Middle East

The Softer Side of Saddam Hussein

Iraqi Critics Praise President's Second Novel

The cover of Zabeebah and the King, reputed to be Saddam Hussein's first novel, features a painting by Canadian artist Jonathon Earl Bowser. Bowser says the artwork was used without his permission.

After the novel The Impregnable Fortress, reputedly Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's second, was released to poor sales, a flood of reviews praising the book filled the daily and weekly newspapers of Baghdad. The [Iraqi] Writers Union suddenly became very active in the capital and outlying states, setting up conferences in which speakers competed to lavish the most copious and elaborate praise for the book and for the genius of the "distinguished writer" or "prodigious author."

These indirect titles are due to the fact that the novel was published anonymously, credited only as "a novel by its author." This is the exact manner in which the novel Zabeebah and the King [reputed to be Saddam Hussein's first novel] was published. To date, more than 200 favorable reviews of the two books have been published in the Iraqi press—an unprecedented torrent of praise. 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.

Just last week, the [Iraqi] Institute of Popular Cultural Affairs dedicated what [government-owned] Iraqi newspaper Al-Thawrah called "an extensive conference" to studying the novel. Baghdad's literati discussed and debated the novel's influences. They agreed the book is important for its subject matter, and for its treatment of intellectual theory and national and cultural themes.

At the conference, author and critic Abd al-Hamid Hamudi presented his critique entitled "An Introduction into The Impregnable Fortress" in which he pointed out that "this important novel bears more than one message. It also has a type of narrative not to be found in the common literary efforts—which are usually limited to character development in clichéd situations—and it makes use of a literary framework shaped by time under the aegis of history. It is a panorama enlivened by expanding plot developments manifest in the multiple events that the esteemed novelist treats in the novel." The speech was typical for the conference, as critics strove to contrive new ways to praise Saddam's literary refinement.

In a similar manner, the writer Amjad Tawfiq said in praise of Saddam's novel 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 an author with a sensitive heart and mind. As for the author's treatment of love in the novel, it is depicted as a spiritual strength which was bestowed to increase and support the ability of the [protagonist] warrior, who gives of himself in selfless sacrifice in order to perform his duties with distinction and bravery in war."

He was followed by the author Khadir Abd al-Amir, who presented his paper entitled "The Impregnable Fortress: Heroic Sentiment and Inspiration from History." He proclaimed his belief that "the thematic importance of heroism derives from the strength of the ideas exemplified by the writer of the novel The Impregnable Fortress which are portrayed in a clear and touching style. This is in addition to its sensitive portrayal of matters of the soul and depiction of the real meaning of love and war. The novel also draws inspiration from the lessons of history and creates a personification of the majesty of life—a message which emerges strongly as the characters' plotline develops."

The last speaker was the poet Muhammad Radi Jafar, who said The Impregnable Fortress "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…" Jafar concluded his speech with selected readings from the body of the novel as proof that "the novel's narrative displays a rare and profound spirit."