Welcome to the weird world of dictator lit
In an isolated prison cell, an aging, mustachioed man sits writing at a small table. Recent months have seen a stark change in his fortunes. Gone are the Gucci suits, the French hair dye, and the private entourage. The writer has very little outside contact now, save the occasional visits from the Red Cross and his interrogators. He has no idea if the novel he is working on, an epic tale of passion and revenge, will ever be published.
Provisionally titled The Great Awakening, his fifth novel will emerge into a critical climate very different from the one that greeted the others. In his home country his works were acclaimed best-sellers with sales into the millions. One was made into a 20-part television series. It had recently been announced that his books were to be studied as part of the national school curriculum. And then the regime changed.
For the past eight years, Saddam Hussein has been carving out an alternative career as a writer of romantic and fantasy fiction full of thinly veiled political allegory, grandiose rhetoric, and autobiography. He has published four novels in less than five years—prolific for someone whose day job was, presumably, fairly demanding.
Many statesmen and revolutionaries have been consummate writers of prose and poetry. Saddam, however, is part of a less honorable tradition—of despots who have turned their attentions to the arts. From Nero to Napoleon, Hitler to Mao, there’s been enough output to suggest that we acknowledge this as a genre in its own right: dictator literature.
As with any genre, the level of dic-lit talent varies. Libyan autocrat Colonel Muammar Gaddafi built a solid literary reputation in the ’90s with a collection of short fiction titled The Village, the Village, the Earth, the Earth, and the Suicide of the Astronaut. A 1998 international edition renamed Escape to Hell and Other Stories included a foreword by the late Pierre Salinger, one of John F. Kennedy’s press spokesmen, who says the writing provides insight into a unique mind.
Saddam’s writing is at the other end of the dic-lit spectrum and follows a populist family tradition. His uncle, a former mayor of Baghdad and local tyrant himself, wrote a 1974 tract whose title has been translated, among other ways, as He Created Them by Mistake: The Persians, Jews, and Flies. His masterstroke was to make 20,000 Iraqi schools purchase 50 copies each. Result: a million-seller, and no marketing costs at all.
What motivates dic-lit authors? They know critical reaction to their work is unlikely to be genuine. It may be that the act of creating “art” is an extension of the urge to control. Fiction in particular offers the author a malleable world. But just because he was a brutal dictator, should Saddam be excluded from a place in literary history? Many great writers were not great human beings, and often were a little despotic. Perhaps Saddam merely had more scope to realize his vision.
Of his four novels, the first, Zabibah and the King, remains the best known. Published in 2000, it is a torrid romance with an obvious political analogy. Zabibah, the heroine, represents Iraq, and her cruel husband is America. Saddam is the strong but vengeful king, “surrounded by respect, peace, love, and trust as well as awe and fear,” a powerful ruler “obeyed by his people, either willingly or by force.”
Zabibah, unhappily married, falls in love with the king and they develop an intimate friendship. “‘Do the people need strict measures from their king?’ he asks. ‘Yes, your majesty,’ she replies. ‘The people need strict measures so that they can feel protected.’” Such exchanges may be understood as Saddam exploring his personal demons. At one point Zabibah describes her faith in the one God, implying a mild rebuke to the king over his faithlessness (as a Ba’athist, Saddam pronounced Iraq secular, but later he tried to appeal to all Iraqis through Islam). But the king always has the last word as their discussions range over themes of power, cruelty, justice, nature, and tradition.
Then one night, Zabibah is attacked and raped by a hooded stranger on her way home. The stranger turns out to be her husband (the Americans!), and the king seizes his opportunity to take vengeance. The ensuing battle coincides with the date of the Desert Storm assault of the first Gulf War in 1991. But in this case, U.S. forces are symbolically defeated, as the vicious husband is killed. Order is restored, though, tragically, neither Zabibah nor the king lives to see it.
On the back of this tour de force came The Fortified Castle, which, like Zabibah, also veils a political agenda with romance. Set after the first Gulf War, it tells the story of an ex-soldier who falls for a girl from northern Iraq (balm to Saddam’s actual policies against the Kurds). The subplot—a servant running off with the master’s sister—is a clear reference to Saddam’s feelings of betrayal by the Kuwaitis.
