Had its own discotheque with a mirror ball, a flashing dance floor whose tiles lit up with different colors. His favorite tracks included “Daddy Cool” and “Ra Ra Rasputin” by Bony M and “YMCA” by the Village People. Presidential guards stood watch at the edge of the dance floor, stiff, expressionless, in brown and khaki uniforms. Girls and young women were routinely abducted, dressed up and brought to the palace for impromptu dance parties. Sometimes he liked a dance party at ten a.m., sometimes at a more reasonable hour like ten p.m. Sometimes for no particular reason he clapped his hands, the lights went up, the party broke up, and he retreated to his chambers. This was the moody Uday. People, even his brother and father, lived in fear of the moody Uday. Moody Uday was rash, unpredictable and bad tempered. These moods, when the discotheque was not in use, when girls could stroll the streets of Sadr City without fear of being pushed into the back of an SUV and hooded, these moods could last for days, weeks, during which time he took all his meals in his room and watched bootleg DVDs. Then as mysteriously as the mood descended so it lifted. In the palace driveway, drivers and guards could hear bass from the disco, its sound a welcome source of relief. Uday was back. At least for now, until the next mood hit him.
While Uday’s Palace was known for its disco, Qusay’s Palace was renown for its dinner parties. Baghdad’s cream of the cream, its literati, intelligentsia, its highest ranking officials, its television stars and national soccer players, all gathered in his sumptuous dining room, the armchairs inlaid with friezes of ivory, the walls lined with portraits of him, his brother and his father. His kitchen staff included the best cooks in the country, a Cordon Bleu trained chef and a sous-chef who worked at Les Halles in New York. The wine, ingredients, cheeses, desserts, liqueurs were all flown in that same day. Before the meal was served, two fingers of wine were poured in his glass. The once clattering and chattering room would fall silent as he swirled the wine glass, stuck his bulbous nose in it, inhaled and then swished the wine around in his mouth. When he smiled, the meal was served, the wine poured liberally, and the staff and guests could breathe easily. If he didn’t smile, a pall descended upon the table. He once spat out the wine on the white uniform of the sommelier. One sommelier who didn’t pick the right wine was tortured for three days and two nights, at the end of which he was flown back to Paris in Qusay’s private jet and left on the tarmac with nothing but the clothes on his back.
Some said these stories were exaggerations, attempts to assassinate and undermine his character, for Qusay was a bon vivant. He enjoyed wine, woman and food, not necessarily in that order. He discussed films and books with his guests, asked them for their opinions. He was always careful to withhold his before he asked what they thought. They might buy a moment to collect their thoughts while dabbing at the corners of their mouths with a napkin or by taking a sip of wine. Do not ask him what he thinks, for he doesn’t tolerate sycophants. Choose words carefully. Do not waffle. Express opinions strongly but qualify them in some self-deprecating manner such as, “But what do I know? I’m just a five-star general. Literature was never my forte.” This might elicit a laugh and a knowing nod from Qusay, as he proceeds to quiz other dinner guests.
One woman was asked what she thought of the Iraqi movie “Sons of Freedom.” Produced by the Ministry of Information, the movie was about two brothers who were air dropped into Washington, DC and through skill, cunning and sheer brute strength infiltrate the White House where they assassinate the U.S. President but not before administering him a good beating with brass knuckles. It was supposed to be Qusay’s masterpiece. He’d handpicked the director and actors, had final script approval. He slept with all the actresses and when the film got lackluster reviews the director mysteriously disappeared. What did she think of “Sons of Freedom”? The woman, a newcomer to these dinners, contemplated her wine.
“I thought it was a bit, how do you say, traditional.”
The attention of all the guests fell on her. Someone coughed. The servant who was about to announce dessert held his tongue.
“Traditional?” Qusay repeated as if the word were foreign to him. “Traditional,” he said. The staff braced itself. Qusay nodded and smiled. “You’re right. It was traditional and I think that was its greatest flaw.”
