Being a Dictator Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
by Jacob Silverman
We’re waiting to be told that he’s dead.
It’s December 30, a Friday night, and on CNN dozens of Iraqi émigrés dance in the streets of Dearborn, Michigan, jubilant that Saddam Hussein will soon be executed. (Who knew that Dearborn, Michigan, is a nexus of Iraqi exiles?) The reporters speculate about the circumstances and manner of the execution since this is all a prelude to an event and airtime must be filled. Between shots of Dearborn the network plays a montage of archival Saddam footage. My two roommates and I watch together. In one clip, Saddam holds a massive sword and clumsily slides it into a sheath held by some other official (the beret-wearing bald man with the red mustache, the one who looks like an Irish character actor; surely you saw him in the buildup to the war). Oh how patently ironic that this strongman finds difficulty wielding one of the most ancient and lofty symbols of power! Or perhaps the wielding isn’t the problem—we do see him holding the sword proudly before himself—rather it’s the sheathing that presents difficulty, the putting away of the sword, the restraining of power. Isn’t that after all the recursive flaw of most dictators? They just don’t know how and when to stop; nor, says our president, did this charmed man.
Saddam occupied a central place in my childhood. The first Gulf War was the first major American conflagration of my lifetime. As it is now, at the hour of his death, CNN was there for me then, spoon-feeding a six-year-old child images of explosions and blackened husks of bombed-out vehicles, elephantine tanks lumbering across the desert, GIs sweating in dark tents strewn along the Saudi sands, missiles firing, bombs upon bombs, great cascades of flame-encrusted metal rising from warships, directed to explode in a faraway desert city with a strange two syllable name: Bagh-dad. Vision-questing, we saw it all. Recruitment ads played during commercial breaks. My mother worried that watching the war on TV would give me nightmares.
In the years between then and now, Saddam and I drifted apart, but we didn’t forget about each other. No, no. It just took some prompt to recall those ravishing times: a satellite photograph, news about the No-fly Zone, an asylum seeker’s testimony, fresh sanctions, footage of someone bombing something somewhere sometime. But despite these packets of televised reality, despite the memories of oil-derrick fires tonguing the sky, he became a joke, a cartoon dictator, even though we knew him to be the master villain of our childhood (every era has one), here to redeem us through finger-wagging threats of slaughter.
Recently, when Jerome Bettis got the key to Detroit before this year’s Super Bowl, someone told me that Saddam once was given the same honor. Where is Saddam’s key now? In a landfill somewhere near Tikrit, or lost in the files of some minor functionary, long fled from Coalition forces? No, no, not there. It must be rusting in a lock, a special design ordered up by Saddam because every key must have something to open, even a key like this, not just ceremonial, instead fitted tightly into a brass keyhole on an enameled ebony wood case. The gleaming box is a small thing, and the lock sits pertly on top, inside a curious design of interlocking circles, like something out of the One Thousand and One Nights or a forgotten Nordic rune, and the large, oversized key, once intended for no more than idle symbolism, now opens that box, which, of course, contains this: nothing but dust. One of his sons, maybe Uday before he revealed himself as a psychopath, used to play with the box in a palace’s quiet southern wing. Uday sat there in a corner of a room rarely visited, fiddling with the key engraved with the name of a foreign city in an unknown language, lying to himself, in the way that children do, that each time he locked, unlocked, and—murmuring a special word—opened the box, something new would appear. Outside, vehicles filled with his father’s subjects processed down the roads and spewed their collective smoky breath into the air. It was winter, a time when, even in Iraq, the weather’s frigid. Uday grew up and tired of the box and threw it and the key into the cage of his Syrian bear, so that no one could have it. It spun in the air, landed, swatted away by a huge animal paw, any magic it might’ve held gone. The key disappeared into the ground, destined to become an explorer’s prized artifact or, in some post-apocalyptic future, a trinket hawked for a skin of milky water.
“Celebratory gunfire!” Ben, one of my roommates, yells, even though I’m standing a few feet from him as he takes periodic bong rips, eyes riveted to the TV. Our other roommate, Dave, sits on the couch next to him, occasionally glancing down at a laptop that’s making a slow burn through his jeans. I told him that it could make him sterile, but he didn’t care.
While they do this, I’ve drifted to our kitchen window, which overlooks a courtyard we share with a neighboring building. A man who lives in that building is splayed in a blue-and-white plastic beach chair. He sits like this every day, his shirt off, his long black hair bunned up on his skull. His skin has become adobe-colored, his gut a large, clayey mound. It’s night already, it comes too quickly at this time of year, but he’s still here, asleep, the chair seeming ready to fall apart beneath him. His face forms a scimitar smile, his eyes press together tightly. A chunk of hamburger meat sits on a paper plate nestled in his lap.
