That Saddam Hussein. What a character.
As his trial resumed this past week, we learned that the deposed leader of Iraq was shocked - shocked, I tell you - by the Abu Ghraib prison photos, which he hadn't seen until his lawyer produced them in court in April.
Said his lawyer, Bushra Khalil, to London's Sunday Times:
"I was scared as his eyes were focused so intensely on the pictures and I could see the shock on his face."
Saddam's thinking: Nude pyramids. Why didn't I think of that?!
The same story goes on to describe Saddam as a poet more interested in foreign affairs than his own trial. An American guard says: "His personality is very different from what we expected," by way of confirming Saddam's assertion that he and his guards have become friends.
We also learn that Saddam is "resolute," while we are to infer that he is brave in the face of death and loyal to his countrymen. He's ready to die, he said, and he'd stand firm again were his country to be invaded.
Fortunately, I was all out of hankies as this story hit the wires. Also, providentially, I happened to be reading a book that allowed me to maintain perspective even as others apparently were wilting in the presence of lunatic grandiosity.
The book is called "Mayada, Daughter of Iraq," by Jean Sasson, and tells the story of a woman journalist, Mayada Al-Askari, who was arrested and tortured in 1999 along with the other "shadow women" of cell 52 in Baladiyat prison.
I might have missed Mayada's story, published three years ago, if a friend of mine, Salley Lesley, hadn't written a song inspired by the book, which in turn inspired me to read it.
You, too, may have missed it. Sasson says many newspapers and networks (Fox was one exception) declined to interview Mayada when she visited the United States. The French refused to publish the book, in which Mayada speaks briefly of her appreciation for President George W. Bush and the liberation of Iraq.
Perhaps it helps to have been kidnapped by government thugs, separated from one's children, thrown behind bars, beaten, shocked, half-starved - and kept awake every night by the screams of other tortured innocents - to appreciate a war that few support three years later.
Even Mayada is critical of the lack of postwar planning that has led to the deaths of many more innocents, but she isn't likely to be swayed by Saddam's prison bonhomie or his jailhouse poetry.
Her own story is an epic valentine to humanity, a sort of tortured "Decameron" wherein a group of women kept each other alive by telling their stories. Mayada's kept the women spellbound, as she recounted her aristocratic family history, as well as her prior relationship with Saddam, who had given her three writing awards.
All that changed for Mayada one day when Saddam's henchmen rounded up the owners of 10 print shops in the Baghdad area. Someone - no one knew who - had printed leaflets critical of the government. Without a culprit, all were guilty, including Mayada, despite the fact that Saddam revered her family.
Mayada's paternal grandfather was commander of the Arab Regular Army, which fought with T.E. Lawrence and Prince Faisal against the Ottoman Empire. Her maternal grandfather was Sati Al-Husri, a scholar widely considered the father of Arab nationalism.
Little matter. As one of Mayada's guards told her, "...all Iraqis are under arrest. They take turns picking us up and bringing us in. Even I have been locked up and tortured on two occasions."
The tortures described by Mayada through Sasson - one woman returned from a session with smoke billowing from her mouth from her scorched insides - are cruel reminders of what life was like under Saddam.
As it turned out, Mayada's connections were of some help. She was released after only one month. Before she left, the other women told Mayada their families' phone numbers and begged her to tell their stories. Their only hope was that a well-placed bribe would bring their release.
Mayada tried to call the women's families before escaping to Jordan, but to little avail. Some phones had been disconnected; others were answered by people too terrified to listen. They hung up.
Today, Mayada lives in Dubai and doesn't know what happened to her cellmates. She only knows that if they didn't die at Baladiyat, they are free.