by Dustin M. Hoffman
His legs almost gave out on him, but the voice of his vice-president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, reached him with encouragement, “Sir, pull yourself together. Be strong. They’re filming us with hundreds of cameras. Remember, showing weakness will only defang the Resistance.”
Saddam, hearing this, stood tall and proud. It was around five in the morning. Calls to prayer were resonating strongly in the steel of the night, blaring from minarets dispersed throughout Baghdad. “Come to prayer!” the nearest muezzin rattled in a voice laced with sadness.
His eyes teared. “Come to prayer,” he repeated aloud.
“Come to prayer! Come to success! There is no God but God!” the three men walking behind him reiterated, becoming suddenly religious. And soon a peculiar strength crept into his feet, allowing him to maintain a steady gait.
Once the guard placed a red bag over his head, a long series of flashbacks of those he killed in cold blood played in his mind – starting with his life’s first crime when he assassinated Hajj Sadoun al-Takriti, the foremost proponent of the leader Abdul Karim Qassim, until sinking into the degrading mire of the American occupation and its spiteful allies. He tried to remember the number of his victims; hundreds? No, thousands. No, hundreds of thousands. But the eyes of his first victim, Hajj Sadoun, are still wide open, gazing at him with surprise and wonderment; they still rack his soul as he took dead aim with his gun and ended the life of a revered man who had helped him and others during times of hardship, poverty and vagrancy. Hajj Sadoun couldn’t believe his foster child would backstab him.
No doubt Saddam now experiences the same feeling that had shrouded thousands of his victims whom he cleared out with an ease identical to the one he’s being eliminated with. His captors are performing the very role he assumed for four decades! He felt the rough hand of his executioner fasten the bag, disconnecting him from the world! That simple move severed the cord of his life. He considered himself dead – aren’t life and vision one inseparable entity? He’s living his last moments. His hands are tied behind his back. He’s utterly motionless except for his breathing. He can’t even open his eyes due to the tightness of the bag. Everything is over. He felt more than one hand pulling on his legs and waist with ropes and chains. Are these weights meant to help separate his head from his body? Yes, they must be. Then, he felt the thick noose encircle his neck from over the bag, driving out the remaining warm air he breathes. He maniacally thrashed his head around, gasping frantically for one iota of oxygen, but at the same time the wooden trap-door underneath his feet snapped downward, and his body dropped strongly. He felt a sharp pain in the back of his head. He almost screamed. His voice failed him. His lips failed him. His breath failed him. And then all sensation ceased.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself between two thick glass partitions, where he would see people on both sides. He saw to his right, countless swarms of people with blissful demeanor and merry behavior. They were laughing, singing and dancing. Is he dreaming? All he knows is that he was hung to death, but why has he found himself here? Who are these people? Why are they here? Where are his assistants? Where are those who took him to the gallows? And why has all this happened to him? He turned to his left and saw quite the opposite; millions were burning in a mighty blaze similar to the flames of oil rigs. People were scorching, exploding, flaming and going back into life more than once, to blow up again in an unparalleled sadistic torture. When is the end of this severe torment and wretched misery?
He then realized that he was dead, that he was between heaven and hell, that the hour of judgment was bound to come, and that he had to prepare honest answers that could save him. Things are different here from a courtroom where humans like him would arbitrate. This is the Hereafter. Here, is a just, fair and infallible Ruler who knows all inward thoughts and outward acts of humanity. He closed his eyes and heaved a deep, worried sigh. They will definitely throw him into hell. He committed countless crimes. Since a terrible reckoning awaits him, he looked to his right side, to heaven, and enjoyed watching its people for the last time. Suddenly, the ground quaked underneath his feet like in the first time he was hung. He looked back and saw the glass partition become a giant computer screen, where the kind Angel Ridwan, the Paradise doorkeeper, stood right in the middle, facing him, surrounded by a big entourage of angels, with eminent, shining faces.
Ridwan said to him calmly, choosing his words: “Saddam, you are a world-class massacrer, a murderer with no conscience and scruples. You deserve eternal damnation in hell for the thousands of crimes you have perpetrated. You are evil. You are your own people’s enemy and the enemy of humanity. You inflicted misery on millions without a blink of an eye. You wronged scores of people and stole from the rich and poor. You have engaged in all sorts of wrong-doing. Had you had one thousand souls, executing them wouldn’t have been enough punishment. Your sins are infinite. But God’s mercy is greater than His justice. You have done only one deed that had a little of good – you demanded to stop the war following al-Mohammara’s battle. Should your request have been met with favor, you would have stopped the blood shed of innocents and saved hundreds of thousands of souls; therefore, you deserve God’s pardon. Go to heaven and enjoy your God’s mercy.”
