ISTANBUL, TURKEY — It should have been the downfall of Recep Cesur's business.
There, standing in the dock of a Baghdad courtroom on charges of orchestrating mass murder, was Saddam Hussein wearing a pinstriped suit made by Mr. Cesur's Istanbul-based clothing company. Whenever the former Iraqi dictator reached inside his jacket for a pen, the "Cesur" label was flashed on TV screens across the world.
But rather than taking a nosedive, Cesur's sales have been booming since Mr. Hussein's court appearances began this fall. In fact, Cesur's link to Hussein has proved to be - to paraphrase his now most famous customer - the mother of all endorsements.
"Before Saddam's trial, people knew our suits, our quality, our price. But now they are looking at us differently, like we're a big brand, big quality. They think that's why Saddam is wearing our suit," says Cesur as he stands in his Istanbul showroom.
His eyes twinkling mischievously, his thinning hair combed back, Cesur says his sales have increased by 50 percent - even tripled in some places - with suits flying off racks throughout the Middle East and special orders coming in daily.
As it turns out, though, this is only Cesur's latest involvement with Hussein. The Turkish clothier started doing business in Iraq in 1995, opening stores throughout the country, and a year later a mysterious buyer came into his Baghdad shop and snapped up some 50 suits, returning every few months for 40 or 50 more suits. It soon turned out that the large orders were for Hussein and members of his family and inner circle.
A Cesur tailor was even called in for a private fitting with Hussein. "He was a little fat," Cesur says, patting his belly. "He's a 56 jacket [46 in US sizing] and trousers that are one size bigger, so we made a special order for him."
With the outbreak of war and Hussein's fall from power, Cesur says he figured he would no longer be supplying the former strongman with suits. But, much to his surprise, there was Hussein on television dressed in a Cesur.
"I was very happy," Cesur admits, despite his distaste for Hussein's alleged crimes. "I worked very hard in Iraq and now every television and newspaper saw our label."
Cesur's latest business success is only the continuation of what is a remarkable rags-to-riches, rag-trade story. Born to a family of Kurdish farmers in a small village in Turkey's impoverished southeast, Cesur came to Istanbul at the age of 13 looking for work. From first cleaning toilets in a restaurant, Cesur moved his way up to working in a men's clothing shop and eventually taking over the store. In 1991, the man who had spent, by his own estimation, a total of 14 days in school, started manufacturing his own suits, going on to eventually open up shops throughout the Middle East, as well as in Africa and Europe.
Cesur says he attributes the recent business boom to Hussein's lingering popularity in the Middle East. "He's Hussein! Everybody knows him!" he says, as if that should explain it all.
Ibrahim Al-Marashi, a professor of Middle East studies at Istanbul's Sabanci University who monitors the Arab world media, says Hussein's popularity in the region is indeed not only enduring but is likely to grow as his trial continues.
"There hasn't been anyone to replace him. There hasn't been a single Arab leader who has vocally opposed Israel ... [or] stood up to the West in two military conflicts," says Mr. Al-Marashi, who believes that Hussein's mass appeal will remain largely intact despite the graphic details of his alleged involvement in the killing and torturing of Iraqi citizens coming out in court this this week. "Whether he's dressed in a military uniform with a pistol in his hand or wearing a suit in court, he'll be seen as the defiant leader opposing the West," says Al-Marashi.
If that's the case, Cesur's suit sales won't be hurt by the evidence presented in Hussein's trial. Mohsen Jandark, an Iranian suit seller, provides another explanation for the Cesur suit's enduring popularity. After returning to Tehran with a Turkish article showing Hussein in a Cesur, sales have skyrocketed from 30 to 200 Cesur suits a month - this in a country that fought a bloody war with Iraq in the 1980s that saw hundreds of thousands of Iranians killed and injured.
"If Michael Jackson drinks Coke, people will go to the supermarket and ask for Coke, not something else," says Jandark. "People in Iran don't like Saddam, but he's wearing Cesur and that gives the brand status."
So, will wearing one of Cesur's suits send the same message that wearing, say, an Armani suit does? Cesur's eyes widen at the question. "In Iraq, they don't know Armani," he answers. "They know Cesur."