The Iraqi parliament has passed a law to change the country's flag, by altering the way "Allahu Akbar" (God Is Great) is emblazoned across the middle of the banner. The words will remain, but in a different calligraphic form. That may not seem like a big change, but for many Iraqis it makes a world of difference.
The old calligraphy was based on Saddam Hussein's own handwriting, and for many who suffered most under his iron fist especially the Kurds the flag came to symbolize his repressive rule. As I look at the Iraqi flag hanging on the wall in my office in New York, I can understand their resentment. Even holy words can seem profane when they are uttered (or, in this case, written) by the embodiment of evil.
I remember how I came into possession of the flag: it had a great deal to do with Kurdish resentment, and it nearly got a young American soldier in deep trouble.
It was April 10, 2003, the day after Baghdad fell. Late in the afternoon, I made my way to Saddam's main palace in the city: There had been some silly rumors that the Americans were preparing to blast it into rubble. I found a small group of American soldiers combing through the vast palace (it would later house the U.S. embassy), looking for documents. Many Iraqis who were never allowed near the palace during Saddam's reign had gathered at the main entrance. Many were there out of idle curiosity, and some were cheering the Americans.
I was in Saddam's own office when an American soldier grabbed one of the flags hanging next to the dictator's desk and, pointing on the lettering, asked his Kurdish translator, "What does this say?" The translator replied, with obvious disgust, "It says 'Saddam Hussein.'"
He wasn't being literal, of course, but the soldier didn't know that. He took the flag out to the main entrance of the palace, where a group of Iraqis had gathered. He held the flag up high with one hand, and reached into his pocket with his other hand and pulled out a Zippo lighter. He had a triumphant look in his face as he announced, "This is what we'll do to Saddam!"
The crowd was aghast none of them understood English, so all they could see was an American soldier about to set alight their national flag. Some of them shouted at the soldier, but he seemed to mistake their anger for enthusiasm. He held the flag up higher, and fired up the Zippo.
I reached out and grabbed the soldier's hand, and pulled the lighter away from the flag. "What are you doing?" I asked.
"Frying Saddam's ass," he said, still smiling broadly. He pointed to the lettering and said, "It says 'Saddam Hussein.'"
I told him what the lettering really said, and he looked over at the crowd of now hostile Iraqis. He turned pale. "Oh s--t man, I didn't know" he said. "Can you explain that to them?" He thrust the flag into my hands and ran back indoors. So there I was, holding Saddam's flag and facing an angry Iraqi mob. I could sense that their resentment at the soldier was being transferred to me.
Luckily, my translator had a booming voice, and he shouted at the crowd to calm down. He explained that it had all been a big mistake, the soldier had not intended to insult their national flag, he had merely been misinformed by his Kurdish translator. To my relief, the Iraqis were mollified. Some laughed, others made wisecracks about Kurds.
Relieved, I handed the flag to an old man in the crowd he was dressed like a tribal sheikh and had a kindly, weathered face. Through my translator, I told him that the flag belonged to Iraq, not Saddam. The old man turned to his neighbors and had a quick, whispered conversation. Then he gave the flag back to me. "You saved the flag," he said, in Arabic. "So you should have it."
That's how Saddam Hussein's flag came to be on my wall. It may bear the dictator's evil imprint, but it reminds me of a brief moment when Iraqis were able to put Saddam behind them and look forward to a better life.