Ghosts Of A Dictatorship: Visiting Saddam Hussein’s Palaces

Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
The name “Babylon” brings up two associations – that of an ancient city in Iraq, and of a place of sin and decadence. It’s only fitting then that Saddam Hussein erected one of his palaces on a hill overlooking the ancient site of Babylon.

This is only one of 70 such palaces, many built during the UN sanctions while Saddam’s people were short on food and medicine. Many Iraqis complained the sanctions did nothing to hurt the dictator, and this Babylon-on-a-hill seems proof of that.

Saddam had palaces in every corner of the country, and this one and another I visited in Basra are both opulent, even though they’ve been stripped of everything even remotely valuable, even the wiring. They were once fitted with the finest rugs and gilded furniture. There are rumors that there were solid gold toilets.

These empty, echoing shells are the only thing left of a huge cult of personality. Saddam’s face used to be everywhere. Statues stood at every intersection, giant murals decorated every neighborhood. He was a constant presence in the media. Saddam used to joke that if an Iraqi family’s TV broke, all they had to do was tape a poster of him on the screen. Now there are only empty plinths and whitewashed walls, and the Iraqis watch satellite channels from Europe and Dubai.

You’ll have a hard time finding Iraqis who will say anything good about Saddam Hussein. Even those who hated the sanctions, bombings and eventual invasion are glad he’s gone. Of all the people I talked to in my 17 days here I only found two guys, workers in a roadside tea stand, had something positive to say about his rule.

“In Saddam’s time Iraq was strong. Now it’s weak,” they said.

True enough as far as it goes, but Saddam’s megalomania was what brought Iraq to ruin and the vast majority of Iraqis understand this. During his reign everyone pretended to love him, because to act otherwise was to court death. In their hearts, though, they hated him. It must have galled the Iraqis to see his image everywhere, and to think about the treasures that filled his palaces.

All those treasures are gone now, except for one sad reminder of a pot-bellied dictator and his limitless greed. In a dark side room on the second story of the Babylon palace, I came across the shattered bowl of a gold-painted toilet. Not solid gold, sadly, just gold paint. Must have been the guest bathroom. It was good enough for me. I’d been in the bus for a long time and there was no other bathroom available so …

%Gallery-171444%Yeah, baby!!!!! Gadling dumps on the dictatorship!

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Beer run in Basra!”

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Shameless bottom photo taken by a laughing Per Steffensen. He was laughing with me, not at me. Really.]

Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism

Syria unrest: will there be another massacre in Hama?

Syria, Hama, Syria unrestSyrian army tanks ‘moving towards Hama’.

Just another headline about unrest in the Middle East. I’ve read so many, but this one made me shudder. One thing travel does for you is make the world more than just a headline. I’ve been to Hama.

I visited Syria back in 1994 as a young college graduate with a backpack, a bit of Arabic, and no responsibilities. I spent a month exploring archaeological sites, chatting in smoky cafes, and debating religion in the cool shade of mosque courtyards. Syria is a fascinating and welcoming place, and if the regime of Bashar al-Assad gets ousted and peace returns, I highly recommend you go.

I marveled at the beautiful Umayyad Mosque in Damascus before going to a nearby cafe to listen to a hakawati, a traditional storyteller, recite his tales to a rapt audience. I looked out over the green hills of Lebanon from the turrets of Crac des Chevaliers castle and took a dusty bus ride to the oasis of Palmyra. And for two days I stayed in Hama to see the famous noria, or waterwheels, as seen here in this Wikimedia Commons photo.

There was something strange about Hama. It was supposed to be an old city yet most of the buildings looked new. Plus the tourist map on the wall of my hotel lobby was wrong. I’d copied parts of it into my notebook to help me get around but soon found the names of the streets had changed. Even their layout had changed. It was like a map of a different city.

Then I saw the same map in the lobby of another hotel, and in an antique shop. One night I asked the manager what was going on. He looked around to make sure nobody was within earshot and whispered, “This map shows Hama before the massacre.”I’d heard of that. The Muslim Brotherhood had been fighting against the Syrian government for several years and Hama was their main base. They attacked government targets and the government hauled away anyone who seemed suspicious. Most victims were innocent people caught in the crossfire.

One night in 1982 a Syrian army patrol discovered the local Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and a firefight broke out. The Brotherhood called for a general uprising. Fighting flared up all over the city. Hafez al-Assad, then Prime Minister and father of the current Prime Minister, ordered the armed forces to surround Hama. The air force dropped bombs while tanks and artillery shelled the city. Then the troops went in, shooting anything that moved. Nobody knows how many people died. Estimates range from 10,000 to 40,000, and all sources agree that most were civilians.

Now the Syrian army is moving towards Hama again. The son is continuing the work of his father.

