The Amateur Fiction of Arab Dictators

By Mona Kareem

“We were concerned that some of the writers would not be comfortable to be associated with Hesperus once we published this book, but we’re politically neutral. We only publish what we find interesting.” With this statement, British publisher Hesperus announced their plan to publish a translation of Saddam Hussein’s final novel Begone, Demons! which he was, allegedly, writing in a secret place while Iraqis were getting bombed by the United States and its allies. The publisher said the novel will be the first title in their “new imprint focusing on eastern literature.” The statement had me wonder: who still uses the word “eastern” anymore? Are Saddam’s writings considered literature, by any living creature? The publisher had an initial plan to release the translation on the 10th anniversary of Saddam’s execution. Is that a celebration? Or a commemoration? And who invited these guys to the party?

The news of this new release provoked me, specifically because it reflects a demeaning western approach to modern Arabic literature. Back in 2003, Saddam’s novels were widely discussed among Arab intellectuals exchanging accusations of writing for dictators for money, or under threat. It was an exhausting and embarrassing battle, but nevertheless necessary. At least in these debates, no one claimed to be “politically neutral.” Political neutrality is the discourse of the dominant, they who take their individuality for granted and in such they assume that their actions can be abstract, ahistorical, and isolated of all contexts.

The interest in “Saddam Hussein’s world,” as one Iraqi novelist once described it, was a serious western fetish after the Iraq war. Despite the fact that the man ran a bloody and exciting life, in all impossible ways, the scale of horror and violence was not satisfactory for western eyes. They needed play-cards, movies, novels, video games, private recordings, and all sorts of things to complete a picture of the enemy. It was the best way to abstract the mass destruction of Iraq as something far, far away, on another planet, in Saddam Hussein’s world.

Vulgar Kitsch

If you are not familiar with the plot of Saddam’s fiction, you are not missing much. It can be best described as allegorical stories in which Saddam is a mythological hero and “the people” are some oppressed woman in need of his rescue. The fiction of Saddam Hussein (or Mr. Hussein as western journalists often refer to him) is full of rape metaphors and ancient kingdoms. Saddam used to publish his books without his name, just “a novel by its writer.” Western journalists took that as a form of anonymous publishing. But is it anonymous if it gets assigned, the very next day, to the Iraqi school curriculum, and millions of Iraqis were forced to grow up reading bad propaganda?

The novels were so much like Saddam that he needed not to put his name on it. In the newly-translated novel, the story is simply an allegorical telling of the American invasion of Iraq. Crusaders invade the land of the Euphrates and the people come under the will of a hero who defeat the enemy. Saddam’s novel did not speculate something bad that the Americans haven’t already done; however, he did fail to predict the true ending.

Many wonder, did Saddam actually write these books? The novels are so bad, I can hardly believe someone else wrote them. The rhetoric communicated in his epic war stories are exactly his: Crusaders, Zionists, honor, courage, and victory. Back in 2003, Saddam’s novels were studied carefully by the CIA in an attempt to discover any details about his final days before the invasion. It seems only realistic that the CIA should study their enemy, but why would it be relevant for western readers and writers to take interest in them as well?

For Arab writers, Iraqis specifically, Saddam’s novels were discussed in the context of a recent history of intellectuals collaborating with dictators. After the war, one Iraqi literary website accused the late Egyptian novelist Gamal al-Ghitani of writing Saddam’s first novel Zabiba and the King, which was turned into a television series and a play at the time of its publication in 2001. Orfa Bengio once described the novel as “the capstone to the vulgar kitsch that forms the ‘artistic’ legacy of Saddam’s regime.”

The accusation against al-Ghitani did not come from nowhere, it was based on the fact that al-Ghitani had published a book in the mid ‘70s praising the Iraqi army. In his defense, al-Ghitani claimed it was about the role of the Iraqi army in the Arab efforts to liberate Palestine. The Egyptian novelist’s book was titled Keepers of the Eastern Gate, which later became a key phrase in the machine of Iraqi propaganda during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980’s.

