About a week ago I spent a couple of hours watching The House of Saddam, an HBO-BBC miniseries on the rise and fall of that dynasty. You may prefer the term "crime family" to dynasty. Many reviewers remarked that it was like watching a large scale depiction of the Sopranos, where the body-count was in the hundreds of thousands instead of tens.
But that would be to oversimplify things. The Sopranos knew they were crooks. They did not seriously think themselves on the Road to Destiny or possessed of some high purpose. They had some dim understanding of the context in which they lived. They knew what the Law would ignore and what it could not. Saddam on the other hand was cursed by a kind of visionary and murderous mania of the sort but on a smaller scale than that which gripped Hitler. He too had visions of glory, even though the stepping stones to that imagined future were the corpses innumerable of his own people.
Of greater fascination was the dictator's family life and style of living. The series was shot in Tunisia and many of the actors were of Arab descent themselves. The lead actor is in fact in a Communist Jewish Iraqi. Thus, the accidents of life in the Arab penthouse are depicted with passable accuracy, at least to my untrained eye.
There is the penchant for ornate furniture, a superficial attachment to vaguely French aesthetics, the presence of numberless servants and the constant paranoia. It is familiar enough so that the viewer does not feel he is among aliens, but the illusion is periodically broken when a political associate, cousin, brother or lifelong friend is hauled out the door to be shot in the courtyard, the victim waiting for the bullet in an Armani suit.
The alien-ness of that society lies in the very naturalness of it all, where prestige, family honor and a kind of twisted manliness are all-important; where you go to a tailor, as Saddam did before he was hanged, so that you can go the gallows in style.
It was a self-referential world in which Saddam and his inner circle gradually came to believe that they had unlimited power. With each rung they climbed on the ladder of power, the dictator and his coterie became increasingly convinced of their invincibility, probably because of the pile of Armani-suited bodies they had already accumulated in the courtyard. And gradually the audience begins to notice that the Saddams start to take risks which were, objectively speaking, insane. Drunk with success, they thought they could conquer Iran and get away with it. They tried to take Kuwait in the belief that the Emir's "powerful friends" were too chicken to protect him. They are astounded when their Republican Guard Divisions, their army and their might in which they held such stock turns out to have the resistance of cardboard to the laser-like US Forces. They wait, befuddled and puzzled by the annihilation of their forces in Desert Storm for the Ameriki to come busting into Baghdad and shoot them in the courtyard in their tailored suits.
When they do not, their audacity returns again. The Ameriki have been held back by Allah! How else to explain it. And momentarily it is back to their games. Back to the taunting, the massacres, the illusion. But they have learned something. Desert Storm has traumatized them and made them understand that there is no standing up to the US Armed Forces in open battle.
So at the start of the final episode, when Saddam watches, incredulous, as the thing he never believed would happen -- a full scale invasion -- occurs there is no bravado. There is only the determination to go underground and wait the Ameriki out. The director then follows the trajectory of Saddam and his family from their opulent palaces to bolt holes. It traces the fall of Lucifer into hell. But each former Exalted One suffers a separate fate. Uday and Qusay who were born into wealth and power, are unable to adapt to the fugitive existence. They cannot unlearn their abusive and lordly ways, never having known any other and thus must stay close to middle class neighborhoods in cities where they can shelter in homes with indoor plumbing and possibly air-conditioning.
Outside are the strange Americans.
The Ameriki themselves are never closely depicted except as some kind of unstoppable force of nature. They are just blurred faces on armored bodies festooned with Stars Wars equipment, seen as Saddam saw them: implacable, oddly obsessed legions. The Americans are not human like the Arabs. They do not seem prone to the wild outbursts of cruelty and generosity of Arab strongmen. Instead they act wire-guided, operating to a meticulous procedure set down by men in Washington who have trivial concerns and speak in gibberish. Real force doing the bidding of unreal men.
Thus, when the 101st Airborne appears outside of Uday's window, all the former tokens of the princeling's murderous power seem oddly toylike. His pistol and assault rifle, his suitcase of cash which in previous episodes struck fear into the hearts of his underlings, are now just pathetic and useless implements against the Airborne Infantry who are going to crush him without even breaking into a sweat and go back to base for some potato chips and cola. Uday's last stand is a contest between a desperate wolf and a D11 bulldozer. The anxiety is all on the one side. There is no dramatic uncertainty, only pathos.
Saddam on the other hand is depicted, probably accurately, as actually gaining in character during his time on the run. Shorn of his power, the old murderer reacquires something of the romantic magnificence of his youth, making allowances of course, for his homicidal tendencies. We see him cunningly hide in shacks, blending in with the scenery, evading more cleverly than we ourselves might have done yet certain that it is to no avail. For no human can withstand the Ameriki and Saddam is just a man.
So when his bodyguard fails to return from a trip to town one day and the lights go out, we know the jig is up. The camera looks into the darkness and the viewer knows that as night follows day, the inhuman is out there. The audiences watches as Saddam dives into a hole in the ground and his retainers run for the river. In any other time since the world began the flight into the reeds of the river would have succeeded. But not against the night vision systems, the orbiting thermal sensors and the networked battle space of the Ameriki. His underlings are effortlessly found. They might as well not have bothered running. Saddam's hiding place is discovered by the sheer thoroughness of the Americans. How could it be otherwise? And the House of Saddam has fallen.
One scene in particular struck me: when Saddam's wife watching TV from Damascus saw the bodies of her two sons paraded on TV. She cried "Syria cannot protect us! They can cross the border and take us!" It was a reminder of what I was told in Lebanon; how in the 2003 even the Assads trembled, until they found, as Saddam found during Desert Storm that the strange Ameriki would not cross the border because it said so on a piece of paper.
That bifurcation of worlds is the enduring message of the series. 'Here' it says, 'is are two universes that can never understand each other. The calculus of the Arabs does not work with America nor vice-versa.'
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat
Was Kipling right? For now perhaps. But perhaps one day God will get around to making a conference call and East and West may understand; at least they will exchange Skype names.