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By turns chilling and comical, rational and absurd, the seven encounters in Talk of the Devil showcase Orizio's gifts of observation and his skill at getting people to reveal themselves and bring back into focus forgotten history and people we have viewed as evil incarnate. Stripped of their power and titles, they are oddly human, and in Orizio's hands their stories, and his own, are compulsively readable.
from The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden
As one flies into Jeddah at dawn, the city looks as though someone has just thrown a bucket of whitewash over it.
The light is already dazzling, but the air is still cool. The huge airport appears deserted. The terminals open to the public - five or maybe ten of them, standing one behind the other - are empty. Those reserved for the royal family gleam in the desert, sealed and inaccessible. Rows of white condominiums built during the economic boom are separated by expanses of gelatinous sand. Mosques and supermarkets seem frozen in the surreal glacé icing, sticky and transparent, that overlays the Arabian desert in the passage between night and day.
As yet unbroken by the roar of air-conditioning, the silence of a Jeddah dawn is sinister.
I am in a car with my official escort, a functionary of the Ministry of Information, tall and mistrustful. He was waiting for me beside the steps of the aircraft when I arrived from Rome. Without even asking my name - as if he knew me already - he whisked me through passport control and customs with a couple of brusque words to the officials. The driver is a foreigner, a black African. Not once has he met my eyes. Both are wearing the regular garb of the loyal Saudi subject: the long white robe called thawb, black Italian moccasins, and round the head the ghutra an iqal, a shawl secured with a black cord.
I feel uneasy. I have the sensation that Abdullah, my escort, is reading my mind, that he knows my secret. I try to distract him with preposterous questions about trade relations between our two countries and about the friendship uniting them. Then I pluck up the courage to ask him about the austerity measures recently adopted by the Saudi government, indeed by his own family, to control the unprecedented economic crisis. Abdullah replies in monosyllables. He loosens up only when revealing that he worked for a year in London, at the bureau of the Saudi news agency. `As a journalist?' I ask. No. I try the alternative. `Business manager?' Another negative. So I opt for silence. After a while he says, `As an observer of English life.' Then, with evident sorrow, he adds, 'But the Ministry of Information withdrew the funding and I had to come home.'
Abdullah must be aware that I am the first Italian journalist in a long time to have been granted a visa. Sitting in the car, he regards me with curiosity. Perhaps he's wondering who my highly placed friends are. I would certainly not be here were it not for a recent and bizarre diplomatic initiative on the part of our minister for foreign affairs, who visited Saudi Arabia three times in less than twelve months. His first visit was seen in the light of a long-overdue repayment of a diplomatic debt. The two that followed shortly afterwards amazed even the Saudis, who called them 'an unequivocal demonstration of interest in us'. Absolutely true. For the most part, Western dignitaries like to make only brief and infrequent visits to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where the temperature is always too hot and the smiles too cold.
At the Saudi Embassy in London's Mayfair, a Fleet Street veteran who now has the job of spokesman had been perfectly frank: `A visa? I can't remember the last time I signed one of these. I've got hundreds of requests sitting in a drawer. To be honest, I wouldn't get your hopes up.'
Many months later I managed to get an appointment at the Saudi Embassy in Rome, a nineteenth-century villa ruled over by a powerful prince of the royal family. In the guise of a rambling conversation about what I wanted to do in Saudi Arabia and why, I was subjected to a kind of `test of trustworthiness'. In charge of this was a young diplomat who was noticeably uncertain about what to do with me. He spent much of the time taking calls on his mobile phone from friends and relatives all over the world and then apologising. `That was my cousin so-and-so, calling from Toronto. Ah, that was my brother, from Abu Dhabi.'
We agreed on an itinerary starting in Jeddah, the financial capital of the country, then on to Jubail, an industrial complex in the desert consisting of a cluster of refineries and factories built by Filipino contract labour and considered a `model city' by the Saudis, and finally to Riyadh. Times were fixed, appointments booked. Saudi Arabia, the young attaché said with an ironic smile, was always anxious that the foreign press should receive all possible assistance.
I passed the trustworthiness test. I told no lies, but had to conceal part of the truth. My paper, I explained, wanted interviews with Italian contractors doing business in Saudi Arabia, and articles about the development of the economy from oil-dependency to industrial diversification. All true. But I also had a secret agenda, one that would not pass any test.
