TUESDAY: The President’s Smile


Copyright is held by the author.

BAGHDAD NIGHTS in December were dry and cold, the mercury often falling to sub-zero. At the end of December, when the 20th century slipped into history, I felt happy to be half way through my three-year official assignment in Iraq. Since the early nineties the country had been in the news for all the wrong reasons: war, followed by UN sanctions, a teetering economy, unpaid sovereign and private debts, crumbling infrastructure, shortage of power and the daily necessities on top of galloping unemployment. But, true to the style of the dictatorial regimes the world-over, the President of the country was epitomized as a father figure of all Iraqis. Giant posters of his smiling face, mandatorily visible at all official buildings, public places, street intersections, schools, colleges and institutions, dwarfed everything else.

Thus, the people were left with very little to survive on except for the bountiful smile of their President. It found its way even in their living rooms, his eyes gazing on everything, shadowing every activity and the walls picking up any whisper.

The state-owned economy offered very few jobs. It was a common sight to see people line up in the streets to offer family silver, furniture, carpets, books or anything that could fetch some dinars. The majority of the foreign nationals had left the country and those who remained, less than a hundred, ventured to stick it out with the locals in the lingering hope of better days again at some point in time.

Among these foreigners, an elderly couple in their seventies and frail health, evoked particular sympathy. The man, Daniel Todd, “Danny” as he was called, with wrinkled face, thinning gray hair and hunched shoulders, was a friendly figure. He became a naturalized citizen when Iraq had prospered at unprecedented scale in the 50s-60s. Awash with the booming oil revenues, an affluent Iraq then had even developmental assistance program for other countries. Danny had witnessed it all, the laid-back life and the lavish spending culture of the government and the people. His own trading business flourished, earning him a small fortune.

He married Rani, the daughter of an expatriate engineer working on a project north of Baghdad. Hailing from a traditional Hindu family, she retained her identity: Indian by nationality and Hindu by faith. Over the decades, the childless couple got comfortably accustomed to a leisurely well-heeled life.

However, the military coup of July 1958, removing the monarchy, revolutionized the country’s political landscape. It gave way to a one-party system: the despotic Ba’athist rule. The party chairman became the president of the country, and the parliament a mere rubber stamp to legitimize his decrees.

The state monopoly left little room for the private businesses. Army and the security grabbed the major share of the budget which emboldened the President to go to war with neighbouring Iran or invade Kuwait. The humiliating defeat after the Kuwait misadventure pushed the economy further to the brink, and attracted punitive UN sanctions that restricted government spending only to food and medicines.

Danny’s contracts from state agencies dried up. Soon came more squeeze. His unpaid bills piled up into billions of dinars. Persevering with a near below-poverty-level existence for more than ten years, Danny and his wife dawdled on the assurance of getting their bills paid as soon as the UN sanctions against Iraq were lifted.

Left with nothing much to do, Danny would drop by my office frequently. One late afternoon, following the usual pleasantries, he looked tired.

I asked, “Everything okay?”

“Rani is not well for the past few weeks. It’s a bit worrying because the public healthcare is in bad shape . . . you know the shortage of medicines and medical supplies.”

“I hope she’ll be fine soon . . . Yes, the shortage of doctors and drugs is serious.” As he got up to leave, I touched his shoulder gently and said, “Just call me for anything I can do, you have my number.”

Two days later, the news of Rani’s death reached me. As the consular officer for the Indian nationals, and a friend of Danny, I needed to get more details.

Early the next morning, Danny came to me. Leaning forward and cupping his head in both hands, he said, “My wife’s condition worsened over the weekend. I was in the hospital, and was alarmed to see the sudden movement of the doctor and the nurses by the side of my wife. My heart sank when the doctor shook his head, ‘I’m sorry, it was a massive cardiac arrest.’ ”

“How sad . . . my condolences.” I waited for him to regain control.

