I can always tell you two apart by the way you walk. Uday, straight as an arrow, that boy. But you, you walk like you’re dragging a ton of bricks. It’s easy to spot a man carrying more than his fair share of the world—and by Allah, I can spot that broken back of yours all the way from Abadan.
I sink into a velvety, high-backed armchair and slowly scan the suite that has been my prison for months. Do I hate it? Well, I try. But how do you hate sleeping in a hotel-style bed covered with sheets of pure Egyptian cotton? Or rubbing your bare feet against the silky texture of a beautiful Persian rug? Surely, it’s difficult to hate waking up to the timid rays of an Iraqi sun, begging to be let in through heavily draped, gold-threaded Arabic curtains. It’s true the smiling portrait of His Excellency is more than a little disconcerting…but I digress.
Forgive these vague, random lines, but attempting to organise my thoughts is of no use nowadays. They are incessantly coming at me out of the dark, cobwebby nooks of my mind, surfacing from fragile, underground, memory clogged tunnels, constantly infusing the past with the present until I am left desperately rummaging for a no longer existent divider. And yet, in spite of this hindering fault, I still write. I write for her, for me.
For haunting Baghdad.
At the age of nine, the boys at school would point out I could pass for Uday Hussein’s brother. By the age of twenty-eight, they would all swear I was his doppelgänger. This change, of course, is not wholly nature’s doing. Even though my Godgiven features undeniably play a major role in the transformation, it took Uday’s people six months to make it happen. Six months of my life dedicated to molding me into a living sculpture of the son of Saddam Hussein. At the end of this period, the speech therapists are finally satisfied with me—I can now slur my words just right. The plastic surgeons speak a language I do not understand—possibly German?—but I can tell they, too, are pleased with their artistry…I think the dental work is what shocks me most, though. Inexplicably, I find that I can stand the minor surgical adjustments to my face, that I can wear the royal blue Versace suit, that I can slip into the handmade designer shoes—even pull off the jewel-encrusted Rolex watch—in the end, I somehow still manage to catch a glimpse of Latif Yahia in the mirror. But as soon as I press the upper dentures against the roof of my mouth…hopeless. The reflection disintegrates, and Latif Yahia is no longer staring back at me. Allah have mercy! Who is this? Who is he? Who am I?
It is a difficult question to answer now that my records have been burnt. The name Latif Yahia no longer officially exists. When you are selected to be Uday Hussein’s fedai, that is all you can be—technically speaking. Of course I refused at first; no sane man would willingly consent to be a madman’s double. I was beaten and whipped, imprisoned for weeks—still, I did not give in. But when Uday slid me a note from between the rusty bars of my cell, I caved. Three names in black ink: Anaam, Yahia, Aida. He opened my cell door that night; he knew I would not run.
Family is sacrifice, and for my family, my identity is but a small tadheya.
Why me, why this face, why, God…After a while, I learn to put a stop to the asking. These questions demand logical reasoning and logical reasoning cannot be found in this place. Maybe Uday chooses to have a double because he fears his people; maybe he simply enjoys cloning himself—no one can ever say for sure. I can say, however, that the Iraqi playboy introduces me to a world, the like of which I could have never imagined existed—not even within the borders of what my father calls “Satan’s America.” I am thrown into a world of million-dollar parties, of garages packed with Ferraris and Porsches, of beautiful courtesans half-hidden in borrowed diamonds, of vintage wines that render all other drinks acid to your spoilt taste buds. This world which forms a mere portion of Saddam’s empire, an empire immersed in oil and debt. In this world, Uday is the son of a god; his cruelty, his insanity, his thirst for blood, his insatiable lust, they are the reasons they say Baghdad’s palace walls are haunted. Still—it is an irrational thought—but still, for me all this pales, all this fades into an irrelevant background, when compared to what happens to her.
“Uday,” I begin slowly, “Who was that?”
His black eyes light up and he gives me a wide grin.
“A little beauty, mu heichy?” My guts tighten. “She’s a child,” I whisper. Uday waves his hand before my face, his Cartier reflecting the light off the antique chandelier hanging overhead. “Does she look like a jahla to you?”
Horrified, I open my mouth to speak.
