Monday, November 28, 2005

Defiant Saddam

"Peace be upon the people of peace," were the first words Saddam Hussein spelled as he walked into the court room in Baghdad's Green Zone in the second session of his trial over the killing of 148 Shiite Muslims in a town north of Baghdad. Although his seven co-defendants appeared tired and nervous, he was the only one wearing a western suite and looking strong. Like the first session on October 19, 2005, when Saddam began his statements with an argument with chief judge about who chose him to head this court and refused to identify himself saying there isn't a person in Iraq who doesn't know him, the former president complained that he was brought into the court building Monday hand cuffed and in shackles. The bearded Saddam also complained that the elevator was not working and had to walk up the stairs. This is Saddam Hussein, who until April 9, 2003, the day he was removed from power by a U.S.-led no Iraqi dared to refer to him but as "Mr. President Saddam Hussein may God protect him." Now Saddam is told by the judge that he is not supposed to talk unless it is his turn to do so or not to move without being accompanied by policemen. The former leader's trial has also divided Iraqis with many Shiites and Kurds saying he does not deserve to be treated well after what he did during his 1979-2003 rule and should be executed following a quick trial while many of the country's Sunni Arab community, which he belongs to, say he is still the legitimate president of the country.
But Saddam, carrying a copy of the Quran, stood Monday and complained to the judge how foreign soldiers took his pen and papers from him before entering the court room. When the chief judge told Saddam "I will alert them," the former president said "Mr. chief judge I don't want you to alert them. I want you to order them. You are on a sovereign land. You are an Iraqi and they are foreigners. They are invaders. You should order them."
The trial this time was different from last time. Two members of the defense team were assassinated, and a third fled the country with his family. But there was also three new faces among the defense team on top of them former American Attorney General Ramsey Clark, former Qatari Minister of Justice Najib al-Nuemi and Jordanian lawyer Issam Ghazzawi. For years Ramsey Clark was an anti-war activist in the United States and visited Iraq several times when the country was under crippling U.N. sanctions imposed after Saddam invaded in August 1990. Neither Saddam no his seven co-defedants in the case of the town of Dujail in 1982 when security agencies killed 148 people following an assassination attempt against the leader, spoke much Monday. The court showed two videos, one taken shortly after the assassination attempt showing Saddam giving orders to his men to detain several people, while the other is of a witness who died last month but his testimony was taped before. Waddah al-Sheik made his comments in a Baghdad hospital while sitting on a wheel chair and looking very weak. He died of cancer after the testimony. Saddam's half brother Barzan Ibrahim, who was chief of intelligence in 1982, complained that he was suffering from cancer and the court was not allowing him to leave the country for treatment abroad. "This is an indirect killing," Barzan told the judge.
It is not clear for how long the trial will go on for but whenever it ends Saddam still has about a dozen trials to stand for killing thousands of people.
On the first day of the trial last month, Saddam said "I am not guilty."
It was adjourned until Monday, December 5, 2005.

Baghdad Monday November 28, 2005

Monday, November 21, 2005

Death of a Great Director

I was nine years old in 1977 when my mother took me and my elder brother, Hassan, to watch a movie that everybody in town was talking about. "Al-Risala" or "The Message," the movie that tells the story of Islam. We went to the newly-opened Monte Carlo cinema in Beirut's Hamra street where we saw the three-hour movie and I loved it so much that I watched it several times afterward. That day I not only saw the movie but discovered during the intermission something that I have never seen in my life before. I went into the W.C. and after washing my hands couldn't find napkins to dry my hands. Instead I saw people drying their hands with a machine that blows hot air. It was the first time I used a hand dryer. A week later I heard that my aunt and cousin were going to watch Al-Risala so I imposed myself on them and watched it again. Years later I saw the English version of the movie that was starred by Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas.
The movie was the work of famous Syrian international director Mustafa Akkad whose death earlier this month along with his daughter, Rima, in the Jordanian capital of Amman was a shock for many people, not only in the Arab world but in the West as well.
Mustafa Akkad happened to be at Amman's Grand Hyatt when a suicide attacker wearing an explosive belt detonated himself in the lobby on Wednesday Nov. 9, 2005.
Al-Risala was his first international work and later he did "Halloween" and "Lion of the Desert," that tells the story of Arab rebel leader Omar al-Mukhtar who fought Italian occupation of Libya in the 1930s.
Akkad was born in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo in 1935 and studied there until he finished secondary school. He left Syria to the United States in 1954 to study filmmaking and graduated from UCLA four years later. Speaking about leaving Syria, Akkad said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times four years ago: "When I was 18, I came to the airport to leave. My father said goodbye and put $200 in one pocket and a copy of the Koran in the second pocket. 'That's all I can give you."
On Friday Nov. 11, Akkad passed away in a Jordanian hospital two days after being seriously wounded.
In 1988 I saw a comedy called Free Ride and it made me laugh so much. I found out years later that it was produced by Akkad.
Akkad passed away before being able to produce a film that tells the story of Saladin from an Arab point of view.
The great director will always be remembered as the man who told the West the story of Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Another Bloody Day

