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The Autumn of Literature: The Dictator as Novelist
By Elias Khoury
According to news reports, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein has just published his first novel, entitled “Zubayba wa al-Malak” (Zubayba and the King). The Iraqi president becomes the second Arab leader to join the realm of novelists and fiction writers, preceded only by Libyan Moamar al-Qaddafi, who published a collection of stories several years ago.
The news item distributed by the French News Agency, makes only a brief mention of the 160-page novel by Hussein. The novel, a tale from Arab heritage, calls for adhering to “national values,” and refers to its author in the third person, with the cover proclaiming the work: “Riwayya Likatibiha” (A Novel for its Author). This statement reinforces the conviction that the author, referring to himself with a possessive pronoun, is none other than the Iraqi president! While reading how the president introduced the author of his novel, speaking about an Iraq “drawing out his sword to say: Oh, I am Iraq alone on the earth,” I asked myself why presidents bother to write literature? Isn’t the leader— Zaim (strongman) —feared? Isn’t he content with his name, pictures, statues, and the loud cheers which punish people’s ears? Isn’t he content with being immortalized through a mass of followers? Why does he approach death drawing out the pen and entering the maze of composition?
Saddam Hussein had already recruited Iraqi novelists to write his life story. Poet Abd al-Amir al-Mala won a prize for his portrayal of the president, and the biographical novel, “The Long Days,” was published in two parts and subsequently made into a film directed by one of the most celebrated Egyptian directors, Toufic Salih. Salih coincidentally also directed the masterpiece, “Al Makhdoun” (The Deceived).
Even though an author had written his story and a director made it into a film, the president could not help but write about himself. He became convinced that what he wrote could not be written by another, so he sought immortality for himself as an author. Now why should Iraqi literature go through the ordeal of swallowing a novel unlike any other literary work.
Why do Arab leaders believe that literature is a source of immortality, and that they need to consummate their leadership with a novel? Wasn’t the Iraqi president satisfied with forcing the director of “his” film to re-shoot some of the scenes to eliminate pain showing on the hero’s face? Reportedly, director Toufic Salih was forced, under orders from the Iraqi president, to re-shoot the scene of extracting a bullet from the hero-president’s foot because the actor had made the mistake of showing a little human pain during the surgery, which was performed without anesthesia. When the president saw the scene, he summoned the director and made him listen to the doctor who had treated him after his attempt to assassinate Colonel Abd al-Karim Qassem. The doctor vouched that Hussein’s expressions did not indicate pain. This leader feels no pain, yet he wants to write: how does one write when he feels no pain? How does he write when he sees his country only as a mirror of himself?
The leader does write. Today he appears on television, introducing his novel, and tomorrow an entourage of poets, authors, and critics come to shower him with praise for this unique literary work. Perhaps some genius will even suggest putting music to this novel.
Why this penchant for writing literature among military coup leaders? We may find an explanation in the roots of coup movements, which began with authors or individuals interested in literature: Zaki al-Arsuzi, a co-founder of the Baath Party was a linguist; Michel Aflaq, another co-founder of the same party was a story writer; and Antoun Saadeh, founder of the Syrian Nationalist Party, was a literary critic.
However, the founders’ generation retreated before a new generation of military officers who made the army their means to power. Despite the illogical progression, literature became somehow a field associated with the coup and dictatorship, perhaps because all writing in these regimes is like writing intelligence reports. We find a strange mixture between the writer and the intelligence analyst: these regimes had different stages in which creative writers first become intelligence report writers and then become authors! These two types of writing became interconnected in a strange way, and by the 1980s in Iraq it reached the level of producing a Baathist theory of aesthetics!
The literary world suffered in a terrifying way thanks to this strange combination: Egyptian authors were imprisoned; Iraqi writers lived between exile, prison, and assassination; literature in Syria knew a great decline; and in the Gulf regimes, monarchies, emirates, and sheikhdoms the censor is almost the sole author. This suffering resulted from military officers’ illusion that they are a part of society’s cultural sphere. Secondary school teachers who founded nationalist political parties found the officers to be outstanding students, while officers considered their teachers a mere rite in the passage to power. When the military seized power, it wanted literature to serve its goal — but what can literature do when the goals disappear, shrink, or even die? What can literature do about regimes that came to power to liberate Palestine and emancipate society, but in the end transformed their military defeats into a means to perpetuate the domination of society, destroying all social structures and changing the state into empty departments surrounding the only leader?
When the leader finds himself surrounded by emptiness, bent heads, and false praise, he is forced to write himself. His thirst for power and glory cannot be narrated by small writers who belittle themselves and diminish their writing. Thus, the leader narrates the story of himself by himself, inventing the words, composing books, and giving ideas to poets!
In his solitude, the dictator sees his own pictures surrounding him; he has destroyed all other pictures. Imagine the scene: a man living in the midst of thousands of pictures, and all are the image he wants to portray of himself. The man lives in a forest of mirrors, doing as he wishes, hearing only his own voice. The whole country is a valley, sending back the echo of his voice. Imagine this man who feels like a god, able to do whatever he wishes; his words which are at once on the tip of thousands of tongues, and finds his pictures everywhere. Then he seeks the moon and becomes mad, just as the Roman emperor Caligula did, or he will burn the world, just as Hitler did, or he will write literature as Arab leaders do!
Perhaps the dictator is “forced” to write books, for the Arab novel has not come close to accurately portraying the surrealistic slave state that prevails in the Arab world. The novel remains outside of this terrifying maze. Excluding two attempts, Abd al-Rahman Munif’s “City of Salts” and “Land of Darkness,” the world of the mad state remains closed to writing.
When the citizens do not write, the leaders will. The dictator ceased to be content with writing the tragedy of the Arabs in blood; rather, he wants to monopolize the ink, too! AJ
Translated from the Arabic by Elie Chalala
This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 33 (Fall 2000)