruction, death, and suffering, not even when authors had served as soldiers at the front themselves. It was instead marked by mothers who greeted their sons’ deaths with joy, and by soldiers who went to death with smiles on their faces. Even repression and executions were justified literarily. The pro-war ideology of the regime and the Baath Party’s image of its enemies were willingly assumed.

Interestingly, this official literature was not without influence in other Arab nations. Pro-government Iraqi writers were regularly invited to join writers’ groups. This was in part due to the lavish cultural festivals that Saddam Hussein regularly held, with Arab guests invited to participate. But it was also because Arab intellectuals often have no reluctance to cozy up to dictators and serve them. It is an open secret that Iraqi diplomats paid stipends to Arab journalists and writers in order to buy their loyalty. It was only the attack on Kuwait that put an end to that, because the Iraqi treasury was now bare.

This cultural policy certainly contributed to the fact that there was so little critical controversy over Saddam Hussein’s violent rule in the Arab world. In the 1990s, the Gulf  War and the embargo became the focus of literature. At the behest of the president, the head of the national library made a list of all writers who dealt with the “Mother of All Wars.” The result is a multivolume reference work. It is especially embarassing for those writers who have since moved overseas and are now trying to establish themselves there as serious literary figures.

“Look how the tyrants have violated the borders. The Kaaba in Mecca and the grave of the prophet in Medina have been defiled by the presence of the foreigners and their weapons. You people of Mecca and Medina, you people of Nij and the Hijaz, Arabs, and Muslims! God is Great. Away with the people of the unbelievers, the tyrants.” In his typical monotone, Saddam Hussein speaks to his people, to all Arabs and Muslims.

Since the Gulf  War, the Iraqi dictator—who at the beginning of his career won Western support because of his overtly secular policies—has become, at least outwardly, devoted to Islam. He appears on TV at prayer and signs his decrees with “the humble believer and servant of God.” Along with references to Arab and Muslim history, his speeches are now marked by a religious vocabulary.

No longer are the Arab people the center, but the Islamic community, bound by a duty of solidarity; it is no longer nation against nation, but believers at war with unbelievers. Saddam Hussein is certainly no exceptional case. Time and again Arab politicians have turned to religious rhetoric in difficult times.

The so-called Arch of  Victory was erected in Baghdad in August 1989, symbolizing the Iraqi victory in the Iran-Iraq War. The giant fists that raise up two crossed swords to the sky are supposedly cast from plaster molds of Saddam Hussein’s hands. The metal came from weapons of Iraqi soldiers in the Iran-Iraq War; at the bottom there are piles of helmets taken from fallen Iranian soldiers. Saddam Hussein himself provided the design for the monument.

For Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi architect now living in America who has analyzed the architectonic changes in Baghdad during Saddam Hussein’s rule, the Arch of  Victory symbolizes the banality of art in Iraq today—in a country which in the ’50s and ’60s had one of the liveliest arts scenes in the Arab world. Makiya asks himself how future generations of Iraqis will see this monument. Will they view it as a symbol of the terrible intrigues that were created by a single man, and destroy it? Or will they view it as testimony to their nation’s years of shame, something to be collectively worked through?