“Latif, Latif! Don’t worry, Latif! You can have her when I’m done.”
He lets out a hysterical laugh and begins to make his way to the room.
Panicking, I jog after him, “Uday.”
He doesn’t stop.
“Brother,” I try again, this time grabbing his arm.
Family is sacrifice, and for my
family, my identity is but a small
He hisses at my touch, almost like he’s been branded by one of his own torturing irons. When he turns to face me, however, his eyes register an intrigue at my unusually friendly address. This encourages me.
“Think about this,” I speak hurriedly, “You don’t pray or fast, but you are still a Muslim, are you not? Allah, our Judgment Day, the Quran. I know you believe. You don’t want this child’s blood on your hands. Turn away from the room, Uday. Send the girl home.”
He frowns slightly, seemingly lost in thought.
My heart surges: He is reconsidering!
“Listen to your conscience, Uday. Turn away, brother. Turn away, ya akhooy.”
He looks me in the eye, his expression softening.
“You speak true, Latif.”
Oh God is good!
“But I need your help.”
I continue to grip his arm. “Anything!”
“I know a woman who’d be a good replacement…I just cannot seem to recall her name.” He clicks his fingers, looking away.
I impatiently wait for him to remember the desired prostitute.
“Amany, Asma…” he drawls, “No, no, that’s not it…”
He pauses. “Maybe. ..maybe it was Aida? Oh these women’s names, they all sound so similar!”
My features harden. I release my hold on him.
His charcoal eyes turn cold as he places both hands on either side of my face. “Thank you for your advice, brother. But you must help me decide: twelve-year-old Jameela, or her potential replacement?”
He pats my cheeks. “I thought so.”
Shocked into silence, I watch him walk to the double doors of his room. Just before entering, however, he turns to face me. “It’s on our hands now, Latif. Allah have mercy on us all.”
He gestures for the two guards to open the doors, and with that he is swallowed inside.
I hear the muffled sobs of the girl—they trigger a sickening picture show in my mind.
I rush at the doors, bracing myself for impact. The guards grab my arms and fling me back. I charge again—this time they pin me to the ceramic floor.
“Uday!” I writhe under their grasps. “Uday!”
I struggle in vain.
“Why do you protect him?! Your daughter! She’s young enough to be your daughter! Get off me! Etrekoony! Etrekoony!”
One of the guards speaks, his voice subdued,
“There’s nothing to be done.”
I spit in his face. “God will damn you for this.”
He looks me in the eye, his expression unreadable. “God has nothing to do with it.”
I am thrown in a cell in the palace basement. Uday tells me it is only for show, that I will be released in a few days.
“When dogs no longer fear their master, they will devour him like they do the meat he throws them,” he explains simply before leaving me.
I sit with my back against the damp brick wall, my head resting limply in my hands.
I stay this way for three days.
“Sayedy,” someone whispers.
Startled, I look up at the small face peering in at me from between the bars. What is she doing here? How is she here?
“I came to see you.”
It’s dark but the light from the stairwell is enough for me to see her clearly: Thick locks of panther-black hair and a pair of fathomless dark eyes, all contrasting sharply against a porcelain whiteness we normally associate with the Kurds of the North. She is no longer dressed in her black and yellow school uniform, but in a small, elegant white dress with shoes to match. Her new attire sickens me; it means Uday is extending her visit.
I turn away from the beautiful child. “Don’t be foolish. I do not know you. Go back upstairs.”
“I saw you. I heard you. Even now, you cry for me.”
I speak to the wall. “Go away, you foolish girl. Etrokeeny.”
When she offers no response, I whisper harshly, “I said go! Allah weyach.”
“But don’t you see?” she asks earnestly, “He is with me. Why else would He send you to me?”
My chest tightens; I dare not turn my face to the light. “If God sends no one else, know He has abandoned you.”
“No he has not.” But her voice cracks. She sounds like a child for the first time.
“What do you want from me?” I ask softly.
A tiny sniff, “Baweiny.”
I do not move.
“Look at me,” she repeats, more forcefully.
I turn my tear-stained face towards her.
“I am not asking you for help,” she says quietly.
“But you just—”
“I am asking Uday.”
