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An Iraqi singer’s bittersweet homecoming

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Ahmed is a Times staff writer.

This night at the Hunting Club, Qassim Sultan doesn’t come on till 1 a.m. Because he wants life to be like the old days. He wants people to dance till 5 in the morning. He just has to stand on the stage and they move for him, the way they did at parties on cruise boats down the Tigris River before the war.

In the crowd, women who look like Bettie Page, all jet-black hair and thick blue eye shadow, dance with men in double-breasted khaki suits. A chain of couples swing their hands high and kick their feet, grinning giddily, perhaps slightly tipsy from the beers and whiskeys at their tables.

A loose suit framing his blocky body, Sultan twirls the microphone, his cheeks puffed out, his lips pursed into a small O. “I melt in your arms, I miss you. In our house we spent time,” he sings. “How can I describe my life before meeting you?”

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Perhaps he thinks briefly about the past, remembers the time he was beaten in this white ballroom on the orders of Saddam Hussein’s son. He smiles at the band, spins toward the golden lights illuminating the stage.

He launches into a medley of classics, but everyone knows there’s one he won’t sing.

No one cries out for it -- that could sign your death warrant -- but it hangs in the air: “Go Ahead and Depend on Your Men,” a song of war and defiance recorded the day before U.S. airstrikes on Iraq six years ago.

With it, a romantic crooner cut from the cloth of a 1950s-era Sinatra became the man who sang Hussein’s last anthem.

“Go for it and watch the assaults of men. They have unbreakable swords,” went the song. “We will remove America from the map.”

The 41-year-old still labels it his finest hour as an artist.

“I’d sing it for President Talabani or Prime Minister Maliki,” he says. “If there was an invasion of the country, I would sing it. It is a battle song.”

But he won’t now. There are some things he knows he cannot do, that go unspoken, that conjure up the old days. He has refused to perform the song for many years now, because he always dreamed of coming home.

His decision to return to Baghdad after six years is in its own way a measure of the country’s slow recovery from war. Today, Shiite Muslim religious parties are the most powerful force in Iraq; to live here is to accept that. Sultan, who once cast his lot with Hussein’s government, has to entrust his fate to Iraq’s new rulers.

His homecoming is fraught with peril. Men in the shadows with links to political parties have killed people like Sultan. They could do so again.

The song came from Sultan’s heart. He remembers the moment in the spring of 2003 when he composed the melody in a phone call with his lyricist. He banged away at his keyboard as he listened to the words. He had already bragged to friends that he would write the greatest song of the war.

Days earlier he had performed at one of Uday Hussein’s late-night parties and listened to the dictator’s maniacal son say that if they could make it to the summer without a U.S. attack, the regime might remain intact. If not, catastrophe awaited.

In the hours before U.S. warplanes roared across the sky and dropped their bombs, the regime demanded that Sultan make a video of the song.

“We will raise our flags on the stars. Go for it, Uday and Qusai. With you in the dark, your sons will be the light. Iraq with its zealousness has no limits,” Sultan sings with a clownish smile and twinkling eyes in the video.

Images of Sultan in a gray robe surrounded by malnourished looking uniformed soldiers alternate with footage of a scowling Saddam Hussein firing off a hunting rifle and cone-shaped Scud missiles primed to launch.

The song played on state television and radio for nearly two weeks, and the video of the puckish Sultan practically skipping and twirling his rifle rallied Hussein’s supporters until U.S. warplanes bombed the government’s broadcast studios.

As United States military tanks patrolled Baghdad and Saddam Hussein’s sworn enemies rose to influence, Sultan was seen as Uday Hussein’s singer. Within three months, he left, flying to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and into a life of exile, singing his way through parties around the world.

Even if they loved him, many of his fans regarded Sultan as a buffoonish collaborator. But he scoffs at people’s perceptions of his life and its so-called luxuries.

“They didn’t know what happened behind closed doors.”

All Qassim Sultan ever wanted to do was sing.

He came from humble origins in west Baghdad’s working-class district of Hurriya, with its monochrome brown stucco villas. He learned he had a gift in sixth grade when his class sang weekly at flag-raising ceremonies. His tenor floated in the air, bending notes like honey.

Soon, he joined music clubs and teenage rock bands. He loved “Hotel California” by the Eagles, “Careless Whisper” by Wham! and Julio Iglesias’ balladry. Alone, at home, he would strum their songs on his guitar. Even now, with little prompting, he will croon Lionel Richie: “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?”

But Sultan tired of other people’s songs. In his early 20s, the woman he loved ended their relationship. She stopped taking his calls and he waited outside her home from early evening till late at night hoping to catch a glimpse of her. He thought of the songs they had listened to together. Depressed, he retreated to his house and composed his first hit, “Ask Me About the Nights.”

“I roam the city alone. Tracing back the memories. Anything that I see at night. The feelings inside me have shaken the city walls,” he laments.

It was 1993, and Sultan took his cassette of songs to the state television channel hoping it would play his music. Instead, they referred him to a new channel called Shabab TV that Uday Hussein had started to cater to Iraqi youths hungry for popular culture, as international sanctions isolated Iraq from the world.

Suddenly, the pudgy young Sunni from Hurriya was a celebrity. He remembers his first big concert at a Baghdad hotel before he was truly a star. The room was packed. As he pushed through the crowd to the stage, people demanded to know who he thought he was, shoving his way to the front when Qassim Sultan was about to sing. He remembers telling them, “I am Qassim Sultan.”

