Amer Iskander: Saddam Hussein, the Fighter, The Thinker and the Man

Saddam Hussein, the Fighter, the Thinker and the Man
Part One
By Amer Iskander
Translated by Hassan Selim

Chapter 1
Humble Beginnings

There is something about the desert, which always leaves us with a feeling of contradiction. How quickly is this limitless expanse broken, however distant its horizons, where the sky meets the earth or the earth meets the sky. How soon does this clarity, bright as the blade of a sword, become shrouded in obscurity, like the cloak of a wandering Beduin. How readily is this gentle warmth, this cordial familiarity, this glowing intimacy replaced by a savage loneliness like the loneliness of a dying man and a cruelty as hard and rough as a grindstone and a sullen, dull, gloomy and cold indifference. That deep peace and all-pervading silence and tranquility is but the mark of eternity and has no permanence. For how easily is it thrown into confusion by winds and raging storms, as though by the Last Trump. The desert is the greatest hidden being, its outward appearance is not its inner reality and what shows on its surface is not necessarily what goes on in its depths.

It would perhaps not be fanciful to suggest that the desert poses all the universal questions, which have troubled the consciousness of man since he first appeared on the earth. Nor would it be astonishing if all the great monotheistic religions had sprung from its seething heart. For here it was, surely, amid these sandy wastes that the first explanation of life was revealed to man, and here too that he formulated his final tentative theories about how the world might be changed. But this is no ordinary desert, for there lie stored in its memory, stretching back thousands of years, recollections of the most illustrious of ancient human civilizations, a civilization which used its discovery of writing to record, on
tablets of clay, the sum of human experience in regulating the individual’s relations with society in the laws of Hammurabi: the civilization of Summer, Assyria and Babylon.
Although the desert enfolded in its bosom all these civilizations and has kept them to itself for hundreds of years, years of intellectual and creative drought, this does not mean that the idea of civilization here is at an end. Far from it. It was rather as though it had withdrawn into a kind of mystical seclusion, where the hard road of suffering and endeavour will lead it, not to dissolution and decline, but towards a greater and more profound and complete union with struggling humanity, where man alone would ultimately achieve the highest goal.

And so it was that with the appearance of Islam bearing the torch of revelation this stretch of desert quickly came to life, witnessing the Abbasid era, the most brilliant period of Arab civilization. Indeed it became the center of Arab civilization at its zenith. And when, in due course, Baghdad became one of the most important and opulent centers of civilization in the whole world, this was only the logical expression of the laws of nature, society and man, which are manifest, in essence, in the forward march of progress..

But by this progress we do not mean an automatic and constant advance in a straight line. The road which history follows is full of twists and turns; and though progress may be the final destination there are bound to be many temporary setbacks on the way, long or short in their duration, according to the many factors and circumstances involved. Thus, when Arab civilization had reached the peak of its perfection and the Arab nation, within its orbit, had achieved a greater degree of unity and integration than at any time in its history, Hulagu and the Tartars were at the gate. A raging human sandstorm, hostile to civilization, came to flatten, destroy and annihilate the most sublime and noble of man’s works, and the desert, which had been hiding its face behind the rich cornfields and flower gardens of the Abbasids, returned to cover with its sand dunes the heaps of human skulls, and the Tigris, with which the Abbasids had managed to tame the desert, quenching its thirst with its waves, was now stained with blood and ink. For the recorded memories of the human race, stored in the libraries of Baghdad, had been tossed by the Tartars into the river, where they had been transformed into a black torrent and the two colours, red and black, at that fateful moment in human history, had acquired a profound and eternal significance for concord and unity between men.

A long period of darkness now ensued marked not only by a decline in material and cultural wealth and in the nation’s level of civilization. For its dismal manifestations included not only a realignment of international trade routes so that they by-passed the formerly flourishing Arab cities, leaving them to atrophy, or the influx of the crusading hosts, the Tartars from the west into the heart of the Arab homeland. Worse than any of these was the break-up of the Arab nation itself. For although the Caliph an-Nasser, one of the last of the Abbasids, strove to restore some semblance of unity to the mutilated Arab state, the time for this was past, for history could no longer bring back what had been lost. It was to be several centuries before, out of the pain and suffering of a long and bitter struggle against the anfractuosities of history, a star appeared to herald a new time of travail. The moment of awakening had come.

It was at that very moment in Arab history that Saddam Hussein was born. It was perhaps more than pure chance, which ordained that his birth should coincide with that historic moment of awakening. For once the scene had been set and the leading role was waiting for a hero to fill it, Saddam Hussein was already standing in the wings ready, and worthy, to answer history’s summons.

His birth in 1937 was not a joyful occasion, and no roses or aromatic plants bedecked his cradle. He was born an orphan, his father having died before he was born, and a poor boy of peasant stock. Like the great majority of true leaders in history, he was obliged, from the moment he first became aware of himself, to face the challenges of life and to fashion his own existence. It was in the spring, on the twenty-second of April 1937, that Mrs. Sabhah Talfah al-Musallat gave birth to her son in the house of her brother al-Haj Khairallah Talfah and it was his paternal uncle, Hassan al-Majid; who gave him the name of Saddam. The house is situated in the region known as “al-Harah”, a place in which Saddam Hussein has many relatives. In that little town, lying on the right bank of the Tigris which derives its name,Tikrit, from its earlier Latin name Meonia Tigrides, meaning “fortress on the Tigris” and which is surrounded by an octagonal wall with four gates. The Department of Islamic Education says that this town was known in the old Syriac writings as “Tijrit” and Baladhuri mentions that it was liberated from the rule of Byzantium in the year 20 A.H. (644 A.D.) by the Arab general ‘Uqba bin Farqad.

