On my recent trip to Iraq, I met a man whose tales of woe were spectacular even by local standards. Riyadh al-Obeid was a former army officer, who, like most others in Saddam’s forces, took the sensible decision to desert rather than fight during the US invasion. A year later, though, he was imprisoned by the Americans for 18 months on suspicion of being an insurgent after a pistol was found during a search of his house. Then, upon his release, he was kidnapped not once, but twice, the first time by Sunni militants, the second time by their Shia rivals. On both occasions, a ransom bought his freedom. Still, he counts himself as a lucky man. Luckier, anyway, than his cousin, he said, who was abducted along with 13 other men in 2007 and summarily beheaded.
When I included Mr Obeid’s account in a recent report, one or two colleagues asked how I dug up such a remarkable tale of misery. Had some human rights organisation found him for me? Or was it a follow-up from some Iraqi newspaper, perhaps? In fact there was no real journalistic endeavour involved: he was the product of an entirely random “vox pop” interview in a shop in Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit. More to the point, he wasn’t that unusual in Iraqi terms. Such has been the scale of suffering over the years, both before the invasion and afterwards, that nearly every Iraqi you meet has some spectacular story to tell, if not involving them personally then a close relative or friend. The unfortunate Mr al-Obeid was merely at the extreme end of the spectrum. They are the tea house tales to beat all others – and a modern-day Scheherazade could easily compile a new version of A thousand and One Nights from them. A couple of the more memorable ones that have come my way from Iraq over the years are below. I can’t vouch 100 per cent for the veracity of them, but then again, that is true of every story I have ever heard from Iraq.
“SAVED BY MY MOTHER’S CAKES”
Sa’ad Albier was a restaurateur whose family run an Italian eaterie and bakery in Baghdad. Their cakes are famous in their neighbourhood. After the war, Mr Albier was kidnapped twice – the first time for ransom, the second time by a jihadist gang who accused him of being a spy. Having put him handcuffed in a room full of corpses, a “Sharia court” declared him guilty and then sentenced him to death by beheading. Then, as the gang approached him with a sword and a plastic bag to put his head in, he noticed one of them staring at him in an odd way. The man looked vaguely familiar.
“Your family run the bakery on al Arasat St, don’t they?” the man said.
“I remember you. You and I were in a barracks together during military service in Saddam’s time. I never had much to eat, and you used to give me the cakes that your mother would send in. We are going to spare your life, because of your mother’s generosity.”
And so it was. True, he didn’t get off entirely free – the gang then demanded a ransom of $70,000. But Mr Albier himself swears that the cakes saved his life.
“I THOUGHT I WAS A GHOST”
Abdul Rahim was a hospital worker who was among 3,000 Iraqi Shias who were rounded up by Saddam’s army in the southern town of Hilla after the failed Shia uprising of 1991.
The men were blindfolded, put on buses in groups, driven out to fields outside the city, then forced into hastily bulldozed pits where machinegunners opened up on them at point-blank range. Somehow, though, none of the hail of bullets hit Mr Rahim, and he ended up lying dazed but alive underneath a pile of about 50 corpses. The hit squad were supposed to check that everyone was well and truly dead and then bulldoze the pit to cover it up. But even Saddam’s men didn’t like hanging around after such war crimes, and they panicked and fled. Mr Rahim waited till nightfall, then clambered out, covered in everyone’s blood but his own, unable to believe his luck.
Then, as he staggered through the nearby fields, he began to wonder. How could anyone have survived something like that? Was he really actually alive? Or was he just a ghost wandering around, trying to finds his way to the afterlife? Given the circumstances, the illogical answer seemed like the logical one. He became all the more convinced when he wandered into a nearby village to seek help. The locals had all either fled or were hiding in their homes, and he was met instead by a pack of snarling dogs who attacked him.
“Because nobody had came out from the houses, I thought maybe I was just a dead spirit, and that only the dogs could sense me,” he told me.
“Eventually, I took a coin out of my pocket and bit on it hard to see if I could feel pain. I could, and only then did I begin to realise I might still be alive.”
When I met Mr Rahim in December 2003, shortly after Saddam Hussein’s capture, he was hoping to give evidence against him at his war crimes trial. Whether he ever did, I have no idea – I have never heard of him since. Sadly, after nearly ten subsequent years of violence, it is quite possible that like so many other Iraqis, his luck may have run out some other day instead. The majority of tales in any new version of A Thousand and One Nights would not have happy endings.
Colin Freeman, who was based in Baghdad as a freelance journalist between 2003 and 2005, returned to the Iraqi capital last month to report on how life has changed. This blog is one of a series. His book about living in Iraq is The Curse of the Al Dulaimi Hotel and other half-truths from Baghdad.