Just Deserts

Seven years after the Gulf War, Paul William Roberts's The Demonic Comedy draws a punch line in the sand

News from Baghdad: The New York Post reported last week that Saddam Hussein ordered a liposuction machine as one of the "essential medical supplies" allowed under humanitarian agreements. Also requested, a U.N. official confirmed, was $209,000 worth of teeth-bleaching equipment. Allegations that Hussein is attempting to secure silicone breast implants have not been corroborated. Though war, at last check, remains ugly business, the embargo, starvation, and ruin that have made up its aftermath in Baghdad and across Iraq might look better for a few cosmetic touch-ups.

So it goes some seven years after our cakewalk across the Kuwaiti desert as the barbarity of the punishment outlives the ignominy of the crime. For a small group of hand-wringers and Nation subscribers, this course of events--the things our country will do in the service of nationless oil conglomerates under our name--is lamentable, distressing, shameful. For an even smaller number, like British writer Paul William Roberts, there is comedy to be found in these errors. That's the starting point for Roberts's travelogue, The Demonic Comedy: Some Detours in the Baghdad of Saddam Hussein. A megalomaniacal dictator and his sadistic regime meet a terrible opponent with seemingly limitless military powers; utter devastation ensues. (Cue laugh track.)

Roberts first visited Iraq in May of 1990 as an observer of a pan-Arab summit. It is here that Roberts reveals one of his first humorous devices: He will have the natives speak with wrong the words order of, and show us how their accents cause ridiculous malapropisms. For instance, Ahmed, the Egyptian delegate Roberts accompanies to the conference, announces that he is excited about the trip because he believes "Iraqi women all are wars" or "hoo-rezz," as he repeats it--and that "betting-you-buttock-dollaris...We will being for the far-out time, us!" Roberts cops to the charge of making his hosts sound moronic for our entertainment; to his credit, he also renders his fellow British and Aussie correspondents in dialect.

True to Ahmed's prediction, Roberts applies himself to finding a far-out time, picking up a copy of Saddam Hussein: A Biography for mere pennies at a gift shop (the cult of personality is omnipresent). The author's knowledge of Arab history proves fairly considerable as he relays the rise to power of a man with a fourth-grade education--a military strongman who never served as a soldier. What distinguishes Saddam, Roberts observes, is his ruthlessness--an impression that is reinforced when the leader summons him to the presidential compound for an interview. A bizarre experience, this--especially after Roberts swallows an unidentifiable gray tablet to rid himself of a hangover. So it comes to pass that Roberts meets the Butcher of Baghdad while tripping on a megadose of Ecstasy. (Which explains this first impression: "He was sitting behind the kind of gilt-shanked baroque desk that looks as if it will start cantering about the room whinnying at any moment.")

There are some extenuating circumstances, then, for why the best question Roberts can muster over his half-hour audience pertains to Saddam's favorite movie--it's The Godfather--and why he can't be bothered to relate much else from the interview.

Roberts often favors the far-fetched anecdote to the thorough report. It serves him well when he details Ahmed's Big Adventure: The petty official goes looking for his "hoo-rezz" and ends up holding a $3,000 tab for a few rounds of drinks--more money than he might make in a decade. Only the unlikely intervention of the dread Mukhabarat secret police can extricate him--and this only after he claims to have been held for ransom. The author's search for the most memorable image also leads him to repeat claims that probably wouldn't make it into most periodicals: The Mukhabarat, Roberts recounts, are said to break bottles in people's assholes as a routine form of torture; or, according to rumor, "a cabal of senior government and military personnel regularly staged Dionysian revels, wildly extravagant parties for young boys and older men, at which... people were brutally murdered during acts of sadistic sex that truly earned their name."

Yet Roberts's ability to secure high-level interviews reveals stores of professionalism that he often keeps hidden from the reader. Just when our faith in Roberts's credibility and judgment are starting to flag, he provides one of the most comprehensive and scathing analyses to date of America's diplomatic blunders at the start of the Gulf War. Consider the American ambassador's meeting with Saddam, in which she helpfully conveyed to him that "we have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." Roberts cannot decide whether this recorded transaction represented American incompetence or guile--although he's inclined to believe the latter.

That suspicion colors his sympathies when he pulls off the journalistic coup of this book, having himself smuggled by Bedouins into Iraq on a camel as the coalition air campaign reduces the country to rubble. From the ground, the Gulf War looks nothing like the arcade game CNN broadcasts for the home team--all those bombs with Ph.D.s in the hermeneutics of target annihilation. The soldiers Roberts encounters over the next week are mangled veterans of the conflict with Iran, hunkering together in houses with their battered Kalashnikovs--weapons that no self-respecting American crook would use to hold up a Dairy Queen. Needless to say, such troops--lacking noses, fingers, ears--are hardly the crack army conjured by the American media. Even when these soldiers intercept the cloaked author, strip him, and toss him in a cold basement, Roberts's fear bleeds over into sympathy. And a few hours later, he's administering antibiotics from his medical kit--every soldier wants a shot--while they all listen to the Chris Isaac song "Wicked Game" a few dozen times on his portable tape recorder.

Roberts devotes a scant 12 pages to what he sees as he crosses through Iraq in the back of various trucks--brevity, it seems, being the better part of valor. The experience, he says, "wasn't so much anticlimax as overkill," and, truth be told, Roberts lacks the dispassion for war reporting anyway. In the early chapters of the book, the reporter's search for a shared humanity induces him to overwrite at the end of several episodes, e.g.: "Here was the real gulf in the Gulf: minds, hearts, and souls that simply cannot understand one another." (For a more muted and responsible account of the current Islamic world, and one that is unencumbered by human empathy, the reader is directed to V.S. Naipaul's Beyond Belief, published this year by Random House.)

Yet the same tendencies that occasionally betray Roberts during his first two visits to Iraq serve him well in the third act of his Demonic Comedy. This time he is not a makeshift medic but a "delegate" at 1995's "International Babylon Festival." Though this theater of self-aggrandizement is just as risible as Hussein's Nasser impersonation during the pan-Arab summit, the scenery has changed. The luxury hotels are bereft of light bulbs or running water. In one hotel lobby, well-connected peddlers hawk $2,000 gold fountain pens--looted from the royalty of Kuwait, of course--for the princely sum of $8. To deal in anything but dollars requires ungainly wads of bills: In 1990, the Iraqi dinar traded at six to a dollar. Five years later, the unofficial exchange rate is at 2,220--or even 3,000--dinars to a dollar. Roberts carries money in a shopping bag.

Ultimately, inflation is the dominant metaphor for what Roberts finds in Iraq at the close of the book. Squalor and poverty are growth industries as are menace and terror. The national football team loses with final scores that Roberts calls "awesome"--64-0, for example, against powerhouse teams like Chad and Togoland. The central bank lends at an official rate of 15 percent interest per day. A U.N. survey reports that half of all infants are born with birth defects as a result of malnutrition...while the government in Baghdad requisitions a lipsosuction machine. And at the center of this suffering is the U.S. embargo, which, as Roberts eloquently explains it, is the most gruesome inflation of all, "slowly starving 20 million people for the crimes of 2,000."

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