Tuesday, August 26, 2008

qatari schoolboy kicked to death in hastings

This is Mohammed al-Majid, the 16-year-old Qatari schoolboy beaten to death in an unprovoked attack by racist yobs in the southern English seaside resort of Hastings. The report of his death in the Daily Mail said he had come to Britain to "learn about its culture and traditions". The attackers were, according to the Mirror shouting "Saddam Hussein" and "Osama Bin Laden" and taunting Mohammed and his companions for being Arab. Amidst all the current pious talk of "Britishness" and PM Gordon's Brown's often-mentioned pride in "British values", boosted by Britain's Olympic successes in Beijing, it has to be admitted that mindless violence is a large, growing, part of the culture. Hastings, East Sussex, is one of those south coast English resorts that are packed with language schools and foreign, students. It has in recent years become notorious for its violence. Mohammed and a group of friends from his language school had been socialising inside the USA Fried Chicken Kebab House, and before the fatal attack took place outside the kebab house on Friday night, the Kurdish owner had told police in a police vehicle that a group of youngsters, including two girls, were drinking and causing trouble outside. The beating of Mohammed, took place an hour later. He died on Sunday in hospital.
Many British university students go to cities in the Arab world as part of their Arabic courses, and despite the political turmoil of the in the countries in which they study, one often hears them recall how safe they felt walking around in terms of crime, and how hospitable the locals were. Britain seems incapable of returning the favour. Really shameful.

Monday, August 25, 2008

samir el-youssef: 'a treaty of love'

A Palestinian-Israeli “Treaty of Love”
Susannah Tarbush

The Palestinian author Samir El-Youssef’s new novel “A Treaty of Love” traces the course of a relationship between a Palestinian man and Israeli woman living in London. Such a theme of passion across the Israeli-Palestinian divide could lend itself to a sentimental treatment, a tale of love eventually conquering all and of a common humanity overcoming political differences and ancient hatreds.

But “A Treaty of Love” is much darker and more disturbing than such a scenario. El-Youssef skillfully describes the potent mixture of motivation and emotions in the relationship of Ruth and Ibrahim over seven years. When the couple first get together, the love affair is full of promise. “We felt both remote from and familiar to one another. There was enough distance between us to make us curious about each other and, at the same time, there was our long common history that enabled us to easily understand one another,” Ibrahim recalls. But over time the stresses and contradictions become obvious, and threaten to drive the couple apart forever.

This is Samir El-Youssef’s second novel and like his first, “The Illusion of Return” (2007), is issued by the small independent London publisher Halban. His first published book of fiction in English, “Gaza Blues” (2004) was a collection of short stories, some written by El-Youssef, others by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret.

El-Youssef [pictured, credit Judah Passow] born in 1965, was and brought up in the Rashidia Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon. Since 1900 he has lived in London where he works as a journalist and fiction writer. In 2005 he was awarded the PEN-Tucholsky Award for promoting the cause of peace and freedom of speech in the Middle East.

“A Treaty of Love” is narrated in the first person by Ibrahim. Born in El-Bass Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, Ibrahim went into hiding in Beirut for three years after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He escaped in 1995 and reached Britain for years of exile “surviving on state hand-outs”.

When Ibrahim and Ruth first meet, it is at a party a few days after the signing of the Oslo Agreement on the White House lawn by PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. A new era seems to be dawning. Ruth is full of hope following the signing, but Ibrahim is deeply skeptical

She tells him how when news of the Sabra and Shatila massacre was broadcast in Israel in 1982, “People in Tel Aviv looked stunned; everybody was ashamed of themselves.” Ibrahim, partly to relive her sense of guilt, tells her he remembers the way in which 400,000 Israelis demonstrated against the killings. She says it was after the massacre that she thought it would be immoral to continue to live in Israel, and came to live in London.

The pasts of both Ibrahim and Ruth are deeply marked by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and by tragedies within their families. Ibrahim’s brother, a member of the Palestinian resistance, was killed not in fighting with Israelis but in skirmishes between Palestinian factions. His cousin Maryam was killed in Lebanon in circumstances involving a male relative that haunt Ibrahim and which are only gradually disclosed in the course of the novel. Maryam’s death casts a shadow over Ibrahim’s love affair with Ruth, but he cannot for a long time face telling her what really happened to his cousin.

