Wendell Steavenson's new book is remarkable for the way it grapples with the problem of evil: by letting its victims and perpetrators tell their own storiesby Neal Ascherson / March 1, 2009 / Leave a comment
The Weight of a Mustard Seed By Wendell Steavenson (Atlantic Books, £14.99)
Those with loud opinions, especially in Britain and America, like to believe that evil is done by evil people. When this is shown to be an unreliable rule, they panic. Recent examples abound. The film The Lives of Others, picturing a Stasi officer who grows complicit with those he spies on, was denounced on the grounds that only pinko “Ostalgiacs” could imagine a Stasi man with a human streak. Another film, The Reader—along with the bleak novel by Bernhard Schlink that inspired it—is desperately assailed for suggesting that a female SS guard who shares responsibility for killing Jewish prisoners could be seen as a complicated person, even a sort of victim.
Wendell Steavenson, who has written this extraordinary book about some of those who served, fought for and killed for Saddam Hussein, says simply: “These are people after all, and what person does not deserve to be listened to? None, I maintain, if we strive to understand ourselves in the other, which is the only and original reason to tell stories in the first place: none.” Her first book (Stories I Stole, about Georgia) reminded me of the late Ryszard Kapuscinski in its penetrating curiosity. And, interestingly enough, Kapuscinski himself could have written those sentences about listening to The Other—the title of his last book. In it, he explained what he learned from the religious philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas: “He says you must not only meet the Other, accept him and converse with him, but you must also take responsibility for him.”
At the core of The Weight of a Mustard Seed is a certain Other whom Steavenson was unable to meet, accept or converse with. General Kamel Sachet, an Iraqi hero of the terrible eight-year war with Iran and later one of Saddam’s commanders in Kuwait, was already dead, executed for disloyalty or treachery in 1998. Wendell Steavenson, arriving in Iraq just after the 2003 invasion, set out to discover what she could about this man who had been loved and revered by many who hated the regime he served, who trusted Saddam for many years and was murdered by him, who entered deeper and deeper into his religion, Sunni Islam, as he grew older and became more disgusted by the paths his leader followed.
The result is a curious, clever literary structure. At its centre is a silence, containing a statue-like image of Kamel Sachet. We learn a lot about what he did and suffered, but he doesn’t “come to life” in the conventional way. In the end, Steavenson did not reconstruct most of what Sachet really thought and felt (and, given his austere taciturnity, she might not have learned much even if she had been able to meet him). Instead, she places around his statue a ring of marvellously realised men and women—his wife and children, his war comrades, his friends and protégés—who tell her their stories.
These stories are not only reminiscences of Kamel Sachet. They are also, and inevitably, their tellers’ own stories. They are tales about atrocious wars, ambitions and humiliations, the terror of arrest, or the foul compromises that people make in order to prosper. Very often, they are about escape and dismal exile. Many feature a return to the carnage and chaos of post-Saddam Iraq with its new dilemmas: to fight the occupiers, to collaborate and hope for better times, or to give up and return to Damascus, Amman, Beirut or the Arab cafés along Edgware Road.
Through these stories, collected on her long pursuit of Kamel Sachet’s ghost across the middle east and Europe, Wendell Steavenson helps the outside world to grasp what it has meant to be an Iraqi during the last 50 years. “In order to thread their way through the economic detritus, the agents and the sharp-edged apparatus of the [Baathist] state, Iraqis developed the trick of multiple personalities. They could be belligerent or obsequious, efficient or lazy, in charge or needy, drunk or pious, according to the requirements of the official whose caprice they had to navigate… Their dealings with the Americans were no different.”
But she is no moral relativist. She isn’t talking to helpless peasants, but to men who held high positions in Saddam’s army and state. And throughout the stories and the interviews, she repeats variations of one question: “Why did you? How could you have?” Steavenson is well aware that an older generation has also asked this question—she quotes both Albert Speer’s autobiography and Gitta Sereny’s biography of Speer—and so she recognises the sort of answers she gets. “What could I do?”, “But I helped people, many people,” and what she calls “the ultimate trumping” reply: “You cannot understand what it is like to live under such a regime.”
For instance, General Raad Hamdani, who fought in all Iraq’s recent wars and ended up commanding a Republican Guard division in 2003, is one of her most engaging and intelligent sources. But when it comes to the gassing of Kurdish civilians at Halabja in 1988, he merely tells Steavenson that “it was a political mistake” and that the Kurds have lied about it. Longing to detect a gleam of guilt, she tries to stare him down. But she is the first to drop her eyes, allowing him to trot out familiar stuff: “I tried to lessen the evil in the regime… You carry out the order, but in a good way, to lessen the evil in it.” You could have resigned, she tells him, brooding on the famous 1971 Stanford prison experiment and Stanley Milgram’s 1961 obedience experiment at Yale, which suggested that most “ordinary” people will obey orders from authority to inflict cruelty (the Milgram experiment) or will treat others with sadistic brutality when given power over them (the Stanford experiment). Some of her Iraqi interviewees are glad to agree.
Just why Saddam decided to have General Sachet shot is unclear. But Steavenson has found out enough about what happened to write a heart-breaking, horrifying final chapter. And before his arrest, something terrible was done to one of Sachet’s daughters which alm-ost broke him apart. Steavenson knows what the rumours are, but decides not to pass them on. It’s hard to think of another writer who would show that restraint. But it’s typical of her respect for those she listens to—the quality that makes her such an incomparable collector and arranger of stories.