News that Islamic extremists have conquered Mosul took me back 30 years, to memories of a weekend in the city when I responded to the latest caesura between me and my then-girlfriend in a sane, mature fashion, by drinking as much of a bottle of whisky as I could before passing out.
Iraq, it seems, is about to descend once more into anarchy and chaos, but it wasn’t like that when I worked there in 1983 and ’84, and again in ’86.
When the US and Britain led the invasion in 2003, for what turned out to be no good reason, I found myself wondering whether the removal of Saddam Hussain was all it was cracked up to be.
And that question has come back into my head this week. Did the lives of most ordinary Iraqis get better? I don’t think so. And now they’re about to get a whole lot worse.
I was working as an operating department assistant in Baghdad – like a theatre nurse, but trained just for theatre – in a hospital the Iraqi government had set up to carry out big operations that previously they would have sent abroad.
There was universal health care in Iraq, and universal education. Few people were well off but nobody, as far as I could tell, starved.
True, all we had to go on was the English-language newspaper the Baghdad Observer, with its daily cover stories about Saddam’s latest visit to an adoring Kurd village (this was before the notorious gas attack on Halabja), but national misery is difficult to keep off the streets, and people seemed happy.
Baghdad was noisy and mucky and full of building sites, but it was bustling and thriving. There wasn’t a huge amount in the shops, but people had all they needed to get by.
If you were Kurdish, or a dissident, life wasn’t like that, and I’m not suggesting for a second that we should forget their suffering. But by and large, life was OK in Saddam’s dictatorship.
It was a secular state, and Sunnis and Shias seemed to bump along together; there were plenty of Christians, and even a few Jews left (though they had experienced persecution).
It may have been brainwashing, but Iraqis I came across adored Saddam. Often, as patients drifted off in the anaesthetic room they would invoke his name, sometimes screaming, “Saddaaaaam! Sadaaaaam!” Those who knew some English might mutter to me, “Saddam will take care of me” as their eyes closed.
I’m not saying that this is necessarily a good thing – the psychology of living under a dictator has been much explored, and I doubt much of it makes pleasant reading – but the fact that it was usually just me, them and the anaesthetist there suggests that it wasn’t done out of fear.
So Iraq, when I was there, was a fully functioning state in which it was possible to live a fulfilled life. I’m aware that what I’m saying may be the equivalent of observing that Hitler made the trains run on time. But I wonder how many Iraqis today – particularly those in flight, with nothing but their children and a few hastily gathered possessions – look back on the Saddam years.
Years of oppression? Or years of tolerable normality, when life wasn’t so bad at all?
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