And because to die in Baghdad sounded more exciting than dying in the South Bronx, I determined to leave the land of the disposable diaper (America) and go to the Middle East. This was on the eve of the American invasion, but I didn’t know that then. In life, the things you don’t know are always more than things you do.
Like for instance, I don’t know when the desire came on me. Maybe it was one grey morning on my way to prison (to teach; not stay, I hoped anyway). There’s a certain early morning train that takes you from Harlem to Ossining, New York. White people didn’t like passing through Harlem then, even in a train. It reminded them of how easy it was to fall and why they’d better keep their jobs and their asses in gear. Call it a cautionary tale. As for the blacks, you could tell instantly who was on their way to work as domestics in rich people’s homes and gardens, or else on their way to visit some son, husband or boyfriend in prison. They sat with their pocket books in their laps and Victoria’s Secret bags with their lunches beside them on the seat.
There is a certain scent that women of prisoners give off. A certain dress too. Revealing but not too provocative to either get them a refusal at the gate or start a man wondering what the hell she might be up to while he’s trapped there inside. I learned a lot working in prisons. I went there to teach but got an education instead.
At first I didn’t want to go. I refused requests for three years to start a writing work shop. Once I started I couldn’t stop. You can get addicted to anything, even prison. I got caught up in their lives. Once an inmate reads his first book, he can’t stop either. It takes him places not even drugs can. They keep asking for more books. They keep asking,
“Why was it I never read nothing when I was outside?”
“Because you didn’t need to.”
“They told me all my life I was too stupid to read anything. Then here you come along and tell me books can set me free. You right, though. Once I start reading I don’t even see this place.”
They even started reading poetry. Poetry is big in prisons because you can pass them easy like cigarettes. But most fascinating of all were the people visiting prisoners: not only the wives and girlfriends who were glad that their men were in some facility and that they couldn’t spend the night playing on other women’s drums, but strangest of all, were the parents of prisoners.
Question: What do you do when you encounter the pastor of your church visiting his son? And you know for certain that this is no ordinary Prison Ministry visit. You know this because you see him throwing up outside the gate. He has had to step outside of his Cadillac car in order to perform this operation and you suddenly realise that he hates prisons more than you do. It is then that you thank God for all that basic training that you’ve gotten from Montserrat back home, Montserrat, that land of denial, where you learn to see and not see; hear and not hear. For example, when you see a woman cussing her man in the street:
“See you, you just a damn scamp and a waste of space. You feel you a bad man, right? Big time lover.”
“Me tell you, me barely know the gal!”
“Lie you a tell ‘bout you barely know she. Is there you sleep last night. Me watch you and she leave the club together so please, jus stop lie. Don’t insult me and play me for no fool. You feel you is lover? Well hear now, two can play the game. Me knuckling you and you no even know.”
“Me say me a knuckle you and you no even know, and what’s more, it not even you that take me head. He could last all night, and you, (sucks her teeth) you just a dribble. So go back a sleep where you sleep last night. Me kyarn go wid you no more.”
She exits, leaving him stranded and he turns to me shamefaced knowing I witnessed the scene. That’s when you take out a copy of The Montserrat Reporter and start to read, leaving him time enough to make an orderly retreat and go after her without actually running.
So now the question I had to ask myself is what I could say to put my pastor at ease. The answer was nothing. Sometimes there is no chit of chat that solves everything. So I said: “Hello Pastor” and let it go at that. The truth is that he was an arrogant son of a bitch who owned a Cadillac car and a yacht, a small yacht but a yacht none the less. He liked to see his named carved into the side of buildings named after him. He knew that Ebony magazine had named him one of the ten most influential pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention. But all this still couldn’t get his son out of prison or save him from having to go visit him because his wife was more powerful and she threatened to leave him if he didn’t. And he knew damn well she’d do it, too. So he was forced to leave his solid gold cross and his several gold rings at the gate. He never felt more naked.
Once inside, he knew he had to take the seat at the table facing the guard. His body language told everything. He never once looked at his son directly.
“You did all this just to shame me, right?”
“To shame you? That’s what you think? Listen, Pop, not everything is about you.”
“Sent you to the best school. Gave you everything. Your mother spoiled you rotten and then you turn around and rob us blind. “
“I had a $300 a day heroin habit, what the hell else could I do. You stopped giving me money!”