This morning I flipped through my old travel diary, reliving the time I spent in Hama and Syria: the conversations, the hikes, the sense of wonder of a young man on his first year-long travel adventure. One thing that struck me was that of all the Syrians that diary mentions, none of them have entirely faded from my memory.

I remember the kindly old man who nursed me back to health after my first bad case of food poisoning. And the artist who drew a sketch of me that I still have. Then there was that wisecracking tailor who changed money at black market rates, building a nest egg of hard currency for reasons he’d never divulge. And the metalheads who introduced me to Syria’s underground music scene. It’s strange to think of those headbangers as forty-something fathers, but I suppose, like me, they are.

Or maybe they’ve been slaughtered.

None of those people liked the regime. The business owners hung a picture of Hafez al-Assad on the walls, just like they have a picture of Bashar nowadays. In a dictatorship that’s the price of doing business. But once the customers left and it was just us in a back room chatting over tea, their voices would lower and they’d complain about how the al-Assad family had a stranglehold on power.

The metalheads were louder in their protests and suffered regular police harassment. Since even their concerts were illegal they felt they had nothing to lose. They wanted to live life the way they chose. A few beatings and nights in jail was the price of a few hours of freedom.

I traveled all over the Middle East back then–Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Palestine, Iran–and heard the same stories of frustration and anger in dozens of cities. The only thing that surprised me about the so-called Arab Revolution of 2011 was that it took so long.

In some places it’s succeeded; in Syria it looks like it will fail. Syria doesn’t have much oil so besides a few feeble sanctions, it’s doubtful the West will do much. Bashar al-Assad will imprison or kill anyone who speaks out against him and the protests will be suppressed.

Hama may be leveled again. Thousands may die–they may already be dying–and the city destroyed. After a time new shops and new hotels will open. Their owners will grit their teeth and hang a photo of Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad behind the counter. Then, I hope, they’ll pull out a worn old map of Hama the way it looked before 1982, and hang it right next to him.

Exhibition explores Germany’s relationship with Hitler

More than sixty years after the end of World War Two, Germans are still struggling with their Nazi past. While most of the population is too young to be culpable for World War Two, their parents or grandparents were involved. Many Germans opposed Hitler’s rise to power, but many more supported him, at least in the beginning.

A new exhibition at Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum explores the German people’s relationship with Hitler. Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime brings together a wide range of artifacts and documents showing how Nazism came to dominate every part of German life. Hitler was everywhere–on postage stamps, magazine covers, even toys–and the Nazi party sought to have its ideology permeate every aspect of life.

During the 1920s the German economy was in ruins after losing the First World War and getting caught up in a global economic crisis. In his early speeches Hitler called on Germans to be proud, and blamed Germany’s loss in the First World War on Jews, socialists, and other “foreign elements”. Hitler became even more popular when he got into power and revived the economy. People who suddenly had good jobs after years of hardship and pessimism turned a blind eye to the regime’s seamier side.

Doing an exhibition on Nazism is tricky in Germany and some earlier attempts have been rejected by the police. It’s illegal to display the swastika except in a scientific or historical context, and the common fear is that any exhibition on Hitler will attract neo-Nazis. So far this exhibition has been well received and there have been no incidents.

Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime runs until 6 February 2011.

[Photo courtesy user Professional Assassin via Wikimedia Commons]

Sean Penn on Hugo Chavez: “He is clearly not a dictator by any international standard”

Say the name “Hugo Chavez” and a creepy tingle crawls up my back and, if I could, I would scream at the top of my lungs in frustration and anger. Hugo Chavez, Venezuela‘s long-standing President, is what many Americans believe to be an evil, socialist dictator. While I certainly don’t agree with ultra-Conservatives like Pat Roberts that someone should kill the guy, I do believe Chavez needs to be stopped in seeking re-election until 2021 and beyond.

On the other side of the spectrum is Sean Penn’s humane approach to and interview with Chavez. In an interview that was recently posted on The Nation, Penn describes his time with Chavez since their first meeting in 2006.

I am a huge fan of Sean Penn as an actor, but his humanitarian resumé is rather brief. Penn seems to paint an awfully positive picture of the Venezuelan President in some ways because he is trying to disapprove of the Conservatives’ (on Fox News, for instance) extreme dislike of Chavez.

While my own opinion of Chavez is rather biased because of my time in Colombia and approval of Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s President, whom Chavez once called “Bush’s poodle,” I still cannot see how anyone — particularly an outspoken actor turned interviewer — can be even the slightest bit approving of a man who supports terrorists and does not honor the democratic process. Chavez sought an end to presidential term limits last year, but his referendum was narrowly yet democratically rejected. Now he seeks the same thing — except this time, he has numbers on his side. In addition to this, he is slowly winning approval from such powerful nations as Russia and China. His wielding of power is frightening to say the least.