At the end of the night Qusay stood by the door shaking hands, dispensing hugs and kissing cheeks. When it was the woman’s turn she said to Qusay, “I meant no disrespect. I was only speaking my mind.”
“Of course, madam,” Qusay said and kissed her hand. The woman was never seen at his dinners again. Some say she was run off the road as she drove home that night. Others said that she’d taken mysteriously ill after the dinner.
Named for Saddam’s favorite animal, the original plans called for tigers to roam the grounds and swim in the pool. Through a Chinese connection two tigers were flown in from the Shanghai Zoo. In the intense desert heat, their fur became patchy. They did nothing but sleep in the shade all day. They ate very little. Saddam was furious with his resident zoologist. He wanted powerful prowling tigers that would slink around the palace, eyes aglow, their claws clattering against the marble floor. But their skin draped off their bones like oversized mink coats. When the tigers died, the zoologist was driven out to the middle of the desert to suffer a fate similar to that of his erstwhile charges. For lack of having real-life tigers, Saddam had the palace decorated with full-size stuffed tigers, tiger hides, tiger teeth, tiger claws, tiger paintings, striped bed sheets and striped sofa covers. With the death of the tigers, the novelty of the tiger palace wore thin on Saddam, who visited it less and less. For his birthday, the Baghdad Zoo gifted their last remaining tiger to him. He appreciated the gesture but returned the animal.
Inspired by the tale of Midas, everything in this palace was supposedly made of gold, gold sheets, gold lampshades, gold bathroom fixtures, gold bathtubs, gold silverware, gold shower curtain rods, gold glasses, gold plates, gold plated windows, gold swimming pool tiles, gold chairs and sofas. Of course not everything could be made of gold, which at its purest is a soft and malleable metal. If something wasn’t made of gold then it was painted in gold, which meant most of the palace. The smell of paint never quite went away, despite the staff’s best efforts to mask it with aerosols. This was a favorite spot for foreign photographers and journalists who used the lavishness of the palace as a metaphor for Saddam’s power and the inequity that plagued Iraqi society. After its completion, Saddam spent one night in the gold palace and is said to have left before dawn: something about the scratchy gold sheets.
The Silver Palace could only have existed as a response to the Gold Palace. They were two sides of the same coin. It seemed less majestic than the Gold Palace. But everyone who had spent any amount of time there knew it was the most organized and most efficient of Saddam’s palaces. Its staff prided itself on anticipating Saddam’s needs before he did. No meal was ever late, no tea or coffee ever served at room temperature or scalding hot. The staff was attentive and present without being obtrusive or obsequious. The Silver Palace bristled at being second best to the Gold Palace and in fact surpassed its rival in many aspects. The Silver Palace glistened on the desert horizon like a mirage except as one approached it grew in size and imposed itself on you. The Silver Palace was cool, calm and collected. After a stint there Saddam always emerged with a fresh state of mind.
Time spent at the Weekend Palace was never long enough. No sooner had Saddam arrived than it was already time to pack and leave. The Weekend Palace was the most wistful of Saddam’s palaces, perhaps the most beautiful and soothing as well. After either Uday or Qusay takes control, Saddam looks forward to spending his retirement here. The Weekend Palace offers gorgeous contemplation spots, from balconies overlooking the Tigris, to the replica English garden complete with iron trestles, gates, gravel paths, bird baths and tall hedges where one can lose oneself for an afternoon. The English garden uses more water than a small village. The gardener was kidnapped from Kingston Gardens in London. He tried to escape several times but never made it further than the airport where he was promptly taken in custody and returned to the palace. Because of the gardener’s delicate hands, Saddam vowed to execute the first person anyone who laid a hand on his English gardener. With little else to do and no hope of escape, the gardener threw himself into his work creating for Saddam some of his finest workgardens, enjoying the luxury of unlimited resources without having to worry about bureaucrats threatening to cut his budget. The Weekend Palace has all the amenities of the other palaces, a fully staffed kitchen, twenty-four-seven room service, a sauna and steam room, weight room, tennis courts and an Olympic swimming pool. Even the food tastes sweeter at the Weekend Palace, the air more freshening, the water more revitalizing. The tragedy of the palaces is that none of them can cater to his every taste, mood and whim. Where the Weekend Palace is lacking in sensual delights, it more than makes up for in tranquility, rejuvenation and serenity. Saddam’s mind is always clear after a couple days at the Weekend Palace. He anticipates the machinations of his enemies and those who would overthrow him two or three steps ahead. He predicts which dissidents have overstepped their bounds and who should come in for questioning, which ministers have gone soft and need a talking to, and which world leaders deserve an outspoken public condemnation.