“You could try working for a living like everybody else.”
“Doing what, being a preacher like you? Rob from the collection plate, right?”
Pastor turns to slap his son but he knows he might just slap him back. So instead, he signals to the guard that this visit is terminated. He’s fulfilled his obligation. He‘d promised his wife that he’d come, not that he’d stay. This isn’t worth a heart attack. Uneasy is the neck that wears the cross.
By the time you reach Sing-Sing prison you’ve made the big time. Everyone here is looking at ten years minimum and most, life. They no longer use the electric chair although it was first tried there at Sing-Sing. And of course, it was a black man who was the first guinea pig to see if it really worked. The last to be electrocuted were the Rosenbergs, who were supposed to be Russian spies. So it started with a black and ended with two Jews. There’s a certain symmetry to the American justice system which boasts the largest prison population in the world and where most look like me.
There are three things which no prison can ever stop: First is sex (love and lust will find a way). Second is music. Man will find a way to make music. Third is religion. Man will find a way to pray and not only alone. He will find others to pray with him (witness the power of Islam in prisons). It was the Moslem students in the class that took up a collection for me to help me in my visit to Iraq. I couldn’t believe that prisoners who were earning pennies a day would sacrifice their canteen money and cigarettes in order to get me there. And when I asked them why, they said that they wanted me to see what they couldn’t. Their love shamed me. There was nothing I could say but thank you. I didn’t want to cry in front of them. It was no big money but it was enough to make me determined to get there, whatever it took.
Now to get to Iraq you have to first get to Jordan. Jordan has a lot of history and a lot of people trying to sell you sand in bottles. Thousands of people too walking around looking like Jesus (only darker than the ones we see in paintings by da Vinci); dark mysterious women with hennaed hands and secrets. I would have liked to spend more time there but Jordan is expensive because it is the escape route out of Iraq and Jordanians knew they could get whatever they asked for. Jordan’s nice as long as the money last then people change quickly like lawyers who no longer know you.
(Message to self: In my next incarnation come back as a Sheik or a Saudi prince.)
People take your bags long before you ask them to and then they open their hands and say: “Bakeish” meaning, “pay me my tip mother……” To which you’re supposed to reply: “Ali Baba” meaning thief. Now you have entered the world of Scheherazade.
Once you get bundled into an Iraqi plane, you are searched again. You know it is an Iraqi plane because everyone in charge looks like clones of Saddam. They all sport the same Saddam moustache (which by the way Saddam stole from Stalin, his hero). They also wear expensive black leather jackets over their black open collar shirts and trousers. They always wear black and are easily identifiable. When the plane lands in Baghdad the first thing you are told is to surrender all cell phones. Cell phones are “·∏§arƒÅm” (banned) in Iraq. You want to make a phone call, use one of theirs on which you can hear the heavy breathing of a government spy.
I was driven to the hotel with a several other clergy. (Did I mention that I was a minister? It was the only way I was allowed to travel.) We were supposed to pray for Iraq and peace in our time, and just in case we failed, America was waiting right outside with the heaviest fire power ever known to man.
I slept soundly that first night and woke at sunrise to the sound of birds. Iraqi radio always opened with the sound of birds. Then you hear the call to prayer. Then I knew for certain I was no longer in New York.
When you go out into the Iraqi morning, the first thing you notice is the face of Saddam. Hard to miss since it’s ten feet tall and plastered on every wall. I later played a game with myself. I would try and go five minutes without seeing the face of Saddam, an impossible thing to do. (I once made three minutes though but that was because we were stuck in traffic and couldn’t move.) The man knew well how to stay in the consciousness of his people. Another thing was that his eyes seem to be following you. In the hotel I was told quickly, in whispers, to never say anything inside your room that you didn’t want recorded.
One funny thing, a spy-waiter just happened to be passing when suddenly someone’s cell phone went off. The entire place went silent. Everyone turned their head in the direction of the chimes of the luckless culprit as it played Beethoven’s Fifth. Three men suddenly appeared. The senior man in charge who looked like a caricature of a merchant, stared in disbelief at this malevolent device in his midst:
“What’s this? Didn’t we tell you no cell-phone? NO CELL-PHONE!” They snatched it away from him and led him away.
