"At the end of the year 2000, a publishing sensation left Baghdad abuzz with rumor." Thus begins an article in the Middle East Quarterly by Ofra Bengio, "Saddam Husayn's Novel of Fear," in which she recounts the bizarre circumstances of Saddam Hussein becoming the author of a historical romance titled Zabiba and the King. Although Bengio finds the novel "boring and incoherent," she argues it "is best understood as Saddam's own preparation for his final descent from the stage. It should be read as a summary of his life, an 'artistic' contribution to his people, an epitaph, and a last will and testament, all rolled into one."
One might have thought that more pressing issues of state would have been on the absolute dictator's mind by 2002, as the Bush administration made clear its impatience with Iraqi behavior and signaled an intent to take action. One would be wrong, at least according to an account given by NBC news on July 15, 2003: Tom Brokaw reported on the authority of Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, already in captivity, that "in the last year Saddam Hussein has been preoccupied with writing three epic novels."
Even more remarkable is a report in the Daily Telegraph today:
Saddam Hussein spent the final weeks before the war [in March 2003] writing a novel predicting that he would lead an underground resistance movement to victory over the Americans, rather than planning the defence of his regime. As the war began and Saddam went into hiding 40,000 copies of Be Gone Demons! were rolling off the presses. Most were destroyed by bombing and looting but the Telegraph has obtained one of the few remaining copies of the novel - an historical epic which reveals both Saddam's increasing detachment from the world and his inflated sense of self.
The Daily Telegraph thoughtfully offers an extract from Be Gone Demons! and reproduces its cover:
The same article quotes Saad Hadi, a journalist involved in the production of Saddam's novels, commenting about the tyrant: "He lost touch with reality. He thought he was a god who could do anything, including writing novels." According to Hadi, Saddam's favorite novelist was Ernest Hemingway, in particular The Old Man and the Sea, whose style he tried to emulate. "He'd sit in his state room and recount simple tales, while his aides recorded his words."
Saddam's first literary production was Zabiba and the King, followed by The Fortified Castle and Men and the City and finally Be Gone Demons! Tariq Aziz's comment suggests that another two novels were in the works when war so rudely interrupted.
I mention all this because it directly confirms the thesis I elaborated on the matter of weapons of mass destruction in "[Saddam's] WMD Lies." It's a complex argument, but I mused on why, supposing there really are no nukes in Iraq, Saddam could have given off the impression he had them.
This mistake can best be explained as the result of Saddam inhabiting the uniquely self-indulgent circumstance of the totalitarian autocrat, with its two key qualities:
- Hubris: The absolute ruler can do anything he wants, so he thinks himself unbounded in his power.
- Ignorance: The all-wise ruler brooks no contradiction, so his aides, fearing for their lives, tell him only what he wants to hear.
Both these incapacities worsen with time and the tyrant becomes increasingly removed from reality. His whims, eccentricities and fantasies dominate state policy. The result is a pattern of monumental mistakes.
That Saddam Hussein was consumed with a literary urge even as his dictatorship was about to be destroyed by the greatest power on earth goes far to explain some of those "monumental mistakes." (December 17, 2003)
July 8, 2004 update: The London-based Arabic paper, Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, today began a complete serialization of Saddam Hussein's final novel written as a free man, Be Gone Demons! اخرج منها ياملعون
As though it were just any book, the paper posts a picture of the cover and the author (in his jailbird appearance, not his absolute ruler one, however).
The manuscript was found in the Ministry of Culture after Baghdad's fall. The newspaper received a copy from Saddam's physician, Alla Bashir.
Another version of the cover for Saddam Hussein's latest novel, "Be Gone Demons!"
The Associated Press's Salah Nasrawi helpfully provides a summary of the plot, as related by Ali Abdel Amir, an Iraqi writer and critic who has read the whole manuscript: It recounts a Zionist-Christian conspiracy against Arabs and Muslims that is eventually defeated by an Arab army that invades the land of the enemy and topples one of its monumental towers, an apparent reference to Sept. 11, 2001.
Saddam "was completely out of touch with actual reality, and novel writing gave him the chance to live in delusions," comments Abdel Amir. Youssef al-Qaeed, an Egyptian novelist, describes the dictator's oeuvre as "naïve and superficial."
The novel opens with a narrator, who bears a resemblance to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim patriarch Abraham, telling cousins Ezekiel, Youssef and Mahmoud that Satan lives in the ruins of a Babylon destroyed by the Persians and the Jews. …
Ezekiel, symbolizing the Jews, is portrayed as greedy, ambitious and destructive. "Even if you seize all the property of others, you will suffer all your life," the narrator tells him. Youssef, who symbolizes the Christians, is portrayed as generous and tolerant - at least in the early passages. Mahmoud, symbolizing Muslims, emerges as the conqueror at the end of the book.