Warm Drops in Baghdad

John Simpson

The rainy season arrived here on 27 October. As the first warm drops fell, the dusty ground gave out an unfamiliar odour, sweet, pungent and musty. Cars slithered on the slick roads, and soft dates, knocked from the palm-trees, made walking dangerous. Hassan, our driver, turned up in a black suit with stripes like railway lines, to mark the end of summer. It clashed badly with his plastic sandals and his brown tie. I looked out of my hotel window and watched the rain with a certain frisson: I remembered being told by a leading Palestinian figure that Saddam Hussein had forecast that an attack by the Americans would come soon after the first rains.

Yevgeniy Primakov, President Gorbachev’s special negotiator, also arrived in Baghdad on 27 October. It seemed the best hope for a negotiated settlement, and the Russians and the French, who were co-operating on the diplomatic effort (though only in private), were in optimistic mood. The British and American Embassies were sceptical, and they were right. President Saddam Hussein and Mr Primakov were together for only forty minutes, half of which was sacrificed to translation. Nothing was agreed, and the President refused to entertain the notion of an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. The following morning Mr Primakov, his jolly proletarian bounce temporarily deserting him, left Baghdad Airport. He had no plans to return. The talk in the British and American Embassies was of war by the fourth week in November. I found myself looking out of the window again.

From the television screen there came a blare of trumpets. A man on a magnificent white stallion was parading across a huge open area, applauded by thousands: the Saladdin of kitsch. The shot changed, and small children held up portraits of him: the schoolboy, the young revolutionary, the prisoner, the apparatchik, the power behind the throne, the strong man, the President – a life of Saddam Hussein in pictures. The television cut to studio. A singer with a glittery tie and a suit with a python-skin pattern broke into a song with Bedouin words and music:

All evil people fear your sword, Saddam.
It has already been tested.
You are the father of all good things.
With you we will challenge
All the aggressors who have accumulated
Wealth and strength and power.

There was a swift change of key; the python-clad arms were raised in prayer.

We implore God to keep you well and happy,
To make your countenance shine on us,
So we can take pride in you above all others.

The python pattern faded. We were left with a still photograph of date palms at sunset. ‘Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson’ was played by violins. It was time for the News. President Saddam Hussein would feature heavily in that, too.

This is landscape I have explored before. Romanian Television used to call Nicolae Ceausescu ‘our bright morning star’ and ‘our avatar’. On one marvellous occasion the Romanian media referred to him as ‘our Prince Charming’. Pictures of him, preternaturally young, were waved in unison in front of platforms where his current 70-year old self, the black hair turned white and the face turned wrinkled, was appearing in person. The news was his news: if Ceausescu visited a chicken farm, it took precedence over everything else. On the day of the Armenian earthquake Romanian Television led on a response from President Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast to a message of congratulations from Our Prince Charming. Ceausescu’s thoughts, displayed by the roadside, beguiled every journey. The official religion of Romania was egoworship.

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