Remembering Saddam's Birthday: April 28, 2001

The relationship between Iraq and the US has undergone massive revisions over the last nine years, and because it's still in process it's hard to grasp how much things have changed. I always get reflective this time of year because today is Saddam's Birthday, a harsh and surreal spectacle that I attended in 2001. After Saddam took power in Iraq in 1968, his birthday became a holiday and important celebration of his cult of personality. The celebrations were massive, and by the time I saw them they were seen as mandatory by many Iraqis. (US asylum lawyers used to report that their clients who forced to flee Iraq when they refused to take part in celebrations). But some participants were so enthusiastic they are still celebrating the the birthday even though the man himself is long gone.

I'm posting the impressionistic piece I wrote on the birthday celebration, women, and sanctions for the now-defunct women's magazine Jane as a bit of history for anyone who cares to read it. For me, that trip was catalytic--for the first time I saw oil as a cultural force as well as an economic and political one. I think the piece reveals how present the US was in the daily lives of Iraqis--not just during the 11 years of sanctions and the first Gulf War, but before that as well. Yet, by the time I visited Americans were only dimly aware of Iraqis.  Rereading the story, I recognize that I criticize the sanctions, but offer no alternative--that was certainly not meant as an endorsement of an invasion. Colin Powell was drawing up a list of "smart sanctions" at that time, but they obviously never went into effect. I do not know what happened to any of the women I interviewed, and some of their names have been changed to hide their identities.


***

April 26. The desert must be filled with suicidal butterflies, because by the time I reach the Iraqi border their smashed bodies and broken wings cover my taxi. Surreal doesn't begin to describe this ten hour cab ride from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad. Sanctions have stopped all plane flights. Camel crossing signs line the highway. The driver is hauling boxes of contraband SweetNLow in the trunk. He's popping some kind of pill from the glove compartment. "Me Love Saddam," he says, "You love Saddam?" He pretends to shoot a gun with his index finger.
 
I've been invited to Saddam Hussein's 64th birthday party as a guest of the Iraqi Photo Society. It's a propaganda junket, of course, but that doesn't make it any easier for me to picture Saddam in a party hat. I get a chill just saying his name. I'm stuck with the image of him as US Enemy Number One-- now that the Cold War's over.
 
By night, Baghdad glitters with streams of ragged cars zipping between walled neighborhoods. Gas is so cheap you can fill your tank for less than a dollar. Orange flames from refinery flares bloom on the horizon. Government high-rises tower above. The lights are on and TV's are showing something with Sylvester Stallone. The only noticeable reminder of the Gulf War is the smell of raw sewage. When the US bombed 18 of Iraq's 20 electrical plants, the water treatment system collapsed and the pipes burst. Eleven years later, it still hasn't been repaired.
 
April 27
 
The Photo Society has put me up in the Sheraton, which has signs reading "shoe shine machine," "ice machine," and "bomb shelter," next to the elevator. The ice and shoe shine machines, however, have long since been ripped up. I don't ask about the bomb shelter. The only place to hang out is the coffee shop, which is upholstered in blue velvet. Curls of cigarette smoke hang there permanently, like curtains. The chief attraction of the coffee shop is Madeline, who works there in her crisp white shirt and knee-length black skirt. During her twelve-hour shifts Madeline manages to flash a Mona Lisa smile--part glamour, part sadness-as she sets down each tiny coffee cup.
 
This was not where she planned to end up. When she was a child,  a booming oil industry made average Iraqis wealthier than many of their neighbors in the Gulf. Their currency, the dinar, was worth $3. Madeline figured she would soon have a lovely house, a nice husband and few cute kids. "We dreamed of beautiful things," she says. Now Madeline is 31. What does she wish for now? "It would be nice to have dreams," she says, bending over her coffee pot, "Right now our lives are on hold."
 
11 years on hold. In Iraq, everybody tells the same story. When the Gulf War ended, Saddam was still in power. The US, Britain, and the 31 allies didn't want to invade Iraq and get rid of the man themselves, so they imposed sanctions: Iraq couldn't sell its oil, and it couldn't buy products from the outside world without getting permission from the UN. Sanctions were supposed to be War Lite: no casualties (for the UN) and no messy battles. "Sanctions are the new American way of war," says Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago, "but most Americans are simply unable to wrap their brains around the issue." (But we should: Sanctions rarely work. Pape did a worldwide study of sanctions since the end of the Cold War, and found they achieved their objective only 5 of 115 times.) 
 
"The sanctions changed everything," says Madeline, "My old life is gone." Take her monthly salary at the coffee shop: 2000 dinars. Now worth $1. Or a few pounds of chicken. Instead of bringing down Saddam, sanctions brought down people like Madeline: They triggered massive inflation, destroying the middle class and bringing Iraqis from a living standard like Greece to one like Mali. With unemployment near fifty percent, Madeline's lucky to have a job.
 