From that moment, he says, Iraqis let him into their hearts: “I sang from my soul. I expressed my soul in my music.”

Uday Hussein fancied himself a music impresario -- a Berry Gordy or Phil Spector-like figure. He would praise Sultan’s style and recommend that young singers follow his example. He loved Sultan’s renditions of classics by the late Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum about love and heartache.

The younger Hussein, a hard-drinking clotheshorse with a tremendous appetite for rape and violence, alternated generosity with sadism: He encouraged his singers to perform abroad, even in the United States. But in return for the glamour and privileges, they remained at his beck and call.

Every day, Sultan reported to Uday Hussein’s office. If he wanted singers for a party, they had to perform. Sultan remembers how in 1997, after returning from playing private parties in America, he was summoned to the Hunting Club. Uday commanded him to sing until sunrise. At 8 a.m., Hussein screamed at Sultan, chastising him for returning to Baghdad without reporting to him, and told his guards to beat him.

Another time, Sultan remembers, he showed up for a concert at midnight. Hussein’s guards barked that he should have arrived earlier and beat him again. Before Sultan went onstage, Hussein called him over to chug a bottle of one of his mystery blends of beer, gin and other hard liquors. It tasted hot and bitter.

The demand to drink Uday Hussein’s cocktails soon became a regular feature of his life. Most parties started that way. Twice Sultan ended up in the hospital. Sometimes, he got lucky and it was champagne and cognac, not a mystery drink.

After Uday Hussein survived an assassination attempt in 1997, he summoned Sultan to entertain him in a garden at the presidential palace. A lion circled him as he sang. Unnerved by the prowling beast, Sultan ran away, but a guard dragged him back.

He worried that one day someone in Hussein’s entourage would pull out a gun and shoot him, simply because they could: “I used to picture my friends and I were going to a place where cowboys with weapons could kill you at any time.”

Still, there were times when Uday Hussein displayed a gentlemanly side, applauding songs and dancing the traditional Iraqi tribal dance called the chobi. Sultan even has nice words for other members of the dictator’s family, calling them polite and appreciative, but says he always wished for something more than what the Husseins offered.

“I wanted peace, not the wars [Saddam Hussein] brought us, but this was politics and we were artists.”

When the war finally started, Sultan hid in his home. He thought the Americans would drop a nuclear bomb and he would die with his city. Despite his song’s wild boasts of victory, he had prepared himself for defeat. He told himself, “Let me die with Baghdad.”

To his surprise, he survived. He waited the first months after the invasion, unsure what to do. Baghdad’s night life had shut down and his patrons in the government had fled, been killed or arrested by the Americans.

He bided his time, opening a record shop. He flirted with taking a job with the new official state media, but finally balked at working with the Americans. His song refused to fade, as Hussein’s sympathizers played “Go Ahead and Depend on Your Men” rebelliously in neighborhoods that were turning against the Americans and their Iraqi allies.

Sultan started to worry about the newly empowered Shiite religious parties. Rumors spread that they had sent militias to kill people with ties to the old government. In May, the head of the artists syndicate was slain.

“I was told I was on a list of singers to be killed,” he says.

So with little ceremony, Sultan left Baghdad on July 1, 2003, and headed to the emirates to play several months at a Dubai hotel. His battle song followed him; Saudi sheiks would come to Dubai to see him perform and call out for the anthem.

They would tell him how they watched his video in their salons and picked up their rifles, inspired by his example of fighting the Americans. One sheik named him an honorary poet in his tribe, but Sultan had to explain he could no longer sing the song -- that the Dubai authorities had warned him it was inflammatory.

For six years, Sultan toured the Arab world and Iraqi emigre communities, ignoring the shouts for the anthem. He performed classic ballads and songs about the war ending: “Tomorrow we will return to our country. . . . We will return to Iraq, we will embrace Baghdad again.”

In December, buoyed by reports of the country finally settling down, he decided to make a trial run back to Baghdad. There, he met with Iraq’s interior and culture ministers and asked whether he would be welcome back. The ministers assured him he was safe, Sultan says, and told him they would help him set up a four-man bodyguard team.

Six months later, after a tour in America, he returned to the city of his birth.

In some ways, it is too late. Sultan’s father, whom he had longed to see, died of an illness in 2007. His years of late nights with Uday Hussein and others have taken their physical toll and left him bloated. He had stomach-reduction surgery, but it has done little to help him shed weight; instead, he has only lost his appetite.

But he is glad to be home. There are the moments when he guns his imported SUV down the streets and policemen gawk. “That’s Qassim Sultan!” they shout, as if his very presence is a sign that life is improving. In restaurants, families come up to him and he poses endlessly for photographs with boys and their fathers.

He delights in an impromptu boat ride down the Tigris and surprise shows at an old friend’s restaurant. In an official coming-out, he was invited to the Baghdad municipality’s June 29 celebration of the departure of U.S. troops from the city. Before fireworks burst over the capital, young men danced as he sang, “Today is your day, Iraq.”

The thrills compensate for the fact that some neighborhoods remain too dangerous for him to visit. That he must think hard before every concert he plays, before every verse he sings. Uday Hussein may be gone, but Sultan knows people still remember his history, that not all will forgive him despite his angelic tenor.

Sultan leans over a table, his usually playful eyes grown still.

“There is a freedom,” he says. “A careful freedom.”

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ned.parker@latimes.com


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