BY THEO PANAYIDES
Cyprus Mail 24/05/2009
Born to a wealthy Iraqi family and bearing a strong resemblance to Saddam Hussein’s son Uday has led to an unsettled and extraordinary life for Latif Yahia. THEO PANAYIDES meets him in his Larnaca caf?
If I were an Iraqi of a certain age, coming face-to-face with Latif Yahia might be quite traumatic. Finding him sitting in the Babylonian, the “Arabic caf?” he owns in Larnaca – a rugged, imposing figure with close-cropped hair, narrow eyes, a bulging nose and a scar down the right side of his forehead – I might gasp in horror, clutch my chest and tumble to the floor, like I’d seen a ghost. Since I’m not Iraqi, however – much less an Iraqi who’s lived under Saddam Hussein’s regime – I can only take it on trust that Latif looks exactly like Uday Hussein, Saddam’s violent, unstable son who was killed by American troops in 2003.
This is not just an idle observation. Latif’s books include I Was Saddam’s Son and The Devil’s Double, which have sold over a million copies and been translated into 20 languages. From 1987 to 1991 – when he fled Iraq – he was a fiday, a body double for Uday, constantly living in fear and surviving 11 assassination attempts. That in itself would make his life remarkable (a film about his years as a doppelganger, directed by Lee Tamahori of Die Another Day fame, is due to start shooting in September); yet in fact that’s only part of his story.
It begins in Baghdad 45 years ago, where Latif was born to a wealthy family – his father, he says, “was the third-richest man in Iraq” – though it’s taken so many twists and turns (most of them tragic) even the most innocuous question tends to invoke unhappy memories. So he must’ve grown up in a big house, I ask (making small talk more than anything). Yes indeed, he replies – and not only was the house big, it was also bombed by the Americans during the war “because Ahmed Chalabi [later Deputy PM during the US occupation] told me he wants the house for himself”, and Latif refused so Chalabi told America the house belonged to one of Saddam’s people, “and they bombed it, and I lost my sister-in-law, and I had to raise my brother’s kids with me in Ireland for four-and-a-half years”. So much for innocuous questions.
Latif went to secondary school with Uday Hussein (they were born only four days apart). They weren’t friends, because even then “I didn’t like his behaviour” – he brought his girlfriend into class with him (a teacher who reprimanded him about this later disappeared) and swanned around in a yellow Porsche as a 16-year-old – but the physical resemblance was obvious. A few years later Latif was a Captain in the Iraqi commandos, fighting in the war against Iran, when a letter arrived telling him to report to the Presidential Palace in 72 hours. There, he found Uday, who greeted him warmly and got right to the point.
“How would you like to be Saddam’s son?”
“We are all Saddam’s sons,” replied Latif cannily.
Uday explained he had something special in mind – the job of fiday, which of course was really a “bullet-catcher”. He could refuse, of course, claimed Uday; “We are in a democratic country” – so Latif refused, and immediately found himself thrown in jail, stuck in a tiny cell where he stayed a week in solitary confinement. After seven days, Uday paid him another visit: “You got to do it,” he said, “or I’ll bring your sisters here [to be raped]”. Latif said yes, and soon learned exactly how to talk, walk and move like Iraq’s crown prince, wearing special shoes to make up for a slight height difference, his teeth surgically altered to make him look more like Uday.
Uday appears to have been cruel, immature and destructively arrogant. “He was sadist bastard!” growls Latif. “Even if I see him in Hell, I’m going to kill him”. He refused to hire bodyguards or listen to Iraqi Intelligence, so of course he was always a target for Shia militias (why should he care, when he’d forced someone else to take the risks for him?); a desert ambush – one of the 11 assassination attempts – left Latif half-dead in hospital. Life was cheap; on one occasion, Uday ordered him to kill a man, recalls Latif, “but I took the knife and cut myself here [on the arm], and I say ‘I am not murderer. My job for you is to be a double, not to kill people’.” In 1995, as a reprisal for Latif having fled the country, Uday killed his father and confiscated the family fortune.
The money was restored by Saddam, who also sent a letter of apology and ordered all government Ministers to attend the funeral. Many in the West assume it was a case of ‘like father, like son’, but in fact the relationship between Saddam and Uday was stormy and dysfunctional, with Latif sometimes caught in the middle. Once, he recalls, Uday had him tortured, whipped with electric cables – but then, when Saddam saw the marks, he broke his son’s arm and had Uday thrown in prison. More than once, says Latif, Saddam told him “I wish you were my son” instead of Uday.
And what was he like, the much-demonised dictator? After all, Latif saw him every other day for four years. “I liked him,” he replies instantly. “Believe it or not, he was funny. He was joking, he was laughing – a normal guy. Just when he’s angry with things, you should get out of his way. But he don’t get angry for no reason, must be very bad reason”. Life was good in Iraq, claims Latif: “Any person who was in Iraq was happy. If you are Christian and you are religious, there is a church for you. If you’re Muslim, there is a mosque. If you drink, there are pubs and nightclubs and everything is open for you. Life in Iraq was very safe, you can leave your door open 24 hours … Nobody say you are Shia or Sunni or Kurdish, or Jewish – even Jewish we have, we didn’t have a problem with them.”
