Saddam’s Last Gag

Another onlooker, despite pleas from another for witnesses to observe the proprieties, yells: “Go to hell!” and Saddam, seemingly accusing his enemies of destroying the nation he once led, replies: “The hell that is Iraq?”

— from the Reuters article “Fallen tyrant” taunted in Saddam video by Claudia Parsons, 2007.

The Butcher of Baghdad, whatever else he may have done in his life that was despicable, ended it with quite a good joke. Not only is it a tremendously condensed bit of political satire and a neat bit of wordplay, it’s also a pretty effective heckle put-down. From the same article:

As the hangmen prepare him for his final moment, some of those invited to attend standing below the platform taunted the former president…

Up on his platform, with the crowd beneath, Saddam had been assigned the role of the performer on stage (and like all good theatre stages it had a trapdoor in it). The audience heckled, he gave back as good as he got.

Given that he had a noose round his neck at the time, you’d have forgiven Saddam (if for nothing else) for coming back at the heckle of “Go to hell!” with something a bit first base, like “fuck off” or “no, you go to hell”. But he actually managed to summon up a bit of wit.

The heckle itself — “Go to hell!” — yelled up at Saddam on the gallows, is not unwitty. A yell of “you murdering bastard” would lack the metaphysical twist, that Saddam (if you believe in such things) is any moment heading off to fiery damnation. In a sense “Go to hell!” is transformed by the context of the execution from a mere insult to a command, a command that Saddam can’t help but obey. The dynamic of president/subject is flipped: the humble Iraqi beneath is doing the ordering, the dictator up above is doing the obeying.

But Saddam wasn’t going quietly. He took the idea of hell and ran with it. He offered an ironic interpretation of the insult, which focuses in on the meaning of the word “hell”. Behind Saddam’s comeback — “The hell that is Iraq?” — is the implied question: what do you mean by “hell”? In a decompressed form, Saddam’s remark would be something like:

What do you mean by “hell”? Do you mean, “the hell that is Iraq”?

Saddam’s joke is a radical deflation of the heckler’s metaphysics: he demythologises the onlooker’s traditional concept of an other-worldly damnation and replaces it with a starkly political, humanised vision of hell-on-earth. And in doing so, he flips the “Go” of “Go to hell!” back at the heckler — he’s not going to hell, he is already in hell. They all are. The heckler who is commanding Saddam to go to hell is heckling from hell.

It’s an impressive bit of verbal judo. But it begs the question: when Saddam likens current day Iraq to hell, does he still believe in the existence of an unearthly realm of fire and punishment? How thorough-going is his demythologising?

Suppose he were offering a completely anti-metaphysical vision of the world, in which heaven and hell are made by men, here on earth. If so, he would be implying that insofar as he is about to be killed, he is the only one there who is actually leaving hell. But I think that would be to push Saddam’s irony a little too far. Or rather, to push it in the wrong direction.

When Saddam says “The hell that is Iraq?” before launching into his final prayers, I think he still believes in the hell that isn’t Iraq — hell proper — but I don’t think he thinks he’s going there. In such a terse joke he still manages to carve himself a big slice of moral justification. The onlooker’s yell is a politically charged statement, it’s offering up an interpretation of recent Iraqi history: “you’re going to hell for what you’ve done to Iraq”. To this, Saddam is offering a counter-interpretation: “Iraq has been turned into hell”, and obviously not by him. In his joke, the ruination of Iraq (for which he’s being hanged, and heckled) is clearly meant as something that’s been inflicted on Iraq by other forces. He’s declaring his own innocence whilst damning others. I’ll say this for Saddam, he manages to pack a hell of a lot into a single zinger.

There’s a lot of pressure on gallows humour. You only get one shot at it. There are no retakes. And I think Saddam’s quip is as strong an example of gibbet wit as we’ll see for a long time. His snarled punchline offers not just a reinterpretation of the words in the comment, but a radically opposed understanding of the world. He’s doing what every great comic tries to do: to make his audience see the world differently. Shame it was such a short gig.