Sunday, September 23, 2007



This is an interesting book. Doctor Ala Bashir was as much an insider as it possible to be without being treated as a criminal by Bush's invasion forces. He served as a personal physician to Saddam Hussein for about twenty years. He is also an artist whose work Hussein favored.

This book is not a biography, and it is not a history in any proper sense. Rather, it is a series of anecdotes by an intelligent observer about life in Iraq under Hussein. Internal consistencies and other evidence suggest that this is an honest work, although we would like to read considerably more on some subjects.

In the dark world of dictatorship, to be favored by the leader often means to run into bitter dislike from other members of the regime, and this was certainly Bashir's experience. We are reminded by his anecdotes that dictators often are not aware of all that goes on within various fiefdoms, or if they are aware, they often feel unable to change things - a great irony, yet one confirmed by the lives of many from Hitler to the American Pharaoh, Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago.

Bashir confirms that a good deal of American propaganda gives an inaccurate picture of Hussein. Although Hussein could be ruthless and violent, he had a genuine concern with improving conditions of life for Iraqis, building many hospitals, schools, and cultural institutions. He actually advanced Iraqi women's rights significantly concerning important matters like a woman's right to initiate divorce.

Surprisingly, Hussein could even be a good listener, so long as the subject was not one on which he had made up his mind. Hussein was not a Stalin, and he had no admiration for Hitler. He enjoyed books, particularly history and biography. Bashir is pretty sure from personal experiences that Hussein is not an anti-Semite, but he would not even listen to anyone concerning a change in policy towards Israel.

Many of the problems in Hussein's regime were family problems. Hussein depended on clan and family strongly for loyalty, and he knew perfectly well that this often ended up with less competent people in senior positions. Bashir makes clear that Hussein's son, Uday, was mentally ill, and that on least one occasion Hussein was ready to punish him severely. Yet time usually softened Hussein's temper, and he expressed affection for a pretty-much worthless son.

While we all know that American policy favored Iraq over Iran, contributing to the terrible brutality of their 8-year war, Bashir suggests the CIA was there at the beginning, assisting the coup that led to Hussein's eventual assumption of power.

Those seeking to understand affairs in the Middle East will find this book refreshing, without propaganda or bombast. It is of limited scholarly use, but it is definitely worth reading, its main faults being a limited range of subjects and sketchy coverage.