“It’s so devastating . . . I wasn’t ready for this. Only last week my wife and I realized the futility of waiting endlessly for our dues — no likelihood of conditions changing for the better — so it was time to leave. We awaited doctor’s advice before hitting the road to Jordan.”

The UN sanctions had frozen the commercial flights, people travelled nearly 950 kilometres by road to Amman or Damascus to take flights.

Danny cleared his throat before adding, “Sir, there is a problem where I seek your intervention.”

I waited in silence.

“My wife, when I took her to the hospital, asked me to promise that if she didn’t survive, I’d cremate her. And comforting her, I gave my word.”

Explaining further, he said, “Under the Hindu customs, the remains of the deceased have to be cremated. But doing so in this Muslim country would be an act of sacrilege.”

Allowing him to wipe his tears, I asked, “So, you need permission for the cremation?”

He nodded. “In my memory, no cremation of a non-believer has ever taken place here. There are no crematoriums. Since nothing moves in this Ba’athist system without the state approval, I need your intervention.”

“Sure, I understand.”  

I went through the documents Danny had brought along, and sought a few clarifications to prepare a formal request.

I met the foreign ministry official to present the embassy’s request which pleaded, “. . . having given his word to his dying wife, Danny Todd was under great emotional stress and moral obligation to respect her last wishes.”

I received the sympathy and an assurance that the request would be looked into. I counted on the understanding of the friendly official. At the same time, I was gravely apprehensive that anyone daring to approve it could face a blasphemy charge by the intolerant ultra-conservative elements. The only exception was the President. Being above the law, his authority was unquestionable.

“Any reply?” Danny asked every time he visited me in the weeks that followed, and “not yet” became my calming phrase. The delay and uncertainty, despite reminders to the officials, began to take toll on his health. With stooping shoulders, he looked older than his years. Given the religious character of the country’s system, the odds of not getting the President’s nod began to weigh heavily on my mind, an inexplicable anxiety crept in.

A menacing scenario loomed large: if I failed to secure the permission, wouldn’t the press and the emotional public debate back home scream at me, leaving me roundly condemned?”  Danny’s own health was also worrying — his wearied stares signaled the declining health with each passing day?

With no hint of the official word coming, I sought assistance from the local police. The superintendent, whom I handed a request after describing the situation, avoided sticking his neck out with the excuse of a procedural point, “We understand and share your apprehension of a health hazard that the long power cuts to the mortuary would render the remains unsafe. But we aren’t permitted to write to any foreign entity.”

More weeks passed, more reminders were sent and gloomier looks Danny wore. He would often go to the hospital to check if his wife’s remains were intact.

I felt irritated. What the hell would it matter if one departed from earth in the desert of Iraq or a cold Arctic place? No faith system needed to enforce burial of non-believers’ bodies in order to ensure its own survival. But I also didn’t subscribe to the views of Edna Ferber who, in her story “The Gay Old Dog”, argued that “the death-bed promises should be broken as lightly as they are seriously made because the dead have no right to lay their clammy fingers upon the living.”

When the agonizing wait became unendurable, I sent for Abdul Jabar, a long-serving Arabic interpreter with us. He assisted me as the reference point for the history, politics and culture of the place and its people, though it was no secret that he was mandated to follow his own government’s instructions to keep a close tab on foreigners he worked with. The paranoid Ba’ath party which had built a culture of mistrust and intrigues, gave similar directives to others, including the cab drivers in the city to listen and make report on their passengers.

I said to him, “Our request is lost in the files of the bureaucracy. Since the diplomatic missions have the privilege of not being subjected to strict local regulations, we might as well take our initiative.”  I looked at him to see his reaction. He merely waited with caution to listen to what I had to say next.

“Do you know any place away from the city which might be safe to cremate Rani’s remains?”

A little taken aback at my audacious idea, he asked, “Sir, are you sure you plan to proceed without any paper?” Abdul, like other middle rung officials, suffered a total mental black out when faced with a non-routine situation.