In the golden years of Saddam-villainy, I convinced my parents to buy me a toy gun, a plastic M-16 just like the Marines had. Later I learned that they had an intense debate about whether toy guns were appropriate for small children—and had similar discussions about cartoons, Pee Wee football, certain brands of sneakers, candy, staying up past 9pm, and much more—but they relented. I guess I made a sympathetic case. The gun was made out of light black plastic, parts of it painted a silver-grey, and when I pulled the trigger, a muffled staccato of electronic gunfire emerged from somewhere in the stock.
“You gotta see this!” Ben calls, so I leave the kitchen and take up my seat on the couch. People in Michigan are dancing, burning Saddam in effigy.
I played war games in the backyard with Joey and Ian, friends from the neighborhood. We watched the war on TV and then we went to the yard, diving into bushes, hanging old sheets between trees, setting up ambush sites for the Republican Guard that at any moment would be rolling down our street in battered humvees that we had sold them a decade earlier. There was a towering hedge, at least twelve feet high, thick with green and red foliage and interlocking branches of skeletal wood. I hid in there, forgot about the brambles pricking my skin and looked up to the sky mottled by the surrounding shrubbery. I went native and threw bundles of magnolia leaves wrapped around stones to distract my enemies. I jumped out and ambushed them. I shot them all with that M-16—rat-tat-tat! rat-tat-tat!—and they fell beautifully and I walked up to them and pulled the trigger and let them hear the sound: rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat.
In Dearborn, they interview a young Iraqi man with waxed eyebrows who, pulsing with joy, has trouble staying in the camera’s frame. Look at those manicured brows: magazine quality! What care must have gone into crafting them… How marvelous that he can dance in the street, perfectly groomed, and celebrate the end of his former oppressor.
He shouts: “USA! USA!”
Ben raises a fist in solidarity.
“He’s the American dream,” Dave mumbles, looking up from his computer. He smirks and winks at me before looking down, rapping out a message on the keyboard.
Oh, Saddam! We were so angry with you then. We three Jewish boys fought you with everything we had. You, the man who launched Scud missiles at our cousins in Tel Aviv—the relatives we never saw, except once when we were four, at Disneyland, and who for years we could only think of as always cowering in the bomb shelter of a far-off, somehow more authentically Jewish home, wearing their gas masks and muttering prayers. (That’s what we thought we knew of Israel.) But through our war games, Saddam, we stopped your Scuds in mid-air, redirected them back at your palaces. We straddled the Earth together and bore our guns down upon you. You heard our battle cry: rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat.
The CNN anchor reminds us of the charge: crimes against humanity, which means against us all. Again there’s that image of him after he was captured, all tangled grey-black beard, scummed with dirt, crazed eyes like a mad seer who’s forgotten his prophecy.
What was it like on his last night before he fled to that hole in the ground? Was it a big party? He had to know it was hopeless. Did he think about the people he killed, the Kurdish villages laid waste, the swamps drained to drive out the nomadic peoples who had depended on them? Were there regrets? Maybe he sat down at a diamond-studded grand piano and played a song, the only tune he knew, some bit of “West Side Story” or a popular Arab number. He might have played the Iraqi national anthem or just smashed his shaking hands against the keys.
The video montage is interrupted. The anchor stares at us. He’s dead, he says. We have confirmation: Saddam Hussein has been executed.
Dave looks up from his computer and glares at the TV, machine and man inscrutable. Ben laughs through a burst of a smoke. “This is fucking insane,” he says.
I’d like to have been one of those soldiers guarding him in prison. I read an interview with a few of them in a men’s magazine. They said that that he was affable, that he told jokes and asked them about American women, that, when allowed outside, he tended a mulberry tree. You know, he was writing a romance novel.
It’s been years since I’ve talked to my childhood friends, the ones who shared those games with me. I doubt they remember.
I walk back to the kitchen window and the neighbor is still there. We do not know him or what he does. He once had a red scooter, but one day the scooter was gone and the man had crutches and a leg cast. Now crutches and cast are gone, replaced by a minor limp, and we don’t think he goes anywhere. Some evenings, an angry woman visits him.
He sits asleep in his chair, the plate, snug in his lap, decked with dinner scraps. His mouth has fallen open, revealing a hole that seems bottomless on a night dark except for the moon’s distant glow and a few dim patio lights.
Movement in one of the courtyard’s murky corners. A coyote emerges and walks, like a shy debutante, into the open.
They’ve been coming down from the hills lately, driven by the unseasonable heat and the development. After a report that one tried to snatch an unattended baby before the mother came outside and fought the animal off, the city’s animal control tracked down a handful and shot them.
Lean-bodied, ears pricked, his russet fur a few shades darker than our neighbor’s skin, the creature raises his nose, surveying the air. He pads towards the sleeping man. He eyes the meat, waiting in the lap of the man, whose chest expands and contracts.
Somewhere in this I think I see a hand waving, its violence beckoning, pleading for something to be done.
Jacob Silverman lives in Brooklyn, where he’s a freelance journalist and book critic. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Bookforum, The New Republic, and many other publications. His fiction has appeared in Spork and Storychord. He is also a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review.
Art by Margarita Korol.