WASHINGTON — Given Saddam Hussein’s penchant for rambling in interviews and tendency to appear dazzled by the luster of his own flowery Arabic, longtime observers of the Iraqi dictator have come to not expect much in the way of eloquence from him.
That is why they were so surprised and impressed with Saddam’s sit-down last week with CBS anchorman Dan Rather. In his interview with Rather for “60 Minutes II,” Hussein switched linguistic gears: His answers were relatively short, and his language was formal and accurate.
“He was much more coherent and much more detailed this time than any other time he appeared in public,” said Majid Fakhry, emeritus professor of philosophy at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “It was a person who not only has a good command of the language, but was more articulate than in the past, expansive and composed.”
A top Israeli intelligence expert echoed this assessment, with a clear explanation: “This time I think we saw a leader that was trying to survive, not to impress.”
“Saddam is usually inarticulate. You can translate the words he says, but you’ll still be stuck trying to understand the sentence structure and the thought structure,” said the intelligence expert, one of the longest-serving and most respected Arabic specialists in Israel’s security services. “I view his style as kitsch. It’s as if he’s trying to impress you with polished language and figurative expressions.”
This time, however, Saddam attempted to deliver a distilled message, and he was surprisingly nimble while fending off Rather’s queries.
When the veteran newsman attempted to get Saddam to compare his popularity in the Arab street with that of Osama bin Laden, the Iraqi leader dodged, saying that Rather surely is not the kind of interviewer who would try to “merely provoke or to try to get someone to say something that might be held against him.” And when he was asked to explain his idea of holding a televised debate with President Bush, Saddam replied that “the most important thing is that our debate be heard in a normal and accurate way.”
To the uninitiated, such observations might sound like trivial academic nit-picking. But, during the past half century, the hearts and history of the Middle East have often been swayed by the men most capable of simultaneously mastering the “high” Arabic of official speech and of written texts — almost identical to the classical language of the Koran — and the colloquial, spoken Arabic used by commoners.
The untold king of this near-impossible gambit — and Saddam’s rhetorical role model — was Gamal Abdel Nasser, the pan-Arab nationalist who ruled Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s. Nasser was “the leader that Saddam has been most impressed with, who shaped his outlook, and had a formative impact on him,” said Ibrahim Karawan, who directs the Middle East Center at the University of Utah.
Nasser’s secret was his ability to address both intellectuals — the Egyptian and Arab elite — and the largely illiterate working class of Egypt.
Karawan credited his former boss at the Cairo-based Al-Ashram Center for Strategic Studies, legendary speechwriter Muhammad Hassanen Haikal, for inserting the highbrow riffs into Nasser’s speeches. But the highlights of these speeches came when Nasser departed from the carefully crafted text and addressed the masses in colloquial Arabic.
Arabs all over the Middle East would gather around radio receivers and revel in Nasser’s scolding of Arab monarchs — he once declared that the boot of an Egyptian soldier is “worth more than the crown of [Jordanian King] Hussein or the throne of Saud” — or his ridiculing of Western leaders.
It was Nasser who invited superpower leaders, during the 1956 Suez crisis, to “drink from the Red Sea” — a phrase Yasser Arafat regularly borrows when urging opponents of a Palestinian state to go “drink from the sea of Gaza” or from the Dead Sea.
“But Saddam is no Nasser,” Karawan said.
The Iraqi leader lacks Nasser’s natural charisma, sophistication and credibility. “Inflaming the sentiments of the masses can work when the masses trust you,” Karawan said. “It cannot work when the masses are the ones that are going to pay the high price for your conduct.”
Experts agree that the most refined speaker among Arab leaders was the late King Hussein of Jordan, who combined a flawless command of the language with impeccable diction and personal charm. Egypt’s Anwar Sadat was considered an excellent speaker. Syria’s Hafez al-Assad may not have had the charisma of the Jordanian king or the Egyptian president, but his Arabic was grammatically flawless, accurate and elegant.
Current Arab leaders, however, leave much to be desired. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak speaks an instrumental yet unattractive mixture of colloquial and classical Arabic, the rhetorical skills of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad are as pale as his personality and Jordan’s King Abdullah is still trying to shrug off his English accent. Having been educated in Britain, Abdullah speaks English better than he does Arabic. When he was hastily appointed to the throne, he took extensive tutoring to be able to speak in public without spoiling his father’s legacy.
Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi, with his staccato machine-gun-like diatribes and strong North African accent, is often incomprehensible to Arab visitors from outside his country.
Some say Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat intentionally adopts what is generally thought to be the roughest and crudest oratory style of contemporary Arab leaders — though, even in the eyes of his own people, it seems to be losing whatever mischievous, popular appeal it may have had. “His Arabic reflects his confused personality,” said Shukri Abed, chair of the languages department of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.
So who are today’s great orators of the Arab world? Echoing several other observers, Abed told the Forward that he is particularly impressed with Osama bin Laden’s command of classical Arabic — “amazing, absolutely impeccable.” Abed also praised the linguistic skills of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al Bashir and Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah.
“There is no question that, with all of them, their excellent Arabic is a result of a good Muslim education,” Abed said.
Saddam, a secular dictator, never received a thorough religious education. His increased use of Muslim terminology and imagery only dates back to 1991, in the days following the Gulf War. It was then that he added the words “God is the Greatest” to the Iraqi national flag.