If General Saddam Hussain was the President of Iraq during my second visit to the country, General abdel Karim Kassem was the President during my first visit.
The revolution that threw out the monarchy had taken place a few months before, the young king had been killed, his uncle and prime minister had been shot, his body dragged through the streets and hung from a tree. Abdel Karim Kassem's pictures were pasted all over Basrah and Baghded, and there were soldiers everywhere, asking for your passport, some of them wanting to keep it.
Once of the first things I did on landing in Basrah was buying a picture of Abdel Karim Kassem and putting it in my passport. It helped, considerably.
The trial of the traitors, meaning the previous regime's men, was on, and it was shown nightly on television… live. The accused wore striped sleeping suits, probably the prison garb, and the prosecutors made fiery speeches. In the tea-shops, people sat sipping tea and watching the trial on TV.
When I crossed over from Iraq to Syria, the first thing I did was to throw away the picture of Abdel Karim Kassem. The Syrians hated him and Iraq. In Damascus also there were soldiers all around and one of them proudly showed me a pole in a park from which an Israeli spy had been publicly hung, some time back.
In Turkey, the military had taken over; the President and prime minister had been arrested, found guilty of crimes against the state, and condemned to death. One night, in Ankara, I saw a convoy of cars and trucks driving off at great speed towards Istanbul, carrying the prisoners to their death.
Later, I saw photographs of the President and Prime Minister, hanging from a rope. They were wearing white smocks, and on these were pinned large sheets of paper enumerating in black ink a list of their crimes.
Yugoslavia was a little better. It was the first communist socialist country that I had visited, and, till now, it has been the last. But there were Yugoslavia flags all over the country (I have observed that the bigger the dictatorship, the more the flag-waving, except for the US, where the American flags are flown by everybody), and in Belgrade, framed over eight floors of a building was a picture of Marshal Tito.
It was only when I went to Italy that I felt a breath of freedom – no flags, no photographs, no police.
There is an epilogue. A year later, on my return journey, I passed through Iraq. General Abdel Karim Kassem had been shot, his men tried and condemned, a new general had taken over.