But I doubt al-Ghitani, one of our finest fiction writers, wrote that lousy novel. In an interview, al-Ghitani made the point that it is not of the dictator’s character to have others write novels for him. Surely he had Iraqi writers editing and developing it, but it does not seem like they spent great effort in turning it into something worth reading. Quality doesn’t matter when the work is destined to receive the greatest praise, get assigned in school curriculum, and go through different forms of state-funded adaptations and productions.

The Dictator Confesses

While in Istanbul last year, I stumbled upon an Arabic copy of Muammar Gaddafi’s short story collection, Escape to Hell and Other Stories, which was published by a prestigious Lebanese publisher in 1995. The “collection” has nothing to do with fiction; it was rather something between speeches and articles in which the author confesses his hatred for modernity and fear of the masses. In the story “Escape to Hell,” Gaddafi writes: “I love the masses, the way I love my father, and I fear them, the way I fear my father.”

It is a captivating confession, in which he imagines himself chased down by the masses. He seems disappointed that they don’t appreciate the liberation he has gifted them, and the imperialism he fights against. “I ran away to hell twice, just to save myself from you. From your breaths that chase me, like howling dogs, down your crazy metropolis.” Jahanam, which is the Arabic word for hell, is also the name of the village where Gaddafi was born, in the coastal city of Sirte.

Another amusing story in this collection is titled “The Suicide of an Astronaut.” The story mocks the colonization of outer space, as it forgets how empty and alienating it is to betray earth. The astronaut returns to earth and finds himself unfit for all forms of life — he lacks even the basic skills of living and surviving. The text brings back to mind a short story by the Libyan intellectual al-Saddiq al-Naihum who wrote about an engineer returning to a land that can make no use of his knowledge. Of course, it was only after the latter’s death that Gaddafi had the courage to publish his own story.

Many intellectuals claim that Gaddafi was a jealous man when it came to writers. He was not satisfied with leadership alone, he wanted to be seen as a revolutionary thinker. He funded European universities and Arab publishers with millions of dollars, creating an entire useless literature around his speeches and “revolutionary principles.” The money of the Libyan people was made visible after the revolution, when British universities, most specifically, were shamed for taking funds from his regime. Gaddafi’s collection went through several prints in Arabic, which he paid for. Dar Riyad al-Rayyis had it printed with a beautiful cover, featuring his name written in green calligraphy. It was then reprinted in a fancy edition by the Ministry of Culture in Egypt, which is rather known for their affordable editions. Yet, it was that money, too, that made it possible for the Lebanese publisher to organize an annual fiction prize and print a flood of important Arabic novels and collections during the 1990’s.

The Long Days Behind

In May 2011, The Green Book Center established by Gaddafi was destroyed during a Nato strike on Tripoli. He wanted this “Center” to further illustrate his image as an intellectual leader. Thousands of copies of The Green Book were set on fire during a hysterical celebration on the ruins of the bombarded center. Today, the entire archive of the center is made available online. The main page of the website shows “brother leader” wearing a traditional cloak and holding his pen against pieces of green paper.

The stories of imprisoned, tortured, disappeared, or assassinated writers and artists from the days of Gaddafi and Saddam are still recalled today. They are often fragmented, lost with the dead, or fractured within the narratives of traumatized survivors. While reading on this subject, I found myself chasing after threads of fiction and myth. In private or public conversations with Arab writers throughout the years, I followed varied speculations around the ghostwriters of Arab presidents and kings. In the Gulf kingdoms, to be a lyrical poet is part of the public prestige for members of the ruling families, which resulted in pushing the audience into speculations. In a sense, the audience has to guess which poet sold his poem to a princess or a governor based on the aesthetics of the text, and with the help of literary gossip. Similarly, literary critics and historians use writing style, together with documents and testimonies, to write the history of litterateurs under dictatorships. This meant that each text had various authors, who are both ghostwriters and ghosts of writers, who eventually became ghosts.

Throughout his rule, Saddam worked to become an iconic face of Iraq — something that he seems to prevail at even today. He was obsessed with his image and how he would be remembered “500 years from now,” as he once told his biographer. In 1979, he summoned a group of Iraqi writers to write an epic novel that tells the story of his rise to power, starting from the role he played in the assassination of Abdulkarim Qassim, a communist leader and the first president of the Iraqi Republic. A poet with the name of Abdulamir Ma’ala took up the task. He was an unknown man before his appointment in the Iraqi Writers’ Union, among other state positions, that are exclusively led by members of the ruling party.