“But my wife, she’s having a baby!”
“Would you like to live to see it? Then shut-up and come, fool!”
Then there were the “Minders” who were assigned to drive us around and who never let us out of their sight except to pee and I’m certain that was videoed too. Fortunately, I was used to being watched. In Montserrat, someone is always watching you. And you’re never more watched then when you see no one there. I’m also used to ex-police becoming taxi drivers (this is what most retired police do). Of course, there is no such thing as ex-police, that’s like an ex-priest. Not that some police aren’t nice people, I just don’t trust them. It’s in my DNA. I even have some police friends. I don’t trust them either. If there is a choice between betraying friendship and betraying the Law, the Law wins every time. Snakes bite. They can’t help it, they are snakes.
My feeling of distrust also extends to White women as well. It’s been my experience that they can’t help falling to the “Miss Ann Syndrome”. That is to say that try as they will, they fall prey to the need to give commands and proclamations. They can’t help it. Several hundred years of entitlement and privilege is hard to overcome. Let me say something here that I think is kind of important: White is not a colour, it’s an attitude. There are a lot of clear skinned blacks who have the same attitude. This is all the more laughable because when faced with real power they tend to cower. They simply have to be reminded from time when they get beyond themselves and start treating you like “The Help”. A simple: “Bitch, who the hell do you think you’re talking to, Jeeves, the butler?” That usually brings them back to reality. But I digress.
There was a lot of poverty in Iraq and a lot of children getting slapped for begging. The Minders didn’t like beggars. “They make the country look bad.” I looked at the eyes of the children after they’d been viciously slapped. I knew one thing for certain, if Saddam ever fell, all these Minders would be dead in a week unless they vanished into the ether. There’s a Haitian proverb: “Bay kou Bliye Pote Mak Sonje.” (“He who slaps may forget, but he who is slapped never forgets.”) Got it?
I went to Iraq because of Paul Robeson. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know who the hell he is. It only matters that I do. I had met him only once. It was at his funeral so we didn’t talk much. Robeson was the greatest football player America ever produced but he was the wrong colour so his own team (Princeton University) hated him, so he had to play against both sides. He became a lawyer, an actor (the first black in modern times to play Othello). And the last great thing he did was sing. It was his voice I heard that made the hairs on my head rise. He could sing in twelve languages including Russian, Chinese, Spanish and German. Everything he ever did in his life was to honour his father who was a Baptist minister who died way too soon. When I found Paul Robeson, I found myself: Black without apology. America pulled his passport because he asked the wrong question:
“Why should blacks fight in foreign wars against people we don’t know when we are made to live like slaves right here at home?”
Mohammed Ali asked the same question twenty years later and he got licks too.
So anyhow, here I am in Iraq, looking at Saddam’s face looking from ten feet above me on some wall. I took out my flute and started playing, not the “Communist Internationale”, but instead, “I can See Clearly Now the Rain Has Gone,” a reggae tune and the children began to come out from inside the concrete walls. The Minders weren’t happy with me but the children were. Music is one thing they can’t stop. Nobody can.
Saddam had done a good job of cleaning the streets. Women were safe to walk any hour of the day or night in Baghdad. No one would dare attack them for fear of Saddam, no one except Saddam’s son, Uday, that is. Uday was a problem. When he was drunk, he would take any woman he wanted and if he was awake he was drunk. He would race around the city in any one of his hundred or more select sports cars and cruise for women. Not many dare refuse because to refuse was to end not only your own life but that of your family as well.
Uday was Saddam’s first born and his mother’s favourite. He had a voracious appetite and his taste in women went from Paris Hilton look alike (slutty but expensive) to private school girls in uniform with white cotton panties and white socks. As a matter of fact, he once argued for the return to white gloves as well, as part of the school uniform. He, after all, owned all the newspapers and media in general, so he could afford to argue for anything he wanted. All the crazy things he did (including running the Iraqi National Football Team), was just amusement for him while waiting to become the next Khan. As for the people of Iraq, they knew that they were dealing with a Caligula who was five times more cruel than his father. There is an Arab expression which the poor use when asked how things are going. “Kif-Kif” is usually the answer, which means not too bad, or it could be worse. You usually use this expression after being shat upon from a great height but you can’t do a damn thing about it.
