Tintin and the Iraqi king

A comic book character in Tintin is based on the last Iraqi King Faisal II, who was executed along with his family in 1958.

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Baghdad's July 14 bridge, a convenient route to the US Embassy and government offices in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, quite obviously marks a 1958 coup when Iraq's last king was murdered.

Not many know, however, that although King Faisal II died at the age of 23, he lives on in the classic Tintin comic books.

Years before, the young king had captured the imagination of the West - as well as the Tintin writer Georges Rémi, who used the pen name Hergé - after the tragic death of his father King Ghazi in a 1939 car crash sent Faisal to the throne at age three.

From childhood until death, the life of Iraq's "boy king" was chronicled in photos and articles in big-name US magazines such as Time, Life and National Geographic. Hergé quietly drew on the anecdotes to fashion his character Prince Abdullah of the imaginary kingdom of Khemed. The mischievous Arab prince and practical joker both exasperated and charmed the boy reporter Tintin and his irascible friend Captain Haddock, first in Land of Black Gold (1950) and later in The Red Sea Sharks (1958).

Specifically it was a 1941 National Geographic story on Iraq with a picture of the young king, then six, that inspired Hergé, according to Frank Madsen, 49, a Danish writer and illustrator of children's books.

"That picture was traced by Hergé and made to resemble his fictional character, Prince Abdullah, the son of the Emir of Khemed," said the Tintin expert.

The comic books are having a resurgence these days, in anticipation of the Steven Speilberg-directed The Adventures of Tintin, due to hit movie theatres in December.

As for Prince Abdullah, even King Faisal's own cousin – who would become king if the monarchy were to be restored – did not recognise Hergé had modelled one of the characters on his famous relative.

"I have read Tintin since childhood, but I never made the connection with King Faisal," said Sharif Ali bin Hussein.

King Faisal II was just 23 when he was led into the palace courtyard with several family members, all of them executed under the command of Captain Abdul Sattar As-Saba'a, a leader in a coup led by Colonel Abdul Karim Qassim.

The day's events changed the course of Iraqi history and led to the rise of Saddam Hussein in 1979, a dictatorship that lasted until he was ousted by the 2003 US-led invasion.

Hussein, Faisal's maternal first cousin now in his mid-50s, was just two at the time of King Faisal's death. But by all accounts, he said Hergé managed to capture the young monarch's sense of playfulness.

"What I know from family anecdotes is that he used to love practical jokes, which is an indication of his sense of humour and sense of fun," said Hussein at his villa on the Tigris river, where framed photographs of his royal Hashemite lineage adorn the wall.

Despite Hussein's familiarity with the series, the Tintin comics remain virtually unknown to most Iraqi teenagers or even to older generations.

But as Abdullah's character was modelled after the real-life Iraqi king, since 2003 Iraq has turned into a model of Hergé's imaginary kingdom of Khemed, whose oil riches were coveted by western oil executives and arms merchants. And today, like Khemed, Iraq remains an oil-rich but broken country. Eight years after the invasion, clean drinking water is non-existent and electricity sporadic. Corruption runs wide and security is tenuous at best.

"If Tintin were to come to Iraq, he would probably recognise many of the same characters he used to know," said Hussein, the would-be king.

"Things really haven't changed that much."