My friend the dictator

CAIRO — The year was 1985. The gruesome Iran-Iraq war was approaching its sixth year and according to Louis Naguib, a humble pharmacist from Cairo, he had just landed in Baghdad.

He was installed at the swanky Al Rashid hotel in downtown Baghdad when the call came: His old friend, Saddam Hussein, just back from Mosul, was ready to meet up.

“He sent me so many invitations” over the years, said Naguib, now 79, puffing on a cigarette in the cool shade of his drug store in central Cairo. “But I was alone in the pharmacy, so I didn’t go. Until 1985.”

Naguib made his way the presidential palace, meeting aides at the entrance. On his way to meet with Saddam, he said, the aides stressed that he should address the dictator as "Mr. President."

When he entered Saddam's office, a vast marble space with a small desk at the far side of the room, the president, wearing full military fatigues, got up from behind the desk to meet Naguib in the middle of the room. The two embraced, and Naguib said that tears clouded his own eyes.

“‘I am a simple man from Upper Egypt, so you have to forgive me if we talk just as friends,” he recalled telling Saddam.

Hussein insisted that Naguib call him Saddam. And, knowing that Naguib shied away from politics, took the conversation in another direction.

“‘Dr. Louis, take me back to the '60s,’” Naguib said Saddam told him.

Indeed, their hour-long conversation centered on Saddam's three-year stay in Cairo, between 1960 and 1963, when he and Naguib became close friends.

As a young Baathist revolutionary, Saddam had been forced to flee Baghdad after his failed attempt to kill then-Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim.

With the help of the U.S., which had supported the Baathist efforts to overthrow Qasim, Saddam moved to Damascus, where he spent three months before heading to Cairo under the protection of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Syria and Egypt at the time were the two members of the United Arab Republic, a political union formed by the two countries based on the nationalist principles that the Baathists espoused. It was under this union that Saddam moved from Syria to Egypt and enjoyed Nasser’s protection.

“The Egyptian capital abounded with political activists and exiles of all sorts,” wrote Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi in their book "Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography." According to the authors, “Saddam quickly integrated into this vibrant community.”

That’s when he met Naguib said they became friends. “I was just opening the pharmacy in 1960, so I was befriending anyone who came in!” he explained.

Saddam settled into the upper-middle class Cairo neighborhood of Dokki. He finished high school, took a few classes at Cairo University, and plotted his return to Iraq with other Baathists. As part of the latter effort, he joined the Baathist regional command in Cairo, according to Karsh and Rautsi.

Accounts of Saddam’s life in Cairo have tended to vary.

“He was very normal,” said Abdel Rabuh Gad Abdel Rabuh, who works at Indiana Cafe, one of Hussein’s favorite haunts. “He came in and smoked his shisha like anybody else.”

Abdel Rabuh was only 3 years old when Saddam arrived in Cairo, but he grew up in the cafe and Saddam, he said, has long been a frequent topic of conversation.

Some local media reports indicated that Saddam was quick to throw punches when he got in disputes with other Indiana patrons.

According to Naguib — and confirmed by Abdel Rabuh — he and Saddam drank tea at the pharmacy most afternoons.

“He was very kind, very handsome, very polite, very sincere,” Naguib said wistfully, describing a Saddam that is worlds apart from the popular perception of him as a despot.

Naguib still runs the Semiramis Pharmacy, just down the street from the Indiana. The younger family members who help him run the place say he still enjoys the opportunity to chat about his old friend.

“He was a very strong man,” Naguib said, describing Saddam. “When he greeted people, he kept them at arm’s length, shaking hands to be in control and to keep people at a distance.”

Naguib said, though, that he never had an inkling that Saddam would go on to rule Iraq. But maybe, as he recalled, it’s because he insisted to Saddam that they not talk politics at the pharmacy.

Those afternoons, like their visit in Baghdad, were reserved for discussing family and work.

Naguib’s sympathy for Saddam extended right up to the dictator’s final hours.

“Until the end, even when he was hanging, he sent an Egyptian lawyer to say he was thinking of me,” Naguib said, recalling that the lawyer stopped by the pharmacy a week or two after Saddam's death.

“It’s difficult to lose a friend. He was very nice to me,” Naguib continued.

This may not be the Saddam Hussein that most people know: a dictator convicted of many atrocities and hanged shortly after being handed over to his countrymen by American guards on Dec. 30, 2006.

It is, however, the Saddam at least one old Egyptian will remember.

More on life in Egypt:

A library with great expectations

A tale of two lovers

Trash or treasure? Egypt's poorest decide