However, nobility of descent is not necessarily associated with wealth. Saddam Hussein, born in this house of mud resting like most of the houses in this little town on wooden piles hardly able to support its weight, the offspring of poor peasants, belongs in fact to one of the most illustrious families in Arab political and religious history. If Arab historians were interested in constructing family trees, a study of the family tree giving the descent of Saddam Hussein would show us that it goes right back to the noblest family of all, whose greatest scion was the Imam’ Ali bin Abi Talib. He himself has never mentioned this fact in any of the conversations, and meetings the author has had with him, possibly because he scorns to lay claim to religious and historic lineage in the presence of those who can make no such claim, and is striving to give a secular and contemporary meaning to the traditional concepts of nobility and honour, viz. that a man’s nobility stems from the nobility of the country whose citizen he is and that a fighter’s honour derives from the honourable nature of the revolutionary struggle in which he is engaged. But at a moment of bitter and agonizing confrontation with those who had sought to betray him when he had become the foremost revolutionary leader in his country, he said in a speech, famous at the time (1): “We are the descendants of ‘Ali.” And no doubt this expression had for him a personal significance, unsuspected by the thousands who heard him, just as great as its historical and political import.

Saddam Hussein’s childhood was not easy. He was moved back and forth during the first ten years of his life between the house in which he had been born, which belonged to his maternal uncle, and the house of his paternal uncle, al-Haj Ibrahim, who had married Saddam Hussein’s mother after the death of his father, as was the custom in such circumstances in that part of Iraq. He had, from his early childhood, to fend for himself. A sense of his own orphanhood might either have driven him to introversion and a melancholy self-sufficiency or led him to seek solace and compensation for his loneliness beyond himself in the company of others.

Fortunately, and social and geographic environment doubtless played a part in this, Saddam Hussein refused to withdraw into his shell and chose to face up to life, hard and difficult though it was. For even at a tender age, his temperament was that of a man, and a fighter to boot. The difficulties of life, which surrounded him in his early environment, where a poor peasant’s land withholds a crop as often as it yields one, taught him certain basic virtues, which were to remain with him throughout his life. Patience, endurance, tenacity, self-reliance, courage, the ability to face and overcome danger, grim determination, the ability to appraise accurately his own feelings, moral discipline, and above all, affection for the poor and sympathy with ordinary people.

Such inferences as can be drawn from studying his early childhood and listening to the testimony of those who were in daily contact with him at that period of his life, indicate that he possessed, even at that early age, the basic qualities, mental and moral, which go to make up the picture of an Arab paladin, preparing himself, or being prepared by Destiny, to play the role of leader of his country. As he himself once said: “No man’s political doctrine can remain unaffected by his previous history, or by his birth, or by his life, or by the circumstances of his life.”

One of those who were close to him in his early childhood, his elder brother, Adham (he was in fact the son of Ibrahim al-Hassan, his mother’s husband, and his relationship with Saddam was that of a full brother because they lived as children in the same home) tells how he was always surrounded by a troop of children whose leader he was and to whom he was constantly attached and who were constantly attached to him, so that the neighbours, as well as members of his own family, would immediately say, when they heard the children shouting, “Here comes Saddam”.

But he was never rough or domineering with his early “mass following”. The local people thought that he was, on the contrary, a friendly, well-behaved boy. But to his young followers he was perhaps more than that-altruistic, often putting their interests before his own; and when he saw one of his playmates wearing a jacket which was worn or torn he would take off his own jacket and give it to him, and go home jacket-less; and when he was asked where it was he would simply say, as though he had only done his bounden duty: “I gave it to my friend because his jacket was no good.” He would take no notice of any resultant scolding, remembering, even at that early age, the words of Christ: “Whosoever hath two, let him give one of them to him who hath none.”

But the small child who had so taken to heart the chivalrous ethic was a real horseman.Nothing delighted him more than to ride his horse. His horse was the living creature nearest to his heart. He would get on its back and gallop through the neighbouring countryside until it tired, for it was fond of him too. A relationship between man and animal can sometimes be more affectionate, intimate and unselfish, than a relationship between two human beings. But the young boy was to suffer a cruel blow, the first in his life. His horse died. He heard the news of its death when he was in the fifth class of the primary school and living with his uncle in Tikrit. His horse was at Qaryat al-‘ Aujah waiting for his return on Friday during the spring and summer holidays. For the first time he was unable to control his emotion. Man is always powerless in the face of death. It is a time of loneliness and a deep and pervasive sense of loss and deprivation. His hand suddenly became paralysed and remained so for more than ten days. His people treated him with folk-remedies until the circulation returned once again to his forearm. A dark cloud descended on his soul that day, suffusing his bright eyes with tears.

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