Rose-tinted glasses? Possibly. Latif’s account may be totally accurate, of course, but there are two reasons to take him with a pinch of salt. The first is that he was always part of the elite in Baghdad – first as a wealthy young man, then a member of Saddam’s inner circle – and may not recall what life was like for ordinary people, let alone dissidents. The second is that he has something of a chip on his shoulder, both against America and the new Iraqi government, whom he mostly dismisses as opportunistic lowlifes: “To be a pimp and bring women, and now to be a Minister in Iraq with the title of ‘Doctor’ … No, it’s very heavy for me to accept this.”
Partly, it’s because of the war. “What the Americans did in Iraq is worse than what Saddam did in 35 years,” says Latif passionately. “They killed 145 members of my family, America. You want me to forgive America? No! I am anti-America till I die.” Partly, too, it’s because of what happened after he left Iraq in 1991, and his 18-year fight against prejudice and discrimination.
Working for Uday became impossible, the turning-point being when they had an argument – “about girls, the problem was always girls with this guy” – and Latif ended up with a bullet in his right shoulder. Determined to flee, he struck a deal with the CIA, agreeing to provide them with information in exchange for safe passage to Austria, where he had a cousin. The deal was to provide half the info in Iraq, the other half after his escape – but Latif was guilt-ridden (he says) when his information led to innocent people being killed in bombing-raids, and once in Austria he refused to go through with it: a risky strategy, because “America, they don’t like to hear ‘no’.”
What happened next is detailed in his third book, The Black Hole: he was kidnapped, taken to an old Nazi prison outside Vienna, and “tortured for 10-and-a-half months”. He names names in the book, challenging his torturers to “sue me if I am wrong”. So far, they haven’t – though the book is banned in US bookshops (and in Ireland), in stark contrast to his first two books. At the time of the Iraq War, recalls Latif bitterly, the White House spokesman brandished his book about Uday and declared: “This is why we’re going into Iraq!”. That book was obviously “suitable” – but now he’s making accusations against the CIA he’s persona non grata, fuelling his growing disenchantment with Western hypocrisy.
“I’m living in the jungle,” complains Latif. “Not Europe, not West – this is a jungle! West is called ‘democracy’ – democracy for what? To have sex in the street, drugs and kissing each other – this is the democracy.” While living in Ireland (where he met his wife Karen), he crossed the Irish Sea and gave an interview to the Daily Mail, he recalls; in the interview, asked about Saddam’s prisons, he said there were two people missing from those prisons – Tony Blair and George Bush. “Next day, I’m arrested and deported back to Ireland! That’s the democracy here.”
Even his release from the Austrian secret prison was an accident: he might still be there (or dead) if his cell hadn’t inadvertently been opened during an inspection by a judge, who was quite surprised to find a battered, furious Iraqi screaming blue murder. The next 18 years are a catalogue of violence and unhappiness. Shot and wounded by hired assassins on the street in Vienna. Another assassination attempt in London, attacked by knife-wielding thugs while stuck in traffic on the Edgware Road (this was reported in the press, and led to John Major expelling several diplomats from the Iraqi Embassy). Another attempt in Norway, leaving him with 14 stitches in his stomach. Fleeing to Germany, Holland then Ireland under false names. A failed relationship in Ireland, his ex later taking up with a police sergeant who came after him with a broken glass (that explains the scar on his forehead). Repeated attempts to obtain Irish citizenship rebuffed, presumably because of US influence. And now finally – for the past eight months – life in Cyprus, which may indeed be the worst of all.
Suffice to say Latif isn’t happy here; he loves the people, but the System – he says – has cheated, humiliated and wronged him (a news story appeared in the Cyprus Mail a couple of days ago). Setting up the Babylonian has proved near-impossible. The bureaucracy is stifling – and racist. “Everywhere I go ‘you are not Cypriot’. I say ‘so f**ing what? This is Europe!’”. No-one seems to be accountable, no-one listens if you try to complain. A court case is pending, accusing him of human trafficking, a charge he strenuously denies. “I was in prison here for eight days,” he recalls. “I saw things, I can’t believe I am in a European country. [It’s like] I’m living in Iraq!”
Do I believe every word Latif Yahia says? Maybe not. He does seem to say things for effect, and once or twice contradicts himself – mentioning, for instance, that he’d move back to Iraq if America left, then asserting he’d be killed if he tried – but equally he’s not just some nutter spouting off. He’s got names, dates, places. These things really happened, even if he sometimes exaggerates to make his case.
What if he’d never got that letter from Uday, I wonder? What if he could somehow undo the accident of birth that marked him out as a double for the second-most powerful man in Iraq? Could his life have been different? Could it all have been ‘normal’? He shrugs, having come too far – and suffered too much – for idle speculation: “Maybe my life would be different. Maybe I’d be killed in Iraq now…”
“I don’t have any good life, since I was born till now,” admits Latif sadly. “Honestly, I don’t have normal life – anywhere, inside Iraq, outside Iraq. I have a problem with my mouth, I can’t shut it. If I see something wrong, I can’t shut it”.
“I’m a fighter. I never surrendered, not for any government in this world.”
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