Saddam couldn’t believe his ears, he kneeled down to kiss Ridwan’s feet, but his forehead bumped into the computer screen. The ground quaked again and the computer screen disappeared suddenly the way it appeared, along with Ridwan and his companions. Saddam was alone once again, standing before the thick glass that opened before him with lightning-speed, from the right side. There was a red carpet like the ones rolled out for him in the airports, so he stepped forward cautiously, not believing his eyes.
All the news networks were broadcasting since dawn the execution of Saddam, and no sooner had Khamini heard the news on LBC, than sleep fled from his eyes. His weary body suddenly brimmed with youthful energy. He picked up the phone and summoned al-Mulla Baqir Hallufi, the head of his body-guards, who stood before him panic-stricken. “Call immediately for an urgent meeting, right here. Hurry up,” Khamini ordered.
This meant al-Mulla had to convene all of the key leadership in the Islamic Republic of Iran, who soon streamed into the palace. Among the first comers were current president Mahmoud Ahmadi Najad, previous president and close friend Agha Rafsanjani along with his previous successor Agha Khatimi, followed by all cabinet members, military leaders and officials.
Khamini welcomed his guests with hugs and kisses, amid an air of gaiety and festivity. He sat comfortably in his raised chair, while the rest of the assembly gathered around him on the floor – legs crisscrossed – out of respect to the divine authority he enjoyed – an authority passed down to him from the Prophet, through one imam after another, until it reached him and he became God’s shadow on earth for guarding Islam and Muslims. At the same time, the believing women’s trilling cries of joy and coy laughter were wafting from the palace’s walls up to the vault of heaven.
Everyone lost track of time in the midst of that special bliss that lasted for hours. The telegraphs of congratulations and gloating over Saddam’s death poured from within and outside Iran. They were recited by Shamkhani the minute they were received, while Khamini and the crowd would quiver enchanted by his beautiful voice. The first recited telegraph was from Ahmad al-Jalabi, followed by countless ones from al-Eshaiker al-Jaafari, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, al-Shahrastani, Mam Jalal and his friend in struggle, al-Barazani, heads of tribes, Iraqi cabinet members, Lebanese parliament members, etc.
Khamini normally enjoys listening to the delicious news while eating, and Shamkhani stopped reading at a motion from Khamini, to resume later over lunch. Rafsanjani understood the hand gesture. “I feel I was born anew at this glorious moment,” he commented, laughing.
Khatimi nodded in approval. “Such happy news occurs only once in a lifetime,” he added.
At these words, Khamini fixed Khatimi with a stare of mingled irritation and blame. “Actually twice or maybe more!” he said, nodding wisely.
Khatimi shuddered. His face turned sallow and he gazed up at Khamini, perplexed, wondering what the first time was. “Do not forget, Mohammad, that the victory of the Islamic revolution was the most monumental news in our generation’s history,” Khamini repeated in a deliberate tone, redolent with the tact and depth of a grand ayatollah.
“Yes, yes, most monumental, greatest, biggest, and…” the assembly concurred.
Khatimi felt inept. He wished he wasn’t born. Having realized he scolded him hard, Khamini attempted to act wisely and tactfully, so he put on a smile and decided to take the assembly back to the events of the delightful occasion after the brief distraction he had caused.
“Agha Najad, what do you suggest we do on this happy occasion for the enduring Iranian people?” he asked quietly, a mirthful look dancing in his eye. “Although this moment is not comparable to that of the revolution’s victory, our glee is the same. And maybe we’ll rejoice this way only at the return of Mystery Imam al-Mahdi; may God bring about his early reappearance and ease his coming.”
Silence prevailed. Najad was baffled. Pausing for a moment to regain his composure, he blurted, “My Imam, I’m considering issuing a decree to make this day an official holiday throughout our victorious Islamic state.”
“Wrong. Wrong. We don’t want to give that wicked Saddam more value than deserved,” Rafsanjani shrieked.
