In my leisurely survey through the (Saturday) Dutch newspapers this Sunday, I came across a couple of interesting articles on Iraq.
There’s one, from the Telegraaf, about “Comical Ali,” that wild-and-crazy Iraqi Minister for Information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf. You might remember hearing about him lately, in connection with a thirty-minute interview he had last Friday (27 June) with al-Arabiya TV. He spoke about how, after futile efforts back at the end of the war, he recently got the Americans to arrest and interrogate him – i.e. to at least pay him that respect, by the grace of Allah! – before finally releasing him.
Except remember that this was the man who maintained “American infidels in Baghdad? Never!” as M1 tanks sped by on neighboring streets. This Telegraaf article cites American military authorities as denying to the BBC that they ever had him under arrest or questioning. “He is an interesting storyteller” is the comment of the military spokesman.
But here’s the main event: From Trouw we get the reminiscences of “Michael” (an assumed name) who served Saddam for twenty years as one of his waiters.
Michael’s story began in the early 1980s, when he graduated from the Hotel Academy. It wasn’t a matter of putting in an application to go work for Saddam Hussein; rather, a commission selected him as suitable for the work, and of course he dared not refuse. He soon rose in the ranks of Saddam’s attendants to add supervisory duties to his ordinary waiter’s tasks. Even though that made him one of the select few running an operation that counted many tens of palaces and over 1300 personnel, it never brought him much in the way of pay. When asked whether he hated Saddam, he responded instead to the Trouw reporter thusly: “I had a responsible function. But the salary was low. I also received no auto or apartment. I should have been a wealthy man, but I lived with my wife and children in my parents’ house.” Still, he remained in service with Saddam (there was really no other choice) until, shortly before the fall of Baghdad to American forces, he was ordered to go home. Now he works in a Baghdad restaurant.
So, Michael, what kind of man was/is Saddam Hussein? He had a sense of humor, and read books, but mainly he was hard, tough. “Saddam had to be hard, otherwise it would have been a mess [een janboel. That’s a Dutch word, of course, not Arabic, from the Trouw article.]. Look at the anarchy we’re going through now. Saddam had culture, he liked hygiene and order.” In his waiter’s estimation, neither Saddam nor any of the rest of his family had any feeling for any “Iraqi fatherland” or for the Iraqi people, but they all were pious Muslims, who constantly read the Koran – even Uday.
Ah yes, Uday – he of the five-times-a-week orgies, normally lasting from around 10:30 PM to 7:00 AM, at which even the attending waiters were expected to down a full bottle of strong alcohol – but were still expected to perform their duties flawlessly, at the risk of becoming a target of Uday’s gratuitous shooting at such events. One of the staff’s main functions here was to procure a constant supply of new young women, from Baghdad University, from clubs, and simply from off the street. “The girls always got a pill in their drinks,” says Michael, who goes on to say that Uday managed to get women delivered to him even in the hospital, after an assassination attempt on him in 1996, though his father had forbidden it.
Even under more sober, day-to-day circumstances, Uday was the one member of Saddam’s family whose “hardness” went over the line into sadism. Although attending personnel risked punishment – mild torture and/or a temporary stay in jail – for any mistake they made in their duties, when Uday was after someone to punish (and “Uday couldn’t get to sleep without having punished at least two or three people,” says Michael), even one-hundred-percent-perfect often was not enough. He would run his fingers along the undersides of tables and chairs; any dust equaled punishment. He would send people away to fetch something – even a glass of milk – and tell them when to be back. Any tardiness equaled punishment. Michael himself suffered from Uday having his feet whipped and his hair (including eyebrows, eyelashes, and mustache) plucked out.
Although Saddam himself generally looked passively upon such antics, he could be particularly strict with his personal bodyguards. Then again, he paid those well – around twenty times that which he paid waiter personnel, plus a house and a new car every year. And at least there was always his younger son, Qusay, a milder sort whom he had made his heir-apparent, who apparently staged orgies only twice a week, and who even already had a ten-year-old son, whom he allowed to run around everywhere with loaded, military issue pistols.
All in all, Michael is certainly happy with the overthrow of Saddam’s regime, although it has cast him and his family into economic uncertainty. “I think that things will get better for us,” he says – although he still has a picture of Saddam hanging on his wall at home. “It’s a souvenir.”