“Nobody has said no to our request, and I’m sure there’ll be no need for it after the event.”  

I gave him few more minutes, before firing a straight question, “Can you think of any secluded, safe place?”

“We can try to look for one.”  His dull tone was not encouraging, as if it was too daring a plan.

We went on a drive to the distant suburbs of the sprawling metropolis, searching for an uninhabited place.

Pointing to a low lying dusty spot, he pointed out, “Sir, it might be safer here.” The place, nearly 30 miles south of the city, had ground-hugging shrubs with spiny leaves, unlike an openly visible spot.

I discussed the plan with Danny the next day. With depressed hollow looks, he listened without comments, and gave his nod.

Two days thereafter, I took him and three other colleagues, to the hospital. We completed the documentation to collect Rani’s body in a make-shift coffin, returnable to the hospital for reuse. We had stocked wood, flowers, incense, last rite material and gasoline in a small truck, and headed quietly to the spot I had visited.

We built up the pyre, the body wrapped in the best dress that Danny had brought. We offered our tributes with flowers. We were about to light the pyre when two unmarked vehicles rushed in, screeching to a halt near the rock-strewn narrow path. Four sturdy men in plainclothes jumped out, brandishing pistols and shouting at us in Arabic to desist immediately from what we were doing. We offered polite greetings and explained the religious practice of cremation of a non-believer, and that the foreign ministry and the police were aware of the matter.

My heart raced as the captain of the group came forward, shining service pistol in his right hand aimed at me. Taller than six feet, broad shoulders, sun-burnt face with a thick black moustache and clean-shaven round head, his sharp eyes inspected us and everything that we had brought. He didn’t care to listen to what we tried to explain.  

“Papers!” He shouted at us, waving his pistol. His haughty looks displayed base instincts.

“There, stand,” was the crude shout from his deputy who waved his pistol at us and ordered everyone to line up.

The captain took time examining the identification papers and the hospital documents we presented.

“Clear out, take all this . . . and don’t show up again,” he ordered in a penalizing pitch.  

We quickly dismantled the pyre and removed the body. I stood confused while my colleagues looked askance at me: what next?  The only place that I could think of taking the body back was the hospital mortuary.

The wireless phones of the armed guards buzzed all the time with mixed voices, shouting with orders and keeping them under constant supervision of their control. Their arrogance, menacing tough looks and bossy manners were the known hallmarks of the Baath party’s dreadful security outfit. True to their shadowy character, they had monitored our movements. Wait a second, hadn’t I discussed my plan with Abdul Jabar? It flashed suddenly in my mind.

Their vehicles trailed us back to the hospital. As I feared, we were in for another jolt. Seeing us back with the body, the bewildered staff, that had never faced such a dilemma, went to the superintendent. After few minutes, we faced an elderly composed figure. His words were cool but upsetting, “Our regulations do not permit taking any body from the outside.”

He read nervousness on my face — I had nowhere else to go — but he persisted with his own helplessness. I kept pressing, pleading for his good sense to understand the genuine quandary. He shook his head, “Yes, we understand the great mess you are in, but storing it again in the mortuary requires fresh procedure.”  

Our persistence with gentle persuasion, now sprinkled with tears on Danny’s face, slowly moved him. He relented and nodded to his staff with instructions. They got down to identifying the body and the papers that had been issued in the morning.

Returning from the hospital didn’t relieve me of the stress. I prayed that the failure of our plan didn’t add more tension to poor Danny. He was lost into himself.

The next morning, realizing that I couldn’t take any more the “assurance” business doled out to me for months by the foreign ministry, I got busy to explore what other alternative was left to us. Before I got into the act, I was interrupted by an official note that landed on my table. Coming from the foreign ministry, it asked me to present myself at the protocol office at eleven o’clock the next day.

