Saddam and the ministry of sound

He's the pariah leader of a pariah state, one crippled by sanctions and military defeat. But, says Rose George, Saddam Hussein still has one weapon left in his armoury: his creative streak
Click to follow
The Independent Online

First the book, then the TV series, now the musical. It seems the president of Iraq's recent cultural output has no limits, much to the delight of foreign editors everywhere. You may have heard about the book, which was first gleefully written about in the West in May. Called Zabibah wal Malik' (Zabiba and the King), it is a deeply meaningful love story that tells the tale of beautiful Zabiba (or Everywoman), her cruel husband (or the Satanic West) and the introspective and insecure King (or the Iraqi president). The allegory is fairly well signposted, according to CIA operatives who have been poring over the book: Zabiba gets raped on 17 January, the day the Gulf War allies launch their attack on Iraq in 1991. The good King saves her and dies in the service of his country. Along the way, he pours out his heart to Zabiba, confessing his fears about his technique – "Do the people need strict measures from their leader?" he asks her. "Yes, Your Majesty," Zabiba replies. "The people need strict measures so that they can feel protected by this strictness" – as well as thoughts about his succession. In a year when Saddam's younger son Qusay has been promoted to the Revolutionary Council before his brother Uday, clues to his thoughts, even if submerged in allegory, are a delight for the spooks of the CIA's Iraq-watching department.

Later, it was reported that the book was to be made into a 20-part TV series, no doubt to be shown on the trot, as happened with the 24-hour broadcast of a Gulf War drama in January. Finally, some 10 days ago, word was issued from the bottom floor of the Ministry of Information (where Baghdad's handful of foreign correspondents sit) that Zabiba will be a musical, and is already in preparation at the Iraqi National Theatre. Move over Ewan McGregor.

Take one of the crowded elevators up to the ministry's fifth floor, however, and the idea that the president should have cultural aspirations will not seem so outlandish. In a corridor near the offices shared by the English-language arts magazine Gilgamesh, the women's monthly Ishtar and the multilingual El-Mamoun state publishing house, there is a table covered with books, all written by the same author. Thrilling stuff: The Revolution and the Woman in Iraq by Saddam Hussein; Thus we should fight Persians by Saddam Hussein; and – my favourite – One Trench or Two?, a charming speech on "the revolutionary experiment" and how to crush the Kurds.

"His obsession is his concern for learning," gushes the introduction to Saddam's On Current Affairs in Iraq. "During his exile in Cairo, he found time in midst of his frenzied activities [ie plotting to overthrow the existing regime] to obtain his secondary school certificate." What's more, it continues, the president's gifts in public speaking led to "Saddam Hussein [being] compared by Christopher Hitchens of the New Statesman with President Nasser." (Hitchens says he has no recollection of making such a comparison.)

Inside the army uniform and Armani suits, we are to believe, beats the heart of a cultured man, whose love of painting can be seen in the hundreds and thousands of garish portraits bearing his image throughout the country, and who regularly discourses on the importance of heritage and culture. The English-language newspaper Iraq Daily – whose importance shouldn't be underestimated, given that its CEO is Saddam's son Uday – carries regular cultural bulletins, while ancient wonders such as Babylon and Hatra have been reconstructed (to the fury of Unesco), with Saddam erecting a plaque in his name right next to Nebuchadnezzar's. Roads have been built to cultural treasures such as the Marmatti monastery near the city of Mosul – and the northern no-fly zone. Baghdad's only major cultural centre is named after the president (as are countless schools, missiles and rivers).

Such crude cultural imperialism – and the fairly unimaginative narrative of the future Zabiba the Musical – may not impress Western sensibilities. But that's not what Saddam's creative endeavours are about. Their purpose is to raise and direct the spirit of his beleaguered nation, as part of a wider attempt to fight back against the perceived cruelties of the West through culture. The past year has seen an increasing defiance of sanctions in Iraq: international flights now land with some regularity at Baghdad airport, and Iraq has been revving up its attempts to shoot down US and British jets in the no-fly zones. Now this defiance is being accompanied by a series of measures designed to boost the nation's cultural efforts.