Ruth’s father was killed in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war when she was 11. Her family was not allowed to grieve properly; he was decorated as a war hero and given a public funeral. The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 triggers a revival of the emotions that Ruth experienced around the loss of her father. She is appalled when after Ibrahim’s father dies in Lebanon he makes it clear he has no intention of going to the funeral of the “self-pitying loser”.

Ibrahim is an engaging narrator, but he reveals some unpleasant traits: he is prone to opportunism, double standards, self-delusion and occasionally to violence against his girlfriend. His version of events becomes increasingly open to doubt.

Ibrahim casts a jaundiced eye over Palestinian society and politics. One reason for his seizing the opportunity of being with Ruth is the realization that if he does not do so “I would end up like one of my small circle of Palestinian friends in London”. He and his four friends habitually drink together in a pub in Hammersmith, West London, after work and talk about the “same old things with the same degree of conviction, not realizing that our views were getting staler while our life was going nowhere.” He believes that Ruth has given him the chance to transform his life, although he conceals from his Palestinian friends the fact that he has an Israeli girlfriend.

One instance of Ibrahim’s contradictory behavior is that when Ruth leaves for a visit to Israel he loses little time in trying to seduce Nada, the wife of one in his circle of Palestinian friends. She has flirted with him on a few occasions. And yet he is consumed by jealousy over what he imagines Ruth might be up to in Israel, perhaps with an old boyfriend, and telephones her there obsessively. After she returns and they have had a loving reunion, he tells her of his pursuit of Nada, precipitating her leaving him for a few days.

Ibrahim says that what attracted him to Ruth was her vulnerability. He especially likes her “lovely brown eyes” and is fascinated by the fact that they “looked as if they were washed with tears, as if she’d just been crying.” He is glad that when they first meet he is employed while she is not, thinking this gives him an advantage over her. He works at an Arabic magazine reviewing films. Back in Lebanon he had made two short black and white documentary films for the Palestine Film Institute, which were never screened, and he still aspires to become a filmmaker.

The opening of the novel strikes an ominous note. It is 30 September 2000, and Ibrahim is alone in his flat; Ruth has gone to the post office to send a parcel to her sister, he tells us. He is eating a breakfast of fried eggs, pitta bread, tomato and spring onions. “Ruth never liked onions, and now, absurdly enough, eating them after so long, the strong taste and smell make me feel free again. It’s also a sign that she’s not coming back, and I hope she’ll never come back.”

And yet Ibrahim says later that Ruth will, unfortunately, not disappear. “She will come back soon, sooner than I expect. I know her too well, she’s incapable of leaving.” He has even thought of killing her he admits, through employing a hit man, but he then dismisses this as a joke.

During the remainder of the novel, Ibrahim looks back over their seven-year relationship, culminating in the events of two nights earlier. El-Youssef’s writing is compact and lively, much of it in the form of dialogue. There is not much sensory description, and the vocabulary is generally plain, but this straightforward approach suits Ibrahim’s telling of the story. The tension builds steadily towards the climax.

The progress and decline of the love affair is interwoven with Palestinian-Israeli political events between 1993 and 2000. The first few lines of each of the book’s 20 chapters is a summary of political and personal events. Thus the seventh chapter begins: “First we lived together, then the suicide bombings started and peace seemed no more than a short honeymoon. So was our honeymoon, short.” This recurring narrative device is effective. Although there are resonances between Ibrahim and Ruth’s relationship and the deterioration on the wider Palestinian-Israeli arena, there is no slick drawing of parallels.

In “A Treaty of Love” El-Youssef makes the relationship between Ibrahim and Ruth believable, and provides some fresh perspectives on the Palestine-Israel conflict. In Ibrahim he has created a memorable character and provided some unsettling insights into a certain kind of male psyche. With his three loosely interlinked published works of fiction El-Youssef has created a distinctive universe; “A Treaty of Love” is his most accomplished book to date.
Saudi Gazette 25 August 2008

Friday, August 22, 2008

john le carre's latest: 'a most wanted man'

