Fancy reading a novel by Saddam Hussein? How about an allegory set 1500 years ago that describes “through biblical metaphor, a Zionist-Christian conspiracy against Arabs and Muslims?” Would you read it if you knew that the royalties from the book go to Saddam’s daughter Raghad, who has declared her support for ISIS?
Hesperus Press, a part-Jordanian-owned UK publishing house, thinks you will; they’re bringing out the 186-page novella, whose title has been rendered in the past as Begone Devils and Damned One, Get out of Here, in December, just in time for the tenth anniversary of Saddam’s hanging.
American readers with an interest in the Middle East might be curious about this window into Saddam’s disturbed mind and his view of the Iraqi people, whom he treated so badly. After all, he might still be ruling Iraq if he’d allowed inspectors to see that he didn’t have the WMDs he was feared to possess. But given Saddam’s reportedly modest literary skills, this tepid interest is probably outweighed by American weariness of all things Iraqi, not to mention the royalties issue—do Americans really want to see Hussein’s ISIS-supporting daughter profit from the book? (“To clarify, we are paying the agent,” a spokesman for Hesperus told me in an email, when asked about the royalties issue. He declined to give his name.)
This isn’t Saddam’s first literary foray. The best-known of Saddam’s four novels, titled Zabiba and the King in English translation, appeared in 2000 and is said to be a turgid allegory of Saddam’s relations with the Iraqi people and the U.S. “Some critics have suggested that Zabiba and the King was ghostwritten,” wrote The Guardian’s reviewer Daniel Kalder in 2011. “I doubt that: it is so poorly structured and dull that it has the whiff of dictatorial authenticity.” Apparently Saddam was working on a fifth novel while in American captivity prior to his trial and 2006 execution.
The three earlier books, all published in the early 2000s, were published by “he who wrote them,” but the identity of the author was an open secret. Kanan Makiya, the well-known Iraqi intellectual and writer and author of a novel that spirals out from Saddam’s hanging, 2016’s The Rope, agrees that the novels are likely written by Saddam himself.
At first I thought he had not written them, but had them ghostwritten,” he told me via email. “Eventually I met speechwriters and media people who were close to him. They convinced me he had in fact taken himself seriously as a writer in the early 1990s. At any rate they read like extremely amateurish efforts to spin out a story of very recent events. The one I read had characters who were thinly veiled caricatures of real people in the Iraqi opposition (I recognized Ahmed Chalabi!). Saddam valued the arts in general. He fancied himself a sculptor, having designed and built a victory arch in Baghdad celebrating his so-called victory over Iran in the Iraq-Iran war; if a sculptor, why not a novelist?
The books were huge best-sellers in Iraq, where, of course, they would not have received any bad reviews. They may or may not have been added to the school curriculum. An Iraqi translator from Basra told me in an email,
I graduated before the so-called Saddam’s novels were supposed to be introduced to students. Actually, the whole thing was halted and the novels never included into the curriculum because of the Kuwait invasion. Also, there is no proof that Saddam wrote the novels and the writer who used to write Saddam’s speeches has not yet spilled the beans.
Unlike Makiya, this Iraqi states, “No one in Iraq thinks that Saddam did write the novels.”
Begone was smuggled out of Iraq by Saddam’s daughter Raghad, who is now based in Jordan, where she is a guest of the royal family. She tried to publish the novel herself in Jordan in 2005 but it was banned from sale. Bootlegged versions have done well; Saddam is still popular among segments of the Jordanian population, which is Sunni Muslim and includes many Iraqi Ba’ath party officials who fled there from Iraq after 2003.
But Raghad is ethically questionable even apart from her actions during her father’s regime; she has declared her support for ISIS, and in May 2015 Iraq tried unsuccessfully to extradite her from Jordan “for alleged support of terror and involvement in money laundering.” This isn’t a surprise considering that it has been widely reported that ISIS draws support from the former Baathist elite.
Hesperus Press also has Jordanian ties: the sole director, Shadi Jabra Sharbain, a twenty-six-year-old, is Jordanian, as were two former directors who no longer seem to be involved with the company. Two of the four current shareholders, Lana Harkouz and Jebra Sharbain, seemingly the father of Shadi, also claim Jordanian nationality on Hesperus’s obligatory Companies House filings.
Oddly enough, Hesperus, founded in 2001, was previously in the news for not paying royalties to an author. The company made headlines in 2015 for failing to pay Jonas Jonasson, who wrote a best-selling novel; the staff at that time all resigned. According to one publishing industry blog, Jonasson was not the only author cheated by Hesperus.
What value is there in “dictator lit” such as Saddam’s novella? With the right publisher, it could provide some insight into how things unraveled in Iraq. As Kanan Makiya noted in an email, “With an intelligent up front article it would be a reasonable publishing project, providing some insight into an aging dictator’s warped mind.”
The Iraqi translator I spoke to was less sanguine. “Raghad is fiercely fighting to keep Saddam’s name and legacy alive among his followers as a symbol of Sunni hero who fought Iran and the USA altogether (exactly what ISIS is doing now),” he said. “The profits of the novels should be seized by the USA because they are going to be used to finance terrorism.”