‘It’s in line with Iraqi culture to make fun of our own misery’ writes Zainab Salbi in the Guardian, perhaps reflecting on Anthony Horowitz’s Dinner with Saddam. Whilst the dictator was still presiding over Iraq, he had a habit of dropping in on his fellow Baghdadians to sample their hospitality and sometimes stay the night, it was, as he was reported as saying, a way of showing solidarity with his people, although the fear of being assassinated by the Americans in his own palaces was probably another factor. It left his people though, afraid for their own lives.
Such a hapless and surreal dinner is the subject of this play by writer Anthony Horowitz, and it treads an uneasy line between farce and satire, reflecting on Iraqi culture, the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions and British guilt over the lack of weapons of mass destruction stock piles and the subsequent war. And we quickly realise, looking at Tim Shortall’s set, which has an air of an English farm house kitchen about it, that this could be a sitcom about an Iraqi family hanging out in England and struggling to acclimatise, if it weren’t for the bombs, the threat of illnesses from contaminated water, and of course Saddam Hussein himself, whom Steven Berkoff plays in a such a nonchalant manner – the effect is chilling because there is a negation of it.
There is a lot to laugh at here. Sanjeev Bhaskar who plays Ahmad Alawai, the head of the Sunni family and construction supervisor at the local mosque and whose family Saddam is to visit, finds a Basil Fawlty humour in his character, his hatred of Saddam tempered only by his cousin Jammal, a Saddam fanatic and future husband of his rebellious daughter Rana. Much of the laughter comes from Bhaskar’s talent for slapstick and his ability to wring out the humour from every line, drawing on a British popular comedy aesthetic. You cannot help but laugh at him, though it’s the laughter of amazement and horror, rather than nervous compassion.
The comedy seems merely a vehicle for our own collective guilt. It’s given voice through Saddam, who does not suffer and is blind to the people around him who do suffer. It’s poetic justice perhaps, though cruel and one-dimensional, that Jammal, a character made so unlikeable by Nathan Amzi, embarrasses himself by drinking contaminated water. The English obsession with fart jokes and bodily humour and the subordination of form to function, is an uneasy juxtaposition though, especially when the sanctions would bring about high rates of malnutrition and disease from lack of clean water.
The irony is that Horowitz uses the English sense of humour, our ability to wallow in our misery through comedy, and flings this back in our faces. If it feels uneasy laughing at jokes about contaminated water – and so it should be. This is not just about the Iraqis, this is about us and what we laugh at. And the metaphors of clogged bodies, clogged pipes, things not working or being where they should, while a result of a destroyed social infrastructure, also seems surreally apt for the weapons of mass destruction that couldn’t be found. Sanctions also destroyed much of Iraq’s military fire power.
It also presents a critique on the increasing role that women play in opposing dictatorships, through the character of Rana, played by Rebecca Grant and to some extent, her argumentative but still half culturally oppressed mother Samira, as played by Shobu Kapoor. In Lindsay Posner’s production we see how oppression everywhere wears the same mask: Ilan Goodman’s Colonel Farouk cannot fail to remind us of a cliched head of the Gestapo from a famous TV sitcom of the 1980s, but then Germany was responsible for, under the guises of outwardly ‘clean’ companies, providing arms to Iraq and they were the source of 200 milligrams of T-2 and HT-2 mycotoxins sold to the country in 1986. There’s metatheatre here too in the way Goodman’s Sayid convincingly transforms from bumbling no-hoper into the scheming, sly torturer, Farouk.
Some may find the farcical tone of the piece a problem, but Horowitz is not prisoner to any dominant ideology on this. Dinner with Saddam is as much about British culture’s ability to poke fun at the misery it causes, and the resultant guilt, as it is about the Iraqis’ ability to make fun of their own misfortune.