May 25, 2001
ASHINGTON, May 24 — Winston Churchill painted landscapes. Mao Tse Tung wrote poetry. Bill Clinton played the saxophone.
But Saddam Hussein a novelist?
The Central Intelligence Agency thought it might be so after officials spotted an article in the Saudi-owned, London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat early this year that identified the Iraqi leader as the author of "Zabibah wal Malik" ("Zabibah and the King"), an allegorical love story. And the pro-Iraqi Arabic daily Al-Quds al- Arabi wrote that the fact that there was no criticism following news of the book "strongly" suggested that Mr. Hussein wrote it. The cover of the novel says only that it is "by its author."
In a closed government like Iraq's, where reliable information about internal politics and decision-making is almost nonexistent and where Mr. Hussein is said to use a double for some public appearances, studying documents like novels can be an important tool for the United States government. "We are humble about how little we know of what's going on inside," an official said.
So Iraq-watchers in the C.I.A. were excited when they first located copies of the 160-page paperback in an Arabic-language bookstore in London.
After a United States government interpreter scrutinized the novel for three months, the C.I.A. has become increasingly convinced that Mr. Hussein probably did not write it, but that he carefully supervised its production and suffused it with his own words and ideas. Even so, United States officials have pored over every detail of the book and then some, reading between the lines of its sometimes rambling, overheated prose to find what they say is an intriguing window into Mr. Hussein's thinking.
The book tells of the close relationship between a mighty king and a beautiful villager named Zabibah. "I believe the novel was written by a novelist or a group of highly educated people who know Saddam upside down," said one United States official. "In the book, Saddam is the king, and the king is apologetic to the people. He says: `I'm a great leader. You must obey me. Not only that, you must love me.' " Most surprising are the king's stream-of-consciousness confessions to Zabibah. "He imparts his inner self to her, even his anger and frustration," the official said.
The novel's introduction explains that Mr. Hussein asked a number of Iraqi writers last year to write novels that reflect life in Iraq, from ordinary home life "to the experience of those who crouch behind their machine guns to resist enemy aircraft." But the novel's author "did not wish to put his name on it out of humility, like the sons of Iraq who sacrifice their lives and their valuables and never talk about their great deeds."
The novel, set in what is now northern Iraq centuries before Christ, describes Iraq as the cradle of civilization, the place where Adam and Eve settled after they "came down from heaven." (Indeed, a garden with a gnarled apple tree in southeastern Iraq is advertised as the site of the Garden of Eden).
The novel primarily pays tribute to Zabibah (said to represent the Iraqi people), who is shown on the cover in a flowing one-shoulder blue satin gown, her long brown tresses blowing in the breeze. Doves encircle her. Behind her stand the arches of ancient Babylon.
Struck by her wisdom and intelligence, the king carries on long conversations with her — about God, politics, love, family, loyalty, betrayal and the will of the people. Along the way, he reveals his insecurities.
He considers creating a party to support him, for example, but is afraid of fomenting rivalry between the party and senior political officials and military officers. He wonders whether the people will honor or desecrate his corpse after he dies. And he asks Zabibah, "Do the people need strict measures" from their leader? "Yes, your Majesty," Zabibah replies. "The people need strict measures so that they can feel protected by this strictness."
One American official said: "The book is a kind of dirge. The king is talking about his death. Every time I read the book I feel for the king. This is what Saddam wants the people to do — to feel for him."
The relationship, except for occasional embraces and kisses, remains chaste and eventually destroys Zabibah's marriage to a cruel man she never loved. "I love you, I don't love my husband," Zabibah confesses to the king. "I'm married in name only."
It is impossible to measure the popularity of the novel, which was published by a printing house that is most likely owned by the Iraqi government. The article in Al-Quds al-Arabi said that the novel "appeared in all Iraqi libraries" and "is currently the topic of discussion among intellectuals and the public." And Al-Sharq al- Awsat declared that "the Iraqi press devoted much attention to this novel, regarding it as `innovation in the history of novels.' " United States officials could not confirm either claim.
The book sells for 1,500 dinars — about $1 — and its back cover states that all profits will go to the poor, the orphaned and the oppressed. But at a time when the vast majority of Iraqis are reeling from crippling international sanctions, it is questionable whether they are spending money on novels.
The book's most powerful section focuses on the rape of Zabibah, an obvious reference to the United States invasion of Iraq at the end of the Persian Gulf war. One night, while returning to her cottage from the king's palace, Zabibah is gagged and dragged into a forest where she is raped by a man who conceals his identity. He turns out to be her estranged husband.
Afterward, Zabibah says to herself, "Rape is the most serious of crimes, whether it is a man raping a woman or invading armies raping the homeland or the usurpation of rights." United States officials call this a reference to Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
The enraged king vows revenge by opening a war "that will not end until victory or death."
During the ensuing battle against the husband and his supporters, Zabibah is killed. Her husband, who is killed the same day, is buried beside her so that the people can throw stones on his grave to desecrate it on the anniversary of his death. The date of their deaths is Jan. 17, the same day as the United States-led coalition began bombing Baghdad as part of the war to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
"Saddam's style, sentence structure and expressions are clearly present in the novel," said a United States government summary of the book. "The dialogue between the king and Zabibah exposes a wide spectrum of Saddam's thinking: tribal values are paramount and family is the only trusted security. Honor is linked to a woman's purity, making rape worse than murder. In this context, man's revenge becomes his highest duty." The king's role, meanwhile, "is to give orders, rule and lead the people, who must obey and satisfy his wishes."
The final chapter describes an attempt to modernize the regime and allow more free speech through a popular assembly, but all of the speakers are discredited. An aristocrat named Nouri Chalabi (apparently modeled after Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of a London- based opposition movement against Mr. Hussein's government) is dismissed from the session because he disgraced the people by not defending the country.
A merchant who trades with the Persians is accused of gaining his fortune illegally. A military officer who calls for continuation of the monarchy is accused of cowardice and of participating in orgies. A Jewish merchant named Shmel is sent into exile for spiriting young men out of the country so they could avoid military service.
As the assemblymen continue to squabble, a messenger announces that the king has died. According to the United State government analysis, "the new order is largely that of the previous one."
In this context, United States analysts see parallels with events in Iraq today. Just last week, Mr. Hussein's son Qusay, 34, who is head of the security forces, was elevated to his first political post as a member of the Iraqi Command of the ruling Baath Party, a move that helps position him to succeed his father. "We will look back and see this as an important milestone," one official said.
But perhaps the ending of the novel is slightly more open-ended, perhaps the author is trying to say that the king can never be replaced, that democratic tendencies can only lead to conflict and that Iraq's future is uncertain and best left in the hands of God.
"God has settled what we could not settle and he is the best judge," says the head of the assembly at the end of the novel. After a fitting funeral honoring the king, he adds, "We will come back to discuss our affairs with a new spirit." The deputies shout, "Long Live Zabibah! Long Live the People! Long Live the Army!"
No one shouts, "Long Live the King!"