Every staff member has November 18 circled on their calendar. Months ahead of the date, the baker begins designs on a designing a cake. The palace is dusted and scrubbed top to bottom, the menu and wine selected, fresh chlorine put in the pool to give it that extra pop of turquoise. The beds are made and remade so as to smooth out the slightest wrinkle. Fresh handmade soaps, shampoo, and towels laundered that very day are put in the bathrooms. No one knows at what time he arrives, so the staff is constantly on alert. The guards stand at attention outside, porters line the driveway should his car pull up, the Iraqi flag proudly snapping in the wind. Once, Saddam arrived in the morning, another time in the dead of night. Each time the staff had to be prepared to throw a birthday celebration that the president will remember for years to come. For one day a year the Birthday Palace truly lives up to its name. And because its staff sees the president only once a year, no one is more keenly aware of the passage of time than they. The president might have a few more grey hairs, his paunch might be heavier, his nose droopier. The following day, his cars idling in the driveway, the staff gathers at the curb and waves goodbye wishing the president good luck and good health and many more years in power. Only once the convoy is out of view can they breathe a collective sigh of relief. They compliment themselves on a job well done, and begin the arduous process of cleaning up and planning for next year.
The most lavish of all of Saddam’s palaces, no expenses were spared: marble flown in from Italy, gilded bathroom fixtures, a wine cellar to rival the best of Europe. This was where he received visiting dignitaries, where he was married, where he gave an interview to Dan Rather, where the idea came to him to invade Kuwait. Though he couldn’t swim he loved water and insisted on each wing having its own pool. The pools were skimmed hourly. Once touring the grounds, Saddam passed by a pool with a single leaf floating in it. Saddam arched an eyebrow. The fully clothed pool attendant dove in, swam to the leaf, held it above his head and doggie-paddled back to the edge. For his alacrity the pool boy was spared any punishment. Saddam actually laughed at the sight of the dripping pool boy holding a single leaf.
Foreign dignitaries who stayed at the palace had a different view. The pillows and mattresses were surprisingly hard. The faucets, both hot and cold, dispensed only scalding hot water, which even after minutes of being left on never cooled by more than a few degrees. The old, clunky tube televisions received only two or three stations, the official government networks, despite the fact that Saddam was said to love satellite TV, in particular CNN and the “Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer. The wide echoing halls were austere and sterile. It was better to stay at the Al Ramadi in Baghdad, despite its astronomical room rates and the government spies who hung out in the lobby reading newspapers. One got used to them. It gave one a feeling of importance as if what one did merited to be spied and reported on.
In the middle of the night, a Russian oil executive staying at the palace suffering from jet lag ventured out of his room in search of the kitchen and a cool glass of milk. He stepped out onto the pool patio, which was cooler than his air-conditioned room. On the horizon Baghdad twinkled and, beyond it, all around him, the black void of the desert. The night sky contained more stars than he had ever seen. Moonlight rippled across the pool’s surface. Though he found no milk, the cool desert air at night soothed him. On his way back to his room, he passed a balcony in which hovered a solitary glowing red ember. As his eyes adjusted he made out a human figure. It was Saddam smoking a cigar. The executive thought better than to disturb him, so complete, so utter and wistful was Saddam’s solitude. To break it would have been not only impolite but also an intrusion. The executive felt a pang of pity for Saddam, for a man who had everything and nothing, a palace that was less palatial than an outdated gaudy conference hall with no Wi-Fi.