The Daily Telegraph has a story on John Le Carre's latest novel, A Most Wanted Man (Hodder & Stoughton in the UK, Scribner in the US) which revolves around extraordinary rendition. This could hardly be more timely given the horrific relevations yesterday on the alleged rendition for torture in Morocco of Guantanamo inmate and British resident, Ethiopian Binyam Mohamed, with the collusion of MI5 and the CIA. The High Court in London ruled yesterday that MI5 must release secret information on his torture that could be useful for Mohamed's defence. Mohamed was arrested in Pakistan in 2002.
The Telegraph story on Le Carre's novel includes a film of the author in Hamburg, where the new novel is set. The nine-minute video was made for Hodder by Simon Channning-Williams, producer of the Oscar-winning film of the Le Carre novel The Constant Gardener. The report says this is the first time a publishing company has worked with a major film producer in this way.
All the elements of another compelling Le Carre read appear to be in place. Can't wait...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

the path of most resistance

(above: Robert Weiss - picture credit Jo Motson Scott)

In the four years since its foundation, the London-based documentary production company Tourist with a Typewriter has carved a niche for itself in the production of offbeat and topical films related to the Middle East. Its latest production, “The Path of Most Resistance”, looks at what happens when members of the US military turn against war and become conscientious objectors (COs).

Tourist with a Typewriter was co-founded by the Palestinian-British documentary filmmaker, journalist and photographer Saeed Taji Farouky and the film and TV animator and editor Gareth Keogh. Its new film is directed by Keogh, with Taji Farouky as producer and camera operator.

The 45-minute full-length version of the film was premiered a few days ago at the Frontline Club in central London. A 21-minute version is due to be screened by Al-Jazeera TV before the end of the year.

The film makes for involving viewing. Through focusing on the stories of two applicants for CO status, it shows the difficulties and dilemmas that confront them. The accomplished camera work has touches of poetry, and the soundtrack by Joe Lewis, head of South London-based Dojo Studios, adds an edgy, unsettled tone.

How can one be sure that an applicant for CO status is genuine, and not simply seeking a way out of the military? Taji Farouky acknowledges that a lot of people want to get out of the military, and several documentaries have been made on deserters. “We didn’t want to make that, we wanted to make a film specifically about conscientious objectors”, he says. “If you just wanted to get out, there are a lot of easier ways to do it; you could say you are gay, or could literally shoot yourself in the foot.”

Daniel Baker joined the US Navy in 2004, but soon after being deployed in Qatar as a communications officer in 2006 he made a successful application for CO status. He now works for the Catholic Peace Fellowship, one of the organizations that advise CO applicants.

In contrast, soldier Robert Weiss’s application for CO status was turned down in December 2007. He said: “I feel that at this point I have no legal avenue for pursuing recognition of my beliefs, so therefore I have no choice but to leave the military rather than do something I feel is immoral.” On December 22 he was due to fly back to Iraq, but saw no alternative but to go absent without leave (AWOL) for 30 days, the minimum time necessary to be classified as a deserter. He would then turn himself in and face the inevitable court martial and imprisonment.

During his period of being AWOL, he was given refuge by a family with pacifist sympathies. In February he turned himself in, and on May 13 was court martialled. He is serving a seven-month sentence in a military prison in Mannheim, Germany.

Michael J Baxter, professor of theology at Notre Dame University and a member of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, points out that a major change since the Vietnam War is that people in the US military are not drafted, but join up as volunteers. If they become conscientious objectors, they have to explain why they joined in the first place.

Lt Col Anne Edgecomb, a spokesperson for army affairs based at the Pentagon, says that even in an all-voluntary force people’s beliefs may change. And this is “why we have this process and why it’s so thorough”. A conscientious objector is “someone who is opposed to war in any form because of deeply held religious, ethical or moral beliefs, but not a political or sociological belief.”

In the process of applying for CO status, applicants have to identify the moment of the “crystallization” of conscience. A member of a CO support organization says: “For many it is when they’re pointing a weapon at someone and seeing the person, or being confronted with taking the lives of very innocent people”

When Daniel Baker (pictured: credit Jo Motson Scott) joined the Navy, he saw it as “a chance to make something out of myself – a chance to really succeed in life and have an honorable profession to help those in need.” But his career did not provide the hoped-for sense of meaning and purpose in his life. He started to look at philosophy and stumbled across the writings of Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh. “This was my first introduction to the theory and practice of non-violence.”
A main point of “crystallization” came when he was flying at 300 feet over the Gulf on a reconnaissance mission tracking an Iranian submarine. “I heard over the radio set an Iranian voice saying ‘Coalition aircraft, maintain five nautical miles’ and as we kept making passes over this submarine the voice got more and more nervous.” Baker realized that “this man, human being, in the submarine, Iranian or not, was just a human being like me who’s my brother.” This was to be his final mission: before his next mission Baker told his instructor that he was a CO.