I met five other diplomats who had also received similar note — there weren’t more foreign officials left in the country. The protocol herded us in a minivan with dark curtains drawn over the windows. We could hardly guess what was happening during the twenty-minute anxious commute from the foreign ministry until reaching the destination. When we got out of the van after the drive, we found ourselves at the VIP entrance to the grand public stadium of the city.

Amid the extraordinary presence of armed guards at every nook and corner, ministers, top officials and party functionaries, with the usual stern looks on their sullen faces, were gathered in a special enclosure on both sides of a podium where the President was standing surrounded by his trusted armed guards. In the presence of the President, the guests had to cheer up the ‘Al Quds’ parade as a mark of solidarity with the people of Palestine. Almost all the Gulf countries orchestrated it annually, more as a publicity stunt for being counted among the friends of the Palestinians, a political necessity.

“This way, Sir,” a protocol official directed us to a reserved area just behind the saluting base. Evidently, the participation of the foreign diplomats was to publicize the international recognition of Iraq’s commitment to the cause of Palestine.

A tall figure standing at a raised platform under the fluttering national flag in front of us was the President, with his poster-boy smile. The celebratory march-past comprised hundreds of tanks, military vehicles, soldiers and para-military squads, accompanied by thousands of the Party delegates from the regions. Marching to the tune of the patriotic songs that blared at high volume all over the stadium, each squad shouted slogans of loyalty to the President followed by the oft-repeated solidarity with the Palestine. When it approached the high saluting base to face the President, it received his greeting with a double barrel gun-fire in the air. The President held the gun in his right hand, which was constantly reloaded for firing intermittently in the true tribal tradition of acknowledging the salute of each of nearly 200 marching squads. It was a live telecast.

The parade took nearly three hours. At the end, every guest jumped to his feet before the President turned to leave. They stood stiff in silence. The President waved his right hand to greet them, and headed, under heavy security escort, to a hall inside the pavilion.

 “Sir, be prepared for an audience with the Rayiys (the President).” The protocol official advised as he had been shadowing us. He led us into a great reception hall.

Two hundred feet away at a grand ornately carved chair stood the President, a dominating personality, athletic build, intimidating manner of chatting in his deep steady voice. The ministers and senior officials stood in reverential attention, as if the President’s shooting-to-death his health minister two years ago, to reciprocate his dissenting views in a cabinet meeting, was still fresh in everyone’s mind. Dressed in the dark green Baath Party uniform, a loaded pistol in a shining brown upholster under his right arm, he personified brute power. The traditional grandeur on such occasions created the desired powerful, and fearful, impact on everyone. This was in line with the governing style of all the despotic rulers.

The majestic durbar-style audience with the President was awe-inspiring. In measured steps, I walked forward. He greeted me warmly. Shaking hands under his watchful smile was an electrifying sensation. I thanked him for the honor of his audience, and expressed my sentiments of friendship and solidarity with his country and his people. All the time, his sharp gaze pierced my mind as if reading my thoughts. My feeble idea of letting him know of the embassy’s pending request had vanished from my mind. Before turning back, I was advised to stand by his side for a special photograph when he held my left hand in a show of cordiality.

On the way back to the office, I stopped at two social organizations. I discussed with them the possibility of helping Danny to take his wife’s remains to a secular country. Their sympathetic response cheered me up.

Reaching office, I found an excited Abdul waiting for me. “Sir,” rushing toward me he whispered, “a mail has been delivered from the President’s office.”

“Doesn’t every communication come to us through the foreign ministry?” I asked. A strange apprehension struck me when I noticed the colourful presidential seal on the cover.

I opened it with care and asked Abdul to translate: “The Government of the Republic of Iraq presents its compliments to . . . and has the pleasure to inform that as a special gesture, it has approved the . . . and renews the assurances of its highest consideration.” I didn’t hear the rest, my thoughts immediately drifted to a higher wave length. I grabbed the note back from Abdul’s hands. Its Arabic text was reflecting the President’s smile, it had broadened now as if alive and it was staring at me with impish looks.

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