If you are what you eat, could we all be dictators too? The unusual appetites of these men with something to hide. The roll-call: Hitler; Tito; Napoleon; Pinochet; Mao; Mussolini; Saddam; Stalin; and Peròn.
The al Himaya, Saddam’s personal bodyguards, had to keep their beady eyes on the team of chefs who, trained in European cuisine, cooked up his meals. A food taster would take the first bite; for some reason Saddam couldn’t count on his resident soothsayer to predict whether poison was on the menu. Ironically enough, Saddam’s food taster, Hanna Geogo (the son of one of his chefs) had thrived on Saddam’s suppers until Saddam’s enraged son, Udai, killed him publicly at a banquet attended by foreign dignitaries. The wife of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak must have paused between courses when she witnessed Udai gun down the food taster. The story goes that Udai had blamed Geogo for fixing Saddam up with blonde Samira Shabandar, who had become the second Mrs. Hussein in 1986. Fun-loving Udai also fed the Minister for Health to a pack of ravenous dogs…
In Saddam’s many palaces the staff went through the ruse of preparing three meals a day for him, pretending Saddam was in residence to fool his enemies – he never stayed more than one night in one place. Remember all those doubles as well? If he turned up for a meal in a restaurant in down-town Baghdad, a flock of security staff would descend on the kitchens, insisting on Saddam’s orders that all cooking utensils be scrubbed clean. There was, then, fastidiousness to Saddam’s eating habits that no amount of urban myth about him tucking into Quality Street can ignore. After all, it was Saddam who said, ‘If we are satisfied only by food, we become worms or poultry’ – though he was fond of this sort of machismo posturing. True to this vein of thought, Saddam liked to eat modest portions, accompanying his meals with a glass of Matteus Rosé. Only the finest. Apparently, he also liked a glass of Old Parr whisky…
Workaholic Saddam used to rise from his small cot (oh yes) at 5 a.m., don his crimson bathrobe, drink coffee in his room – purportedly filled with books on Stalin – and follow a rigorous model of personal hygiene. He manicured his nails, was obsessed with his corns, brushed his teeth with Colgate, regularly dyed his moustache satin black, and washed with Lux soap. Hussein famously recommended that one (especially if ‘one’ is female) bathe twice a day, because: ‘It's not appropriate for someone to attend a gathering or to be with his children with his body odor trailing behind him emitting sweet or stinky smell mixed with perspiration.’ Such fastidiousness may be accounted for by Saddam’s humble Tikriti origins. He grew up in a traditional Iraqi mud brick hut, animals in close proximity, with no electricity or running water. Saddam had to become a hustler at a young age, stealing chickens and eggs to feed the family, selling watermelons at the roadside. According to one Saddam biographer, Said Aburish, Saddam’s family were from one of those social groupings known as ili baklyu bi al khamsah, in other words, they ate with all five fingers as they had no eating utensils. They would gather around a communal pot, eating with their hands largely meatless meals based on the staple rice.
Saddam’s passion for fish resurfaces at different points. As a young man he used a popular teenage Iraqi method of catching fish by lobbing an explosive device into the water. Later, he would stock with fish the artificial lakes that surrounded his palace at Tharthar and fish there with King Hussein of Jordan in the eighties. He loved swimming in the Tigris; when his family was young he could be spotted picnicking on the riverbank with them. The fish dishes of 64 year old Ayyub al-Obeidi, owner of a Baghdad restaurant in Abu Nawwas Street, were a favourite with Saddam: ‘Saddam loved my fish. He used to send his guards to order from me two or three times a week.’ The last time Saddam ordered fish from Ayyub was in April 2003, two months before the regime collapsed.
The Hussein family was hooked on ‘masguf’ a delicious Tigris river fish (a type of carp) and Baghdadi specialty that is grilled over palm fronds on an open brush wood fire. In present day Iraq, some imams have declared a fatwa against carp from the Tigris as unfit for human consumption, as so many human bodies have been dumped in the river. Many inhabitants of Baghdad have had to resort to eating farmed carp rather than the large fish that feed off the riverbed.
In 1989, our friend from the fish restaurant, Ayyub, travelled to the village where Saddam was born, Awjah, to prepare masguf for Queen Noor of Jordan and Mrs. Hussein (first wife Sajida). Ayyub claims that while Saddam loved fish, he preferred ‘small fish’ – does this have an ominous ring to it? Arguably, Saddam’s fondness for finned creatures cemented his relationship with erstwhile ally and gourmand, Jacques Chirac. Chirac visited Saddam, who he called in fondness, ‘Mon ami, Saddam’, in Iraq in 1975. Jacques Chirac was then Prime Minister for Giscard d’Estaing’s government. Saddam and Jacques made a happy couple, when in 1975, they shared masguf at Ben Geogheahan after negotiating fighter aircraft sales and set up a programme whereby France would help Iraq to develop its nuclear capacity.
Saddam also paid a visit to France, which was marked by, among other excesses, gastronomic delights. Orly Airport was bedecked with the eagle of Saladin, a national emblem of Iraq. Champagne and French cocktail sandwiches were to hand. After dining out for several days at state banquets, Chirac’s wooing of oil-rich 38 year old Saddam was topped off by a weekend at the exclusive Oustau de Baumanière in Provence, courtesy of famous French chef Raymond Thullier (Chirac also courted Deng Xiaoping there).
Saddam ‘glowed like a peacock’, Thullier claimed, basking in the attention Chirac paid him. They were like ‘bride and bridegroom’ as they sipped coffee together. However, Saddam couldn’t resist the opportunity to return the favour inviting Chirac to a banquet at Marigny Palace, which nestles alongside Elysée. Guess what was on the menu? You’ve got it, Iraqi carp barbecued over open fires – masguf! However, the carp connection doesn’t stop there. Fishy as it may seem, Chirac is reported to have developed what amounts to an addiction for masguf carp and Saddam had to arrange for one and a half tonnes of masguf to be transported by air to Paris as a gift for Chirac.
In a sense, few things better illustrate Saddam’s fall from grace than the tuck that lay around him when he was surprised in his final hiding place by U.S. forces. Our fallen dictator’s last supper was uncovered near the jerrybuilt shack where Saddam hid. As one would expect, he was found near Tikrit, by the banks of the Tigris. Of companions, there was no sign. Just honey, pistachio nuts, a nearly empty cardboard box of Bounty bars and a half-consumed bowl of tomato salad lay abandoned on a table in the outdoor kitchen…