Thursday, February 21, 2008

Tales of the Tyrant

I just finished reading Mark Bowden's profile of Saddam Hussein from 2002, in the New Kings of Nonfiction collection, edited by Ira Glass, that Tom got me for Christmas.

It's a really interesting piece, offering a lot of insight into Saddam, and considering the level of his power, it really drives home how humiliating his ultimate defeat must have been.

A few things I learned:

- He only slept 2 or 3 hours a night, and never in any of his 20 palaces, and always in secret beds. Sleeping meant that he would have had to have trusted someone else, and he didn't.

- All three meals of the day were prepared at all 20 of his palaces: security demanded that palaces from which he was absent at least keep up the appearance of his presence.

- Water is a symbol of wealth and power in the Middle East, so Saddam had it everywhere, including in elaborate pools at each palace, which are all tested hourly for temperature, chlorine and pH levels, as well as for any poison.

- Since he ruled by fear, he could never seem to age to his population. Great pains were made to make him seem ageless, including dying his hair, never being seen with his reading glasses on, having his speeches written in huge letter for teleprompters when he gave them, and since he had a slight limp, never being seen walking for more than a few feet. Occasionally he would go walk among the neighborhoods of Baghdad, but always surrounded by security, and if anyone got close, they would be severly beaten.

- All of his food was flown in for him twice a week and sent to nuclear scientists who tested each shipment for radiation and poison.

- He was a writer who, among other things, wrote 2 romantic fables about lonely kings isolated from their kingdoms behind walls and guards. Apparently they're terrible, and were published under "Anonymous," but no one ever dared tell him they were bad.

- His favorite writer was Ernest Hemingway.

- He had a tattoo of 3 dots on his right hand, signifying his tribal roots and humble origins. Despite claiming to be a direct descendant of Muhammad, he never had the tattoo removed or tried to hide it like many people do/did.

- A hand-lettered 600-page copy of the Koran written entirely in Saddam's blood was, until recently one assumes, on display in a Baghdad museum. He donated the blood a pint at a time over 3 years.

- His two favorite movies were The Old Man and the Sea and The Godfather.

- In 1987, Saddam's army was the 4th largest in the world.

- One of his pet projects that he wanted to build for years, but never had the money to, was a world-class subway system for Baghdad, and then a multi-billion dollar nationwide rail system.

- In the early 1980's, several aides in the Iraqi ministry were accused of accepting bribes, so they were hanged. But they were also hanged in front of all of their friends and colleagues who were forced to attend, and nominally participate in, the executions, or be hanged themselves.

- Anyone in Saddam's circle overheard speaking ill of him would not only be executed, but have his tongue cut out beforehand. In his 3rd and 4th years of rule, Saddam executed over 4,000 people.

- Saddam's son Uday had a torture chamber in the basement of the Olympic Building where tortured and sometimes killed athletes (and their trainers) who didn't perform well, or made Iraq look bad.

- Typically, anyone that Saddam assassinated, he would either also assassinate their family or just their children, or, barring that, he would have the family's home bulldozed so they would have to be homeless.

- Apparently he had a pretty light and silly sense of humor and enjoyed not only telling, but animatedly acting out, funny stories, and was actually quite funny.

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