Some people, she says, have died and starved from sanctions, but now they've become "normal." Under a program called "Oil For Food," Iraq now sells 2 million barrels of oil per day, about half what it sold before the war. In return, Iraq buys food and other necessities through the UN. Normal, though, is part of the problem. A shady black market economy has become permanent. Look around the coffee shop and you'll see heavyset Russian engineers, Chinese technicians, Kuwaiti sheiks smuggling black market oil, German doctors investigating radiation poisoning, Iranian pilgrims in long black shrouds, Australian rice farmers on personal peace missions, a guy with a Van Dyke beard who wears the same Che Guevera T-shirt for days on end. Not only has nearly everyone but the US and Britain abandoned the sanctions, the black market has made a small group of Iraqis rich. Saddam himself has made 2 billion dollars smuggling oil. Virtually all of his neighbors--both friends and enemies including the Kurds, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Jordan, Qatar, and even Lebanon--have made money by defying sanctions. Add to that Halliburton, whose European subsidiaries did 30 million dollars worth of business with Iraq's oil industry.
 
But all of this leaves Madeline nowhere. "Oh not now," she says about marriage, "Life is very hard. It's not free." Marriage, here more than the US, it the single largest marker in a woman's life. But it has become so expensive and so rare that the government is now paying for weddings for 250 couples at a time.
 
April 28, Maybe he's in bad health, or he's afraid of being assassinated, but Saddam never shows up for his own birthday party. Instead, government bigwigs head for a parade ground in his hometown of Tikrit and take their seats high on a podium while thousands of people march in front of them shouting slogans like: "We love Saddam" (in English) and "With our soul and blood we redeem you Saddam" (in Arabic). Marchers are segregated by sex, so at one point I find myself trapped between a line of chanting women and children heading North and a squad of kilted Iraqi bagpipers heading South. After forty minutes of this the crowd rushes the stand in one last frenzy of adoration, and soldiers with Kalashnikovs push them back. The scene is impressive but in the distance a long line of people files back to their government-sponsored busses. The whole shebang ends precisely at the dot of noon. The dignitaries get birthday cake and the marchers do not.
 
The party was staged, but it had a point. Not only is Saddam still the boy with the most cake, the sanctions have provided him with an excuse to keep Iraq in a perpetual state of wartime alert. War and life in Baghdad have become so perversely intertwined that Saddam recently built a mosque with minarets shaped like SCUD missiles. A crowd on TV chants, "We promise you to confront the US and English aggression on us almost everyday and we will emerge victorious, sacrificing our souls for this." Children who say they are Palestinian orphans march around in the marketplace singing songs about Saddam the father.
 
This is grotesque, but I find the US view of Saddam ingenuous. The US spends about $2 billion per year bombing Iraq's "no fly zones," a policy, which US General Richard Hawley acknowledges "tends to enhance Saddam's general stature in the region."
 
In Iraq, I try to count Saddam portraits, but finally I give up and calculate Saddams per minute (SPM). Inside a government building it's 32 SPM. In a car in Baghdad it's 4 SPM. Inside the market, on foot, it's .2 SPM. He is not quite everywhere. But one day I'm forced to spend a whole hour staring at a wall-sized portrait: his nose and eyes are hyper real, all-seeing, a world unto themselves, while the rest of the painting is like a child's drawing-messy and abstract. This is a pretty accurate picture of what happens when Americans look at Iraq-we see a giant Saddam-- and the 24 million people of Iraq fade into the background.
 
Case in point: By 1996, UNICEF estimated that half a million Iraqi children had died because of sanctions. Journalist Leslie Stahl asked Madeline Albright if getting rid of Saddam was worth causing deaths. Her reply: "I think this is a very hard choice. But the price-we think the price is worth it." And to this day, even though the sanctions are giving Saddam more leverage over his beleaguered population, the American government still says the price is right. Whether or not you buy the statistics about the number of dead children, there's no denying the fact that Saddam has won a grisly moral victory.
 
April 30. Drew Barrymore is on the cover of the Iraqi women's magazine Ishtar. This isn't as bizarre as it seems. In the 70's and 80's, Saddam himself made speeches about giving women pay equal to men's, equal schooling, and banning polygamy. This was all in the name of giving birth to better soldiers for Iraq. But women's lives and expectations changed enormously.
 
These days, Ishtar's female editor wears a headscarf-a symbol of how society has changed since 1990. Many women now wear scarves and full coverings: some say religion is a comfort, others say they want to hide their unstyled hair. Whatever. Social effects of the changes brought by sanctions run much deeper. Divorce is very high. Girls are dropping out of elementary school. The number of women who die giving birth has more than doubled since 1990. And more: Ishtar now has a monthly story on women criminals. This month's headline:  "Poverty was behind my crime. I'm not a thief. To whom should I appeal? Who will take care of my family?"
 