The third, a biographical novel, Men and the City, is based on the rise of the Ba’ath party. It features a tableau of relatives, including Saddam’s uncle and grandfather. In the fourth novel, Saddam focuses on his favorite genre—military literature. Be Gone Demons! follows an Arab nobleman, Salim, in his battle to defeat his American and Jewish enemies (both recast as ancient-style foreign tribes) in an attack that mirrors 9/11. By this point in Saddam’s literary career, U.S. and Jewish hegemony has become an obsession. The book was completed in the run-up to the 2003 war, and the presidential publisher just managed to print 40,000 copies of Be Gone Demons! before the fall of Baghdad. As with all his books, Saddam’s name does not appear. He prefers the phrase “A novel written by its author.”
It is easy to see why the CIA, the UK’s MI6, and Israel’s Mossad have analyzed these outlandish tales of heroism and sacrifice in detail. Avi Rubin, an ex-Mossad agent, believes that Saddam’s past is at the core of his anger against seemingly broader targets such as Western civilization and Jews. “In reality,” Rubin argues, “he is speaking about the pain of his own childhood and upbringing.”
Indeed, that childhood is as freakish as his fictions. Saddam’s mother was a prostitute; he was homosexually gang-raped at age 10 and as a teenager was refused admission to Iraq’s top military school. Angered by this rejection, he teamed up with the CIA to assassinate unwanted Iraqi communists before later turning on the Americans over the invasion of Kuwait. The inspiration for Zabibah was probably his fourth wife, Iman, 40 years his junior, whom he adored and married a few years ago, when he was 63.
Does Saddam have talent? To find out, I sent extracts of Zabibah and the King “blind” to some experts. One book editor agreed to comment, then backed out when she discovered who the author was. The British romance novelist JoJo Moyes took a look and was alarmed by the style. With the book’s first four paragraphs containing no less than 13 rhetorical questions, she pointed out that the author was not interested in his readers. “Once I knew who it was, it all made sense,” she said. “His writing was the literary equivalent of those lurid fantasy murals he had painted all over his palaces.”
Tina Phillips, a consultant researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, is surprised that Saddam chose the novel form at all, as in wider Islamic culture it is the poet who is most revered. The novel form is modern and considered a Western import—it wasn’t until the 1950s that an internationally recognized work was published (Nobel Prize–winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy). But Saddam recognized in the novel a powerful tool and added tried and true Arabic stylistic devices for “native flavor.” Saddam was famously fascinated by other powerful leaders, particularly Nebuchadnezzar, Napoleon, Stalin, and Hitler, and he mixed culture, mythology, and religion to create in himself a hybrid, prophet-type character (a common trope in dic lit).
In Iraq, fiction was all but banned by Saddam. And while he was initially content with co-opting other people to immortalize him—both in writing and on the silver screen (Abd Al-Amir Al-Mala’s portrayal of the president, The Long Days, was made into a film by the Egyptian director Toufic Salih), this ultimately proved unsatisfactory. Perhaps he was not the real author of his first novel. There are rumors that a ghostwriter was poisoned to keep the truth secret. But even if Saddam did not write every word then, he is certainly writing them all now.
We’re obviously looking at an author who is insecure, untalented, and delusional. Is this the case with all dic-lit authors? Clearly not. Colonel Gaddafi has written with, if not great originality, then at least some perceptiveness. By contrast, for Saddam, writing seems more a consolation for his political failings. He knew that his career as an overlord was on the wane after the 1991 Gulf War, and it is no coincidence that this is when his literary endeavors began.
His translator Sa’adoon Al-Zubaydi maintains that, fueled by the good notices for Zabibah, Saddam began to retreat into his own internal world. He increasingly came to use his body doubles rather than meeting face to face with his armed forces. As one literary Jordanian I know put it, “He writes about the world as he would like it to be.” The lost Kurdish girl can fall in love with the disbanded Iraqi soldier, and the king can rule on in peace, loved and respected by his people.
There is no way of knowing whether Saddam Hussein’s future work will offer anything beyond the comic cachet of simply owning the books. In the meantime, we can only speculate whether his inner life will sustain him, as Oscar Wilde’s did, through his incarceration and trial. Knowing Saddam’s writing, however, he won’t be giving us the Ballad of Abu Ghraib.
Reprinted from the London-based cultural and political magazine Prospect (July 2004).