“Uday,” she echoes, pointing at me. And I understand. It is desperate and insane, but I understand.
I cannot explain the hold this child has over me, but—and although I am aware it will come as a disappointment to many—I must admit my reasons for helping her are far from noble. This story is not one of great epiphanies or beautiful moments of heroic bravery. If I can ascribe my willingness to go through with Jameela’s plan to anything, it would be to desperation; at this point I am like an animal, except I am robbed of that very characteristic which makes an animal what it is: the instinct to survive. She comes to me at a time when I have nothing to lose, when I cannot care less whether I live or die. After Uday so easily threatens me with Aida, I learn that I cannot protect my family. So I leave them to Allah.
Now I understand that for the Jameela-inspired plan to have a fighting chance, I would have to show the world including Uday himself—that my display of defiance on that day had been nothing but the final, desperate kicks of a dying Latif. I would have to come to terms with the fact that, just as Jekyll and Hyde could not both survive in a single form, this body cannot at once sustain both the man I am, and the man I must become. And so I make my choice to sever all ties with the former— the one Saddam once described as “dragging a ton of bricks.” I decide that the next time I “chance” to run into His Excellency, he will no longer find it so easy to spot my burdened back all the way from Abadan. For these reasons, everything Uday throws at me, I embrace: I fuck whomever I am asked to fuck, whip whomever I am ordered to whip—the cook when the meat is not tender enough, the cook when the meat is too tender, the maid when the screams of the cook cease to entertain… Soon enough, I find I can swallow the rising bile in my throat—that vomit which would at first cause me to retch over the ceramic toilet for hours after finishing a day’s beating or rape. But my newfound ability to stop myself from spilling my guts every night is not enough; it is only the day I feel nothing after striking Uday’s limo driver dead, that I decide to tell Jameela I am ready.
“I told Him I was sad and tired, and He said I could come when this is over. I want to go, Latif. Let me.”
I meet her at our hideout in one of the palace gardens—our final meeting before her last night with Uday. I tell her everything is in place; that he is waiting for her upstairs. She nods and holds her bruised arm out for the tiny vial.
“Just one drop is—”
We are silent for a minute before she speaks again. “What about your plan? Are you ready?”
I remain wordless, motionless.
“Will there be a war? Will you let him take my father to Kuwait?”
I allow my eyes to meet her intense gaze. “No.”
She nods, her dark-night curls dancing.
“I will come back for you.”
“No, you will not,” she smiles gently.
I bend down on one knee to level myself with her.
“This is not the time for doubt.”
“I do not doubt you. You will not come back because I do not want you to.”
“You what? Jahla, I do not have time for this foolish talk of—”
She throws her frail arms round my neck. My body stiffens at the foreignness of the gesture. Surprisingly, however, my arms thaw. Slowly, I wrap them around her fragile frame in return. They tighten.
“I spoke to Him,” she whispers in my ear. “I told Him I was sad and tired, and He said I could come when this is over. I want to go, Latif. Let me.”
So I do.
I do not know what that makes me.
That same evening, a man crosses the palace’s main hall in powerful, angry strides. People are hurriedly stepping out of his way, avoiding his gaze. He is in a frightful temper, stopping every now and then to knock something valuable over: a crystal vase, a vintage china plate, a miniature statue. He is cursing, hitting his head with both hands. He climbs the dramatic staircase, three steps at a time.
“Father!” he shouts when he reaches the top. “Baba!”
He heads for the double doors a few feet ahead of him. When the two guards positioned there hesitate, he goes mental. “Open the Goddamn doors or so help me Allah I will rip your fucking guts out! Open them! Open them!”
The armed men shake and mumble a thousand apologies as they hurriedly grant him admission. A middle-aged man stands at the window, his back to the room’s entrance. He sighs before turning to face the madman, eyeing him briefly before addressing him in a bored fashion.
“What is it this time, Uday? Eshbeek?”
The young man’s eyes glint with a sense of accomplishment, his lips curl somewhat. He straightens his back and uses it to gently push the doors shut. The man at the window’s expression changes slightly.
I cannot help but allow myself a small smile now.
“Technically speaking, Your Excellency.”
All artwork is courtesy of Rana Ashraf.