Friday, July 07, 2006

Ala Bashir, The Insider And The Artist

During Iran-Iraq war, newly-employed Iraqi women, who worked for the government, were required to serve one year in a hospital to assist nurses in their daily tasks. My one-year service started one month after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. As with everything in Iraq, you must work around the system to be assigned to a good hospital. My friend had some connections at the Department of Health and our preferred choice at Al-Wasiti Hospital was granted.

Dr. Ala Bashir was the manager of Al-Wasiti. So we not only landed at a good hospital, but we got to meet the famous Iraqi Artist at his workplace. If you lived in Iraq during the last 25 years, then you probably heard of him and had seen his paintings on TV or in an art gallery.

I always looked for his daring paintings when the Iraqi TV station covered art galleries where his work appeared. Unless you're an idiot, you wouldn't think twice before you realized his paintings were a reflection of the suffering of Iraqi people under Saddam's regime. Luckily for him, Saddam loved his paintings and interpreted them as a reflection of the suffering of Iraqi people at the hand of everyone else except his regime. The mirror has two faces as they say.

I once was listening to a radio interview with Dr. Ala Bashir. I remember him telling a story of him winning an award. I can't recall the details of the award. But, I recall one of his colleagues or friends who wondered at the time why Bashir wasn't showing any sign of excitement. Bashir said he doesn't overreact in either happy or sad situations. I remember thinking I must be normal since there's someone else who behaves the way I do. I rarely show emotions in happy or sad situations. I learned over time to keep my emotions under control when dealing with day-to-day life storms. I sometimes fail myself, but such is life.

So yes, I looked forward to reading his book, "The Insider: Trapped in Saddam's Brutal Regime." First, I wanted to know more about the person behind the paintings and how he survived being the tyrant's favorite doctor. Second, I wanted to know more about the hospital I worked in for one year. I wasn't disappointed with either wish.

A third reason was an impossible wish, but it was granted too. It's something I discussed on my Chaldean Thoughts blog about Arab Jews:

The first day I arrived at the hospital, I learned from the whispers that doctor XYZ is an Iraqi Jew. It wasn't hard to figure that one myself from his father's name. The patients were told he's a Muslim. I asked around why he had to say he's a Muslim. A nurse told me that's how he and his family can stay unharmed in Iraq. He was a very sweet guy. I hope he's still safe.


My friend and I always wondered how this humble Iraqi Jewish doctor got a job at a hospital that's considered a wing of the military hospital in Baghdad. Dr. Bashir wrote in his book that Dr. XYZ -- his real name is mentioned in the book -- was one of his best students. When he graduated from medical school, he was going to be sent to a rural hospital outside Baghdad. Dr. Bashir interfered and decided to add him to the staff of Al-Wasiti Hospital. Ala Bashir didn't mention if Dr. XYZ left Iraq after the collapse of the old regime. I have a feeling he did. I wish him the best wherever he landed.

Iraqi people differ in their opinion of Ala Bashir because of his work with the inner circle of Saddam's regime. For me, he's a national treasure as a cosmetic surgeon and as an artist. Anyone who doubts his nationalism needs to read his book to understand the man behind the expressionless face. The reader will discover a different Bashir than was known to most Iraqis.

Bashir was skeptical of the flourish of democracy in Iraq after the collapse of Saddam's regime. He writes in his book:

I was not quite so optimistic. It is easy to mouth the word democracy but I found it difficult to fathom how a liberal, progressive democracy could take root in a country where so much hate, lust for revenge and brutality has flourished throughout its history. Our country needed forgiving leaders who would exercise humanity. That would be the first step along the road if the dream of a viable democracy were to become a reality.

In a recent interview with ABC News, he said:

"I think the U.S. came to Iraq with good intentions, but they didn't understand the nature, social or historical context of Iraq," Bashir said.

"Hate and revenge will get nowhere. It's the same path to destruction Iraq has known for centuries," he said. "What we need is love."


Maybe one day Iraqis can heal themselves with love. Maliki must be given the chance to prove himself as a healer of the Iraqi wounds. It takes time and hopefully the amnesty he proposed brings Iraqis together.

The Insider:
Trapped in Saddam's Brutal Regime

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