'DADDY, this man looks so funny," my 5-year-old declared, giggling innocently as she pointed to an image of a bewildered looking man, thick-bearded and disheveled. It was an image of Saddam Hussein, which popped up uninvited on my America Online screen.
"Are We Winning Now?" a headline arrogantly inquired, condescendingly proclaiming the capture of the former Iraqi president.
Something inside me was crushed.
I am certainly not a fan of tyranny. I've spoken out against human-rights violations since my early years. In Cairo, I stood in alliance with students protesting government crackdowns; in Seattle, I marched for equal opportunities for African-American students demanding the preservation of affirmative action. I lived most of my life in a Palestinian refugee camp, under Israeli military occupation in Gaza.
But seeing Saddam in that cluttered state, willingly opening his mouth to an American military doctor, being treated "like a cow," as the Vatican claimed, provoked an array of emotions that I could hardly contain. Even then, I had no illusions: It was not the "capture" of Saddam that engulfed me with these emotions; it was what Saddam represented or, perhaps, failed to represent. It was the fear of a future undoubtedly bleak, unforgiving.
Saddam, in his eccentric ways, symbolized the last drive for pan-Arab nationalism. In many ways, he was unrivaled. He was one of very few who dared to stand up to what many people in the world see as a harsh and domineering United States. To many people living in the Middle East, Saddam Hussein was simply the "lesser of the two evils."
Arab nationalism, even under the shabby state of the former Iraqi leader, remained important, for it represented the only collective political identity Arabs aspired to attain. Politically fragmented and easy prey to outside interests, many Arabs, especially in poorer countries, held tight to the fading dream of unity.
But as the dream of unity was dying, irate alternatives were forcefully offered; the "Islamic option" had suddenly augmented from its minimal, symbolic presence to the only intellectual substitute to pan-Arabism. Both ideologies championed the recourse of revival, liberation even, from within, and a full-fledged unity as the only shield in the face of the self-seeking invaders from without.
As youths growing up under a brutal Israeli occupation, my peers and I inanely believed that a collective Arab determination was the only solution to oppression and humiliation. Often, I went to sleep, during an Israeli military curfew in my refugee camp in Gaza, finding comfort in the thought that an Arab army could cross at any minute to set us all free from this prison. It never came.
As I grew, I realized that things are not as simple and pure as once thought. Arab rulers were no Saladin, but in fact, they were just as guilty for their people's plight as those foreign powers who see Arabs as faceless numbers, associated only with every negative stereotype one can envisage.
I also learned that in the West, we were all grouped together, in a camp of "hostile Arabs" who must be "contained," regardless of the price of such containment. I learned that many in the West have forgotten that Iraq, the "cradle of civilization," contributed much to the world, including algebra, chemistry, astronomy, physics and a revival of the Greek language critical to the Renaissance in Europe. I learned that they had forgotten this, and believed that Iraq, and the Arab world in general, was only capable of producing tyrants and terrorists.
In Gaza, my sorrow of losing countless friends and family members to the Israeli occupation forces was the shared destiny of the nearly 1 million refugees in Gaza's camps. With each new innocent casualty, the desire for a collective Arab will became stronger. But time has passed, and the dream of a collective Arab will has yielded to collective Arab chaos.
Despite the uncertainty awaiting Arab nations, most Arabs were never so clear as to the source of their misfortune. They loathed the imperialism that finally culminated in an up-front invasion of the prized "jewel of Arab civilization," Iraq. They protested "client regimes" and subsequently marched behind (irrationally, may I add) whomever disassociated himself from such a rule.
Maybe this explains the reason behind the love-hate relationship many Arabs had toward Saddam: He was a brutal dictator, yet he defied the United States and its imperialist design in the Arab world. It was not hard for me to fathom why many Iraqis celebrated when Saddam was captured, while at the same time, they vowed to carry on with their attacks against U.S.-led occupation forces. That same paradox struck me watching Saddam's glum photo on America Online.
I paused to gaze at a 9-11 memorial poster hanging on my wall, anxiously considering the devastating repercussions that could stem from collectively disgracing hundreds of millions of people. It seems that fear and uncertainty are, sadly, among the people of the U.S. and the Middle East, a common sorrow.
Ramzy Baroud is an American-Arab journalist based in the Seattle area and editor-in-chief of The Palestine Chronicle newspaper online. He is the editor of the anthology, "Searching Jenin: Eyewitness Accounts of the Israeli Invasion."
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company