Waiting for Antar

Saddam, suicide, and cultural despair


When Adeeb Berakat, a 35-year-old Palestinian in Jenin, watched the now-famous footage of a captured and docile-appearing Saddam Hussein being inspected for lice, he became angry. "Saddam has been humiliated," he told a reporter, although his next words suggested that it was Berakat 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 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."

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."

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 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 Pan-Arabist followers to catastrophe. These mock heroes have led their admirers not merely to political and military disaster but even to a sense of personal humiliation and shame. While many Arabs welcomed Saddam's capture, others had at least hoped for redemption in Saddam's resistance and death. According to the first account of the capture (since augmented by numerous rumored variations), what they got was a bedraggled old man hiding in a dark hole, reportedly armed but calling to his discoverers, "Don't shoot!"

The historical and cultural model of the courageous Arab redeemer could hardly stand in greater contrast. That figure is fearless, whether in the 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, whether traditional oral epics or modern TV serials, from Abu Bakr to Harun al-Rashid to Saladin. 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 coffeehouses for centuries (and sometimes still is), absorbing Islamic values despite predating the coming of Islam. Among the rousing adventures of this poet-warrior was the rescue of an emperor of Rome itself (he's called King ibn Marqus) at the head of a Byzantine Greek force, even though the Byzantines were enemies of the Arabs. Antar was so noble a figure 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 it the Arabic Iliad. The saga itself has shrunk in recent years; Westerners have nearly forgotten Antar, and Arabs now are likely to treat his adventures as children's literature. Antar's monomythic shadow, however, is a long one, and it has fallen across the shallow myth of Saddam repeatedly.

It's visible, for example, in the footage of Saddam wielding a great sword with a single hand as his Ba'athist sycophants applaud stupidly. Saddam, suggests the posture, is a true desert knight in the grand tradition. It's apparent too in Saddam's attempts at writing novels, because the worthy 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 Saladin (supposedly Saddam's proximate model), like the magnificent Antar, Saddam is a hero of mythical proportions. So said the propaganda embraced by those Arabs seeking redemption in him. The newspapers said otherwise.

Antar's own death, by the way, is worth pausing over, because in one bizarre detail it overlaps Saddam's ignominious capture. According to the traditional recitation, Antar dies at the hands of an old enemy whom he long ago blinded but who has learned to aim his arrows by sound. This enemy attacks Antar when the hero is most vulnerable: when Antar exits a feast to urinate. Though severely wounded, Antar silently tracks his blind enemy and kills him. As the dying 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, his lance in his hand: He will protect them in death as he did in life. The attackers, spying him, don't dare approach. Finally, however, they come near, and finding that Antar is dead, they bury him with honor.

What has this to do with Saddam? Time magazine's account of Saddam's first interrogation revealed the one thing that Saddam might have picked up from the Antar saga: a concern about urinating. "When asked 'How are you?'" reported Time, "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, in the abstract, with using such a model politically; the contemporary politics of many societies resonate with traditional narratives of all kinds.

One American monomyth, notable in the context of the Iraq war, was proposed in 1977 by academics Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence. They argued the narrative that most resonates with Americans involves the rescue from evil of a helpless group by a powerful outsider who eventually disappears.

In any event, Antar and other similarly brave heroes have much in common with European figures of chivalry, which shouldn't be surprising: The Arabs of Spain greatly influenced medieval song and story on the other side of the Pyrenees.

The problem is that the myth is both encouraged and exploited by regimes that would never allow it to be fulfilled, and that is a recipe for cultural despair.

Take, for example, Iraq's own case of Gen. Adnan Khairallah, a relative by marriage of Saddam's and a man with a reputation for competence and courage. Khairallah rejected privilege and chose to bear the hardships of his men, and was in turn esteemed by them.

Whether he was a modern Antar is not the point; he seems not to have been a mere posturing thug like Saddam. What happened to Khairallah? He died in a helicopter crash, one that almost everyone believes was arranged by a Saddam jealous of Khairallah's popularity.

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 are invested in celebrating those who wait to kill him.