Color ebbed from Najad’s cheeks, and if it wasn’t for his black beard he would have become a dull, wax statue. He remembered that Khamini was playing with him the same game he played with his predecessors, Khatimi and Rafsanjani, where he would register their mistakes and bring them up later during an opportune moment. He used to put them down at each meeting. But Khamini cannot nail him; he is young while the other two are old and incompetent. They would become muddled whenever Khamini made them fall in his trap, and they wouldn’t know how to handle him! But not him. He shall overpower Khamini one day and in order for him to reach this goal he had to keep low key in his presence.
Najad rose and went up to Khamini; he reached to his hand and kissed it with utter reverence. “You are the guiding Imam and the father,” he said appeasing, then bursted into tears. Khamini patted him on the head with a feigned affection, and before he could even utter a word, his secretary, lieutenant Zahidi, announced, “Lunch is served.”
All was stunned. It was already 11:30 A.M. More than six hours have elapsed like a flash of a second. That’s the miracle of festivities! Time flies like the wind. Only then they felt the sharp pangs of hunger, and waited for Khamini to rise from his chair and followed him to the dining room, accompanied by Rafsanjani and Najad.
How delicious are fish, chicken and lamb roasted the Arabic style! Shamkhani, the highborn Ahwazi, had introduced these recipes into Khamini’s kitchen. What a connoisseur! Khamini remembered that his doctor recommended that he cuts down on red meat and completely stop table salt due to his high blood cholesterol. The feast table, that ran more than thirty feet long, was piled up high with food items – grilled, baked and fried lamb, fish, and wild birds; a slew of Arabic, Indian, French, Chinese and American dishes. Then he saw his special diet food prepared to him under medical supervision: He lost his appetite. Fat free yogurt, steamed vegetables, small pieces of chicken breast, garlic and cucumbers. What is worse is that they are all salt and spices free. How is he going to swallow them? It is a torture like no other.
Witty Rafsanjani was standing to his right and read his mind. “Sir, my lord, break your diet today. Once a month will do you no harm,” he said.
“Do you think so?”
“I know so. I have the same health issues. Not only the principles of Islam unite us at this age, but also diabetes, hypertension, high blood cholesterol. It’s the doctor’s opinion. Breaking the diet once every two weeks, three weeks, or month doesn’t hurt at all. When you shock the digestive system, it girds itself into action and burns everything at once. Enjoy your meal at my responsibility.” He said that and pounded his chest, rolling up his sleeves before digging in the spiced, roasted lamb, stuffed with almonds and sultanas, a splendid recipe from the gruffy, lizard eating Arabs.
“A sound advice, that I will take,” Khamini answered, his saliva drooling.
And they all ate with gluttony, the way a fasting person would after iftar, finishing their lunch with delicious tea infused with cardamom and saffron. Khamini held his small fancy cup, but he felt his breath heavy and thousands of pin-pricks in his chest, then his right hand shook violently and the tea cup flew high up in the air to land and smash onto Najad’s face, amid gazes of shock and terror. Then, he lost all sensation.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself naked, like the day when he was born. He recollected the events of the last moment. His eyes darted around in search for the cup of the sweet, flavored tea, for Najad, Rafsanjani, Khatimi, Shamkhani, his assistants, the servants and the guards. He found no one. Where did they go? Why is he naked? Is he in a bathroom? No, this is a new, unfamiliar place. He’s alone. Where are his clothes? His hand unconsciously reached to his midsection. But, where is he? He doesn’t know.
He looked to the right and saw a thick, clear glass partition that separates him from thousands of people; they were happy and having fun: they were dancing, singing, running around and kissing females with ethereal beauty. Then, he stared to the left and his eyes came across a similar thick and clear glass partition through which he could see everything. Thousands of people were burning, screaming, melting within seconds and then come back to life and burning again. What a dreadful scene! Does this mean he died? Does this mean that he is before heaven and hell? Ah, how fast life ended!
He pondered long and hard. He realized he was dead. He’s grateful to God that he didn’t suffer in his death – he wasn’t killed in combat, nor did he taste the terror of being taken to the gallows like his fiercest enemy Saddam Hussain. Too bad, he expired when he was at the pinnacle of a fleeting happiness.
