Celebrating Hussein’s demise; gazing warily at the future


By Keith Crandell

Last week, my friend Haitham Abdullah treated me to a celebratory meal at Café Colonial, a small restaurant on E. Houston St. at Elizabeth St. Haitham is an Islamic art scholar, a son of a past president of Baghdad University, and a man who regards Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party with the utmost loathing.

“I have been waiting for this moment for decades,” said Haitham over brunch.

For Haitham, the collapse and demise of the Hussein government mitigates somewhat the grim deaths of civilians and the destruction of Iraqi society.

Haitham hopes that Hussein and his close associates are taken into custody. He believes that Hussein is quite likely still in Iraq.

“There is a long tradition in Iraq of giving sanctuary to fugitives, and it is likely that he is taking advantage of this tradition,” Haitham believes. He sees it as unlikely that any of the surrounding Arab governments would knowingly take Hussein in.

Meanwhile, as the regime collapsed, the Baathists, he believes, carried out their threat to take the country down with them as they were defeated.

“Ordinary Iraqi citizens would not have burned the libraries or destroyed the museums and their ancient artifacts” he asserted. “Nor would they have ravaged their hospitals,” he continued.

He believes that the wanton destruction was in keeping with the character of the Baathists.

Haitham recalls that his father had a dream of creating a university comparable to the ideals of the original City College of New York, a free, democratic school open to all, to Sunnis, to Shiites and to Christians, to Turkmen, to Jews, to Kurds. Before the advent of the Baath party, there was a brief period, less than a decade, in which a variety of ideas flourished. In that period, Haitiam’s father, who had attended Mass-achusetts Institute of Tech-nology, sought to realize his ideals in Baghdad. It was an era in which, according to Eric Davis, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University, the Iraqi government under Gen. Abdel Katrim Kassem “showed that xenophobia, brutality and nepotism need not be the norm of Iraqi public life.” He proved that ethnic schisms were not part of the Iraqi national character.

Alas, the Baath Party, for which Saddam Hussein was the behind-the-scenes strong man, overthrew the government in a coup in 1963. For years afterward, the Baathist coup was referred to as the “C.I.A. Train.” Iraqis believed that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the Central Intelligence Agency supported the Baath takeover. Kassem was executed. Haitham’s father, the president of the university, was among those who was arrested almost immediately. During a relaxation of tensions, he was freed after a year in prison, and came to America, where he soon died. Haitham brought him home to Baghdad to be buried.

Now, Haitham hopes to return to Baghdad next year. He still has relatives there. He hopes to learn the fate of his family’s home in Baghdad and whether there is any value left for his mother, who lives with his twin brother in Upstate New York.

What he feels most strongly about is visiting his father’s grave.

“It is something I feel I must do,” he said somberly.

It will be his first visit to Baghdad in 25 years.

In 1979, Haitham fled Baghdad under threat of arrest, wandering for years in Algeria, Italy, France, Cyprus and Russia, before returning to the United States, where he is an artist and an adjunct professor of Islamic art at City College and Cooper Union. He supplements his artistic and teaching income as a security supervisor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As for the future of Iraq, Haitham is apprehensive that with the Baathists overthrown, the Bush administration will make mistakes comparable to those it has made in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, he is convinced, they’ve made alliances with the warlords, the worst elements in the society. So far in Iraq, they’ve been working with the most conservative elements in Iraqi society.

“I am not optimistic,” he said.

After a brief pause, he added, “But we must hope for the best.”