Saddam Hussein's Former Doctor Paints a Different Picture

Saddam Hussein's former doctor hasn't practiced in years, but his talents still draw crowds.

Ala Bashir, a trained plastic surgeon now living in Britain, slinked around the Corvus Art Center in New Haven, Conn., for a retrospective of his work. More than 100 paintings, etchings and sculptures graced the gallery with price tags ranging from $1,000 to six figures.

Bashir wields paintbrushes as deftly as he handled scalpels, and he considers painting his new mission in life. A mission, he says, that includes bearing witness to the atrocities he observed as Saddam's trusted physician for 20 years.

"Everything in my work is an echo of events I have seen," Bashir said, describing his latest collection of paintings, entitled "Mask," as human beings' unmistakable need to hide their true selves coupled with their desire for love.

The colorful surrealist series with hints of Cubism portrays different characters hiding behind face masks.

"I discovered that the most dangerous mask is the one worn by intelligent people because they are clever at their disguise," he said. Bashir asserts that everyone wears a mask at one time or another to avoid revealing one's real intentions.

The balding 66-year-old says that his experiences inspire him to focus on life's ugliness.

"I show the consequences of hate," he said, standing in front of a painting depicting a woman with a gash in her chest and a raven picking at her eyeball.

As the Iraqi dictator's personal doctor from 1983 to 2003, Bashir became privy to countless episodes of brutality, corruption and ruthlessness.

"Saddam governed through a construct of hate," Bashir said, explaining that he rose to prominence in his native country during the Iraq-Iran war in the '80s when he performed thousands of plastic-surgery operations on wounded soldiers.

"Power corrupts people," Bashir said, referring to his boss and other 20th-century dictators. "I think anybody who misuses power has to be put on trial and judged and punished according to the law."

Bashir, the first doctor in the Middle East to have mastered hand re-implantation, caught Saddam's attention after the dictator discovered that the doctor had also painted the art he greatly admired.

Nip and Tuck

Bashir joined the presidential medical corps, and continued painting and sculpting. He was at the mercy of Saddam around the clock and because of the despot's paranoia and distrust, Bashir lost all sense of freedom -- phones were bugged and he was followed everywhere.

Over the years, the doctor infiltrated Saddam's inner circle ,and as a result he became a keeper of the family's secrets, many of which he chronicled in his book, "The Insider: Trapped in Saddam's Brutal Regime."

His book rattles off the ills and woes besetting the Hussein family. He gave Saddam's second wife a face-lift without her husband's permission. Bashir also spent hours caring for Saddam's foot pain from corns -- a result of wearing shoes two sizes too small for vanity purposes. Although he could reconstruct a face, he says he never nipped or tucked any Saddam look-alikes.

Truth Be Told

Three years have passed since Bashir "lost" his job and devoted himself entirely to art.

He defends his past by saying that "in medicine one cannot choose one's patients." He follows up by saying that he never thought of killing his tyrant boss because he is not a criminal.

"I am a doctor, not a murderer."

Hiyad Alhusaini, one of Bashir's former Iraqi hospital interns and now a practicing plastic surgeon in the United States, explained that as a renowned doctor Bashir had little choice. Alhusaini, 46, described the ominous tableaux on display as a reflection of Iraq, a past laden with constant fear.

"It was hard to shy away and especially scary during Saddam's time," she said.

Bashir says that his vast collection of artwork, like his memoir, is a testimony of what he witnessed. "I have to display what I have seen to people," he said, never alluding to specific examples regarding his former boss.

Finding an audience seemed easier than getting his artwork out of Baghdad. Because Bashir's work was considered a national treasure, selling it was forbidden.

Since the start of the war, Bashir estimates that more than two dozen paintings have been destroyed during the looting of the Iraqi National Museum.

Fortunately, the artist's studio remained unscathed and Lesley Roy, founder of the Corvus Art Center and curator of the retrospective, got the pieces crated up and shipped piecemeal.

Roy fell in love with Bashir's work in 2003, and later met the artist on a trip to London. She acknowledged thinking about the doctor's past but said his art transcended any questions she had.

"I didn't judge," Roy said. "There's a tremendous spirit that speaks above that."

Bashir didn't just let his artwork do the talking.

At the opening of the show, he addressed guests for more than an hour, explaining that he enjoyed great freedom to paint whatever he wished in Iraq, painting a far gentler image of the despotic Saddam.

He shared his joy at having such a large body of work in the United States, reiterating that his art embodied the truth.

The truth, however, is in the eye of the observer.

For example, a series of sculptures depicts a brick wall with a grimacing human face jutting out. The pieces were commissioned to commemorate an American air-raid attack on the Amirya shelter during the 1991 Gulf War, which killed more than 400 people.

Charles Duelfer, Bashir's friend and former leader of the Iraq Survey Group, an American-led search party for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, described the constraining wall sculptures as an embodiment of the careful dance the artist performed under Saddam's reign.

"One interpretation refers to the horror of the sanctions imposed by the U.S. while another can be a reminder of the very unflattering regime," he said.

Bashir's ambiguity also infuses his political beliefs.

He fears the worst as his native country remains mired in violence but sees it as a pattern Iraq cannot break.

"I think the U.S. came to Iraq with good intentions, but they didn't understand the nature, social or historical context of Iraq," Bashir said.

"Hate and revenge will get nowhere. It's the same path to destruction Iraq has known for centuries," he said. "What we need is love."

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