I Painted a Dictator!

An unusual introduction to digital art


I am a designer, I live in my four bedroom, 2000 square foot home at the foot of a cul-de-sac in the suburbs with my wife and child. I am a happy, educated and very well fed citizen of the United States. As I look back and reflect on my life, it is hard to believe that I started out skinny and starving in the City of Baghdad.

The times were tough and I hated everything about my life. I hated waking up and having to go to school. I hated the walk back home after school. There was little about life that I did not hate. This hate was more than your typical teenage angst. This hate was the result of living under the shadow of a brutal dictator, a “great hero” to our nation.

It was a typical afternoon and I was sitting in a classroom breathing in the searing hot air flowing through the windows and dreaming of being somewhere cool. An oasis, where I have a game controller in hand and I’m freezing my opponents with a blast of ice and crushing them to death while engaged in Mortal Kombat.

The world of video games fascinated me. The enchanting worlds that existed in those little plastic cartridges brought me such joy. Those colorful backlit pixels that danced before me provided such an escape from reality. At times, I just wanted to jump inside the screen to live my life as a detective in the Streets of Rage, spending my days fighting crime and killing evil bosses.

As I was lost in my fantasy, I heard my name:

"Ali, they need you in the computers lab" my teacher shouted

I looked up and I saw my computer teacher standing by the door with a grin that revealed his cigarette painted yellow teeth.

As we walked the hallway toward the computer lab, he declared:

"I couldn't help but notice how you were creating paintings on the computer the other day"

A moment passed, but I didn't say anything... I knew some weird proposition was about to unfold.

"I think we can use your skill to make something really important" he proudly announced.

I looked at him with a nervous smile.

"A computer painting of our president would be a great example of how we are utilizing these devices in our school" He explained.

I nodded with agreement even though i didn't agree at all.

"Something like that could help you win a prestigious awards or even more funding for our school computer lab" he proclaimed.

I really liked the second incentive. The computers we had were ancient. Getting new ones, could possibly mean playing awesome video games rather than painting Saddam's face.

"I would love to do that" I replied with joy.

"I will make sure that you get all the time off you need from your other classes to get this done" he explained.

"Jackpot! I get to play with computers all day and not sit through boring classes." I thought to myself. Little did I know.

The plan was simple, pick one of the thousand pictures available of Saddam and use “Graphics BASIC” program to redraw it. Sounds easy right? Well if I had Photoshop or even MS Paint, instead I had to follow a painstaking process of placing dots along coordinates and specifying the color for each one. Something like "DOT 190, 100"

The first try didn't go so well, Saddam's head proportion compared to his body made him look like a bobble head which would've gotten me hanged. After much thinking and experimentation, my teacher and I came up with this brilliantly ridiculous piece of supporting technology to get the job done, a tracing paper.

I would draw Saddam on the tracing paper, tape it to the computer monitor and start filling the empty shapes with dots. You can say this was one of the most tedious jobs in history but it worked.

Days passed by, I got more into the rhythm of things, the coordinates of the canvas became second nature. I was so preoccupied with the project that I completely neglected my other classes. I stopped attending all together. Heck, I even skipped exams. Foolishly I thought I was covered for I am painting the leader. Our father Saddam, as he liked to call himself.

The finished artwork was saved on a floppy disk and transferred to the Ministry of Education to be part of some “Saddam” art competition. Thinking about it now, it sounds so strange to have a whole competition dedicated to creating art for a single man, but at the time it was so normal that no one thought twice about it.

Upon my return to my classroom, I realized how much I have missed and reality hit me hard. I was so behind that I didn’t even know how to catch up. I have failed all my exams and my grades were so low that I couldn’t possibly show them to my parents, so I lied until I couldn’t lie no more. I failed a grade level for the first time in my life that year.

This story wasn’t the only contributing factor but its one of many that led to this turning point in my life when I stopped caring about a future in Iraq.

Weeks later my teacher informed me that “We” have won the competition and a prize was sent out to the school but was lost in the mail.

Sure it was.