A pen, a tree and the sound of a neck breaking….
Baghdad: everywhere there were signs of Saddam the Great Leader – as huntsman, devout Muslim, loving father, warrior. The nearest I got to him, though, was when I met Dr. A K al Hashimi, Saddam’s former ambassador to Paris. Small, rotund, slightly bald, courteous – the sort of Arab male whose presence is preceded by a warm swell of self-knowing charm. His polished desk is huge, his smile gracious. We drink strong coffee from tiny gilt-edged cups and talk about the sanctions.
“My dear Mary,” he says, “I will tell you the facts and you, with your clever journalistic mind, will draw your own conclusions.”
I’d seen the effects of the sanctions: car windscreens like spiders’ webs, balconies hanging precariously by one piece of wrought-iron, children with obscenely bloated heads or bulbous growths on their necks. All the result of the dual-purpose clause that worked against the ordinary people. Al Hashimi holds forth, eloquently and forcefully, about what he calls the Uniteds: States, Nations and Kingdom. “But everything is dual purpose,” he says. “The pen can be used to write a love letter. Or a formula that will ignite a bomb.”
Suddenly, like a machine that runs out of fuel, he slows down and asks a question to which there is no answer: “The US is afraid. They think we have weapons of mass destruction. How can Iraq show them it doesn’t. What more can we do?”
There was nothing more they could do because weapons of mass destruction was never the issue.
Much later, when Saddam had been dug out of his hole, I watched his trial on a television in a hotel in Damascus. No one else in the bar seemed interested.
“Why do they want to hang him,” a Syrian friend asked. “It’s horrible. Why don’t they shoot him. Or maybe if he committed suicide…” But they did hang him, at 3am our time and someone off camera said they heard his neck break.
I often thought of what al Hashimi had said about the dual purpose of the pen and then, one day, I stumbled on a cartoon by the Israeli artist Izhar Cohen which illustrated it perfectly.
Thoughts of the dual purpose of other things came to my mind:
“I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.”
I thought of the word gallows and of how we often say gallows tree when we want to romanticise war and insurrection in song or poetry. There was no poetry when Saddam Hussein was hanged, only the sound of clicking phone-cameras. And of his neck breaking.
Al Rumi said: “There is a place beyond right and wrong. I’ll meet you there.” But where is this place? In a refugee camp on the Syrian/Turkish border? In a wintery cave? In the presidential palace? In Moscow? And who will tell us what’s going on? A journalist embedded with the Syrian Government forces or one trapped in a targeted building in Aleppo? A young man provided with a video camera by an NGO and then picked out by a sniper?
If there are no cameras, we must rely on the cartoonists but Syrian cartoonists live risky lives. Artist Ali Farzat was pulled out of a car in Damascus and had his hands broken because he’d mocked the government.
Ten years ago, it was Iraq. Now it’s Syria.
Mary Russell’s latest book is My Home is Your Home A Journey Round Syria: