So, Saddam Hussein is alive and well and living in the Bahamas. No, don’t laugh. This is a serious theory put forward by a man described as an American intelligence expert and conveyed to the world by the wire services, so that it appeared in many newspapers.
The theory focuses on the many Saddam doubles the Americans kept warning us about. During the first Gulf War, we were told that the Iraqi dictator had at least four doubles, which was why US intelligence was never quite sure where he was. Then, during the second Gulf War, the Americans assured us that all the TV footage of Saddam enjoying himself on the streets of Baghdad did not feature the man himself, but used one of the President’s doubles.
All went well till the war ended. At that stage, there was no sign of either Saddam or any of the many doubles. Several months later, when the Americans arrested a bearded man hiding in a hole in a faraway garden, they did a DNA test before assuring us that they had got the real Saddam.
Actor Jerry M. Haleva (right) doubles up as Saddam Hussein (left) for movies like Hot Shots! Part Deux, Mafia and The Big Lebowski
So far, so good. But what happened to the doubles? Where are they now? The US intelligence expert quoted by the wire services suggests that the real Saddam (assuming, for a moment, that it was the right man who was arrested in the first place) was allowed to escape from captivity and substituted with one of the doubles. And the fellow we saw going to the gallows was not Saddam at all, but the double.
And why would a double agree to give up his life? Millions of dollars, of course. A fortune for his family after his death, given that his job prospects in life had dried up after the fall of Baghdad. And why would the guards agree to the switch? More millions from Saddam’s secret stash of billions.
It’s a good story and its proponent claims even to know where the real Saddam has holed up after having cheated the hangman, even though he is not ready to reveal the address yet. (Yeah, okay, I made up the bit about the Bahamas.)
Do I believe it? Probably not. Whenever controversial leaders die in dramatic circumstances, there are always those who claim that they are still alive. Never mind Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose who, some of his followers believe, decided to pretend to be a sadhu as some little prank on them after manufacturing stories of his death in a plane crash. Even Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale is supposed to have left the Golden Temple before Operation Bluestar began—a lookalike was killed by the Indian army.
On the other hand, there is a healthy tradition of doubles throughout West Asia. Carlos the Jackal, the terrorist who is now rotting in a French jail, had a double who went around giving interviews pretending to be him.
And the notion of a double is firmly embedded in history and in fiction. Josef Stalin was supposed to have had three doubles. The American movie, Dave, starred Kevin Kline as a man who is asked to impersonate the President. And James Bond films, in the old days (before a copyright suit led to the exit of Spectre from the series), often featured more than one Ernest Stavro Blofeld. Naturally, Bond (in those days, Sean Connery) always killed the wrong Blofeld so that the real guy could return for the next instalment in the series.
But can people actually look so much like each other that onlookers are fooled? In one of the most successful deceptions of the Second World War, a man called Clifton James pretended to be Field Marshal Montgomery to throw the Germans off the scent. (He wrote a book about it—I Was Monty’s Double—which was later made into a movie). And sometimes people look enough like each other for casual observers to be fooled. In the 1960s, when they made the Bond spoof Casino Royale in London, both Peter Sellers and Woody Allen were in the cast.
In those days, the young Allen looked a lot like Sellers. On one occasion, Sellers stormed off the set causing much grief to the producers, who buttonholed Allen in the lobby of the Dorchester Hotel and complained about what a jerk Sellers was. Except of course that it wasn’t Allen, it was Sellers. And he left the production though the film was incomplete.
Such was the double-mania of the 1960s that a popular rumour of the time had it that Paul McCartney had died in a car crash (“he blew his mind out in a car…”) and that various Beatle songs had allusions to the death (Revolution No. 9 was a sound montage of the crash; other songs had messages like “I buried Paul” hidden within them, etc….).
But what, fans asked, of the Paul who was quite clearly a member of the Beatles still. Oh him, said the conspiracy theorists. He was just a lookalike who had been hired by the other three to replace the dead Paul. (Actually, if you listen to a lot of McCartney's solo post-Beatles stuff, you do begin to wonder, ‘Did the man who wrote Eleanor Rigby really write this rubbish?’)
Sadly, I am yet to be convinced that it is actually possible to substitute somebody so completely that the switch can be convincing at close quarters. This kind of thing works best in those Mission Impossible movies where various actors play themselves till the scene where Tom Cruise appears in close-up, removes a latex mask and expects us to believe that it was him performing an impersonation all along.
Which is a shame. Because I like the idea of doubles. What fun if Saddam Hussein really fooled George W. Bush and is skinny-dipping in a plunge pool by some tropical villa even as you read this? If Janet Jackson turns out to be Michael Jackson in a wig? And if politics was really like the world of spy thrillers.
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