The relentless Iraqi propaganda doesn't explain what it must feel like to see your society dissolving. I'm drifting during yet another angry lecture at the Union of Iraqi Women when the translator whispers, "Did you know I spent half my life in Kansas?" The child of two Phd's who went to school in America on the Iraqi government's tab, Ms. L is the product of what you could call the positive aspect of the Ba'ath Regime. And, at 26, she's a lot like me: her childhood was filled with Brownie meetings and birthday parties. But I get to live in one reality, and she in another. "Those memories hurt sometimes," she says as the lecturer drones on.
 
In 1988, L's family returned to Iraq to repay their debt to society. Then came the Gulf War. Now they scrape by. And L, who has her masters in biology, can't publish her original research on diabetes, go abroad for a Phd, or even get a job in her field. "I feel like I can't make any decisions," she says furiously, "It's like a prison and I cannot go from the bars. I can't succeed in my life-the way is closed. I want just half a bit of this way to be open." The fine line of purple eye shadow that rims her eyes looks like a personal fortress against despair.
 
And forget about love. "I have to think with my mind, not with my heart," she says, "in circumstances like this you have to sacrifice." By the end of the meeting L seems sort of bubbly. She says it felt good to get all of that off her chest.
 
Someday, the sanctions may lead to an explosion-but not necessarily against Saddam. "Kids aren't getting educated and people aren't living a normal life," says Gary Sick, the head of Columbia University's Middle East Study Group, "the kind of anger and hatred that's building up is something the world has to worry about."
 
May 1 "I don't feel my age," Sundus says, "Really, I feel a hundred." Sundus is 34 and a serious painter. She has beautiful long fingers and wears a gold ring with a panther on it. Her early paintings were all women. Big women, larger than life, and almost folkloric. She says she chose women as subjects over men because women are "more militant and struggling and handle more responsibilities. Sometimes everyone ignores her dreams and expectations."
 
Sundus's comments confuse me. Who is it that ignores women's dreams? When I ask for more details, she and the ubiquitous minder quickly assure me that the leadership of Iraq is taking care of women but it's very frustrating to her because she can leave Iraq but nobody will give her a visa because of the sanctions. Then we get into a very uncomfortable confrontation (for me) over why the American people don't seem to care about the sanctions. Sundus starts crying at the thought of the pain the sanctions have caused her and other women. I don't doubt her sincerity--she's too incoherent to be spouting the usual propaganda--but I feel like there's something I'm missing.
 
Sundus lives in a large walled house with her parents and her brother, an army officer who supports the whole family with his salary. Compared to the women I see begging in the market, she has a good life. But she tells me that when women are under too much pressure they lose their femininity and attractiveness to men. She says that most men her age are dead, have emigrated, or have already married. (She doesn't mention the ones in prison. But then, she wouldn't.)
 
Somewhere in the midst of this mess of an interview, Sundus says that she doesn't talk about her dreams because that would ruin them. I get the feeling that it's dangerous to think too much about the future. That feeling is confirmed when Sundus, whose pale fingers are never without a cigarette, says, "Maybe you'd like to know why we are smoking. Under the circumstances we don't feel stable and our future is mysterious. We smoke for our tension. Scientifically it is not helping our situation but sometimes we try to deceive ourselves."
 
At eleven pm Sundus suddenly becomes anxious. She needs to go home. Now. She says her father gets "nervous" if she's out late.
 
Sundus's new paintings are of horses and wheels. They are about furious motion, confusion, and being caught underfoot in a stampede. She says that it takes horses and wheels to change things. Later, looking at snapshots of the paintings, I see visions of the future of Iraq. And they are all violent nightmares.
 
 
Nervous. Tension. Anxiety. Every day I hear the same words used in some new and strange way. I ask a few women what "nervous" means. One woman tells me that when the men are "nervous," they feel angry and insecure and hit women. I started to understand nervous as a code word for something much darker.
 
But I didn't really understand "nervous" until I got home from Iraq and made a few phone calls. No one in Iraq said it directly, but women are now a target of the very government that boosted their role in the seventies and eighties. "It's a strategy of the Ba'ath regime to create terror," says one western expert on Iraqi women, "And now they're doing that symbolically with women. What's happening now is a backlash. Partly it's because men are very frustrated and the regime is trying to play into that mood." That expert didn't want to be named in this article because of relatives still in Iraq who might be punished.
 
