Coming Face to Face With Little Saddam
Traveling in the Republic of Yemen where most of the weapon-laden natives spend the day completely stoned on a green leaf called gat, curse life and blame the West for everything, is surely a strange way to spend a vacation.
A Sultan’s palace with the Harem quarters turned into hotel rooms is the present day Taj Talah Hotel. During the two months I called it home, the hotel housed an assortment of characters usually found only in spy novels.
In the courtyard restaurant news updates on the latest developments in the Middle East were announced, and personal views unleashed. A couple of Sudanese merchants, who recently lost their livelihood due to Osama Bin Laden, spat on the floor, “Osama! Yikhreb beitak! May your house fall down!”
The hotel was run by Ali, nicknamed Little Saddam, an Iraqi gun dealer in exile. Little Saddam controlled each corner of the hotel, including us, the guests. In the garden restaurant, mysterious Iraqi business men in black suits with bulging briefcases huddled together whispering.
Next to them, a group of bright-eyed archaeologists excitedly discussed the possibility of discovering the eighth wonder of the world. In the lobby, forlorn French and German aid workers contemplated their fate after being expelled from Iraq. Important notebook wielding journalists, in their latest Banana Republic fashions and short attention spans, ordered Little Saddam to fix the fax machine, pronto. Furious, the writers’ elite cornered him behind the reception desk. Didn’t he understand that the world was counting on their every word? They threatened him. The American was going to call his Senator to send the Navy. The Englishman was going to call the Queen herself. Little Saddam was unimpressed. “And what are you going to do? Call your President?” he sneered at me. “Give me dollars and I will fax it for you.” Sometimes he did.
Relief workers arrived daily in shiny white Toyota Land Cruisers. They filled the lobby with an air of “we’re here to save the world.” A French Algerian, gay artist, unwelcome in either country, was looking for asylum in Yemen. “I am homeless, and soon I will be a man without a country,” he cried. Little Saddam put his arm around him, “If you stop your whining, I will take you to Baghdad. We can fight the Christian dogs together.”
When Little Saddam realized that I was the only guest without any humanitarian, political, or journalistic purposes he became suspicious. This resulted in an “interrogation” on the roof garden. “What is your reason for being here?” I shrugged my shoulders. “Why don’t I throw you off the roof as dessert for the wild dogs down below? In Baghdad you would talk,” he said knowingly.
One day, Little Saddam put up a sign on the kitchen door. “Western tourists are not allowed in the kitchen.” We demanded an explanation. “It is necessary because, first you take over the kitchen, then the hotel, and then…the whole country.”
Marching up and down the hallways of the hotel, he knocked on the door of every guest who had left their keys on the outside. “Please remove your key,” he demanded. “Why?” I asked. It is better that way; ‘They’ make copies of them.” Before I could ask who was collecting the keys, he was already busy knocking on the next door. “Do not burn incense in my hotel, I hate the smell,” Little Saddam growled.
We complained about Little Saddam to the hotel management. The management laughed. “He is nothing, he is just the receptionist. He is your servant.” On the contrary, I think we are his servants,” I said.
Little Saddam would entertain new groups of foreigners with stories of life in Baghdad. One brother was under permanent house arrest, possibly tortured. His family members were begging for asylum all over the world. And, in order to get this job, he had to hand over his passport to the hotel management. “I am now a prisoner here, who is responsible for this?” Plagued with Western guilt, foreigners opened their wallets and begged Little Saddam to take their dollars, euros and pounds.
One morning, Little Saddam told a captivating crowd of foreigners that when ha had to flee Iraq his friends bought him several diplomas a going away present, forged by Egyptians, the best and most expensive in the world. “What other diplomas do you have?” I asked. Sharing time was over.
“Please do not hang out of the window with you bare arms showing. I forbid it. Not in my hotel,” he shouted at the women leaning out of the hotel windows. In his spare time Little Saddam peddled antique guns to unsuspecting tourists. He knew that they would be confiscated at the airport and find their way back to his room at the hotel; the Little Palace of Baghdad. Finally, Little Saddam found a way to get even with the Western world.
Before leaving Yemen, I just had to know. “Do you have a medical diploma?” I asked. “You want to see the one from Baghdad or Switzerland? I’m going to miss you American, maybe I will see you there.”
Up date: A postcard arrived from Holland. “Greetings from Amsterdam! See you, Ali, Little Saddam.
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