Weiss describes the circumstances that at the age of 16 led him to enlist. “I had nowhere to live, I had no money, I don’t have a car, I don’t have a driver’s license, so really the only possibility I had for having a place to live and a means to get by would be to join the military.”

After he joined up, his sister’s boyfriend was stabbed to death at a New Year’s Eve party. “That was a huge turning point in my life, because it really made me think I am not guaranteed another day. I thought that if I did die right now I would have to stand before God and it wouldn’t be good enough for me to say, well hey I had fun, I got drunk, I went to the strip club.” He started taking religion seriously and brought God back into his life.

The process of applying for CO status sounds straightforward, the way Anne Edgecomb depicts it. “The process starts when a soldier declares that he is a conscientious objector. At that point the commander will then counsel the soldier and explain what his rights are, and the things he will give up if he is processed out of the army – things like veterans’ benefits that you get once you serve your obligation to the army.”

But Baxter points out that while on paper the regulations have a certain fairness and validity, in practice “more often than not people come to their commanding officer and say ‘I want to be a conscientious objector’ and are told there is no provision for them to be a conscientious objector. They signed a contract and are obliged to fulfill it.” They “meet resistance all along the way.”

For many COs, the only form of support is the Military Counseling Network (MCN), an independent organization founded on the principles of Mennonite Christianity (which is committed to non-violence) and based in Bammental, Germany.

Anne Edgecomb says that “in a perfect world” there would be 90 days between a soldier declaring he is a CO and the review board making a decision on his application for CO status. But “we’re in a time of war and that’s a lot to ask right now” and it is taking on average 196 days.

Anne Edgecomb notes that the US army last year had only 39 conscientious objector applications out of 125,000 soldiers on active duty. But Michael J Baxter says: “I do see a movement of conscience and a movement of resistance in the making.” He thinks the movement will grow. “I don’t know if it will turn the tide against the war and make the US withdraw from the Middle East or whatever, but I do take hope in the fact that people are raising the right kinds of questions and are getting into the right kind of trouble.”

Susannah Tarbush

Saudi Gazette 18 August 2008
(below: Robert Weiss picture credit Jo Motson Scott)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

modern arabic short stories

Around the Arab world in a dozen short stories
Susannah Tarbush

In Egyptian writer Salwa Bakr’s compelling short story “Ancestral Hair”, the first-person narrator is a lonely woman on the cusp of 40 whose husband has long since deserted her and their Down’s Syndrome boy. The son is now a man of 24 with “a wild body but the mind and innocence of a nine-year-old child”. His mother is excluded from society by her status as a divorcee and by the condition of her son. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with a much older woman neighbor with whom she spends time smoking a narghile on the balcony.

The friendship takes an unexpected turn when the narrator visits the old lady and finds her airing the stuffing of her pillow preparatory to making a new pillowcase. The stuffing is actually the hair of the old lady’s late mother, who had collected it over the years. “Look, this is the black hair from when she was young; that’s the red from the time she started to dye it with henna after she turned grey. When she grew older, she kept her hair its original color.”

The narrator starts to view the old lady in a different way, and to become preoccupied with the details of her world. “In some way, she had become a mysterious old lady with peculiar idiosyncracies.” The younger woman envies her neighbor’s contentment. “I, on the other hand, am consumed by fear a thousand times every day.” Hair is a potent symbol running through the story, and ultimately the old lady’s own silver braid of hair becomes a source of empowerment for the younger woman.

“Ancestral Hair” is an example of Bakr’s interest in writing of the poor and downtrodden, and in particular of the injustices inflicted on women and the ways in which women survive. The story appears in the anthology “Modern Arabic Short Stories: A Bilingual Reader” published by Saqi publishing house of London and Beirut. The anthology contains a dozen short stories by masters of the form from across the Arab world, newly rendered into crisp and fluent English translation by the book’s editors Ronak Husni and Daniel L Newman.

