Thursday, February 16, 2006

Tie 'im up, tie 'im down

If you're wondering why Saddam Hussein never wears a tie to his trial -- on those days when he bothers to show up -- Slate explains it all:
The necktie has a knotty history in the Middle East. For some hard-core Islamists, its crisscross shape resembles a crucifix. For other, less fanciful Muslims, it's simply an emblem of encroaching Westernization. In the 1920s, when the secularist leader Mustafa Kemal came to power in Turkey, he encouraged his countrymen to abandon traditional Muslim garb in favor of suits and neckties. The modern style quickly swept the country and hasn't changed much since. In neighboring Arab countries, this advance of the necktie—like Kemal's Romanized Ottoman alphabet—was perceived as yet another inroad on traditional Islamic society.

In Iran, the tie became a much more controversial symbol of Westernization. The CIA helped Reza Shah Pahlavi take power in the early '50s, and in the years that followed, the shah's necktie linked him with his U.S. backers and their corporate oil interests. For many Iranians living under the shah, it was also a sign of his subservience and decadence. (Iranians still sometimes refer to the shah's rule as "the regime of the Crown and Necktie.") After the shah's ouster in 1979, the tie came under fire from Ayatollah Khomeini, who sought a return to Islamist—or at least anti-Western—attire. Ever since the revolution, Iranian officials have adhered to an unspoken dress code of dark suits, unkempt beards, and bare collars. (One of the ironies of Saddam's tielessness was that it made him look more like Iran's President Ahmadinejad than he would probably have cared to admit.) With their loaded history, neckties now make for a ready symbol of dissidence for pro-Western Iranian students, who nearly always wear them in protests.
The added bonus of an Islamist look for Saddam is that it might help him overcome his considerable image problem. In 2003, the once-dapper tyrant emerged from his "spider hole" looking more like a homeless man than the autocrat whose pristine French cuffs made for a stark contrast with his bloodstained hands. He later graced the cover of the New York Post in a grungy pair of briefs that evoked a diaper. It's important for Saddam to get these embarrassing images behind him, especially in the midst of a war in which photographs have had no small impact.

There are other possible reasons for Saddam's courtroom appearance. Perhaps he didn't think the tribunal deserved the gesture of a necktie. There's even a chance that U.S. and Iraqi officials are controlling Saddam's attire, though that seems highly unlikely. Saddam has complained about many indignities of his confinement—the lack of showers, the infrequent laundry service, the physical abuse by guards—but so far he has voiced no discontent with his wardrobe. "I'm very sensitive about these matters," he reportedly told his former tailor, who also cuts suits for Pervez Musharraf and Nelson Mandela. For those sensitive enough to see it, Saddam is using every stitch available to make his allegiances known.

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