An apologetic memoir of life in a bloody tyrant’s hip pocket.
People behave strangely in dictatorships. Take the instance, by the account of Saddam Hussein’s personal physician Bashir, when Uday Hussein replied to his valet’s backtalk by cracking his head open. Saddam was none too happy: “I’ll throttle him with my own hands!” he yelled, calming down only when an advisor reminded him that killing his own son wouldn’t bring the dead valet back to life. Doubtless many of the women whom Uday picked up, then beat and tortured, would not have minded seeing him dead; he lived, only to be killed by American troops along with his brother, Qusay. (In that firefight, Bashir says, the bravest fighter was Qusay’s 13-year-old son, Mustafa.) Bashir, an artist frequently honored by Hussein (and responsible for turning an odd snake-slaying dream of his into a widely reproduced painting), was also a gifted reconstructive surgeon who treated thousands in the course of the bloody, futile Iran-Iraq War; afterward, he wound up doing untold nose jobs, for, he writes, “It is well known that few Arab women are happy with their noses.” Surely many women in the Hussein circle were not, and even at the outbreak of the latest war, some were coming to him for buttock reductions, breast resizings and, yes, nose jobs. The sightings of Saddam himself in Bashir’s pages are only occasional, but they are revealing: They show at turns a pragmatist, though one whose inner circle could not convince him to abandon his hatred of Israel and come to terms with Britain and the U.S. before it was too late, and at other turns a romantic, given to writing gushy genre novels in which someone very like him turns out to be the hero.
Bashir clearly tries to distance himself from the mess. No dice, but these up-close notes are useful in understanding the Hussein regime.