The Semiotics of Saddam

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In the days after Saddam Hussein was captured, there was much talk of the way in which he might be brought to trial and of the effect his detention might have on Iraqi insurgents. All this was speculation. It will be months before interrogators have finished grilling Saddam and maybe months more before there is a government in Baghdad with sufficient legitimacy to try him. And who truly knows if Saddam’s capture will lead to a reduction of hostilities? But on one thing, everyone seemed agreed. The images, the symbolism, the semiotics of Saddam’s capture were freighted with significance. The fetid hole in the ground, the mud hut, the litter and underwear, the prophet’s beard, the unfired pistol, the tongue depressor — all, somehow, were symbolic of ... well, of what?

Symbols are tricky. They mean different things to different people. In France, those wearing a head scarf, yarmulke or crucifix see these adornments as symbols of personal devotion to Islam, Judaism or Catholicism. But members of the French political and intellectual establishment regard them as deliberate challenges to the secular nature of the republic. Americans, meanwhile, think of skyscrapers as testaments to the can-do spirit of American capitalism. (The Empire State Building was erected during the Great Depression!) Islamic fundamentalists, as we learned two years ago, see skyscrapers as idolatrous emblems of a society that serves Mammon rather than God.

So it is with Saddam. The images of his detention and examination were designed to show that he was at the mercy of his captors. They signified Saddam’s weakness and the strength of the U.S. in the hope, presumably, that his supporters would conclude he was finished and end their armed opposition to coalition forces. But it took only hours for Arab and European newspapers and websites to claim that the opposite would happen: that a deliberate humiliation of Saddam would engender a renewed loyalty to him and refuel the violence.

Saddam himself knew all about the power of symbols. For decades his propagandists compared him to Saladin, the great Muslim general of the 1100s. Saladin, like Saddam, was born in Tikrit (though Saladin was a Kurd), and at the Battle of Hattin in Galilee in 1187, he won the bloodiest and most comprehensive victory that Muslim armies ever achieved against Christian Crusaders. The murals in Baghdad of Saddam on a white horse, with a drawn sword — laughably kitsch to Western tastes — were a deliberate attempt to link him to Saladin’s blessed memory.

And just as Saddam used symbols to engender loyalty and fear among Iraqis, so we used Saddam — his cruelty, his megalomania — as a symbol to justify war in Iraq. Of course Saddam was evil. But the real, nonsymbolic Saddam was just as evil in the 1980s — when the U.S. was tilting toward Baghdad in the Iran-Iraq war — as he was later. It was only recently that we chose to use Saddam as the chief exhibit for the proposition (with which I agree) that the failure and violence of the Muslim world were so dangerous to others that they could not be allowed to fester unchecked.

If you’re going to use symbols to justify political decisions, the difficult moment comes when they disappear. You can’t demonize a man who lives in a hole. As we get on with the unglamorous business of rebuilding Iraq, we may miss the utility of having a bogeyman in Baghdad. That is the point of C.P. Cavafy’s wonderful poem “Waiting for the Barbarians.” A city is on edge, nervous about a threat that, its people slowly realize, will never come. “What’s going to happen to us without barbarians?” asks the narrator. “They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

Cavafy reminds us that we have to make our own destiny rather than react to those we fear. Still, at a time of year when we are allowed to be optimistic, we should remember the poet for more than that lesson. The son of a Greek family from Constantinople, Cavafy was born in 1863, in Alexandria, Egypt. He wrote in both his native Greek and English, but he was an Alexandrian and proud of it. He was, in other words, a symbol himself — of a time when the Middle East was not shaped by thugs like Saddam, but could enfold many religions and languages, and breed from their interplay sublime moments of art and humanity. If the capture of Saddam marks the moment that such a world starts to be reborn, it will be the best symbol of all.