The hand that rocks the oil pumps controls the world. Between 1979 and 2003, that hand was Saddam Hussein’s. He would also use it to sign death warrants on dissenters, to murder his own countrymen, to plot disastrous wars with neighboring countries, and to be the puppet master of his entire population. In September 1987, Saddam—or more accurately, his son, Uday—picked up my strings. Uday wanted a double, and I was unlucky enough to resemble him.
his was not my first encounter with Uday. Because of my father’s wealth I was sent to the best school in Iraq, and a young, spoiled, arrogant Uday became my classmate. We all hated him even then. He would cruise the streets in his cars and, with the assistance of his bodyguards, would pick up girls whether they wanted to go with him or not—and most did not. At least one girl who refused to be taken by him was kidnapped and thrown to his starving dogs. In class he would act like his father, showing no enthusiasm for lessons and acting threateningly toward anyone who crossed him. A teacher who reprimanded him for bringing his girlfriend into class disappeared and was never seen again. My classmates used to tease me and call me Uday because even at that age I resembled him. I used to imitate him for laughs.
When my second encounter with Uday came about, I was a captain on the front in Iraq’s pointless war with Iran. My unit’s command received a dispatch saying that I should be sent to the presidential palace. I was taken there and informed that I was to become Uday Hussein’s fiday, or body double. This would involve attending functions, making appearances, and assuming his persona when rumors of assassination were circulating. Saddam had several fidays already, and Uday obviously longed for one just like his daddy. I was to be his first. My initial refusal was met with a long spell of solitary confinement and mental torture in a cramped cell without so much as a toilet to maintain my dignity. Eventually, this treatment, and vile threats against my family, forced me to agree to Uday’s demands.
Throughout a lengthy period I was trained to act like him and to speak like him. I was also, through cosmetic surgery, made to look even more like him. Indeed, having my front teeth filed down and being given a set of caps that mimicked Uday’s gave me a lisp just like his. I was, during my “training,” desensitized to the ugly barbarity of the regime by being forced to watch endless, excruciating videos of real torture, mutilation, and murder perpetrated by them on dozens of men, women, and children of Iraq, usually prisoners or prisoners’ family members. These films also served as a warning as to what I could expect were I to decide to challenge the regime at any time in the future.
My first public appearance as Uday was at a football match in Baghdad’s People’s Stadium. My job was to wave at the crowd from a dignitaries box and present medals to the players at the end. When Uday saw the appearance on television he was impressed. He congratulated my trainers and accepted me as a member of his circle, albeit on the outer reaches. He could not allow anyone to become too close to him, particularly anyone from outside the Tikriti clan from which the majority of the regime was drawn. Indeed, I had been the first fiday to be plucked from the outside world.
From then on my days were spent living in his palaces, effectively a prisoner, as I was not allowed to do anything without permission. But it was a prison of opulence and luxury, with access to the finest food and drink the world had to offer. Swimming pools and other such charmed diversions made the time a little more bearable.
ut the captivity grew stultifying. Most of the time I would not be making appearances; I would be bored out of my mind, intellectually and socially unchallenged. I had graduated with a degree in law and had dreamed of following in my father’s footsteps and becoming a businessman. This had never been part of my master plan. I was living a brainless, useless existence with no independence or exercise of free will. But worse was to come. I got sucked closer to Uday and he started to treat me as one of his bodyguards, taking me out with him as protection against assassination at the hands of any of his multitude of enemies. This is when I witnessed the depravity of Uday firsthand. I saw him rape, murder, bully, and destroy anyone who dared to question his will. This could be anyone from friends of his father to innocent passersby. On one occasion a honeymooning couple, the wife of which Uday took a liking to, was split apart forever when she threw herself to her death from a balcony after being raped by Uday.
I was saved by the beginning of the invasion of the US-led forces, which seemed to give the regime other things to think about. Uday came to visit me one day. He had me shaved from head to toe and dumped on the doorstep of my parents’ home. My mother discovered me but did not recognize the bald, skeletal figure at her feet until I spoke to tell her who I was.
I eventually managed to flee to Austria, but Uday was not finished with me. Two of Uday’s men arrived at my family’s home and told my father that Uday wanted to see him in his office. They said the meeting would not take too long and that they would pick him up and bring him back. The meeting took place in the headquarters of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, the organization led by Uday more as something for him to do than through any interest he might have had in sports. At 4 AM my father was dropped off at home. The family was still awake, terrified that he had been kidnapped, tortured, or murdered. He said he did not feel well, and just sat there in the lounge, obviously in some distress. In time he started to feel dizzy. Everyone assumed he was tired, as the past few hours would have been a serious drain on his physical resources. But his skin was changing color, at first unnoticeably but eventually unmistakably, to a sickly shade of yellow. He eventually keeled over and took his last breath.
A few hours after my father was dropped off, Uday’s bodyguards arrived at the house and imposed a no-funeral rule. They told my family simply to put his body in a grave and unceremoniously bury him. They must have known he would be dead by then, which confirmed to anyone in any doubt that he had been deliberately poisoned. Their rationale was that he was killed because he was the father of Latif Yahia, in their view one of the country’s greatest criminals, one of its traitors, who was working alongside the CIA to overthrow Saddam.
I continue to blame myself for the death of my father. And I cannot see the day when I will forgive myself. I could have stayed in Iraq and faced the music. Perhaps I would have been the one to accept the orange juice, to have my bones broken, my soul forced through the mangle. Perhaps then my father would have been the one blaming himself—for sending me to the same school as Uday, for being wealthy. Who knows? It is pointless thinking about it. All I knew was that he was the biggest thing in my life—my father, my friend, my teacher, my confidante, a line of continuity in a place where arbitrary acts of violence and mayhem kept its inhabitants in fear and obedience. And now he is gone.