Ronak Husni has a BA in Arabic Language and Literature from the University of Mosul, Iraq, and a PhD from the University of St Andrew's, Scotland. She is a senior lecturer at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, teaching Arabic language, literature and translation. She previously taught at Durham University, where Daniel L Newman is course director of the MA in Arabic/English translation.

In the bilingual reader, the English translation and Arabic original are laid out on facing pages. Each story is introduced by a two or three-page biography of the writer, and followed by a few pages of translation notes. The stories are organized in order of difficulty with the easier ones first.

In their introduction, Husni and Newman explain how they selected the 12 stories. Their aim was “to provide as complete a picture of the modern Arabic short story landscape as possible.”

They note that anthologies of Arabic literature tend to be centered on the Eastern part of the Arab world at the expense of North Africa and the Gulf. Their selection covers a geographical area from Morocco (represented by Muhammad al-Zafzaf’s “The Sacred Tree” and Muhammad Shukri’s “The Night and the Sea”) through Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and on to Kuwait with Layla al-Uthman’s “Night of Torment”.

Egypt is the country most represented, with stories by Najib Mahfuz, Idwar al-Kharrat, Salwa Bakr and Yusuf Idris. Three of the 12 authors are female: Layla al-Uthman, Salwa Bakr and Hanan al-Shaykh, who is originally from Lebanon but has lived for many years in London. As regards language, the editors chose stories written in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or fusha. But colloquial expressions frequently occur, especially in dialogue, and these are explained in the notes to the stories.

Many of the stories concern the marginalized and deprived in society who, as in Salwa Bakr’s story, are often women. Muhammad Shukri’s writings draw on his experiences of extreme hardship when he was growing up in Morocco. His story “The Night and the Sea” depicts in language touched with poetry a young Moroccan prostitute and the underlying sadness of her life. In Syrian writer Zakariyya Tamir’s sensual “A Lonely Woman”, a charlatan sheikh claims to a young woman that he can summon up the jinn in order to bring her husband back to her. He persuades her to disrobe, lie down and close her eyes, while he deceives her into thinking it is the jinn who are touching her.

In “A Hidden Treasure”, Iraqi writer Fu’ad Takarli (who died in Amman in February) portrays a woman, Khadija, who has risen to become the wife of a high-ranking official at a Baghdad oil refinery. Meeting her childhood sweetheart by coincidence after many years, she expresses intense gratitude for his not taken advantage of her readiness to give herself to him totally when they were young. She is indebted to him for not “ruining” her, “though you could have done...You are the one who granted me the life I am living now”.

The childhood sweetheart, who narrates the story, has had a hard life having become the breadwinner for his mother and sisters after his father died. He has now reached some equilibrium, working in the oil refinery and living with his mother. But his encounter with his former love, and his vivid memories of their passionate liaison, throw him into turmoil. At the end of the story he is left with “hunger, misunderstanding and hollow echoes, which rang out the name of ‘Khadija’.”

Layla al-Uthman enters the milieu of migrant workers in “Night of Torment”, which contrasts the life of a lowly woman toilet attendant at an airport with that of a seemingly pampered woman. Yet the story reveals that they share a frustration with their husbands. Perfume and the sense of smell play a crucial symbolic role in the story.

The stories in the anthology exemplify the Arab storytelling tradition brought into the modern era. The editors point out that the Tunisian writer ’Izz al-Din al-Madani, author of “The Tale of the Lamp”, frequently uses “Arab history, folklore and classical Arabic literary genres as a spectrum through which he addresses contemporary issues such as governance and power.”

Najib Mahfuz’s story “Qismati and Nasibi” follows from birth to death the lives of a pair of conjoined twins. The twins, with their different facial characteristics, personalities and desires are locked into an awful closeness yet are mutually dependent on each other. The story, told with much zest, is an example of Mahfuz’s forays into magic realism.

The Libyan writer Ahmed Ibrahim al-Fagih has published numerous collections of short stories. “The Book of the Dead”, written with his characteristic humor, tells of a tradition-bound schoolteacher who is greatly disturbed when he finds a girl sitting among his class of boys. There was “no doubt that this was a demon who had taken on the guise of a girl”. Fagih chronicles his descent into madness.

