The four-part mini-series “House of Saddam”, the first episode of which was screened on BBC TV last week, gives a remarkably vivid and convincing portrayal of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and his relationships with his inner circle and his family.
The series, which runs for a total of four hours, was made jointly by the BBC and HBO of the US. It might seem surprising that Saddam is played by Israeli actor Igal Naor. And yet Naor has an uncanny physical resemblance to Saddam, and conveys his charm and charisma as well as the flaws that would contribute to his downfall. Saddam comes across as an extraordinary mixture of warmth and cruelty, idealism and megalomania. He had ambitions for Iraq on the Arab and world stage, but was sidetracked by family feuds and the threat of conspiracies.
Naor has strong Iraqi connections of his own. His parents were Iraqi Jews who emigrated from Iraq to Israel in 1951. “In my first five years I grew up as if I was in Baghdad.
I lived in a neighborhood which was inhabited mainly by Iraqis and spoke only Arabic because I grew up with my grandmother who didn’t know a word of Hebrew.”
The actor read various books to prepare for his performance, in particular “Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge” by Palestinian author Said Aburish. During a joint interview with Naor on the BBC World Service, Aburish said: “The great achievement of the cast is that you managed to put yourselves in the place of the various people there – your performance and the other performances are magical, congratulations to you.”
Aburish added that Naor has captured the swagger, gestures and nuances of Saddam. “This is not a Hollywood Arab made up for the occasion: this is a real Arab who had his own motives, who could be moved by certain things, and reacted to certain things in a certain way.”
The series is a reminder of where Saddam came from, and of his humble, impoverished roots. His mother Subha Talfah, heavily wrinkled and clad in black, continued to exert a powerful influence on him. Saddam never knew his father Hussein Al Majid, who is thought to have died before he was born. Subha’s second husband, Hajj Hassan Ibrahim, seems to have treated Saddam unkindly. One theme of “House of Saddam” is the way in which Saddam plays on the rivalry between the Al-Majids and the Ibrahims.
Subha is adamant that Saddam’s eldest daughter Raghad should marry the son of Saddam’s half-brother and head of security Barzan, and she repeats this wish on her deathbed. She also tells Saddam that it was good he never knew his father because he had “mad blood”. Saddam whispers angrily to her “you gave me nothing”, and after her death he lies to Barzan that it was her dying wish that Raghad should marry his cousin Hussein Kamel. Barzan is furious at the marriage, and even more so when Saddam informs him that Kamel is to replace him as head of his personal security. The wiry, watchful Barzan is played with intensity by the actor Said Taghmaoui who was born in France to Moroccan parents and has had a 14-year international film career.
At the beginning of the first episode, it is March 2003 and members of Saddam’s leadership clustered around a television in the Presidential Palace. US President George W Bush is promising the Iraqi people that “the tyrant will soon be gone” and that their day of liberation is near.
Bush gives Saddam and his sons Uday and Qusay a 48-hour ultimatum to leave Iraq, or there will be a military conflict. When the attack on Baghdad starts ,Saddam’s wife Sajida and daughters and their families prepare to leave the country. Saddam tells his sons: “We will not move from Iraq.
We will keep moving until the Americans are defeated.”
The time frame then jumps back to summer 1979, with Saddam on the verge of pushing President Ahmad Al-Bakr aside and seizing the presidency for himself. Saddam sees it as a critical time for Iraq. He opposes the union with Syria announced the previous autumn, and neighboring Iran is in the tumult of the aftermath of the revolution, with Khomeini is railing against the Iraqi regime.
Soon after ousting Bakr, Saddam carries out a gruesome purge of the top ranks of the Baath party, with the names of the suspects called out during a meeting of several hundred party officials. The accused officials, who are said to be involved in a Syrian plot against Saddam, are forced to shoot each other.
Saddam even kills his long-time best friend and comrade Adnan Hamdani (played by Palestinian-American actor and producer Waleed Zuaiter). Saddam embraces Hamdani, tells him “forgive me, you were always my friend”, and then shoots him dead.
Why did Saddam kill a man who was not only his best friend, but apparently loyal to him? Saddam told Sajida he had done what was necessary. “The man who can sacrifice even his best friend is a man without weakness. In the eyes of my enemies, I am stronger now.”
The first episode also includes the severe reprisals against the village of Dujail after an assassination attempt on Saddam during a visit there in July 1982.
Under the direction of Barzan, many people are killed and the whole town is razed to the ground.
In writing the script of the series, co-writers Alex Holmes and Stephen Butchard spent two years on research, including extensive interviews with members of Saddam’s regime, and eyewitnesses such as his cooks and bodyguards.
Even former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz answered questions from his prison cell through his lawyer, although Saddam declined a request to do so.
The first-rate cast includes some of the most successful actors from the Middle East. Saddam’s wife Sajida is played by the famous Iranian actress, Shoreh Aghdashloo, best known in the West for her roles in the film “House of Sand and Fog” and in the TV series “24”.
The Egyptian actor Amr Waked plays Saddam’s cousin and aide Hussein Kamel. There was a fuss last year when it emerged that he would be performing alongside an Israeli actor. Egypt’s actors’ union criticized him for “normalizing” with Israel, and it was reported he could be banned from filming in Egypt in the future.
Waked said: “I understand their political statement, but this is not an Israeli movie.”
Jerusalem-born Palestinian actor Makram K Khoury plays urbane Tariq Aziz. Algeria-born Said Amadis, who grew up in France, plays the heavy-set Adnan Khairallah, Sajida’s brother. Hussein’s cousin Ali Hassan Al-Majid (who would later become notorious in the West as “Chemical Ali”) is portrayed by Israeli actor Uri Gavriel as having a coarse vulgarity.
On a visit to a school with TIME magazine journalists, to show them how popular he is with schoolchildren, Saddam encounters the woman who will become his mistress, Samira Shahbandar.
She is played by Australian actress Christine Stephen-Daly. The actress had doubts about playing an Iraqi woman, but then learned that Shahbandar, a married woman who would eventually be divorced and become Saddam’s second wife had, like her, blonde hair and green eyes. The hair of Saddam’s wife Sajida, which is dark in the first episode, becomes blonde in subsequent episodes as she tries to compete with Saddam’s young mistress.