IT WAS JUST before sunset one scorching late summer day when we stumbled on a rare slice of the real Iraq.
We were just off Al-Rashid Street in central Baghdad, but out of range of Iraq's Information Ministry guides, who have steered hundreds of reporters through one of the world's most highly disciplined police states since Iraq made itself ground zero in the Persian Gulf crisis. The conventional wisdom was that the real Iraq was wherever the guides were not. So on that hot September evening, Thomas and I were on an unescorted "reality hunt" through some of the narrow, dilapidated lanes in the bowels of Baghdad.
Thomas, a young student from Germany, knew Baghdad inside and out--in fact, far better than he had hoped to when he crossed the Syrian border into Iraq in a crowded bus on July 29 as a backpacking student of Islam and the Arabic language. Four days after Thomas arrived, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. A few days later, the United States rushed its troops, ships and planes to the gulf, the world isolated Iraq, which promptly sealed its borders, and 22-year-old Thomas suddenly found himself a prisoner in his laboratory, part of Hussein's human insurance policy against the prospect of oblivion.
But unlike most of the other foreigners detained in Iraq, who have been free to go anywhere except through the immigration booth at Saddam International Airport, Thomas had not been idle. He was biding his time by doing exactly what he came to do--study Iraq, speak its language and try to understand. He was a genuine guide.
And so it was that Thomas and I found ourselves on Al-Rashid Street in his favorite bookshop, a tiny cubicle of a place run by one of Thomas' many friends. It was surprising, at first, to find so many books on the shelves. During another reality hunt a few weeks before, at another bookstore, even the shop owner nervously joined in our laughter when we discovered that his House of Wisdom Book Store in fact had not a single volume in stock. In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, where censorship is written into the constitution as an inalienable right of the state, such apparent contradictions are common.
But the shop owned by Thomas' friend was packed floor to ceiling with books and pamphlets--Arabic-language textbooks, science, math and English texts and propaganda treatises issued by Hussein's all-powerful Arab Baath Socialist Party. One shelf was filled with dogeared and yellowing English-language romance novels, but they had little to do with reality even in the West. In the center of them all, one clue to the real Iraq stood out.
The title was in Arabic, but there was no mistaking the large, black-and-white photograph on the cover. It was Adolf Hitler--and the book was "Mein Kampf."
"Why are you surprised?" the bookshop owner asked with genuine confusion when he noticed my stunned expression. He had been talking with Thomas about a town he'd once visited in Germany.
"Well," I said, "it's only because George Bush, Margaret Thatcher and almost every other Western leader have been making such a big deal out of comparing your president to Adolf Hitler--you know, the guy who gasses his own people and tries to take over the world?"
The shop owner smiled knowingly. He walked over to the shelf, removed the book with Hitler's photograph almost reverently and placed it on the counter.
"You Americans will never understand us," he said softly. " 'Mein Kampf ' is one of my biggest sellers. It's a brilliant work by a powerful man. Hitler was a strong man, and we Iraqis admire strength. He fought to rid the world of the Jews, and, as you know, we are still at war with Israel. But Hitler also had a vision for the future, and he followed that vision straight through his life. Hitler was a great man."
Thomas and I listened in amazement. The shop owner paused, regarding our blank expressions. "You in the West just don't get it. Here in Iraq, we like Hitler. Hitler sells."
PENETRATING SADDAM Hussein's Iraq is like breaking into a maximum-security prison. Brief moments like those in the bookshop offer an outsider the hope that, with enough real Iraqis voicing enough real thoughts, an accurate mosaic of the real Iraq might emerge. But such moments are rare.
Since taking power 11 years ago, the Iraqi leader has methodically constructed a monolithic order so relentlessly efficient in its promotion of strength, discipline and the cult of Saddamism that even Adolf Hitler would have admired it. Even before he engineered sole control of the presidency in 1979, Hussein, as second in command, laid the foundations for a three-tiered security apparatus that has been largely responsible for keeping him not only in power but alive.