x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Saddam's favourite singer back on stage

Entertainer who performed for old guard aims to restart career as some fans find his track record harder to bear, or forgive.

BAGHDAD // The dance floor was packed. Men and women twirled, hips were shaken, chests were thrust out and children bounced on shoulders. The old guard, neatly dressed in ties and suits, sat at tables sipping whisky and beers. The young, trendy crowd - the men's hair slicked back with gel, the women's streaked blonde - made the dance floor their own. This was the return to Baghdad of Kassim al Sultan, Saddam Hussein's favourite singer. After five years in exile, Kassim was back - and with a bang. Kassim wore a shiny suit and crooned, shaking his hips like an Iraqi Ricky Martin. But there were no swooning women. At only five foot five, he was almost as broad as he was tall. Unlike his western counterparts, he had no chiselled jaw or a sculpted six-pack. With his pockmarked face and paunch he relied on his voice to woo the crowds. The singer fled Iraq after the 2003 invasion and has been living in Syria and Jordan. He moved back to Baghdad two weeks ago, and this is his second concert since then. "I never thought I would see him back," says Mohammed Karim, 18, taking a breather from the dance floor. His disbelief was not surprising. Kassim may be an electrifying performer and an Iraqi institution, but he was also an unapologetic Baathist. His ties with the hated old regime ran deep. Not only was he Saddam's favourite singer, but he used to praise the former ruler in his songs. In 2002, when the Baathist regime was on its last legs, Kassim recorded a pro-Saddam song. Waving an AK-47 in the air and surrounded by Iraqi soldiers and pictures of the Baathist leader, he crooned: "Saddam you are brave and the father of our nation." It was an act of defiance seen by many as stupid, by others as incredibly brave. Among Baathists, it ensured folk hero status. Today, he says of his career as entertainer to Saddam and his cronies: "I sung to the ex-Iraqi president, many singers sung to him ? Saddam was my president for 35 years, this was the reality. "It is true I used to sing for Saddam but Kassim didn't only sing for Saddam, he sang for the children, for the whole country and for women. I would sing all types of songs." At this performance, in a private club in the capital, Kassim's songs focused on national unity; one praised the Iraqi football team. He is desperate to reinvent himself but his past seems not quite behind him. Just one night earlier, he had played in a slightly downmarket hotel popular with former Baathists. It was reported that, on the insistence of the audience, he had sung songs with allusions to the former ruler - something he denies. "They want these type of songs [pro-Saddam], but there are stages in your life and this is a new stage. Life is just like a wave, whatever shape it takes, you should ride it ? I came here to sing to Iraq and I love Iraq. I will not give up that love," he said. And there are some who cannot forget Kassim's past. "He sucks," said Fahad, 24, in English with an American accent, while outside the concert hall smoking a cigarette. A student of English, his slicked back hair, shaved at the sides, and black suit are more American gangster than angry young man, but when he speaks about the past, his passion becomes evident. "Look, Saddam executed my father. He [Kassim] used to be a Saddam guy and now he is with this government," he said. "When we needed him he didn't help us. Where were his songs when the militia and al Qa'eda controlled the streets?" said Wissan, 28, another partygoer. The organisers of the concert are keen to use the show to promote improved Iraqi nightlife. Even a year ago, they said, it would have been impossible to hold such an event as the security situation was too volatile. Maksood al Sanjary, the general manager of the Hunting Club, where the concert took place, said: "Now you judge how is the security situation in this country. This took a lot of work to make it happen but it was very good." And indeed the crowds have either forgiven Kassim for his Baathist past or are so intent to revive Baghdad's nightlife that they will watch anyone perform. At the door a security guard struggled to keep out people without tickets. Men in tight jeans, pointed shoes and smart blazers were trying to get in. "Tonight is very busy," he said, his sweaty brow creased into a frown. "It is because of Kassim Sultan." Kassim hopes that his return will inspire other artists to come back. "My visit has opened the road for many Iraqi singers and musicians to come back. Most of them returned because they knew that Kassim al Sultan was back in Baghdad". Ahmad Saib, 18, dressed in a smart velour jacket and slim jeans, came to party. "I'm enjoying myself. The girls are enjoying themselves," he said. "It's the first time Kassim has been here for ages." During a break, a perspiring Kassim, who has a habit of talking about himself in the third person, said: "You saw the crowd for Kassim al Sultan and I thank God. I'm very happy today. I was expecting this day because I know that Iraqis love peace and security." talbone@thenational.ae