Saddam Hussein, Novelist

A tyrant's glowing reviews.

Not all the news from the Middle East is desperate. Here is a bit of comic relief from the BBC: Iraqi state radio announced in May that the nation will hold a referendum later this year to decide whether President Saddam Hussein should remain in office for yet another seven-year term. As if that were not enough to put a smile on every face between the Tigris and the Euphrates, the Beeb added that Ezzat Ibrahim, the country's second in command, will chair a committee to ensure a "successful result" in the ballot.

This committee no doubt has its campaign work cut out for it, though there is every reason to believe that its candidate will eventually prevail. The fact is, Saddam has had to solve other popularity challenges in recent months; not everything has been going his way lately.

Among the signs of voter restiveness: Saddam's most recent novel--The Impregnable Fortress, a moving tale of love and war--has been selling poorly. This despite the fact that Iraq printed 2 million copies of the novel, issued purchasing quotas for each Iraqi province, and declared the work the best-selling novel in Iraqi history even before it was released. Saddam's son Udai certainly did his filial literary duty to boost sales; he ordered 250,000 copies.

As befits modest literary genius, Saddam publishes his fiction anonymously. Fortress, like Saddam's first great novel, Zabibah and the King (2001), was released tautologically as "a novel by its author." Zabibah was an international sensation, a roman à clef focusing on the relationship between a sensitive and enlightened ruler (Saddam, well disguised), and a beautiful woman (the Iraqi people) who is in thrall to her blackguard husband (the West, especially the United States).

The work's most famous passage involves the vicious rape of lovely Zabibah by her miserable husband, an event that takes place on January 17, the date on which Operation Desert Storm began its bombing of Baghdad. Zabibah also features a noteworthy passage on the social benefits of brutal tyranny; according to the ruler-hero, a strong hand makes the populace secure.

In any event, the London-based paper Al-Hayat reports that when not enough Iraqis bought this year's The Impregnable Fortress, Iraq's literary establishment sprang into spontaneous action. According to the paper (as translated by World Press Review), "Never in the history of modern Arabic literature has any book been the subject of so many favorable reviews, and never has an author, anonymous or named, been so highly lauded."

At a Baghdad conference examining the profound importance of the work, the writer Amjad Tawfiq said that "what distinguishes this novel from others is its ability to weave a string of pearls on which love and war are strung together. And the way it celebrates the fundamental human qualities that refuse to allow war to be an interruption of the affairs of daily life bespeak[s] an author with a sensitive heart and mind."

The poet Muhammad Radi Jafar was especially insightful. Fortress, he observed, "is built upon a confirmation of the individual by providing an example [of a protagonist] who is conscious of the world...and we arrive at the underlying moral by doing the same thing--being conscious."

This performance by Baghdad's literati repeats a familiar farce: A ruling murderer indicates that he wishes to be recognized for surpassing genius, and a supine establishment responds with wild acclaim. Stalin, for example, posed as a great scholar of linguistics, while Romania's Madame Ceausescu pretended to be the world's leading chemist. The phenomenon goes back at least to the Emperor Nero, who sang his poetry to unrestrained applause.

Nero's most famous words, delivered as he perished, were, "What an artist dies in me!" Maybe Mrs. Ceausescu likewise bid farewell to the great chemist that perished in her. Perhaps Saddam will one day kiss the hack in him goodbye.

Meanwhile, Zabibah, Saddam's first work, has been staged as a musical, and the great man is reportedly hard at work on his third bestseller.

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