The question for me was when exactly Saddam realised that his son was crazy, crazier even than he. He once said of his son:
“Me, I never enjoyed torture. I did it from necessity, to keep enemies in check. Uday, he enjoys it. He even films it. I should have killed him at birth but I waited too long. I let him get tall and his mother, Sajida, loves him.”
Uday had a gap toothed smile even when he wasn’t smiling. Many got fooled that way and relaxed in his presence; always a mistake. He had zero patience and even had a time table for his father Saddam. He gave him three more years. At the end of this time if he hadn’t retired, he (Uday) would assist him into the next life: “NSHALLAH, he will depart by then!”
Another little thorn in Saddam’s family tree was his eldest daughter, Raghad. He hadn’t asked very much of her, merely that she keep herself quiet long enough to make a good marriage. What more could you ask of a daughter, after all they’re good for little else.
“Keep both your legs and your mouth closed, and marry well.”
She married her father’s second cousin, a Lieutenant General which could prove useful for Saddam’s defence plans. Unfortunately, they had some doctrinal differences and son-in-law chose to betray Saddam to the Americans in exchange for asylum. Not good.
The daughter could be excused for having made the wrong choice in joining her husband in Jordan after a hasty departure. The poor girl had grown up all her life believing she was a fairy princess, an easy thing to believe if you grow up in a palace and have North African slaves wiping your ass for you every day because it’s too much work wiping your own. You develop a certain way of seeing the world. And it didn’t help knowing that you had the power of life and death over your teachers and everybody else you come in contact with. Then there‘s your brother Uday who is a heroin addict and coke fiend who you suspect might be sleeping with your mother as well (with your father’s knowledge, if not approval).
Her Mother, Sajida, had the same expression on her face as my pastor’s wife. First Ladies are all alike:
“My son is a good boy, he’s just misunderstood.”
So one can see how the little princess might have had a great deal on her mind when her husband suddenly came to her one night and announced:
“We have to get the hell out of here, now, before your father has me killed. I have a driver waiting!”
“Now? But what will I take?”
“Nothing, you want to let them know we’re running? Don’t worry, I have money waiting in Jordan. Just come!”
“But I have to tell Mother goodbye!”
“Why? She never liked me anyway or you either for that matter. And as drunk as she stays she might just betray us. Call her later if you want to. But come now while the roads are clear or I’m leaving!”
Having fled successfully, they made the fatal mistake of being enticed back to Iraq in what Mommy swore was a family meeting and healing session where they would all reason together. Once across the border the fairy princess daughter was forced to sign a divorce statement and the lovers were parted. That particular ceremony was attended to personally by Uday who took many pictures of the execution for Saddam’s private viewing. And when Uday killed her husband, his sister screamed:
“But I loved him, how could you? What will I do now?”
“As much as you love sex, I can assure you that you will be in love again in six months!”
Families can be tricky things. I think in some ways Saddam welcomed the war. It was safer to deal with than his own family. Many people ask why Saddam didn’t simply flee the country on the eve of the war. The simple truth was that he loved Iraq and had no desire to live anywhere else. He always stayed close to Tikrit where he was born. He didn’t trust anywhere else. As for the war, he found peace in war. Finally, as for Saddam himself he had no complaints. He had come from nothing and ended up one of the most powerful men in the world. You can tell by the bounty on his head. He had respect for but two people in his life: Stalin of Russia and Nasser of Egypt. He learned a lot from both.
Now on the eve of the invasion, I got a strange phone call from Colin Powell. The call wasn’t made to me but was made to Congressman Fauntroy who was part of the Congressional Black Caucus. He was a minister as well, which allowed him certain perks. Although Colin Powell and I had grown up together in the South Bronx (he in exile from Jamaica and I from Montserrat), we never spoke. We both went to the same college and yet managed not to speak because he chose the military and I chose philosophy (the college was City College and the Castle on the hill). But where he saw ROTC and a career, I saw nothing but Pum-Pum, so I guess we had doctrinal differences.
What General Powell had said on the phone was vague but immediate:
“I would suggest that you take the first plane out tomorrow because I suspect that after that it will be impossible.”
Translation: We’re coming now. This started a lively debate because I had no intention of leaving. I was going to die in Baghdad. And then they informed me that I couldn’t die in Baghdad.