“Modern Arabic Short Stories” is a rewarding collection that takes the reader on a journey through the Arab world, illuminating its difficulties as well as the vivacity and resilience of its people. The stories should appeal to students of Arabic at schools and universities, and to readers who are interested in modern Arabic literature but who lack the language skills to read stories in the original Arabic.
Saudi Gazette, 11th August 2008

Friday, August 08, 2008

'saddam obsessed by faisal II killing' - daily mail

Strange story in the Daily Mail today:

Story begins:

Why was Saddam Hussein haunted by the brutal murder of Iraq's boy king?
By Michael Thornton

Last updated at 12:07 AM on 08th August 2008

Waiting in a spartan, concrete-lined chamber at Camp Justice, an Iraqi army base in Kazimain, a north-eastern suburb of Baghdad, the 69-year-old fallen dictator Saddam Hussein, dressed in a black overcoat, stood on the trapdoor of the gallows.
Found guilty of crimes against humanity during his 24 years as President of Iraq, he had been sentenced to death.
But even now, in his last moments, he maintained his old defiance.
Saddam Hussein moments before his death
Spurning the use of a black hood over his head, he shouted 'Allah is great', as three masked executioners placed the rope around his throat.
The platform dropped and there was an audible crack, indicating that his neck was broken. One of modern history's most ruthless tyrants was dead at last.
Only moments before the end, on December 30, 2006, Shi'ite observers at the execution had hurled sectarian insults at Saddam (a Sunni), taunting him with the name of his great antagonist, the radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Sadr.
'Moqtada! Moqtada!' they jeered. Saddam repeated the name mockingly, adding: 'Do you consider this bravery?'
But despite the hopes and jubilation of his enemies, Saddam's thoughts in those final moments are unlikely to have been of Moqtada, but of another much younger man - one born only two years before himself: the tragic last King of Iraq, whose brutal murder 50 years ago this summer not only shocked and horrified the world, but haunted and obsessed Saddam for the rest of his days.
In the dock: Saddam Hussein was obsessed by the murdered boy king of Iraq Faisal II....

There's is a video report on the Royal Cemetery at Live Leak:

Monday, August 04, 2008

house of saddam

“House of Saddam” brings Saddam’s complexities to the small screen
Susannah Tarbush

The four-part mini-series “House of Saddam”, the first episode of which was screened on BBC TV last week, gives a remarkably vivid and convincing portrayal of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and his relationships with his inner circle and his family.

The series, which runs for a total of four hours, was made jointly by the BBC and HBO of the US. It might seem surprising that Saddam is played by Israeli actor Igal Naor. And yet Naor has an uncanny physical resemblance to Saddam, and conveys his charm and charisma as well as the flaws that would contribute to his downfall. Saddam comes across as an extraordinary mixture of warmth and cruelty, idealism and megalomania. He had ambitions for Iraq on the Arab and world stage, but was sidetracked by family feuds and the threat of conspiracies.

Naor has strong Iraqi connections of his own. His parents were Iraqi Jews who emigrated from Iraq to Israel in 1951. “In my first five years I grew up as if I was in Baghdad. I lived in a neighborhood which was inhabited mainly by Iraqis and spoke only Arabic because I grew up with my grandmother who didn’t know a word of Hebrew.”

The actor read various books to prepare for his performance, in particular “Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge” by Palestinian author Said Aburish. During a joint interview with Naor on the BBC World Service, Aburish said: “The great achievement of the cast is that you managed to put yourselves in the place of the various people there – your performance and the other performances are magical, congratulations to you.”

Aburish added that Naor has captured the swagger, gestures and nuances of Saddam. “This is not a Hollywood Arab made up for the occasion: this is a real Arab who had his own motives, who could be moved by certain things, and reacted to certain things in a certain way.”

The series is a reminder of where Saddam came from, and of his humble, impoverished roots. His mother Subha Talfah, heavily wrinkled and clad in black, continued to exert a powerful influence on him. Saddam never knew his father Hussein Al Majid, who is thought to have died before he was born. Subha’s second husband, Hajj Hassan Ibrahim, seems to have treated Saddam unkindly. One theme of “House of Saddam” is the way in which Saddam plays on the rivalry between the Al-Majids and the Ibrahims.