Easily the most frequented of Saddam’s palaces, it was built with only one idea in mind and that was satiation of carnal pleasures. The most beautiful women in Iraq were hand- picked to live there. It was considered a great honor to be chosen. The women were well taken care of, their offspring sent to the best schools in the country and never knowing want. Because there were so many women, and because Saddam, Uday and Qusay divided their time equally among them, none of the women ever got particularly close to the president or his sons, a level of anonymity which frees their inhibitions and heightens their (usually his) pleasure. The palace was full of sensual art, of paintings of naked women, Japanese erotic prints of men with exaggerated erections, sculptures of men and women locked in embrace, prints of the Kama Sutra, and a library of pornography so extensive it spanned every conceivable desire and fetish known to man. The women lazed around most days in their negligees on satin fainting couches, gossiping about who was Saddam’s favorite. The many bedrooms were adorned with the plushest down pillows and the softest satin red sheets. It was said that an underground tunnel was built under Lovers Palace to Saddam’s primary residence so that he could come and go as he pleased. Oysters were flown in from the North Sea and consumed liberally. Sometimes, although rarely, Saddam and his concubines didn’t make love. They would lie down and hold each other and talk. He felt most comfortable and most himself in this palace, felt he could say and do anything. The location of this palace was never discovered by the Allied Forces. Some said say there are women are still living there, cut off from their world, eagerly awaiting their lovers’ return.
No one knows for sure where the Secret Palace, nor have they been able to confirm or ascertain its existence. The Secret Palace both exists and doesn’t exist. No aerial shots were ever taken of it by U.S. satellites and reconnaissance planes, which led many to speculate that it was the primary storage site for Saddam’s rumored weapons of mass destruction. Some analysts pointed to unusual symmetrical corrugations in the desert floor, which suggested an underlying man-made structure. The Secret Palace was not discovered after the allied invasion. Some say it was a source of refuge for Saddam while in power, his own fortress of solitude, which not even his sons or his highest-ranking officials in the Baathist party knew about. If, in his flight from Baghdad following the invasion, he did not go to the Secret Palace but rather returned to his home village of Tikrit, it is because he did not want the Americans to uncover the Secret Palace. Its staff is still intact and working, keeping up the palace for the next rightful ruler of Iraq.
Built entirely underground it receives fresh water from an underground aquifer and so is able to sustain life and subterranean gardens. Through a two-way mirror in the desert floor, sunlight is redirected to the Secret Palace. Always temperate, never too hot, never too cold, the Secret Palace is completely self-sufficient with its own dairy and cattle farm, goats, chickens. It grows its own fruits and vegetables. In the event of a prolonged siege, an international blockade, Saddam could have survived quite comfortably in the Secret Palace. Staff members were hired for life, sworn to secrecy and never allowed to leave. But Saddam did not want to live out his last days in the Secret Palace in obscurity, the world unsure whether he was alive or dead. He wanted to be captured, he wanted a trial, he wanted a public platform from which he could denounce the Americans and the Iraqi traitors who’d given him up. He wanted to die for his country as he had lived for it. The Secret Palace was, ultimately, a coward’s retreat. The palace was fine to survive a sustained bombing campaign, a nuclear attack or a coup d’état, but damn if he was going to hide out in it like a mole.
The staff is aging, but a new generation has grown up in the palace, a new generation of servants who will be trained and continue to run the palace. They have been told that there is no world outside the palace, above ground, that the Iraq they knew, the leader they knew, has been destroyed. Iraq as they knew it will continue if only below ground until a new leader emerges, a leader born to return its country to greatness.
It is said the architect of Melancholy Palace was going through a divorce when he drew up the plans. Every great leader, every great man needs a refuge, a place where he can contemplate life, ponder where he’s been and where he’s going, who have crossed him, who should be punished, and who should be rewarded. Its labyrinthian corridors are endless and you could spend hours pacing the marble floors without encountering another soul. The staff moved around the palace via an intricate system of secret passageways, fake panels and hidden walkways. Generally it was understood that Saddam was to be left alone during his stays there. He always arrived alone and departed alone. His meals, taken alone, simple, home-cooked, were designed to evoke his childhood in Tikrit and a time when he did not bear the weight of an entire nation on his burly shoulders. The palace was built around a courtyard and a fountain from which, at night, one could contemplate the night sky, the sound of gurgling water in the background. The views from the balconies, while secluded, offered infinite views of the desert.
