I never met Saddam Hussein. But I wanted to. We were guests, actually, of Tariq Aziz — who was Foreign Minister at the time. Little known fact: they both share a birthday (one year apart): April 28th.
It was my birthday. And we had just been detained. Pulled from the Baghdad airport just as we were about to leave the country. Put into busses (whereas throughout the month we’d been given limos with drivers. Shipped to a grungier hotel. We’d been in the luxurious Al-Rachid Hotel, where foreign dignitaries generally stayed. There’d been Kuwaitis walking around with their hooded hawks on their arms. Elite wedding parties. Turkish businessmen in Western suits. And us. A small group of American academics brought to Iraq to create exchange programs between our campuses and Baghdad University. We’d been given the best of everything throughout our visit. Until now.
Now, we were detained.
“You will be our guests a little longer,” the Head of Protocol said. We were dumped in the grungy hotel with no explanation of why all this. We didn’t know at the time that a mere few months later the Gulf War would begin a new era of US-Middle Eastern engagement. Which is the nice way to put it. I can be nice. Sometimes.
The Head of Protocol somehow discovered it was my birthday. Probably he saw the date in my confiscated passport. Dunno. Turned out, it was his birthday too.
He decided to throw us a banquet. It was a Saturday night.
They hauled us back to a private room at the Al-Rachid Hotel for the grand event. We’d been told to dress for the occasion. I had a place of honor next to the Head of Protocol.
He raised his glass and toasted us. It was a huge glass. Cognac. It was half full. I raised my glass. Here. Here. And put it down again. Took a whiff of it. It almost knocked me over. I don’t drink.
The Head of Protocol gave me a funny look. Urged me with his eyes to drink up.
“You can have mine,” I said. Knowing I could get away with this, and that in a Muslim country it wasn’t exactly rude to turn down alcohol. The only danger, really, was that I might have shamed him publicly. One look at him, though, and you could tell he had no shame. But he’d had plenty of cognac, and now he was downing mine.
Affable man. At least in this moment. I thought I’d try my burning question. Maybe I’d get an answer this time.
“How,” I ventured, “can you have ninety-nine statues of Iraqi war heros on the river in Basra, pointing at their enemy, Iran, directly across the waterway — how can you resolve the war this way?” The enormous statues stood each with an outstretched hand, finger-pointing at the enemy. Very visible to the Iranians on the other side.
We’d also been given books at the University. One, written by Saddam himself (or so it says on the cover) is entitled, “Why We Should Fight the Persians: Our Enemy for 5,000 Years.” We’d been steeped in anti-Iranian sentiment from our ‘minders’ at least once or twice a day throughout the visit. They’d flown us down to Basra, particularly to show us the glorious statues.
The Head of Protocol raised his glass again (which had been my glass a few moments earlier). I noticed the music being piped into the banquet hall was Hava-Negila — an Israeli folk tune. The scene was seeming weirder and weirder each passing moment. Heavy on the cognitive dissonance…………………………….
“They’re not pointing to the enemy,” he boomed, glaring at me. “They’re pointing to our friends. You’re the enemy,” he boomed, still glaring. “Americans.”
In that moment everything changed. The ideology we’d been carefully fed the whole month had shifted. It was no longer, America, friend of Saddam. It was American, who made us fight our brothers. Was that why we were detained?
We’d been shown Saddam’s reconstruction of Babylon — an awesome site. All excavated and reconstructed during the ten years of the Iran-Iraq war. We’d gone to the exhibitions for Women’s Week and seen a brilliant government-sponsored show of art demonstrating the beauty and power of Iraqi women. We’d met with the head of the Iraqi Women’s Union — and were told it was the strongest union in the country.
“How do you manage with your schedule and your kids,” I’d asked the head of the Union.
“My mother-in-law watches the kids,” she said. “Without her I couldn’t manage.” But what she did manage is to control women’s labor all over the country. All she had to do was say the word, and women up and down the country just plain stopped cooking dinner… It got results. The demand for literacy was met with schools for girls throughout the country.
We’d visited some of those schools. Filled with bright young competent girls. Shi’a and Sunni and Christian, side by side. Studying everything from world history to plumbing, sewing to mathematics.
We visited Karbala during pilgrimage. But there were still few pilgrims, because of the war.
And the military zone in Faw at the Gulf. To prove to us ‘Iranian aggression’ and their intentions of taking over the country. you point your finger across the Chott, shake a fist at them — and they could see you. I made my one mistake at the Restricted Zone. I’d accidently photographed the war plans of the Strategic High Command Post. Oops. They’d asked me nicely to desist.
Is that why we were detained? They’d let me keep the film. Weirdly, U.S. Intelligence asked me for my film when I eventually got back to the States. How did they know?
But no. That wasn’t it either.
We saw a glorious Iraq. Thriving and prosperous. Educated and secular. Emphasizing commonalities across religious and ethnic lines. We saw what we were allowed to see. And absolutely nothing else. We met with the Ministry of Oil (which in Tunisia, would have been Olive Oil), and with students at the University. Professors on campus, and the Baghdad Historical Society.
It wasn’t going to be hard to get students interested in studying in Baghdad.
Eventually, they just let us go. It was a couple days later, I believe. Tariq Aziz had interceded for us. no explanation. We’d just been guests a little bit longer. Although now we were the enemy. Getting out as quickly as we could.
The person sitting next to me on the plane out of Baghdad had been in some high U.S. Military position. I watched him hold his breath as our plane began to rise. When I asked, he explained. There was an optimum altitude at which to detonate a bomb on a plane. He’d been fully expecting that we would explode.
When we landed in Athens, and then switched planes for London, someone had grabbed a Herald Tribune they’d found. When we had been detained at the airport those days earlier — the body of Farzad Bastoft had been put on our flight. And we’d been taken off. Saddam was expelling British diplomats and getting them out of the country. They needed our seats — that’s all it had been. Margaret Thatcher was intervening too publicly to save Bazoft, an Iranian-born journalist for The Observer. He’d been hanged ten days before in Baghdad for spying for the monstrous Iran, enemy for all history.
But now, ten days later, Iran and Iraq were brothers again. Islamic neighbors. Allies, and friends. New books would be published of their longstanding friendship. 5,000 years of cooperation and peace. And whatever the warfare that they ever had suffered, could only be blamed on the U.S. Marines.