Waiting for Antar

Why Saddam was supposed to kill himself


Adeeb Berakat, a 35-year-old Palestinian in Jenin, watched Sunday's footage of a docile-appearing Saddam Hussein with a sense of rising anger. "Saddam has been humiliated," he told a reporter, though his next words suggested that the real problem was that it was Berkat who felt humiliated by Saddam. "As he has been asking the people to fight," he added, "he should have fought himself. If he did not fight he should have killed himself."

In Cairo, the editor of the Egyptian weekly Al Asbou, a man named Mustafa Bakri, appeared on television to lament that, "It's a black day in the history of the Arabs. It's a humiliation."

In Baghdad, a 28-year-old chauffeur named Kassem Shelshul complained that Saddam "swore before the war that Iraqis would fight America, and then he didn't fire a single shot." What had Shelshul expected? "We expected him to commit suicide or resist."

"It would have been better if he had been killed," said Abdel Kader, a Fatah leader, in Gaza. "At least he would have died in an honorable way."

The footage of Saddam "is nonsense," exclaimed a 66-year-old Iraqi named Haj Abu Daoud. "Who," he asked, "could capture Saddam?" A Bagdad cab driver named Taher took the same view. "It's not possible," he said of the capture. "It must be a double."

But it obviously wasn't a double; it was more a case of cultural fraud. Saddam Hussein is only the latest in a series of mock heroes of the region who have assumed a posture of strong, cunning, and courageous leadership, only to lead their followers to catastrophe. Indeed, these mock heroes have led their admirers not merely to political and military disaster, but even to a sense of personal humiliation and shame. Some Arabs—perhaps they constitute a Pan-Arabist hardcore (many other Arabs welcomed Saddam's capture)—had at least hoped for redemption in Saddam's death; instead they got a bedraggled old man hiding in a dark hole, reportedly armed but calling to his discoverers, "Don't shoot!"

The historic and cultural model of the courageous Arab redeemer could hardly stand in greater contrast. That figure is fearless, whether in face of the enemy or of death itself. He is magnanimous in victory, pious before God, noble, generous, and just to his own people. His soul is as filled with poetry as his sword is stained with the blood of the unworthy. There is a long line of fictional and historical figures who embody this role in Arab cultural artifacts, both traditional oral epics and modern TV serials, from Abu Bakr to Haroun al Rachid to Saladdin. For that matter, the fearless but noble Arab warrior even turns up in medieval European literature, appearing, for example, in Boccaccio. The original model, however, appears to be a black pre-Islamic Bedouin warrior known as Antar.

Antar is a remarkable character; his saga was recited in Arab squares and coffeehouses for centuries, absorbing Islamic values despite predating the coming of Islam. Among the rousing adventures of this poet-warrior was saving the Rome of the Caesars from attack by Byzantine Greeks, enemies of the Arabs. He was so noble that even the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have expressed a wish to have known him. When Westerners first encountered the Antar epic in the 19th century, they swooned, proclaiming the work to be the Arabic Iliad. The saga itself has shrunk in recent years; Westerners have nearly forgotten him, and Arabs now are likely to treat Antar's adventures as children's literature. Antar's monomythic shadow, however, is a long one, and has fallen across the shallow myth of Saddam repeatedly.

It's visible, for example, in the footage of Saddam wielding a great, heavy sword with a single hand as his Baathist sycophants applaud stupidly. Saddam, suggests the posture, is not a mere talker; he is a true hero capable of single combat in the grand tradition. It's apparent too in Saddam's attempts at writing novels, because the true hero is a man whose strength and courage are leavened by poetry. Of course, Saddam's heroic pretensions are especially visible in the grand edifices, like the Mosque of the Mother of All Battles, that he built to honor his grandiosity. Like his fellow-Tikriti Saladdin (supposedly Saddam's proximate model), like the epic hero Babars, like the magnificent Antar, Saddam is a hero in the grand Arab manner. So said the propaganda swallowed by those Arabs sufficiently in need of redemption. The newspapers say otherwise.

Antar's own death, by the way, is worth pausing over, because in one bizarre detail it actually overlaps Saddam's ignominious capture. Here's Antar's death: Antar is killed by an old enemy whom he long ago blinded, but who has learned to shoot arrows by sound. This enemy attacks Antar when the hero is vulnerable: when Antar exits a feast to urinate. Though severely wounded, Antar silently tracks his blind enemy and kills him. As Antar is leading his band to safety, however, they are again attacked. To save his men, he asks to be set one last time on his horse, with his lance in his hand. The enemy attackers, spying him, don't dare approach. At length, however, they come near, and seeing that Antar is dead, they bury him respectfully.

What has this to do with Saddam? Time magazine has published a report about Saddam's first interrogation, and it reveals the one thing that Saddam might have picked up from the whole Antar saga: a concern about urinating. According to Time, "When asked 'How are you?' said the official, Saddam responded, 'I am sad because my people are in bondage.' When offered a glass of water by his interrogators, Saddam replied, 'If I drink water I will have to go to the bathroom and how can I use the bathroom when my people are in bondage?'

What's wrong with the Antar model? Nothing's wrong with the story, or with the character. Nothing's wrong with having such a story; many societies have kept their myths alive even in their contemporary politics. Indeed, Antar and other similarly brave and chivalrous heroes bear much in common with European figures of chivalry, which shouldn't be surprising given that the Arabs of Spain greatly influenced such European tales on the other side of the Pyrenees.

The problem is that the myth remains alive within societies whose regimes gladly exploit it, but would never allow a contemporary Antar to survive should one arise, and that is a recipe for cultural despair.

Take the case of the Iraqi soldier, Gen. Adnan Khairallah. He was a relative by marriage of Saddam's, a man with a reputation for competence and courage. He was beloved by the men he commanded because he rejected privilege and chose to bear their hardships. Whether he was a modern Antar is not the point; he was much closer to being such a figure than was a mere thug like Saddam. What happened to him? Jealous of Khairallah's reputation and popularity, Saddam, it is believed by almost everyone, arranged a helicopter crash, killing Khairallah.

There is a glimpse of the region's tragedy, and its despair. The problem is not that Antar cannot again be born; it is not that, once born, he cannot die with honor. Rather, too many of the region's people have invested so much in celebrating those who wait to kill Antar.