London, United Kingdom – Ala Bashir is a celebrated Iraqi artist and surgeon who spent two decades as a personal doctor and plastic surgeon to Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi leader, and his family and inner circle.A former head of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Baghdad University, Bashir was widely respected in Iraq for his work treating thousands of soldiers injured during the country’s eight-year war with Iran, which included developing new plastic surgery techniques and performing pioneering operations to reattach severed hands. He says his surrealist paintings, often dwelling on themes of mortality and fate, are particularly influenced by his experiences of the war and the horrors to which he bore witness.
Bashir escaped from Iraq two months after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam in 2003. Now 75 and living in the UK, I spoke to him about the current state of a country once again being torn apart by conflict and the influences and experiences that have shaped his art as his latest exhibition , “Memories of Chairs” , opened at London’s Hay Hill gallery.
Q: What is your assessment of current events in Iraq ?
Ala Bashir: We are seeing the normal consequences of things. I was in medical college when the first coup happened in July 1958. I went with my cousin to the royal palace. It was on fire and you could still see the blood of the king and the royal family on the ground. There were thousands of people looting the palace.
The crown prince was dragged into the streets and cut into pieces. I saw it myself. This went on and on. The Communists came and they killed the Baathists. The Baathists came to power and they killed the Communists.
So the violence we are seeing is not very unusual. As for sectarianism, this is politics. When I was a child you didn’t ask anyone if they were a Christian, a Jew or a Shia Muslim. Nobody cared. But it is easy to control people through religion.
Q: What are your memories of the invasion?
Bashir: I was in Qatar in early 2003 but I decided to go back. I thought I should see what was happening to my country for myself. For the first four or five days the Americans were shooting anything moving in the street. Many innocent people were killed. I myself saw children and women killed. I buried them with my neighbours. It was something unimaginable. You were facing death every minute. They were bombing everywhere.
And of course people started looting and stealing. There was a total collapse of law and order. Everything fell apart. I’ve seen this happen every time [there is a regime change]. There is always looting and killing but this time it was even worse. This is the biggest tragedy in our society; that we have not learnt the lessons of the past, because it means it will happen again and again.
Q: How did you deal with being appointed Saddam’s personal doctor?
Bashir: I used to think of it as a relationship of doctor and patient, that was it. A doctor cannot choose his patient and in this profession you come across many different sorts of behaviour. It reflects the variety of life. You could say I was exposed to the extremes of life.
He was certainly a very clever man – very, very intelligent. Of course, he was a brutal dictator. Was he a psychopath? I think most people in power probably are. Even in the West by the way, although their power is more constrained because people learnt from history that if you put too much power in one hand it is very difficult for an individual not to become a despot.
The reason Nelson Mandela will remain a great man in history is because he realised that in power he would be corrupted. That was why he chose to serve one term and then stepped down. When people become heads of state they become corrupt. They have to tell lies because they have to tell people they will do things they know they cannot achieve. True leaders, like Gandhi or Mandela, talk about the principles, not the politics.
Q: Saddam and his entourage had fearsome reputations for ruthlessness and violence. Did you ever feel threatened?
Bashir: Only once when I invited a group of surgeons to treat Saddam’s brother [Watban Ibrahim al-Tikriti] after he was shot by Saddam’s son [Uday Hussein, in 1995]. One of those I invited, a French surgeon, was a Jew. I didn’t think of this because he was my friend and a great surgeon.
The next day one of Saddam’s guards came to see me. He said to me, ‘One of the doctors you’ve invited is a Jew.’ I said, ‘So what?’ but I thought it might be a problem so I decided I it would better to tell Saddam directly. So I went to see him and I told him. And he said, ‘Why do you think this is wrong? We are not against the Jews. We are only against those who invaded Palestine.’
Bashir: Since 1990, I have been thinking about the meaning of home. I tried to create some metaphors for this and originally I chose a bed. Then I chose the key because when you go inside your house and you lock the door you feel safe. This small piece of metal can change your life. If you lose your key then you have no home. Then I thought of the chair. People like to sit on one particular chair. I have found myself on many occasions holding onto the chair.
Sometimes the only thing you trust is the chair you are sitting on. So the chair is a good metaphor for the relationship between man and place. And after we leave, the chair is part of our memory. When you see the chair of Napoleon then you see Napoleon as well.
Bashir: The most tragic event in life is death. My father was a policeman and I used to go to the police station to play in the garden. One day when I was four I saw the body of a murder victim covered in a white sheet. That was my first introduction to death.
Later, as a surgeon during the Iran-Iraq war I found myself surrounded by death. I was pushed very close to the line that separates life from death and I found myself an unwilling tool in this play.
Sometimes we would receive 30 or 50 injured soldiers and I would have to choose who to treat. Who survived and who died. It depended on my guess, my evaluation, my choice. For me it was a nightmare. It reshaped my view of life.
After this experience, when I turned away and saw only life and all its temptations, I realised that whatever a man achieves in his life is really nothing because sooner or later he will leave everything – a ll the colourfulness and attractions, I knew they were false. I used to paint landscapes and portraits. Mainly I copied nature. But I realised I was wasting my time. I was copying a thing which existed just to show my skill in painting. Now I try to explore the human being and his fate.
Q: What do you think the future holds for Iraq?
Bashir: In our society, to tell the truth, we suffer from a serious disease which is sometimes infectious and this disease is hatred. There is an environment of hate and revenge and when you are living within that it is very difficult to see beyond it. If I am very optimistic it will take more than 50 years for Iraq to get any better. The young generation now took part in the looting and killing. Their children will also be affected by what is happening now. So to be too optimistic is very stupid and unrealistic. If we don’t face the truth and look at ourselves in the mirror and analyse our mistakes it will be extremely difficult.
I don’t think people care about Saddam any more. They only think about the future. For good or bad, he was the past and if you ask me if Iraq is moving in the right direction I say definitely not. Iraq needs better people than the Saddam regime or the current regime. Iraq is a rich country and there is a lot of potential but the people who are governing now are like a bicycle tyre on a good Mercedes car. It cannot move, it is impossible. The politicians are liars and hypocrites. The majority of people are short-sighted and selfishness is like a blindfold. Some have got a lot of money now and they are very happy but they’re not aware they are heading towards the cliff.
Ala Bashir’s “Memories of Chairs” is part of an exhibition of Iraqi artists at the Hay Hill Gallery in London until May 2. This story was originally published by Al Jazeera on 5 April, 2015.