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Saddam's novel bestseller despite ban
*Novel finds ready audience
- Hassan M. Fattah
(Monday, July 4, 2005)
The unpublished novel "Get Out, You Damned One" will not win any literary awards. A forgettable piece of pulp, it features a scheming traitor, an invading army of Zionist-Christian infidels and an Arab liberator. The only thing that sets the novel apart from numerous others like it in Arab bookstores is its author: Saddam Hussein. When Raghad Saddam Hussein, Saddam's exiled daughter, announced plans to publish the 186-page novel in Amman earlier this week, she set off a fierce debate over Saddam's legacy. Jordan's press and publications department quickly banned the book. Bootleg copies then sold out. Experts said that Saddam, long held in high esteem by many Jordanians, retained his popularity even as evidence against him was being gathered for a trial in Iraq. "A lot of people still like him, and he still commands popularity," said Suleiman al-Horani, owner of the tiny Horani Kiosk in downtown Amman. Within hours of the ban on the book, Horani says, he sold 50 bootleg copies. "His popularity is increasing because of the success the resistance is now having in Iraq."
The continued turbulence in Iraq has served to give Saddam credit for his tight grip over the country during his 30-year rule, experts in Amman contend. American missteps, prison scandals and growing corruption have added to his support. "People are comparing the old regime and the new, and the sense is that things have simply gotten much worse," said Muhammad Abu Hdeib, a member of Jordan's Parliament and chairman of its Arab and international affairs committee. "All this has made people see American propaganda as a flat-out lie."
The novel, which Saddam is said to have completed on the eve of the U.S. invasion in 2003, is seen as a prescient picture of the occupation of Iraq. It opens with a narrator who appears to be modeled on the story of Abraham warning his grandsons of Satan's hold over Babylon. The story tells of Ezekiel, a greedy schemer who plots to overthrow the sheik of a tribe with the help of a powerful enemy aiming to conquer and annihilate all Arabs - but he is ultimately defeated by the sheik's daughter with the help of an Arab warrior. This is viewed as a metaphor for a Zionist-Christian plot against Arabs and Muslims. "Only those who refuse his nation and are faithful to God can be victorious," the narrator warns of Satan, the superpower.
Soon after its completion, the book went into circulation underground without the author's name. In 2004, the pan-Arab daily Al Sharq al Awsat published the book in serial form, and numerous copies were printed in Beirut and elsewhere, selling for the equivalent of $5 with a picture of Saddam on the cover. The first page of the manuscript, the paper reported, was signed and dated March 18, 2003, when the American invasion began.
Many see Raghad's announcement of her publishing plans as part of an orchestrated campaign timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the handover of sovereignty and the acceleration of a special tribunal that is scheduled to try Saddam for war crimes. Raghad is said to have taken an active part in designing the book's cover and editing it, and she added a note in the book in praise of her father. "The goal was to return Saddam to the public eye," said Mousa Barhouma, executive managing editor of Al Ghad, an independent Jordanian daily, who writes about culture. "He had become a thing of the past, and this may have been an attempt at raising nationalist sentiment and bringing him back on the stage." Strides made by the Iraqi insurgency added to the momentum, she said, and the banning of the book added to its cachet. Jordan's government was made nervous by it.
"We found that publishing the book would hamper Jordanian-Iraqi ties that Jordan is seeking to build," said Ahmad al-Qadah, head of the press and publications department, the local censor. "Jordan rejects having the story published here, and there is no need to raise such issues." The novel is Saddam's fourth. His first, "Zabiba and the King," published in 2001, concerns a heroic Saddam-like king, a woman named Zabiba who symbolizes the Iraqi people, and a tyrannical man who represents America - and rapes Zabiba. It has never been established whether Saddam is in fact the author of the books, or whether he secured a ghostwriter. But in the Arab world, where education and the ability to write prose are highly valued, the novels were meant to add to Saddam's image as a grand Arab leader and thinker. Now that he is in prison, the book appears to be an attempt to burnish that image.
Reaction to the book, as well as to recent images of Saddam in court and to photographs of him in his prison cell, speak to the divergent perceptions in the West and the Arab world. While Saddam may have been seen as tired and faded in the West, many here seized on his defiance in the face of dramatic international pressure. That an Arab leader would be caught doing his own laundry in prison only spoke to his carefully crafted image as an everyman. "They see him as a strong man who intends to return," said Barhouma, the newspaper editor. "Saddam was presented as a sacrifice at a time when no one could say no to America."
Suha Maayeh contributed reporting from Amman for this story.
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