HEET, Iraq – The wrinkled old man sprays perfume around the sparse, dingy room, then holds out his hands and feet and instructs one of his visitors to tie him up, knot the cloth three times and blow on it.
The lights die. Water splashes from a bowl. The ”genies” have arrived, and the questions begin.
Will Saddam Hussein be found? A ”genie” answers in the old man’s voice: “Yes.”
Dead or alive? “Dead.”
And the $25 million question: Where is he? ”Dhuluaiyah,” the genie says, referring to a village 55 miles north of Baghdad.
Thousands of magicians, fortunetellers and faith healers make up a huge world of Iraqi spirituality despite being considered by many Muslims to be sinful. But this man is different. He was Hussein’s own sorcerer, and therefore, for Iraqis his visions of the dictator’s demise carry special weight.
The sorcerer asks that he not be identified.
”That man is still alive, so I’m afraid,” he says of Hussein. “I helped him, his sons, his ministers, his wife, his cousins, but I can’t mention names. When he is dead, I can talk about him.”
Hussein was a firm believer in magic, and even applied himself, with modest success, to ”studying the sands” and summoning genies, according to magicians and others interviewed in Baghdad.
Hussein is still protected, the wizard says, by a pair of magic-infused golden statues. Several other magicians say Hussein has a powerful stone (or a parrot bone) implanted under the skin of his right arm to protect him against bullets and to make people love him.
Maher al Kadhami, a Baghdad faith healer, repeated a story often told in postwar Iraq: Some years ago, a fortuneteller told Hussein he would fall on April 9, 2003. Hussein became enraged, killed the fortuneteller and launched a violent campaign against all those dealing in the occult.
Lo and behold, April 9 turned out to be the day the world saw Hussein’s statue topple in Baghdad.
Tales such as these abound in Iraq. Academics say Hussein’s oppressive rule actually made the magicians stronger.
”When you are weak, when you are oppressed, where can you go?,” says al Haareth Hassan al Asadi, who studies parapsychology at Baghdad University.
It was Hussein himself who ordered the parapsychology department set up to help him wage psychological warfare during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and later to mind-read U.N. inspectors searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, according to former Iraqi officials.
Al-Asadi reckons more than half of Iraq’s 24 million people use some sort of magic, and a tour of magicians in Baghdad bears out his words.
SPARE THE ROD
Khalifa Ahmed al-Duleimi, 53, combines spiritual healing and diatribes against Jewish people, who he says have sent Israel-educated genies to control President Bush.
Abbas Abdullah, 42, walks in to complain that after 1 ½ years of marriage, his wife, Zeyneb Fadel, 31, doesn’t like him anymore. Abdullah pushes her onto a chair and tells al-Duleimi to exorcise the genie — a Jew, of course — that is competing for her affection.
Al-Duleimi beats her with a rubber hose, chanting all the while. Abdullah, clearly thrilled, yells at the genie inside his wife: “Get out or I’ll pour boiling water over you!”
Zeyneb, her face swollen from tears and pain, confesses quietly to a journalist: “I don’t like my husband.”
HISTORY WITH HUSSEIN
Hussein’s wizard is in a different category. He has been studying magic since he was 10, learning from his aunt’s husband. Now 62, he is one of the most revered magicians in Iraq.
He shows visitors a guest book of other powerful clients: a Saudi prince who paid 20,000 riyals, or about $75,000, for a spell to make a woman love him; a Jordanian businessman who wanted his daughter to divorce her abusive husband; a Syrian singer who wanted more success.
For Hussein’s family, he dealt mostly with issues of love, faithfulness and sexual prowess. He says he was once imprisoned for six months when Hussein suspected his wife of having the magician throw a spell that made his leg hurt.
He occasionally dabbled in politics as well. But his last attempt to advise Hussein on strategy, just before the Iraq war, met with failure.
”I told him through [his son] Qusai’s assistant that he faced great dangers in the war,” he says. “I told him that for a Rolls-Royce and 100 million dinars [$59,000] I would give him the specifics . . . but they just laughed. Qusai said the old man had gone crazy.”
As for the magician’s information about Hussein’s whereabouts, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the coalition commander in Iraq, laughs about it. But he notes the name of the town and says he’ll order a raid.
He means it, says his spokesman, Col. Guy Shields.