Much has been written about life under Arab dictatorship. Irrespective of what has been said about the pseudonym “Samir al-Khalil,” Kanan Makiyya’s book “The Republic of Fear” remains one of the most authoritative texts on Arab dictatorial regimes. Recently, I read Al Hayat newspaper editor-in-chief Ghassan Sharbel’s article, “The Confessions of a Dog,” from which the title of this piece is borrowed, and I was reminded once again of what life under the sword in Arab countries is like.
Sharbel begins with a discussion of both the reality and paranoia that surrounded life in Saddam’s Iraq. He describes how the constant sense of being watched by the authorities results in fears of the walls having ears, or of listening devices being planted in cars and coffee tables. The fear reaches the point where the individual even suspects that “they might have planted something in his hair.”
During the height of the Iran-Iraq War, Sharbel went to Iraq as a journalist. Upon befriending an Iraqi, Sharbel inquired about politics in the country. But the man dodged the subject, instead redirecting the conversation toward modern literature and a discussion of literary giants like Flaubert, Proust and Faulkner. Of course, Sharbel had not come to talk literature but to talk about Saddam Hussein and his inner circle.
After Sharbel and the Iraqi man became closer, the journalist invited him to dinner on the shores of the Tigris River. Still, as the meal proceeded, the man evaded any discussion of Iraqi politics, attending instead to his food with eyes fixed on the plate. When the journalist tried to break the silence, he noticed his friend’s tears streaming from underneath his glasses.
Sharbel wrote that being an Arab journalist unfamiliar with living under tyrannical rule is difficult. When the journalist’s guest suddenly said, “My apologies, for they have transformed me into a dog,” Sharbel was perplexed and considered the statement an exaggeration. But the man continued, “I know you do not believe me. But they made of me a dog who smells the food and can think of nothing but swallowing it up until he is full. This is much better than words or analysis, and I have agreed to this change in order to stay alive.”
The Iraqi man raised his head and pointed to a scar low on his forehead and another on his chin. He said the authorities took him one day to the Intelligence Service, where he was asked to confess his ties with the Communist Party and expose his comrades. When he denied any relationship, “the gates of hell” were opened to him, the evidence of which was still fresh on his body. Later he admitted his “guilt” and divulged everything he knew about his friends. He added, “I left that place accompanied by a sense of shame. They broke my dignity and humanity. I felt scorned and started living as a dog whose only concern is to avoid being punished again.”
The exchange between the journalist and his guest reached a dramatic level. The Iraqi man said, “Do you know that they could summon me tomorrow and ask me about the questions you presented me with? I would confess what I heard from you, and would sign any reports they wrote, along with any additions and fabrications. If they summoned me I would betray my relationship with you. I am a dog, but they have denied me even the quality of loyalty that is associated with dogs.”
The man became quite philosophical about suffering under the “historic leader,” as Saddam Hussein has been called, contrasting life in Iraq to life in the journalist’s native Lebanon. He opined that Lebanon is a country difficult to govern and its sovereignty prone to violations by external forces, bearing in mind the time period during which Lebanon was under Syrian control. But he also said that, despite the Arabs having poured their hatred and internal problems on the small country, the Lebanese nevertheless have a great opportunity because they do not live in the shadow of an "historic leader."
What is so peculiar about the experience of living under such a leader? The Iraqi man offers an eloquent answer, "The historic leader makes citizens into a combination of slaves and dogs. He makes you feel that he owns the earth and that you are hosted on it on the condition that you sell your freedom and your humanity. When sitting in an office, you do so under his picture, and when you walk the streets, you pass by statues of him. He makes you feel that he owns your home and children and if you are still alive, it is because he decided not to kill you. His shadow hovers in the living room, dining room, and is almost present in the bedroom.”
The man went on to say that, “the leader eats humans and stones, swallows up the national anthem, poisons books and rivers, and distorts the imaginations of the children. I will not have a child in this country because I do not want him to be made into a dog. I will seize the first opportunity to escape to a country that does not commit the sin of giving birth to a monster who goes by the title ‘historic leader.’”
“Ever since that dinner on the brink of the Tigris, I become overtaken by fear whenever the media over-polishes the hero,” wrote the journalist, “as well as when people applaud a leader too zealously.” “According to Sharbel, the Lebanese body politic has fortunately not given birth to an “historic leader.” “I do not understand my exact reason for writing this article. Perhaps the reader knows. Who knows under what sky my dinner guest lives after fleeing Saddam's Iraq? Nevertheless, I am indebted to him for two transgressions: the first is disclosing our dinner talk, and second is the title of this article.”
Compiled, translated and edited by Elie Chalala
From Al Hayat, August 29, 2011