Stupid Question ™
Oct. 10, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: Why do the media, on second reference, call Saddam Hussein “Saddam,” but Yasser Arafat is “Arafat” and Osama bin Laden is “bin Laden”?
A: “Saddam” is pure habit left over from reporting the Persian Gulf War.
This is controversial because former President Bush rationalized that war, in part, by personally demonizing Saddam Hussein, whom Bush constantly referred to by his given name.
To forward this goal, the elder Bush was advised to mispronounce Saddam so it sounded like “Sodom,” which also happens to sound something like “beggar” in Arabic. The correct pronunciation, “sah-DAHM,” means something like, “one who clashes” or “one who confronts.”
Thus, current media usage is not monolithic, as a recent Los Angeles Times survey revealed. The Associated Press (AP), which sets the “style” (usage guidelines) for most American newspapers, does use “Saddam,” as does much of the European press.
However, highly respected papers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post use “Hussein.” CNN simply uses “Saddam Hussein” in all references.
Behind all of these uses is the fact that Arabic names are not like English ones, so the press faces a translation problem. Typically, there is only one given name, and then often (with men) a string of “son-of” or “father-of” names—which also refer to first names, not to a “family name” as we think of it.
“Hussein” is actually Saddam’s father’s given name, and it is somewhat misleading to translate it as a Western-style surname. By the same token, use of Saddam’s given name in Arabic isn’t as naked and possibly overly familiar as it is in English.
The AP’s main, and weakest, rationale for “Saddam” is that everybody’s used to it now.
The AP also argues that “Saddam” is what Saddam calls himself. The dictator plasters his given name all over Iraqi streets and airports. He is also known in Iraq and the Arab press as “Saddam.”
But the AP does not follow that logic with other dictators, such as Fidel Castro, who also use their given name as a political cult of personality.
AP style for Arab names is to use whatever the person himself or herself uses on first reference, then to use the last name in that sequence as a Western-style last name on second reference. (Thus, Moammer al-Gadhafi has become simply “Gadhafi” on second reference.)
Saddam Hussein’s full name is Saddam Hussein al-Majd al-Takriti, but he never uses those last bits. It seems clear he should be “Hussein” on second reference. The use of “Saddam” is misleadingly political on both sides.
Arafat created his own shorter name. His real name is apparently Abd el-Rahman abd al-Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini. “Yasser” is a nickname meaning, roughly, “easy-going”; “Arafat” may be a nom de guerre borrowed from a famous hill near Mecca. He’s known to Palestinians and the Arab press as Abu Ammar (roughly, “Father of Construction”), which no Western media use.
Osama bin Laden would be “Laden” under AP style, but his Westernized family uses “bin Laden” as a surname when in the West, so the press has respected that.