“Should I ask him whether it’s true or not?” That’s the question I had for my editor regarding my interview with Latif Yahia, the Iraqi exile whose story about being the lookalike body-double for Saddam Hussein’s psychotic son Uday has been parlayed into a best-selling book and a movie. “Probably,” said the desk, “since there’s been some controversy around that.”
I needn’t have bothered asking. The first thing Yahia says as he eyes me warily — even before he lights up the first of many chain-smoked cigarettes — is that he’d done some research, and why did The Japan Times run a piece in which it printed that he “claimed” to be Uday’s body-double? What follows is a long diatribe against the pimps, paid agents, bitter ex-girlfriends, security services, and various other nefarious forces out to sully his reputation — which sounds quite paranoid unless, of course, you’re in Yahia’s shoes.
Allow me to back up a bit. Yahia, who fled Iraq in 1992, is back in the news because “The Devil’s Double,” a feature film based on his time living amid the Husseins as Uday’s body-double, is in the theaters. The film is directed by Lee Tamahori, best known for his explosive urban Maori film “Once Were Warriors” in 1994. It features an impressive dual performance by Dominic Cooper, who plays both Yahia and Uday. The film chronicles the impunity with which Uday could rape newlywed brides and torture men on cocaine-fueled whims, while Yahia had to stand by stoically, and worse, pretend to be this monster in the eyes of others. Saddam’s family hired many of these body-doubles for security reasons.
On the one hand, the release of the movie is a long-awaited achievement for Yahia, who was offered a deal from U.S. cable-TV network HBO in 1996, but declined because he insisted on no American financing for any film. As he puts it, “I don’t want people to think I sold myself to America.”
While “The Devil’s Double” has brought Yahia’s tragic story to a wider audience, it has also raised doubts. British journalist Ed Caesar, in particular, has questioned whether any of Yahia’s story is true, and other journalists have repeated those claims verbatim; Yahia is clearly on the defensive these days.
While any movie “based on real events” obviously takes its fair share of poetic license, I ask Yahia how much of the film rang true for him. “Maybe 60 or 70 percent,” he replies, “but like you said, it’s a movie.” Despite the fact that the English-language production must have distanced it from any real events to some extent, Yahia recalls how “the first time I watched it I took six or seven tabs of Valium to calm down, and I still smashed the bottle of water I had. My wife was sitting beside me and she said, ‘Calm down, it’s only a movie.’ And I said ‘No, I feel the torture. I still carry the scars from that.’ After that, for three days, I didn’t sleep.”
Wouldn’t it be better, I suggest, to put these traumatic experiences behind you at some point, and move on, rather than re-living them in books and films?
“I can’t dismiss it,” says Yahia. “It’s a part of my life, and a hard part; it’s not like I can choose to just press delete. It’s still in my head; still I’m carrying the scars. To forget that … no way, I’ll take this with me to the grave.”
Yahia goes on to describe how, when he originally wrote his book (in Arabic) in 1992, “I didn’t write it as a book, just as memories, all these things, so I don’t forget it. Names, dates, all that. I never thought it would be a story that I’d carry up to this day I am sitting with you.”
Note: 1992. And in Arabic. And certainly not as a screenplay. Those are points worth remembering, says Yahia, when detractors like Caesar accuse him of making up the story for personal profit, which sort of assumes ex post facto that this personal memoir was always destined to be a cinematic cash-cow. Yahia bristles at the suggestion, saying “I didn’t do this story to sell it. I did it for a couple of reasons: One, to tell what’s happened to me as a human being. Two, to tell Western governments to stop supporting all these dictators. Three, to tell everyone, don’t let anybody rule your life.
“I’ve been victimized by Saddam’s regime; I don’t want somebody else to go through that. Maybe now we’ll start hearing stories similar to mine from Libya, from Tunisia, from Syria. All these sons of the presidents and kings behave like Uday.”
He continued: “People accuse me of making money, say that I’m a multimillionaire because of the book. But if you read my book, what do you see?” He proffers a copy, and sure enough, the front page states that all profits will go to a children’s charity. (Cynics will no doubt point out that the publisher printing that statement is the author himself.)
Since the book was conveniently bandied about as anti-Saddam propaganda in the runup to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, one may wonder why it’s only now that Yahia’s crediblity is being questioned. Yahia claims that he was recruited by Western intelligence services and asked to train with Iraqi opposition forces in exchange for a British passport. He refused, and when he spoke out against the invasion, his troubles began. The cake-taker seems to have been an interview with a British daily right after Saddam had been captured. “The reporter asked me, what do you think Saddam would be thinking, sitting in his cell now? I said his cell is missing two people: Tony Blair and George Bush. Because the three of them are murderers of the Iraqi people. The day it was published, five hours later, I was deported.”(Yahia currently lives in Ireland.)
The case against Yahia, as presented by Caesar, is based on the testimony of some dodgy members of Hussein’s inner circle. They claim that Yahia was never Uday’s body-double, but merely an opportunist who used his resemblance to Uday to impersonate him, in order to pick up women and gain favors. After being caught out, this version has it that Yahia was imprisoned by Uday, before somehow managing to flee the country.
We’re entering “Rashomon” territory here (crossed with the film “Kagemusha,” no less), but this version has a few problems and Yahia is quick to point them out. For one, not many people who crossed the Hussein regime lived to see the light of day again after being jailed. Furthermore, Yahia’s book contains details that only a palace insider could know, many of which were confirmed after U.S. forces occupied the palace. “Was I psychic?” asks Yahia sarcastically. “How did I know these details if I wasn’t one of them? Even the paintings, or what the rooms looked like.” Yahia goes on to accuse his main detractor as being one of Uday’s pimps, a man who will do anything for money, and who has been paid to smear him because of his vocal antiwar views.
And vocal they are. Despite his hatred of the Hussein regime, Yahia — like many Iraqis — is equally angry about the war that has ruined his homeland. “Saddam, you know, he didn’t kill 1.5 million people in 35 years, but since the invasion up till now we have had 1.5 million killed. And 5 million refugees left Iraq. George Bush and Tony Blair must be hanged exactly where Saddam was hanged … I was laughing the other day when (Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri) al-Maliki was in Washington meeting with (U.S. President Barack) Obama. How can the president stand in front of the media and say ‘We leave Iraq with our heads held high and we leave Iraq as an established country with an elected government.’ Is he on drugs or something? I’ll send him a private plane and tell him to go to Baghdad for two hours, free. Good luck.” [Note: the antiwar group Iraq Body Count put the total number of casualties from the war at 114,236 as of Jan. 2, 2012.]
One thing neither his success as an author nor the overthrow of Saddam has brought him is a ticket home. When I ask Yahia whether he ever hopes to return to his homeland some day, he laughs bitterly: “I am in a lose-lose situation. During Saddam’s time, I was a traitor. And now during this puppet-government time, I am a collaborator. I love my country, I love my people, but I don’t want to return to a country that has been completely damaged, where the people have completely changed, y’know? And even if I die, I told my wife, don’t bury me in Iraq.”
“The Devil’s Double” is now playing in theaters nationwide. Read Giovanni Fazio’s review on today’s Re: Film page.