What interests me secondmost to the overall conceit of the book, which is too large and complex to discuss in a brief review, are the artifacts mentioned in Saddam’s war room. As is often the occasion, the smallest items in a novel bear the biggest significance. Small items must have significance to warrant mentioning; otherwise, the author is just being overly meticulous. The great benefit of stopping to focus on artifacts is that the reader has the opportunity to experience symbols and motifs.
The first object called to the reader’s attention, starting on page 196, are the cards. During the hunt for Saddam and his eventual capture, Americans were familiar with the playing cards that ranked the biggest threats to the United States from the Ace of Spades on down. The artifac t that Saddam possesses, of course, bears his face as the Ace of Spades. He is the President of the Baath Union. Here the reader sees this trivialized notion of being a target for assassination through Saddam’s viewpoint. Additionally, he is the victim after the Tigris and Euphrates towers are attacked. Thus, the artifact must be viewed in a different light. With the radical Christian Americans as the terrorists, the playing cards could now be construed as a cause for Iraq to go to war with America. Their intention toward Saddam has been made clear. It also calls another idea into question: were the cards justifiable in the 9-11 reality? As Saddam says, “Americans… always confusing fantasy and reality”. We view videotapes from Osama bin Laden as a direct threat, but we expect the playing cards to be perceived as a funny gesture of sortrs because, in our ‘fantasy’, they’re not a signal of an intent to kill. They’re just a harmless expression of dissent. In reality, the other nations perceive playing cards with a man’s face on the Ace of Spades as a hostile gesture. What the inversion of 9-11 does is strip away the American fantasy by placing us in an undeniable position of fault. Here the Americans can’t just say the cards are a novelty item because we just attacked them. It forces us to see what we should have been seeing in the 9-11 reality: our intentions are not just shrugged off because we are Americans.
Saddam’s press clippings about himself are of interest because he seems to take a certain pleasure in being targeted. It would be unorthodox, to say the least, for Obama’s office to be covered in al-Jazeera spotlights about him because, although we keep a close watch on what our enemies say about us, we do not ascribe the same respect toward their media, or so this novel expresses. It would not exactly be news in America for an Iraqi newspaper to criticize an American president. We expect that to happen and their articles could always be dismissed as sensational, inflammatory journalism not held to the standards of American journalism. But Saddam does not assume the same about foreign journalism. They are objects for him to admire and pour over. It seems doubtful that Saddam would collect these articles if he thought they were written from a standpoint of pure sensationalism. Although he does not believe they are true, he wants to know what America thinks of him. The novel specifically mentions “several New York Times front pages” – this was almost certainly a direct nod to Judith Miller. The White House took Miller’s articles about WMDs in blind faith, not wanting to doubt The Grey Lady even though search teams were finding no evidence of WMDs. Miller later admitted to the articles being falsified. Saddam’s possession of these artifacts signals a sort of satire in which the dubiousness of American reporting is retrospectively exposed. As Saddam puts it, “These objects tell a story about another world, an Arabia and an Iraq with a different history”. It’s a savvy move to disregard truth and instead try to understand what the global perception of oneself is.
Continuing off of journalistic integrity is the Library of Alexandria page about the Mahdi Army. It is clearly intended to be a reference to Wikipedia with the “User-edited reference source” tagline. The name of the website is of peculiar interest. The Library of Alexandria was burned to the ground centuries ago, and yet it is being used in the context of supposed truthfulness. There’s no way to tell if what the Library of Alexandria held was truthful or valid. We just know from legend that it was supposedly a vast collection. Thus, the reader has to take the author’s word for it, which is troublesome considering phrases like “Although the Mahdi’s army vigilantism is excused by some as a necessary evil …” Who excuses this? Why? What source backs this up? Herein lies the problem with the American culture. Though Wikipedia is not a fully credible source in the eyes of Americans, news is truth when it reaches a certain point of dissemination. Saddam’s Baath City is criticized by this article and, since it’s already been established that the other side is considered to be a sympathetic cause by some, it is allowed to trail off before elaborating in Saddam’s defense. This is not be a big deal until, just like 9-11, the country comes under attack. Then the country is whipped into a frenzy and the information that is available must be used or dismissed as fast as possible. And, in a crisis, dismissing information entirely is never ideal on the off-chance it proves to be right.
The artifacts do not teach us about Iraq so much as they teach us about how Iraq views America viewing them. They are, in a queer way, the double consciousness that W.E.B. DuBois talked about. Whereas America gobbles up intel about Iraq to learn of any potential threats, Saddam and his men take to eBazaar for American artifacts because they want to understand our viewpoint of them, for better and especially for worse. They share whiskey and laugh about the propaganda they discover. They wisely view artifacts not as objects of the past, but as a barometer of the present.