In Jeddah my real objective was to find a man of seventy-two, height 1.96 metres, weight 150 kilos, long absent from the international stage he once dominated. A giant who boasted of having been a reluctant cannibal, complaining that human flesh was too salty. A head of state who sent telegrams to Queen Elizabeth addressing her as `Liz' and inviting her to visit his country 'if she wanted to meet a real man'. Who announced the dispatch to Britain of a shipload of vegetables `to alleviate your severe economic recession'. A president who ordered the decapitation of his opponents to be transmitted live on television, specifying that `they must wear white to make it easy to see the blood'.
The man I had to find was Idi Amin Dada, the corporal who became Uganda's 'Big Daddy', the innocuous `gentle giant' - as the European press referred to him when he first came to power - who became a monster.
Nowadays the Africans - Sudanese, Ugandans, Somalis, Nigerians - are leaving Jeddah. The exodus started at the end of the Nineties, when the economic crisis brought about by the collapse of oil prices forced the Saudi government to cut subsidies and apply immigration laws. Many Africans were literally rounded up in the streets and deported.
After the Africans, it was the turn of the Pakistanis, Bengalis and Indians.
The Africans who remain in the old kasbah struggle to keep their shops open, selling bogus perfumes, pastel-coloured shoes, soap, mirrors. Modest wares aimed at fellow immigrants whose numbers dwindle by the day.
The Saudis shop elsewhere, in malls which even at midnight are still crowded. These are the only public places that women are allowed to frequent. Veiled from head to foot, they walk around for hours in large groups, clutching the hands of their obese children. Their faces are invisible. Two holes for the eyes, one for the nose. On their hands they wear long black gloves similar to those that European women used to wear to the opera early in the twentieth century.
Giggling and whispering among themselves, the Saudi women buy, buy, buy, because there is nothing else to do. If they are caught speaking to a man who is not a relative, the special police patrols responsible for enforcing respect for Islamic customs can beat them with bamboo canes.
Jeddah has a beautiful sea front. By day it is deserted. Families have their picnics at night, when the heat is more bearable. Arab music streams from car radios in the BMWs. Men sit cross-legged on the sand, smoking. Women and their children form separate groups. Boys kick a football around. Beach picnics help to maintain links with the nomadic traditions of grandparents who travelled the desert routes with their caravans.
Every evening, when Abdullah leaves me at my hotel after a day of meetings with bankers, businessmen and government functionaries, my search for Idi Amin begins. I take a taxi, ask to be driven to the kasbah and, passing en route the families intent on their sea-front picnics, begin to trawl through the African shops and stalls. The taxi driver is usually a sullen Saudi, with a ferocious grin revealing a mouthful of gold teeth, but one evening I happen to get an Indian. I ask him what his life is like in Saudi Arabia. He says, `Fine.' Then adds, as if by way of illustration, `There was a public execution today, in a square just near here. He was a foreigner, they say. Pakistani.'
In the kasbah I ask about Idi Amin. The name strikes a sympathetic chord with everyone, and they react as if talking about a relative who has made his fortune and moved to a trendier neighbourhood. `We used to see him often here in the town centre, either before or after prayers in the mosque. It's a while now since I've seen him. I've heard he shops at one of the fashionable supermarkets. I can give you directions how to get there,' offers a Sudanese from behind a counter piled with bottles of shampoo.
I go to the supermarket. The cashiers are all Filipinos. The Saudis like them because they look submissive and all claim to come from the predominantly Muslim island of Mindanao. It's half-past eleven at night and families jostle in front of the food displays as if they were in Old Bond Street.
`Amin? Yes, he used to come here,' says a Filipino girl. And now? She shrugs her shoulders. `He used to live in this part of town. Then, I suppose, he moved. He does his shopping somewhere else.'
The following day I have a stroke of luck. I encounter a young Somali. Having made me promise not to get him into trouble, he tells me, `Idi Amin used to be a boxer. He fought in the ring as a heavyweight before and after becoming president.' He's right. I remember reading about Amin's passion for boxing. In 1951, when he was a corporal in the army, he won the heavyweight title of Uganda and held it until 1960. Then he lost to an Italian stonemason called Serra, shorter than Amin but quicker on his feet. In 1971, by now elevated to the presidency after ousting Milton Obote with a military coup, his love of boxing resurfaced. Threatening to auto-select himself for the Ugandan Olympic team, he fought several of the contestants. All were soundly defeated.