The Long Days was quickly turned into a six-hour-long film with the same title in 1980. It was the last film project for the Egyptian Marxist filmmaker Tawfiq Salih. After that movie, Salih fell to silence until his death in 2013. Some Iraqi writers took his silence as an expression of guilt or shame, and others believed he was forced to direct the movie. Some Iraqi writers took his silence as an expression of guilt or shame, and others believed he was forced to direct the movie. The British director Terrence Young, famously known for directing three James Bond movies in the ‘60’s, was the film editor of The Long Days. It is unknown how much the two artists were paid in commission. Salih was ordered to star Saddam Kamil, Saddam Hussein’s second cousin. Kamil was killed 15 years later, when it was discovered that he attempted to defect and escape to Jordan.

Still today, Saddam and Gaddafi hold the record for the highest budgets given to Arab film productions. Saddam ordered 32 million dollars for the production of al-Qadisiyya (1981), which revisits the battle between Muslims and the Persian Kingdom in 636 AD, paving way for the Iraqi-Iranian war. That same year, Gaddafi set a similar budget for the production of Lion of the Desert, which stars Anthony Quinn as the Libyan leader Omar al-Mukhtar. According to state officials at the time, The Long Days was assigned an “open budget.”

Along with the the protagonist of Saddam’s movie who was killed, the director disappeared, and the writer, too, was announced dead. In the early ‘90s, Ma’ala was busy writing a second part to the movie, which was meant to cover Saddam’s heroic story through the first and second Gulf wars. The Iraqi filmmaker Qasim Hawal wrote in 2002 that Ma’ala was assassinated when the regime found out that his son was affiliated with one of the opposition groups. He was held accountable for his son’s political affiliation, and for failing to report him to authorities. With the death of the author, the film returned incomplete to the grave. Salih was strongly criticized by his comrades upon returning to Egypt. His attempts to explain his position and the arbitrary process of the film production put an end to his relation to Iraq. He had tried his best to avoid the subject in fear of retaliation.

The Shame of Translators

When Gaddafi’s collection was translated into English, it was an American politician, not a writer, that wrote the introduction. Pierre Salinger once worked as the press secretary to John F. Kennedy, before becoming a foreign correspondent for ABC. He argued that it was Iran, not Libya, who carried out the Lockerbie bombing. The translator of the collection, however, remains unknown. Similarly, it was an American businessman by the name of Robert Lawrence who commissioned the translation of Saddam’s Zabiba and the King “to satisfy his own curiosity,” according to his statement.

It seems to me that translators find some shame in translating the lousy literature of dictators. Various editions of Saddam’s and Gaddafi’s books appear without their translators. But on other occasions, it is translators who give an “afterlife” to the already-dead texts of these two men. When Jordan banned Saddam’s final novel from being printed, a Japanese publisher worked on a translation that was released in 2006 with the title The Devil’s Dance, which sold 8000 copies at the time. A Turkish translation was released in the same year. Despite the ban, the Arabic edition sold thousands in bootleg copies across the Arab region. “The goal is to bring back Saddam’s name to the public,” said Saddam’s daughter from her place of residence in Amman.

So once again, Saddam’s name is brought back. Like a phantom, he roams over the corpse of Arabic literature, shining where he never belonged. The fiction of Saddam and Gaddafi cover underneath them a world of violence in which the Arab intellectual is once again contested and compromised. The Egyptian novelist Youssif al-Qaid once pictured Saddam on a high chair, narrating his naïve epics to his scribes, watching them be made effortlessly into books. The figure of the Arab intellectual is muddied in all of this. It is a figure that has long been demeaned, ridiculed, and sacrificed. After Saddam was killed, one Iraqi woman came forward in a literary panel, saying her husband was the one who wrote Saddam’s Zabiba and the King: “They gave him two months to write it. They would come pick him up from our house every day, then bring him back at night. When the two months passed, my husband was assassinated and his body disappeared.” In all these stories surrounding the intellectual and the dictator, one cannot tell truth from fiction, but nevertheless, the harm was greatly done.

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