Where are his followers, guards, assistants, the leaders, the presidents and the millions who hailed to him? Where did they go? Here he is alone, naked, with neither might nor power. He turned once more to his right and saw the people all dancing, singing, rejoicing, while wearing the fanciest garments he’s ever seen – superb fabric, famous French and Italian brands, stunning vintage and modern fashion, as if he’s in Hollywood, Paris or London.
All of a sudden, the ground quaked underneath his feet, and a great fear seized him. A giant computer appeared before him, whose screen filled the entire wall, where Ridwan appeared with his huge body and his glorious, radiant face, surrounded with a big entourage of happy, beautiful angels. No doubt it is the hour of judgment. He stared at Ridwan and companions, his smile melting into supplication and meekness. Then, his eyes met Ridwan’s, and he discerned in there patience and docility, lacking among humans.
His eyes flitted to the angels around Ridwan; they were from both gender. Their bodies were naked and seductively exciting. Where are their wings and how do they move around? Ridwan motioned to them with his finger and one angel came out through the screen and covered Khamini privates with a red silken wrap. Khamini let out a sigh of relief. That was a nice gesture. So, he’s not going to hell.
“Is there anything you want to say?” Ridwan started.
“No, Agha. I’m at your disposal.”
“We know you better than you know yourself,” Ridwan said, grinning. “Your abode is hell! Do you know why?”
Khamini jerked in surprise, as he didn’t expect this attack. It’s so similar to the style he uses with his followers. “Yes, I am a hypocrite,” he muttered, shivering.
“True. You were an eternal egotistical hypocrite. Thousands of young men were taken to death while you stood still. Not only this, you did nothing for the comfort of the kind Iranian people for a quarter century. During your days, the rich became richer, and the poor poorer. Diseases, hunger, prostitution, corruption and bribery became widespread, and Iran has become the biggest brothel in the world, safeguarded by ayatollahs. Even the way you sit on a raised chair, towering above those who surround you is a despicable, non Islamic act. Didn’t you know that the prophet Mohammad wouldn’t distinguish himself from others, and those who didn’t know him used to ask, “Which one of you is Mohammad”? You shouldn’t have placed yourself above your people. You should have taken care of them. Khamini, your mistakes are too numerous to cite.”
“All you mentioned is right, but I seek God’s forgiveness, eminent is His glory.”
“God forgave you. Not because you deserve pardon, but only because you did have one good stance when you agreed, along with others, to stop the war, saving the lives of millions. Go into heaven and enjoy.”
Suddenly, the ground quaked and the screen disappeared along with Ridwan and his assistants. Khamini became alone again. Soon, the glass between him and heaven opened, and he felt something nudge him forward onto a regal red carpet, similar to the ones on earth. He felt at ease and took a deep breath as he was going to paradise.
His steps were slow and hesitant, since he’s walking into a new world that the heard about, but never saw. Ah. What a pleasure! What happiness! He feels elated. His heart dances! Where are those enchanting songs coming from? He glimpses from afar the most beautiful faces, shapes and hears the most beautiful voices. No. This is not a celestial voice. It’s an earthly one. The voice of Koukoush!
Is this possible? Koukoush is in heaven like him? What could she have done to deserve heaven? She’s almost naked like always, her voluptuous body exuding eternal seduction. How she excited him when he was a teenager! He used to see her only on TV. Back then, he had not a penny and seeing her in the nightclub where she performed cost more than he could save, but she kept invading his dreams and waking hours, and he kept loving her from a distance. Here she stands wholly before him, with her soft melodious voice! Could he kiss her? Of course not, thousands of her fans are swaying, mesmerized and drunken; it’s impossible to win her heart amid all those competitors. But never mind, he’ll give it a try, just for the sake of it, and if he gets turned down, he might find himself a beautiful houri who would make him forget his love for Koushkoush.
No sooner had he inched his way down the corridor, than the ground tremored beneath his feet. Thirty feet ahead, Saddam’s face intercepts his way, eyes fuming with anger, fists joined ready to fight. He froze in place terrorized, then he looked back and began running and screaming: “Agha, Ridwan Agha… Open the door, I don’t want heaven!”
Mahmoud Saeed, a prominent Iraqi novelist, has written more than 20 novels and short story collections. He was imprisoned several times and left Iraq in 1985 after the authorities banned the publication of some of his novels, including Zanka bin Baraka (1970), which won the Ministry of Information Award in 1993. He is an instructor and author-in-residence at DePaul University in Chicago.