I am introduced to the new restaurant manager of the hotel. The man has a polite look about him and speaks good English. But he looks nervous. Within a minute of speaking to me he confides that he worked inside Saddam’s main palace in Baghdad for 28 years. He was responsible for organising all Saddam’s parties and formal engagements, as well as his daily meals.
What was Saddam like? I ask. The man shakes his head. “Did you like him?” “No… but what could I do, you cannot leave such a job. Anyway Saddam liked me. If he ever had a problem he would call on me personally and I would sit with him.” “Did he ever harm you?” “No not me but I saw him harm others.” “Who?” The man thinks for a moment. “During the war with Iran, I saw him shoot 4 Iranians with his own pistol in the grounds of the palace.”
A waiter passes. The new manager pauses, waits for the waiter to pass, then continues whispering to me. Our conversation has an eerie feel of the ‘Saddam days’ about it, days when it was impossible to speak freely. “When did you last see Saddam?” “He was sat with us in the palace when news came through that the Americans were 45 minutes from Baghdad. I remember, he said to his staff, ‘Stay inside here .. you will be safe .. I need to go and look after my people.’ Saddam left the palace and made his last public appearance on the streets of Baghdad surrounded by cheering crowds. He never returned to the palace.”
The new manager looks nervous as he tells me of his stories. On the one hand it isn’t something he is proud of, but on the other hand he is trying to show me, the British man from the BBC, that he was once ‘somebody’. There were thousands of Iraqi’s that used to work for Saddam, thousands of people that used to be ‘somebody’ who today are unemployed.
I imagine the status this man had in the ‘Saddam days’, when he was ‘somebody’, when he was effectively the President’s personal assistant, in charge of all the palace staff. He was well paid, had a big house, always carried 3 pistols, but now he has nothing to protect him. The man wipes sweat from his brow… “You know my family have received death threats.. I’m a target because of my work with Saddam. I really have to leave Iraq but it is hard. I have 5 children, the youngest is only 3.” “I’m too scared to go home, at the moment I am sleeping here, on the restaurant floor at night.”
This man is a shadow of his former self. Samir offers him a reassuring nod. For Samir knows what it is like to fall from grace, once Iraq’s most famous pianist, he now plays this empty hotel bar just to eek a living out of this newly liberated land.