Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Saddam, the Barber and the Bullet | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein gestures during his trial in Baghdad, in this Jan. 29, 2006 file photo. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic, Pool, file)

Renowned television writer Dr. Walid Saif has an interesting tale of the time the famous Arab director Tawfiq Saleh got in touch with him in Amman, and invited him to visit Baghdad. At the time, Saif did not question the reason for the visit, nor did Saleh explain it over the phone. When the playwright arrived in Iraq from Jordan, the director said, “I’m in trouble with President Saddam Hussein, and you are the only one who can help me.” Before they caused a scene in the hotel reception, Tawfiq Saleh hastened to reassure his guest.

He told him that he had recently directed a documentary about the life of Saddam Hussein, in which the president’s son-in-law (who was later assassinated) played the hero. In one particular scene, the film depicted Saddam’s injury from a gunshot wound to the leg, as he tried to escape following the attempted assassination of Abd Al-Karim Qasim. In the scene, the Iraqi president appeared to be in slight discomfort as a local barber who had come to his aid was trying to pull the bullet from his leg.

The film was privately screened for Saddam Hussein’s approval, and Tawfiq Saleh was immediately summoned to the presidential palace. Upon arrival, Tawfiq had to wait until the president sent for him, at which point he was introduced to an old humpbacked man, shivering out of fear. It was the same barber who had pulled the bullet out of the president’s leg during his days as a young conspirator. Addressing the barber, Saddam asked, “When you pulled the bullet from my leg, did I feel any pain?” The barber responded, “Not at all sir, it was me who felt discomfort.” Again, Saddam asked the barber, “Having pulled out the bullet, did I sweat?” The old man replied, “Not at all sir, only I did”. And with that, the president dismissed the barber, leaving him alone with Tawfiq Saleh.

Saddam addressed Saleh, demanding, “How could it ever cross your mind to portray me suffering? Did you not learn anything from the Al-Khansaa television series?” Saleh responded, “Your word is my command sir”. After the meeting, Saleh promptly got in touch with his friend Walid Saif, who had previously directed Al-Khansaa. He needed to know how to modify the shot and remove the look of pain from the president’s face, for Saddam would never suffer, even if hit by a bullet. Saif suggested that the scene be re-shot in a way that does not show the president’s expression at all, as the film was already in post-production.

The prominent Kuwaiti businessman Abdul Aziz Al-Babtain told me that he had once visited Saddam Hussein in his office, where they heard a huge explosion, but Saddam remained unperturbed. The then Iraqi president simply gazed at Al-Babtain and asked, “Do you think Abdul-Nasser would have remained so calm had an explosion taken place so near to him?”

In the final moments of his life, approaching the gallows, Saddam Hussein still remained composed. He never flinched, nor did his voice tremble, as the noose was placed around his neck. So was this trait something we should admire?

In my opinion, I would prefer a president who is merciful rather than brave. I would prefer a president whose expression instills reassurance rather than terror, a president who is tolerant with his opponents, and who does not order their execution. I do not believe it is courageous to never forgive, or to condemn those who disagree with you to jail, exile, or death. Courage is not represented by the ability to never flinch; rather it is the ability to promote justice, forgiveness, and mercy.