“Why,” I asked.
“Because we will be held responsible. You used us to get here under false pretence. You planned on being a martyr all along. And lied!”
They then went on to explain how my presence would only get a lot of people killed trying to shelter me. They certainly knew how to use guilt. In the end, they persuaded me, but I decided when I landed in America I would come home to Montserrat. I might as well die in Montserrat where God lived and a volcano than go back to America and wait for the repercussions of this glorious adventure of shock and awe.
In the opening salvo of the war, Saddam lost two sons. Bush thought that he had gotten Saddam too and started celebrating prematurely. Although he had planned several times to kill his son Uday, it was quite something else to have America do it. You see, Bush had already bought all of Saddam’s generals for ten million a pop. So he knew exactly where Saddam’s bunker was. Give Israeli intelligence a little credit too. I once had a girl who worked for the Mossad. (The best Pum-Pum ever.) The only error was that Saddam wasn’t in it at the time. Bush had planned on an Israeli-like war, over in a few hours, but it would prove a bit more complicated. Mission accomplished, unfortunately was not.
Now in truth, Saddam qualifies as wicked and a card-carrying monster. But before I can start pointing fingers, I have to stop and consider what and where Saddam came from. He came from Tikrit, which can best be described as “The ass hole of the world.” To emerge from there and end up as leader of Iraq is a major accomplishment, not to mention miracle. Add to this a mother who tried to kill him before he was born and ignored him after. As to his son, the mad Uday, I look at what power can do to a man even on a little kiss-me-ass island in the Caribbean like Montserrat.
I can only thank God that he didn’t see fit to bedazzle me with power. I’ve seen men transform to animals and use, abuse and share women who had the misfortune to serve beneath them (literally). I’ve seen how mothers have settled out of court when their daughters ended up in hospital after attacks which would have made even the Marquis De Sade blush. So let’s stop the hypocrisy. Power corrupts (thank you, Lord Acton). All we need do is watch Montserrat, which can’t even boast five thousand souls to see what a little power can do. And if they would do this in a dry time, what would they do in the wet?
In Iraq, I wondered to myself what would make a man who knows clearly that Uday is capable of anything, why would you parade your woman in Caligula’s court knowing that she would most likely be raped. Why do people accept anything in the hope that they will make enough from a bribe to be able to finally flee forever? What do they say, hope springs eternal? Once you start bending over its not long before you assume the position. Let’s make it simple: If you ask your woman to take it up the ass for you, it’s only a matter of time before Caligula will ask you to take it up yours too. That’s the nature of power. Simple truth, if there’s nothing you’re willing to die for, you are already dead.
I was willing to die for Iraq but they persuaded me not to. They were right. There is nothing I could have done to save Iraq. Better I go home, not to America, but to Montserrat where I was born.
There once was a writer named Terence. He came to Rome as a slave from Africa. His writing won him his freedom. He penned one of the most important lines in Roman literature:
“I am man; therefore, nothing human is foreign to me.”
This line determined how I live my life.
Both Uday and Saddam regarded people as sheep. They failed to realise that not all sheep are sheep. Some are ram-sheep and you really don’t want to get between two of them having a discussion about a young ewe. You’ll learn much more than you want to. This is why Uday just missed assassination and ended up paralysed even before the invasion.
When Sadaam was captured his only disappointment was that his son never achieved the destiny he had planned for him. It would be good if we could buy the sons we want but we can’t. In the end it’s a lottery and we have to take what we get. More often than not we get the ones we deserve.
One final thing. Despite all my good intention, I failed to realize that a mere ten feet from the hotel where I was staying, was a torture chamber in the sewer. Beneath the ground, were men and maybe women suffering from electric shocks and flayed skin. Like the rest of the world, I knew nothing about it. Just like General Pinochet of Chile and Mobutu of the Congo. Where do screams go? And did America really think that they could fix Iraq by breaking it? Sunni, Kurds and Shiite all hating and waiting.
In the end I couldn’t do anything for Iraq except leave it. Paul Robeson said “Make them sing your song.” I couldn’t do that in Iraq. So I decided to come home to Montserrat where they said God still lives. If it’s martyrdom you want, we have our own volcano and politics waiting. In life what you don’t know is always more than what you do. Be at peace. Kif-Kif.