`If you want to find him,' says the Somali reasonably, `go to the gyms. There they know him well.'
The next day at my hotel they inform me that the best gyms and health centres all belong to their competitors, hotels such as the Intercontinental, Meridien, Sofitel. It's four o'clock in the afternoon and an already exhausted Abdullah asks if he may go home. I decide that it's time to visit the gyms.
At the last - a terrace with a swimming pool and a view over the nondescript boulevards of Jeddah - an Egyptian masseur opens his appointment book for me, placing it on a lectern like the Bible in church, and points to the name of Amin against a booking dated three months previously. `That,' he says, `was the last time I saw him.'
In the course of the next few days I get to know every masseur in Jeddah. And I start to reconstruct Amin's life. They tell me that he arrives in a white Range Rover. During the early years of his exile he drove a light-blue Cadillac. Then he acquired a Chevrolet Caprice. He has always liked cars. In Kampala he owned a red Maserati, and one of his little pleasures was to act as starter at the yearly rally across the savannah, then jump into his own sports car and chase after the competitors, all of whom politely - not to say wisely - allowed themselves to be overtaken.
In Jeddah he leaves whichever car he happens to be using at the time in the hands of the valet of the hotel where he has decided to start his day. He usually lunches at the Meridien, then goes to the Sofitel for tea. Or vice versa. For a swim or a massage he likes the Intercontinental. And his evening ends with coffee with his family at the Al Waha, a small hotel not very popular with foreigners.
He lives in reception halls. Like someone in transit. Perhaps deluding himself with the possibility of resuming his own journey. Or maybe a hotel is the only place where he can find someone to talk to during the day. Since 1980 Idi has officially had nothing to do except spend the salary bestowed upon him by the Saudi government in the name of `Islamic solidarity'.
The Egyptian masseur and his colleague, the Intercontinental gym's resident trainer, remember Idi Amin's tips, and his laughter, with nostalgia. `Complete nonsense, all that talk about crimes and murders,' they say with the confidence of men who have seen the world and massaged plenty of famous loins. 'It's the Americans, spreading lies as usual. From what we've seen, Idi Amin is a real gentleman who wouldn't hurt a fly. A great guy. As long as you don't ask him about his time as president. He doesn't like questions about the past. But when he comes here with his children he laughs and jokes with everyone.' And, as proof positive of moral integrity, they add, `He swims to keep himself in shape, you know.'
Next day, as we enter the main hall of a bank dominated by portraits of the king and his heir, a gloomier-than-usual Abdullah asks, out of the blue, `Tell me, what do you do in the evenings?'
I reply that I sometimes go out to sample the sights of the city. `And,' I add, 'I go shopping.' This seems to satisfy him. However, he has some advice for me. `Tomorrow is Friday. I suggest you stay in your hotel room. Or you could ask if anything has been organised for foreigners.'
Something has. The receptionist who hands me my key announces, without waiting for any possible objection, `You're all going to the beach tomorrow.' `You' means the infidels, the foreigners. But what beach? Maybe it's the one stretch of desert where an acquaintance mentioned that bathing costumes are allowed, a beach reserved for non-Saudis. The coral reef, they say, is fantastic.
The following day an air-conditioned coach, transport for the infidels, draws up in front of my hotel. There is an entire Lufthansa crew on board, the women swathed in black veils from head to foot and wearing gloves. They laugh and tease each other in German. It's an enjoyable, even if enforced, day out. The fish in the sea are rainbow-coloured. A Lebanese family with the usual Filipino nanny plays Monopoly. The Germans keep themselves to themselves.
But I am impatient to resume the hunt. My time is running out. The next target is Hotel Al Waha. I look for the name in the guide handed out to foreigners, but it's not there. I ask at reception, but they don't know where it is. Eventually, after dark, a taxi driver locates it.
Excerpted from Talk of the Devil by Riccardo Orizio Copyright © 2002 by Riccardo Orizio
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Idi Amin Dada||7|
|Enver and Nexhmije Hoxha||89|
|Slobadan Milosevic and Mira Markovic||163|
|Coda: Letter from Manual Antonio Noriega||199|
Posted May 26, 2003
Posted May 31, 2003
Orizio puts this book in very good perspective, by letting you look through the eyes and mind of each of the 'monsters'. I would recommend this book to anyone who would like a better understanding of the mindset of these people at the time of their power.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.