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'The Rope' Chronicles A Good Death, And A Bad Start

Kanan Makiya is still best known for a book he originally published under a pseudonym back in 1989. The Republic Of Fear catalogued the atrocities committed in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Makiya later acknowledged authorship and became an advocate for the dictator's ouster.

Now, he's written a new book — a novel — published in both Arabic and English, and set in Iraq right after the U.S. invasion. It follows a Shiite militiaman from the day the dictator fell to the day he was hanged.

It's called The Rope, after the rope that was used for the execution — an execution that, Makiya tells NPR's Robert Siegel, was flawed. "When I heard the report, I was sick for a day," he says. "I remember I was utterly disgusted, and I felt how he was killed, and how he died, he had dignity."

Interview Highlights

On Saddam's death

He's a great mass murderer, and he believes in what he is, and he died well, what can we say? And the men who killed him, in what was more of a lynching than an actual execution, they behaved badly. This doesn't change for one moment the character, the nature of Saddam as a political person, but it's deeply reflective of the new regime that's about to come into power.

So I use Saddam in the purely fictional part of this book as a kind of mirror of the Iraqi ruling elite. He is explaining the rules by which men rule. And until those rules are questioned from within, we're always going to have — one Saddam will be replaced by another Saddam. Or by many little Saddams, a thousand little Saddams, which is the situation we have today.

On whether Iraq today is as bad off as it was under Saddam

Things are very bad, but I can't change positions because of how bad they have become now. Things were also equally very bad under Saddam. There was no future. Once the future was made possible, Iraqis did the worst possible job at it; they went from bad to worse. That means, and part of that failure, I've got to argue and criticize "my own," quote unquote, because I have to deal with the fact that they failed.

On being an Iraqi-American

I've lived with that dichotomy for a very long period of time. I felt with passion the pain of Iraqis under Saddam, and I couldn't help but feel bad when I went into Kurdistan 25 years ago and covered the [Iraqi campaign against the Kurds], I was in a state of shock. I knew he'd done terrible things, but I had not understood, felt with my bones, so to speak, the scale of the disaster, seen the destroyed villages, the concreted wells, the burial sites and so on.

To see that with your eyes and to feel it, came from somebody who felt like a part of himself was complicit in this, and he had to do something about it, and the only thing he could do was talk to you, write a book, do that kind of thing. So I don't regret any of that, and I wouldn't not do that for a second. And I wouldn't say Saddam has to stay because something worse may follow — that's a cynical point of view on life and the world. I say, I believe that something else is possible, is imaginable, and I will do my level best to work towards that ... and if I fail along the way, at least I tried.

On what he wants readers to get out of The Rope

[For my Arabic readers], I wanted to underline the failure of the Iraqi elite, and our responsibility for that failure. I want Iraqis to look at themselves and say, this is not all the fault of ISIS, or this is not all the fault of al-Qaida. I am responsible for why this thing went as bad as it did. And I'm trying to break out of the sectarian divide, and morass, if you like, that has governed the way people talk about politics ... my English readers, I want to understand that it went wrong, and who I hold responsible for why it went wrong — including myself.

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