Life has gotten very frightening for women. In November, Saddam's son Uday's group (Called "Fedayeen Saddam," or Saddam's Martyrs) publicly beheaded dozens of accused prostitutes and placed their heads near their homes. One of the accused was a prominent woman doctor. Human rights groups say that "prostitute" is a label applied to women who are believed to be part of the opposition. Privately, government officials tell me that beheading has been abandoned in favor of something more "compassionate." But it's left women scared-scared to go outside, scared to be in a taxi alone at night, scared to be denounced as prostitutes.
 
The 70's are being repealed. These days Saddam's speeches stress the "honor" of Iraqi women. He suggests that they work at home. So-called honor killings now go unpunished-allegedly a concession to POW's from the Iran-Iraq war who came home and found their wives had given them up for dead and remarried. Women under 46 are not allowed to leave the country unless they're with a male relative. (That law was enacted when Jordan complained that there were too many Iraqi prostitutes there.) And there are rumors that the laws against polygamy will soon be removed. "Nervous" has become a way of life here.
 
 
May 2, Baida is statuesque and tough. Talking about American people's attitude towards Iraq she says, "What? You need someone to sit in front of you and cry? A person who's full can't understand a person who's starving." She flips her long hair angrily, and then she asks me to come to her house for her 30th birthday party.
 
The minder and I are late by the time we arrive at Baida's apartment and the birthday cake has already been put away. The apartment has two small bare rooms, and one thin mattress--for four people.
 
Nothing in Baida's life has been easy. Her father disappeared in the Iran-Iraq war. Last year, her mother died of cancer, which Baida says was caused by Gulf War pollution. Baida and her sister sold all of the furniture in the apartment to pay for medicine. Baida's sister got divorced, and moved back in with her 4-year-old daughter, Hata. Then Baida dropped out of teacher's college because it was too expensive. Now she's looking for a job, but she hasn't found one that pays more than the taxi fare it costs to get to work. Her situation seems exceptional, but it's probably not. One study found that sanctions in Iraq virtually targeted women and children while reinforcing the upper end of the power structure.
 
I sit on the bench and one sister shows me a wrinkled picture of a woman in a full black scarf. Their mother, she says. The picture looks impossibly old, as though the woman died a century ago instead of last year. Her face is withered and angry.
 
On a little table there are nuts, candies, and the cake. I'm worried about how much this cost.  Baida's sisters look alternately anxious and exhausted. I wonder what they think of this strange American-I am the enemy, after all-- among them.
 
One of them leans over, motions to Hata, points at me, and says "Hata, America," and she mimes putting her fingerprint on a document. I laugh politely, but I'm sad. Hata plays with my camera. She belly dances a bit. She's a great kid. She's the first person with any unguarded twinkle I've met since the taxi ride into Iraq. And so I play with her. Hata's mother mimes me taking her to America again, I guess so she'll have a chance at a better life. Thinking about Hata's future, and what will happen if everyone-America, Saddam, fathers, husbands, and the fanatical Union of Iraqi Women--continues to vent their frustrations on this family, is beyond depressing.
 
And then Baida comes into the room. She's wearing a silver lame dress held up by one shoulder strap. Everyone gasps. Baida is hot. She was hot before, but now she's ridiculously hot for this tiny apartment filled with women and one middle-aged minder, who seems to be an honorary eunuch for the evening. Baida is huge, larger than life. She does a few hip rolls. It's as though there's another skin she's been waiting to step into, a new life. A life without Nervousness. And so Baida dances first with Sundus, then with Hata, and finally with me. I feel like a short, flat-footed beast from an inferior planet. This is Baida's night.
 
Later Baida shows me a postage stamp-sized photo of a guy with a moustache and a peaked military cap. Her fiance. They met three months ago. "Two stripes," she says, indicating he's an officer and therefore has military housing. Baida can move. Her life won't be on hold anymore. Will her marriage be a government ceremony? No, she laughs, making a face, that's for people who have no other resources at all.
 
At the end of the night, Baida asks me to stay, gamely saying that sleeping on the cement floor will be good for my back. I assume she doesn't want this night to end. She'd like to go out to another place, but we can't--since 1991, the nightclubs have been closed. She kisses me on both cheeks. Hata's mother offers her to me one last time. 

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Lisa Margonelli is a writer on energy and environment. She spent four years and traveled 100,000 miles to write her book, "Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank." More

Lisa Margonelli directs the New America Foundation's Energy Productivity Initiative, which works to promote energy efficiency as a way of ensuring energy security, greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and economic security for American families. She spent roughly four years and traveled 100,000 miles to report her book about the oil supply chain, Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank, which the American Library Association named one of the 25 Notable Books of 2007. She spent her childhood in Maine where, during the energy crisis of the 1970s, her family heated the house with wood hauled by a horse. Later, fortunately, they got a tractor. The experience instilled a strong appreciation for the convenience of fossil fuels.

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