Melancholy Palace was not a sad place. It was not to be confused with an anger or depression or grief palace. One could sigh freely at Melancholy Palace without anyone inquiring if anything was the matter. One could sulk, and fully embrace one’s malaise and existential angst by taking long strolls through the endless corridors and well-kept grounds whose hedges led themselves to aimless wander. Every ruler needs a Melancholy Palace. One cannot be ruthless, feared, resolute and firm without sometimes giving in to self-doubts. When not erring about the palace, Saddam would re-watch old movies, whose well-worn lines and predictable jokes were like a salve to his soul. He also napped a great deal and stared out into the desert void. Everyone has a Melancholy Palace. Men can build monuments during their lifetime but they are of little consolation in the grave.
The Other Woman Palace
Too rarefied, too smart, too unique, too beautiful for the Lovers Palace, she lived in solitude in the Other Woman Palace, painted her favorite color, a ghastly purple. She knew she was Saddam’s favorite and the only mistress in whose honor he ever built a palace. It goes without saying that she was queen of the palace. Saddam visited her when he could, which, between his many engagements and commitments, could be as few as a couple times a month. That arrangement suited them both fine. No sooner had one become tired and annoyed with the other than Saddam had to leave to quell a Kurdish rebellion or discipline a rogue minister. The queen’s days, spent curating her beauty, start with yoga followed by a light breakfast of fruit, a spa treatment, a dip in the pool, a catnap and some light cardio in the afternoon. She never passes a mirror without checking her reflection for wrinkles. Saddam promised her that she would always be the queen of this palace, but lately he has been spending more time in the Lovers Palace. One of her spies has told her that Saddam has taken a liking to a new girl there. The girl has accompanied him on official trips to Rome and Paris. Her picture has appeared in Paris Match and Italian Vogue as Saddam’s mystery it girl. The next time Saddam visited the Other Woman Palace, he seemed perturbed. The Other Woman massaged the knots in his shoulders and asked him what seemed to be the trouble. Saddam shook his head, tapped her hand and said, “Nothing, my love.” His visits to her palace grew in frequency. No one knows what happened to Saddam’s it girl. Some said she went back to her parents’ farm; others that she disappeared into the crowd on a trip abroad. Neither is true. But she serves as a warning to the other girls in the Lovers Palace, who after the disappearance check under their bed at night before going to sleep, eat only food that others are partaking of, and never go out by themselves after dark.
Built for Uday and Qusay’s mother, and Saddam’s official wife, the palace officially employed no male staff. Saddam visited only in passing en route from one appointment to another. He would have tea with his wife, ask about her life, kiss her cheek and take his leave. It was an arrangement amenable to both of them. The queen, as she was known, hated sharing a bed with Saddam, a notorious snorer and restless leg syndrome sufferer. Every morning she woke up without any blankets, Saddam having rolled them all up under his massive side. She enjoyed the privacy and solitude the palace afforded her, and now that Uday and Qusay were grown she could devote her days to painting water colors of the desert, taking private lessons, doing light aerobics and seeing her girlfriends and family. She didn’t have to worry about keeping house, cooking or cleaning. She was, in other words, free to enjoy life. So what if Saddam had mistresses and concubines hidden away in every nook and cranny? Let them deal with his mood swings, body odor and uncontrollable temper. She was much better off by herself in her palace. It wasn’t perfect but what marriage was? She had produced and raised two sons. She had been with Saddam during the lean years when revolution was fomenting on every street corner, when Iran and the U.S. threatened them with annihilation on a daily basis. Things weren’t so bad. They could always be better. The pool boy could be handsomer, the yoga instructor taller, the food sweeter but who was she to complain. Life, all in all, was pretty good.