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Iraq: Saddam's Romance Novel Heads For Stage As Musical

Prague, 5 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's national theater is preparing to make a musical based on a romance novel by President Saddam Hussein. A state-run paper recently announced that scenes for the musical are already in rehearsal and the play will open before the end of the year. RFE/RL corespondent Charles Recknagel looks at the effort and at the state of the arts in Iraq today.

Prague, 5 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Saddam Hussein is no stranger to artworks portraying him as a great leader.

Iraq is awash in posters and banners bearing his image, some as big as the side of a building. They capture his many moods in a variety of poses: smiling in a suit and tie, resolute in an army uniform, and sternly honest in a judge's robes.

Then, there are his hands. They are visible in the two giant fists holding aloft crossed swords which form the triumphal arch over Baghdad's main boulevard. The sculptor not only modeled the fists upon Saddam's own, he copied them detail for detail.

And now, there is Saddam's novel. Entitled "Zabibah and the King," it is a 160-page romance story which was written last year. Already it is available in every Iraqi public library and is being turned into a musical. According to news reports, the first scenes are in rehearsal at the Iraqi National Theater and the full play will be ready before the end of the year.

Saddam's book has caused a sensation in Iraq because -- in a country where all art serves the state -- portraits of the leader are usually left to professional writers and artists. But with "Zabibah and the King," the Iraqi president appears to have decided to take up the pen himself and to present his image as he alone can see it.

The book tells the story of a beautiful village girl who is unhappily married to a brutish husband and falls in love with her king. Iraqi literature critics say the author, who sets the tale in Iraq's ancient past, intends Zabibah to represent the Iraqi people and the king to be Saddam himself.

The King and Zabibah -- whose love is always chaste -- discuss such questions as the proper relationship between a ruler and his people. The king asks whether the people need strict measures from their leader. Zabibah replies that the people "need strict measures so that they can feel protected by this strictness."

In the story, the king and Zabibah together face threats that are clearly sign-posted as the 1991 Gulf War, when a U.S.-led coalition attacked Iraq to evict Baghdad's troops from Kuwait. Zabibah is brutally raped by her estranged husband and his supporters -- read the West -- and the king goes to war to avenge her. In the ensuing battle, the rapist is killed but Zabibah, too, dies.

The last chapter finds the king experimenting with giving more political freedom to his parliament but the effort founders due to the petty characters of the people's representatives. The novel ends as the petty squabbles are stopped short by news of the ruler's death, leaving it uncertain how the country will cope with anything other than another Saddam-like ruler -- such as one of his sons.

Iraqi literature critics say it is not known whether Saddam wrote the book word-for-word or whether he worked with ghost-writers. But the style of the prose has convinced most observers that the ideas are Saddam's own. So have the rave reviews the story has won in Iraq's state press -- which called it an "innovation in the history of novels."

Ali Abdul Amir, an Iraqi journalist and art critic living in Amman, says much of the language in the novel is in the style of Saddam's public speaking.

"The real theme, the real language, it is Saddam's own. For example, there is no professional novelist, even a primitive one, [who would] finish a book by saying 'Viva the Iraqi Army!' and 'Viva the People!' is the same way Saddam finishes his speeches."

The novel ends with the deputies in the king's squabbling parliament shouting "Long Live Zabibah! Long Live the People! Long Live the Army!" upon hearing the news of the king's death.

Amir says that by publishing the book, Saddam appears to be sending several different messages to the Iraqi people. One is to show that Saddam himself is not only the country's political and military leader but also its foremost cultural figure.

"The message is to show how Saddam is a multiple genius, who can also be a novelist. That's the first. And he knows well that the Iraqi cultural establishment will consider his book as a milestone, in which one can say there is an Iraqi novel before 'Zabibah wal Malik' (Zabibah and the King) and an Iraqi novel after 'Zabibah.'"

Amir says that by creating such a milestone for the country's entirely state-controlled cultural establishment, Saddam also clearly defines the themes and subjects he wants Iraqi writers and artists to highlight. Amir says that theme is the love of the people for their strong ruler.

"Also there is another message. It is to show how close the Iraqi people are to their leader. It is also a sign that the leadership of Saddam is not just a powerful leadership but is a romantic [relationship between him and his people.]"

The message is already being embraced by the producers of "Zabibah and the King" -- the musical. Iraq's weekly state-run tabloid Al-Mawed said last month that the musical "will be the largest production in the long history of Iraqi epic teaching to love one's homeland despite all the danger." Television script supervisor Mizahim al-Baiati said he is certain the show will be a success because "of the powerful meanings and thoughts indicated in the novel."

If Saddam's "Zabibah" is intended to chart a clear future course for Iraq's artists, it fits well into a decades-long practice by the country's ruling Baath Party of assuring the sole function of the arts is to best serve the state.

Since the mid-1970s, that effort has seen the state admit only Baath Party members to the writers' union, with very few exceptions, and to purge all non-Baathist teachers from the educational system. It also includes state censorship of all manuscripts.