It was 8:15 a.m. on Friday Nov. 18, when I was woken up by a strong boom. Seconds later another explosion reverberated. I stayed in bed and convinced myself that they were two mortar rounds that are common in Baghdad. I went to bed too late the night before. At about 9:30 a.m. I was out and the moment I saw a colleague of mine I told him, hopefully it will be a quiet day. "What?" he answered. "There had already been two large explosions."
Hardly a day passes in this country without an explosion or shooting that kill or wound a number of people. The target Friday was a Baghdad hotel used by foreign journalists. A security camera showed how the events went. A car passes through a street leading to the Hamra hotel then gets close to the blast wall surrounding the it. Seconds later, the suicide attacker driving the car detonates the vehicle. A man who happened to be passing in the street looked at the car as it crossed him. He was for sure killed in the blast for he was too close. Seconds later, another vehicle tries to pass through a hole in the blast wall created by the explosion of the first car but also detonates outside the hotel. The attack left at least six people dead and dozens wounded all of them Iraqis living nearby. Large part of a nearby building collapsed.
Around midday, news start coming from the eastern Iraqi town of Khanaqin. Two men wearing explosive belts detonated themselves in the middle of worshipers in two Shiite Muslim mosques killing some 75 people and leaving scores others injured. One of the explosions was so strong that part of the mosque collapsed. Several hours after the blasts rescue workers were still trying to pull bodies buried under the debris.
My plan was to go out in the afternoon for a tour in Baghdad that day but got too busy with work. My walk in some of Baghdad's streets few days ago was not that great. I went out with my friend Q but we seem to have gone out in the wrong time. As we walked, dozens of Iraqi soldiers, many of them wearing black masks, cordoned an area of about one square kilometer and prevented people from entering it. Iraqis seem to have become used to such events. As the soldiers closed the area, young girls wearing dark blue school uniforms walked home without noticing the danger. We asked some soldiers what was going on but got no answer. "Maybe they have a tip that a suicide attacker is planning to strike," Q said. We continued the walk and crossed on one of the bridges of the Tirgis river and headed to the office.
At about 2 a.m. Saturday I went to bed wondering whose last day today will be.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Another Trip to Iraq

It was Saturday Nov. 5, 2005 and I was getting ready to go to the airport
on my 11th trip to Iraq in the past three years. Packed and ready to go,
Hussein picked me up and drove south toward Beirut's Rafik Hariri
International Airport. I walk inside and take a look. Ohhhhh nooooooooo. It
is packed with hundreds of people who spent Eid al-Fitr that marks the end
of Ramadan in Beirut and were heading back now. Took my boarding pass half
an hour later and waited for MEA's flight to Amman. Some 45 minutes later we
land in the Jordanian capital and Mohammed is waiting for me. During the 30-minute trip from the airport to the hotel, Mohammed, a chain smoker, burnt at least three cigarettes. As I walk in the man on the front desk looks at me with a big fake smile on his face. "Welcome. Hope you had a good trip." I reply with a
smile and give him my passport. The man types on the keyboard, then look at
me and say: "This is the 10th time you stay at our hotel. I will give you a
no smoking room." Shortly afterward I met my friend Hamza, who I haven't
seen in nine months and was heading to Cairo. A brief chat with him about Baghdad and his three kids then he heads to the airport.
ΒΆ On Sunday morning, Mohammed again picked me up from the hotel and took me
to Amman's Queen Alia Airport to take Royal Jordanian flight 814 to the
Iraqi capital. An hour after taking off, we were over Baghdad. The Tigris
river can be seen cutting the city into an eastern part known as Risafa and
Karkh on the west side. "We will be landing shortly," the pilot said while
turning over the airport. Unlike the normal landings done around the world,
pilots flying over the Iraqi capital have to take into consideration
possible fire or rockets by insurgents. A sharp descend begins in spiraling
turns until we land at Baghdad Airport that used to be called Saddam
International Airport until April 2003.
I take my bags and head out where R is waiting. "How is the situation
these days?" I asked. "Well same as it was when you were last here," he
replied. "Oh no. The last time I was here there were many explosions, shootings and assassinations. We then headed to the central Saadoun street in the world's most
dangerous city. After a short drive we reach a white sign on the right side
of the road that reads in red: "You are leaving a secure area." On our left
side stood the statue of Abbas Ibn Firnas, extending his hands covered with
feathers. Ibn Firnas is the Muslim physician who tried to fly in Andalusia
in 875 A.D. by wearing a suit of feathers.
A bit later, R suddenly stops. From a distance we can see U.S. troops
blocking the road the cuts through the Furat neighborhood so he turns left
heading north where we get stuck in terrible traffic near the Zawra Garden
where hundreds of children wearing their new uniforms for the Eid played at
the Luna Park. Near this garden, a massive bronze statue of Saddam Hussein extending his right hand used to stand but was brought down hours after his fall in 2003. An hour later we reached the hotel where I and my bags got searched three times before reaching my room. As I left my room one of my colleague walked toward me extending his right hand.
"Welcome to paradise," he said then burst into laughter.