Subha is adamant that Saddam’s eldest daughter Raghad should marry the son of Saddam’s half-brother and head of security Barzan, and she repeats this wish on her deathbed. She also tells Saddam that it was good he never knew his father because he had “mad blood”. Saddam whispers angrily to her “you gave me nothing”, and after her death he lies to Barzan that it was her dying wish that Raghad should marry his cousin Hussein Kamel. Barzan is furious at the marriage, and even more so when Saddam informs him that Kamel is to replace him as head of his personal security. The wiry, watchful Barzan is played with intensity by the actor Said Taghmaoui who was born in France to Moroccan parents and has had a 14-year international film career.

At the beginning of the first episode, it is March 2003 and members of Saddam’s leadership clustered around a television in the Presidential Palace. US President George W Bush is promising the Iraqi people that “the tyrant will soon be gone” and that their day of liberation is near.

Bush gives Saddam and his sons Uday and Qusay a 48-hour ultimatum to leave Iraq, or there will be a military conflict. When the attack on Baghdad starts ,Saddam’s wife Sajida and daughters and their families prepare to leave the country. Saddam tells his sons: “We will not move from Iraq. We will keep moving until the Americans are defeated.”

The time frame then jumps back to summer 1979, with Saddam on the verge of pushing President Ahmad al-Bakr aside and seizing the presidency for himself. Saddam sees it as a critical time for Iraq. He opposes the union with Syria announced the previous autumn, and neighboring Iran is in the tumult of the aftermath of the revolution, with Khomeini is railing against the Iraqi regime.

Soon after ousting Bakr, Saddam carries out a gruesome purge of the top ranks of the Baath party, with the names of the suspects called out during a meeting of several hundred party officials. The accused officials, who are said to be involved in a Syrian plot against Saddam, are forced to shoot each other.

Saddam even kills his long-time best friend and comrade Adnan Hamdani (played by Palestinian-American actor and producer Waleed Zuaiter). Saddam embraces Hamdani, tells him “forgive me, you were always my friend”, and then shoots him dead. Why did Saddam kill a man who was not only his best friend, but apparently loyal to him? Saddam told Sajida he had done what was necessary. “The man who can sacrifice even his best friend is a man without weakness. In the eyes of my enemies, I am stronger now.”

The first episode also includes the severe reprisals against the village of Dujail after an assassination attempt on Saddam during a visit there in July 1982. Under the direction of Barzan, many people are killed and the whole town is razed to the ground.

In writing the script of the series, co-writers Alex Holmes and Stephen Butchard spent two years on research, including extensive interviews with members of Saddam’s regime, and eyewitnesses such as his cooks and bodyguards. Even former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz answered questions from his prison cell through his lawyer, although Saddam declined a request to do so.

The first-rate cast includes some of the most successful actors from the Middle East. Saddam’s wife Sajida is played by the famous Iranian actress, Shoreh Aghdashloo, best known in the West for her roles in the film “House of Sand and Fog” and in the TV series “24”.

The Egyptian actor Amr Waked plays Saddam’s cousin and aide Hussein Kamel. There was a fuss last year when it emerged that he would be performing alongside an Israeli actor. Egypt’s actors’ union criticized him for “normalizing” with Israel, and it was reported he could be banned from filming in Egypt in the future. Waked said: “I understand their political statement, but this is not an Israeli movie.”

Jerusalem-born Palestinian actor Makram K Khoury plays urbane Tariq Aziz. Algeria-born Said Amadis, who grew up in France, plays the heavy-set Adnan Khairallah (pictured), Sajida’s brother. Hussein’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid (who would later become notorious in the west as “Chemical Ali”) is portrayed by Israeli actor Uri Gavriel as having a coarse vulgarity.

On a visit to a school with TIME magazine journalists, to show them how popular he is with schoolchildren, Saddam encounters the woman who will become his mistress, Samira Shahbandar. She is played by Australian actress Christine Stephen-Daly. The actress had doubts about playing an Iraqi woman, but then learned that Shahbandar, a married woman who would eventually be divorced and become Saddam’s second wife had, like her, blonde hair and green eyes. The hair of Saddam’s wife Sajida, which is dark in the first episode, becomes blonde in subsequent episodes as she tries to compete with Saddam’s young mistress.

Saudi Gazette 4 August 2008