Rant Number 332 18 December 2008
In the bad old days, when Saddam Hussein’s iron hand ruled Iraq, the Sufis of Baghdad delighted in telling, sotto voce, the following story. About a wealthy and talkative chap called Zein al Abidin. This Zein would spend plenty of time in the maqhat, the coffee shops, chatting with friends. A great grumbler, his favourite line was: ‘If only I was Saddam for a day, I would know how to fix that…If I was Saddam for a day I would do this and that… If I was Saddam for a day, this would not happen…’ and so on. It was his constant refrain and quickly became his trademark. ‘Look! Here comes “Saddam for day”’ people would mutter, indulgently. True, occasionally someone wondered whether it was wise of our hero to take Saddam’s name in vain ever so often but…it did not seem to matter.
At last, however, Zein Al Abidin’s name reached the ears of the dreadful leader. His spies had informed him about the eccentric fellow who went around repeating the ‘if I was Saddam for day’ line all the time, like a mantra. Now, you have to realise how people today are rather unfair to Saddam Hussein. They assume a tyrant, qua tyrant, is a monster, a kind of embodiment of evil and therefore he must of necessity lack all virtue. Actually, Saddam not only had a sense of humour – though one would never quite know how he would take things – he was also a reader of books. That is why he, unlike Zein Al Abidin, knew an old Greek story about Damocles. Yes, he of ‘Damocles’ sword’ fame. About the citizen of Syracuse famous for always mouthing the words ‘if I was Dionysus for a day…’ Dionysus being of course the feared tyrant of the city of Syracuse, in Sicily. Saddam’s remote forerunner, so to speak. Dionysus too was told of Damocles’ voluble line. And he too was humorous. So he had Damocles summoned to his palace. When Damocles one morning stood before him, feeling somewhat apprehensive, Dionysus reassured him. ‘Be not afraid, my friend. Today is your lucky day. I have decided to fulfil your wish. I have given strict orders to my men to act as if you were me for the whole of today. They will obey your commands. You can start right now. This is when Dionysus has his breakfast. Come and eat.’
Damocles felt as pleased as punch. That was beyond his wildest dreams. So he was about to tuck into the delicious food spread before him when he saw a huge, sharp scimitar hanging by a thread several feet exactly above his head. ‘You are out to kill me!’ the wretched fellow shouted to Dionysus, dashing off his seat.
‘Not at all’ Dionysus said, equably. ‘Did you not wish to live my life for a day? This is it. There are innumerable people out there seeking my life. Even my innumerable spies cannot spot them all. So my life – the life of a tyrant – hangs by a thread every single moment I breathe. Like the thread from which the sword is suspended over you. Remember: if you really want to be Saddam for day, you must get used to living like that.’
Charming tale. One Saddam liked very much. (I told you he did have a sense of humour.) You will understand how then he ordered Zein Al Abidin to be taken before him. The rest you can imagine. It played out like in Damocles’ case. Well, the sword was replaced by a ticking bomb. Saddam thought that more realistic in this day and age. But the upshot was the same. Zein Al Abidin got the point. He eventually emerged free from the tyrant’s palace, shaking in his boots but still unharmed and somewhat chastened.
End of the tale? Not quite. Thus far the natural. Now enters the supernatural - perhaps. As Zein walked home, a stranger drew alongside him and went with him. Looked like a dapper Baghdadi gentleman. Voluble Zein, still not believing his luck in being alive, could not resist sharing his adventure with the stranger. So he belted out the whole story. The stranger calmly listened in silence. Then he observed: ‘Interesting. You had a close shave. I agree a tyrant’s life is precarious. He is in danger every minute. Assassins seek his life at all times. Hanging by a thread indeed! But that is only part of the story. You see, in a sense, so is everybody’s life.’
Zein could not get it. ‘Why…what do you mean?’
‘I mean that it is the same thing with each one of us. The bomb that was ticking under your seat…it is ticking away under each human being. Anybody’s soul could be required of him tonight. This very day.’
The stranger paused. Zein stared at him. He took in the moist eyes, the gap between his front teeth, the tiny mole on his cheek, the red lips.
‘If I told you have a cancer growing in your body, a cancer that will kill you in three months, that would concentrate your mind wonderfully, wouldn’t it?’
‘This is unreal’ Zein thought, now distinctly uncomfortable. ‘You could not possibly know that’ he answered, pretending a confidence he did not really feel.
‘No. It is only an example. But let me tell you something you know to be true. You have stashed away five million dollars in a Swiss bank account, haven’t you?’ Zein’s heart almost stopped. Who was that stranger? How could he know? Surely another of Saddam’s fiendish tricks. He had only pretended to let him go, in order to kill him later…
‘Relax. I am not one of the tyrant’s henchmen’ the fellow gazed at him with sustained intensity. ‘Indeed, he would murder me, if he could. Many of his predecessors have tried. My point is the same my brother Jesus once made in the Ingil, the Gospel. He once told a parable about a man like you. A rich man who cared only for his possessions. One who built large stores for his immense wealth. Until Jesus told him that very night his life was going to be forfeit and his riches, who was going to enjoy them? Of course, wealth isn’t the only fault that keeps people from God. There are many other things. God knows the secrets of everybody’s heart. All our lives depend totally on the bounty and will of God. He can cut the thread holding the sword over your head, or ignite the bomb under your seat, take your pick. He does that whenever He wishes, sins or not sins. Bad men and good men alike. How many good people have died early and tragically just like bad people? God alone knows. Because God alone decides.’
Zein decided in desperation he was dreaming. So he might as well dream on. ‘Your brother Jesus? You mean the Prophet Jesus? You speak to him, do you?’
‘Yes. And we play chess too…’ the man’s words trailed off. Zein noticed a police car driving past. For a moment he feared Saddam had changed his mind, he was having him arrested. But the car drove past. With immense relief, he turned back to speak at the stranger by his side. He saw he was gone.
The adepts in the tarikat, the mystical fraternities of Baghdad, spent much time debating the maning of this story. Who was the stranger? the Mahdi? The Awaited One? The restorer of Islam in the last days? Or a wag? Or one of Saddam's agents provocateurs? Or Zein's shadow? His unconscious self, maybe?
You decide, o reader.
Revd Frank Julian Gelli