Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Houston and Hussein Live in Palestine

When I first arrived in Palestine, Saddam was everywhere. He stood inside frames watching bakers bake their bread. From behind a thin layer of glass or gloss he smiled at passengers in taxis.

One night, with a head full of beer from a visit to Taybeh, I was riding back to my boss’ flat in Ramallah when we came upon a wedding party. From dark and empty hills appeared an illuminated dance floor covered in men. Above it all, spotlights shined on a stone house, its front wall covered with a plastic banner of Yasser Arafat and Saddam holding hands above their heads. The two dead men had brought their good wishes for this new union of the living.

A few nights later, as I was settling in to my life in Abu Dis, a local man from the university took me on a welcoming tour of the village. We visited his father’s store where he sold old watches and Chinese alarm clocks and batteries. On the wall hung a picture of his father as a younger man, wearing the mustache and beret of a Palestinian police official and shaking hands with Chairman Arafat. As Radi’s father prepared thick coffee for us, Saddam sat imprisoned under the glass of the shop counter. He wore the full beard of his final days, screaming muted protests, Koran in hand.

“You see Saddam?” Radi asked.

“Oh, yes, I do.” I had noticed as soon as we walked in.

“We like Saddam very much. We do not like George Bush. The American people we like very much. We love them. You are welcome here.” He lit a cigarette.

“Thank you,” I said, hoping the conversation would move on.

He smiled. “Saddam was a police man. He did good things for Iraq and for the Arabs. Look at Iraq now. Is this what George Bush wanted?” He was speaking as a professor confidently presenting his research. He gestured with both hands, one held his cigarette, the other a cell phone.

His father brought us the coffee. As I brought it to my lips, steam and cardamom filled my nose.

Radi pulled on his cigarette. “Saddam helped the Palestinians. He never forgot about us.” He continued his praise, but his phone had started to ring, and I could barely focus on the lament of Mr. Hussein’s defeat to invasion as it competed with a whole other kind of American power. The cell phone cried out, “And IIIIIIIIIIIeeeeIIIIIIIIIIIIIII Will Alllllwaysssss Love Yooouuuuooooouuu!”

“Ahh, it is my wife,” he answered and told her he would be home soon. “Are you ready to go?” He asked.

I said that that would be fine, thanked his father for the coffee, and we stepped out of the shop and into Radi’s car. 

“So you like Whitney Houston?” I asked.

“Yes, many people love her here. She makes us remember that life can be beautiful.” And then he drove me home.

- February, 2012

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