BAGHDAD — I’ve spent the last few days driving around looking for those signs of exuberant jubilation that you see on CNN. I don’t know where they find them. I’ve come across one anemic parade down Karada Street, a few dozen men and a handful of women chanting out, “Saddam is nothing.” The women were the most exuberant. Four older Shiites in black abaya robes saying, over and over again, in Arabic and English, “I am so happy. I am so happy.” Along Karada, the main shopping strip in Baghdad, men stood in front of their shops, staring blankly at the revelers.
That was the only celebration I’ve seen. The streets are particularly empty this week, more because of the gas shortage than anything else, and the people who are out seem — what is it? — not happy, not miserable, just sort of resigned, and pensive, and shocked. Some celebratory gunfire could be heard on the streets Sunday night after Saddam’s arrest was announced. But it was nothing compared to the all-night shooting a couple of months ago when Iraq’s soccer team qualified for the Asia Cup. That was so constant and heavy we thought the full-on revolt had begun.
The Iraqi response to the capture of Saddam Hussein is a lot more complicated, a lot more difficult to understand, than the simple pictures that are coming out: angry protesters in Tikrit, celebrations everywhere else. Almost every Iraqi I’ve approached, and I’ve approached a lot of them, says pretty much the same thing: “Yes, yes, I’m happy.” But they don’t look happy, and they don’t have much to say about Saddam’s capture. At a gas station in southern Baghdad, an inconceivably long line of cars snakes down a road, around the corner, and up over a bridge all the way across the Tigris.
One cabdriver, Emad, said, “Yes, I’m happy Saddam was caught.” Then he spent several minutes complaining about how little gas there is in Baghdad and how he has to spend 12 hours every other day in this long line. A few blocks east, an appliance salesman said, “I’m happy,” and then went into a long speech about how the economy is so bad and nobody is buying his refrigerators or TVs.
I was with my friend Amjad on Sunday at the press conference where official word came and the first images of Saddam’s health check were shown. Amjad was smiling, but told me he really wanted to cry. I’ve spent most of the time since with him and have watched him be giddy, glum, distracted, angry. I asked him to sit down and explain what he’s been feeling all week. “I’m not happy,” he said, then corrected himself. “You can say I’m happy and sad. For sure, it’s a mixture of feelings inside all Iraqis here. You can feel they are happy, but if you sit with them and reach the depth of their feelings, you can sense the sadness. You can sense the anger. It’s very strange to get all these feelings together in one moment.”
Amjad didn’t want me to think his confusion meant he supports Saddam. “Of course, I hate him very much, because he caused all this suffering. I have two of my relatives who’ve been killed by Saddam. I’m sad because the people who captured Saddam were not the Iraqis. For sure, if Iraqis got him, they would not give him any chance to stay alive. He’s very happy the Americans caught him. I’m also sad because there’s a feeling inside me saying this guy is still an Iraqi guy, and arresting him in such a humiliating way is very sad for me. He’s still Iraqi, no matter what he’s done. You lived with this man for 35 years. You know him. It’s just like he’s one of the family. I mean, your son is acting in a wrong way, he commits a murder, you still will defend him.
“You can feel the humiliation. He humiliated the Iraqis by surrendering himself to the Americans without any fight. Without firing any bullet. Believe me, if Saddam shot one bullet against the Americans or at least killed himself, believe me, 90 percent of the Iraqis will admire him. Because then we will feel he is a man of honor, he is a man who keeps his word. He is a man.
“There is another humiliation. We’ve been cheated by this man.” Amjad explained that Iraqis attributed supernatural powers to Saddam. He could read minds, commune with spirits, use magic to subdue his enemies. They lived in his thrall, they thought, because he was the most powerful man alive. “And now, seeing the reality of this man is a disaster for us. We’ve been cheated by a worthless man, and we’ve been ruled by a worthless man.”
Iraqis, no matter how they loathed Saddam, took pride in him, Amjad told me. “Believe me, all the Arab people, when they hear that you are from Iraq, he will rush to you and gather around and ask about Saddam, saying you should be very proud for having Saddam as your leader. He’s a symbol, he’s a star, he defends Palestine. And now, the same people, the same Arab countries see this man handing himself to the Americans.
“It’s a very humiliating issue. Now they will think all Iraqis are only men of words, without deeds. They say lots of things but do nothing.”
Iraqis will, of course, spend the rest of their lives struggling with the meaning of Saddam, while many foreign journalists are trying to reduce it all to simple emotions. This happens all the time. The American occupation is summed up in two kinds of images: the positive — the Saddam statue toppled — and the negative — suicide bombers, looters and U.S. Humvees blown up. But I’ve found it impossible to ascribe any single emotion to Iraqis. So much has changed so quickly that they still have no idea what their future will look like or how to take account of their past. The capturing of Saddam is definitive, and, given all the big problems in Iraq now, it’s also kind of irrelevant. And we’re just going to have to give Iraqis time to figure out what all of this means.
Adam Davidson is the Iraq correspondent for Minnesota Public Radio’s Marketplace.