Sahaf Plays to the Poetic Spirit of Arab Mind

David Lamb, LA Times
Publication Date: 
Wed, 2003-04-09 03:00

CAIRO, 9 April 2003 — As the new media star of the Iraq war, Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf gave the performance of his life on Monday, predicting victory with a confident smile, insulting the Americans in flowery Arabic and declaring that Baghdad was “safe and secure.’’

With the smoke of battle hanging over Baghdad, Sahaf, Iraq’s minister of information, stood on the roof of the Palestine Hotel, his finger jabbing at an imaginary target, and told foreign reporters that the invading “louts’’ and “mercenaries’’ were being “slaughtered.’’ Apparently pleased with his choice of words, he paused and grinned, then went on, “Like Saddam Hussein said, God will grill their bellies in hell!’’

Never mind that in the streets below, bursts of machine-gun fire from US tanks echoed through the city, and in the nearby presidential palace, American soldiers were taking showers in Saddam’s bathroom. Sahaf was firm: “We have killed most of the infidels, and I think we will finish off the rest soon.’’

If truth is the first casualty of war, Sahaf has piled up an awesome body count as the face and voice of the Saddam regime. For 19 days, he has stood at the briefing podium, a pistol on his hip, his black beret at a cocky angle, his military uniform bearing two small medallions — one a portrait of Saddam, the other an Iraqi flag — and explained to journalists that TV pictures of US troops taking over the international airport and patrolling Baghdad were fakes or illusions. The war, he maintained, was proceeding precisely as Iraq had planned it.

“Washington and London,’’ he said, “have thrown their soldiers into the fire.’’

Westerners shake their heads in disbelief at his upbeat comments, wondering if they have heard him correctly. “If this weren’t a war, you’d think it was a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit,’’ said Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense. An equally mystified Air Marshal Brian Burridge, commander of the British forces in Iraq, added: “The only thing I want to know is where he got his marketing degree.’’

Even Sahaf’s own underlings in the Iraqi Information Ministry can’t suppress the occasional snicker when he unrolls one of his snippets of alternate reality.

But Sahaf, 63, who has a master’s in English literature from Baghdad University and is a former Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, isn’t stupid, and he doesn’t seem to mind playing the buffoon. His audience isn’t the Americans or British. Across the Arab world, his virulent insults, biting humor and stinging cuss words have made Sahaf as much a household name as was Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf to Americans in the first Gulf War.

“For those who are against the war, Sahaf offers some kind of Nirvanic pleasure,’’ said Hassan Yassin, an Arab businessman. “He is a tranquilizer for the Arab masses. He’s colorful. He’s brought some dormant Arabic words into his descriptions. He is a verbal slugger.’’ He is also a seasoned political operative who is considered close to Saddam and has been savvy enough to survive for decades in one of the world’s most cutthroat capitals.

Like Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, he is one of the few to do so despite being a Shiite Muslim in a regime of Sunni Muslims, and without being a relative or clansman of Saddam. Sahaf was studying to be an English teacher when he began his political career by joining Saddam’s violent wing of the Baath Party in 1963. During a 1968 coup, he was given responsibility for securing the radio and television stations, and later was put in charge of both.

During that period, and later as an ambassador and foreign minister, Sahaf was known for his abrasive style and hot temper. He stormed out of an Arab League meeting in 1998 after trading insults with fellow members he considered US lackeys. In 2001, he was said to have called US Secretary of State Colin L. Powell “stupid’’ to his face. He once told Saddam’s son Uday he was “unfit to govern’’ — an all-but-certain death warrant for any but the president’s most favored comrades.

Today, Arab housewives turn on TV news just to hear his briefings. Men gather in coffee shops to puff on long water pipes and chuckle aloud at the scorn he heaps on the Americans and British with self-assured defiance.

TV announcers pour through dictionaries to look up the meanings of seldom-used Arabic words he uses for insults. The latest was “olouj’’ — a worm that attaches to the body and sucks blood.

“I wait for his press conference every day,’’ said Sherifa, a mother of two in Cairo. “He is the only entertainment we get in this awful war.’’

“His insults are a bit vulgar, but I like his style,’’ said Mohammed Ali, a Cairo construction worker. “I notice the Americans don’t use insults in their briefings. But they do a lot of killing, and I prefer a man who relies on insults.’’

Sahaf, bespectacled, stocky and clean-shaven — unlike many Iraqi officials who wear Saddam-look-alike mustaches — shows every indication of reveling in his newfound stardom. With his booming voice and melodramatic gestures, he switches between Arabic and fluent English, speaking with rhetorical exaggeration that plays well with Arab audiences. Sometimes he pauses to await his listeners’ response to a well-chosen insult.

His translator plays along, occasionally adding his own lines to the entertainment, as he did on Monday, slipping in, “Go to hell! I say, ‘Go to hell!’ ‘’ after Sahaf declared that invading troops should go home to avoid slaughter. The translator simply skips insults that rest in Arab lore and would not be understood by Westerners.

In forging a new language of diplomacy, some of Sahaf’s recent descriptions of Americans and British include “bloodsucking bastards,’’ “sick dogs’’ and “donkeys.’’ US forces are “sick in their minds’’ and “losers and fools.’’ President Bush is a “war criminal’’ and “stupid.’’ British Prime Minister Tony Blair is “a part of the body near the posterior’’ and “not worth a shoe.’’ US Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld is a “criminal dog.’’

Asked by journalists over the weekend if coalition forces had entered Baghdad, as Western network cameras were showing, he said with a pleasant smile, “If they have, we will greet them with flowers.’’ He dismissed TV video pictures of thousands of American troops at the airport with an offhand, “That isn’t happening.’’

Not that he is entirely unflappable. He has a habit of cutting off news briefings when the questions get too close to trapping him in a falsehood. After he claimed, one day recently, that US troops at the Baghdad airport had parachuted in for show, he became visibly annoyed when a reporter asked if their tanks had parachuted in too.

His loyal fans are willing to overlook such contradictions.

Abdel Sayed, a civil servant, dropped into a Cairo coffee shop on Monday to catch the noon news on Al-Jazeera TV. He watched US Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks briefing journalists in Qatar on the coalition’s advance into Baghdad but brushed him aside in a moment with a wave of the hand. When Sahaf came on a few minutes later, Sayed set his water pipe aside and bent forward to hear every word.

“This man has credibility,’’ he said. “I like the mockery he uses, but what is important to the man in the street is his credibility. You can trust him. Just two days ago he said Iraq had a surprise for the Americans at the airport. And look what happened. The Iraqis attacked that night and took back the airport.’’

The fact that there was no such Iraqi attack and that most of what Sahaf says bears little relationship to reality is lost on Sayed and many millions of Arabs.

“From the communications point of view,’’ said an Arab official, “Sahaf is doing a good job because he’s working in the emotional area, telling people what they want to hear. He’s playing to the poetic spirit of the Arab mind.

The average street person in Egypt, Jordan, wherever, has no experience with communications and doesn’t understand he’s being lied to.’’

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