The publication of the Zabiba novel, for example, followed a pronouncement from the president that feature films and plays should abandon the fluffy, escapist themes they had followed since sanctions began in 1991 and instead tackle weightier issues that would lift the spirit of the nation. Earlier this year, the noted director Abdul Salam al-Adhami dutifully released Hafra al-Batm, a Gulf War story about courageous Iraqi troops buried alive by US soldiers (based on a CNN documentary on the incident). Two other Gulf War-themed films are reportedly in production, one a reworking of the SAS book Bravo Two Zero, albeit with a new focus: instead of the captured and tortured SAS soldiers hogging the limelight, the hero is a brave Iraqi called Adnan, who leads the SAS men into a trap.

Some may be tempted to sneer at such efforts, but it's worth noting that a US-sponsored satellite channel is to start beaming into Iraq a service called Liberty TV, a mixture of news, chat and entertainment, by way of a cultural counter-attack.

Saddam's regime is well prepared to respond. This year has also seen the Ministry of Information and Culture split in two, and the direction of more money (from Iraq's annual $3bn revenues in non-sanctioned oil sales) towards cultural concerns. The Iraqi National Museum finally got a budget to pay for armed guards at three archaeological dig sites, to put a stop to catastrophic looting (10,000 artefacts have disappeared since 1991). As a sweetener, the death penalty for illegal exports of artefacts was introduced.

Another request from the president pressed writers to produce work about everyday Iraq, from home life to "the experience of those who crouch behind their guns to resist enemy aircraft". However, as those who are crouching behind their guns are increasingly busy firing at no-fly patrols, they don't have much time to read or write.

Nor, probably, can they or anyone else afford to. "People are more occupied with earning a living, not buying books," says Dr Khaduar Al- Dulaimi, head of El Mamoun publishing house. Before sanctions, El-Mamoun used to publish 20 novels a year, translated from English, Spanish, Russian and German. Now it's down to a couple. National literature fares even worse. "In the 1970s we used to invite Arab writers to have their work published in Iraq free of charge. People are doing self-publishing, but it's very discouraging." Books are out of most people's reach: Even Zabiba and the King, priced at 1,500 dinars (60p), represents half of a monthly state salary. "Before sanctions," says Margaret Hassan, the British-born head of the aid agency CARE in Iraq, "even the poorest were earning 200 dinars – then £380. If someone got that now they'd think they'd died and gone to heaven. Maybe it wasn't paradise lost, but..."

Now cultural splashes of colour – such as Saddam the Musical – take place in what has become a "photocopy culture". People can't afford books, and packages from abroad are classified as "trade" and banned under sanctions. Many people have sold their libraries, and taking even a single book out of Iraq now requires an export licence. You can always spot an Iraqi journalist in a crowd of reporters: they're the ones carefully using the back of printed sheets of paper, because they can't afford notebooks.

It's a sorry sight, in a country famed throughout the Arab world for its art and civilisation, and well-known before sanctions for its highlife and party spirit. These days, there's little entertainment on offer in Baghdad, since the public consumption of alcohol was banned in 1995 (too many depressed people were drinking away their £1 salaries). Bars and nightclubs are non-existent. Even the wealthy – rich through the £2bn a year smuggling trade – have to make do with restaurants and private members' clubs. On one trip to Iraq, two French aid workers came to visit the annual Baghdad international photographic exhibit – hardly the stuff of Magnum – and said forlornly: "We've been looking forward to this for months."

Even so, in one area of cultural endeavour, Iraq is triumphing. Sanctions keeps the borders pretty much sealed to Westerners, allowing pirating to flourish – you can buy Encarta for a few dollars in Baghdad, and PlayStations galore. Disrespect for copyright has become an art form. How fitting, then, that the picture of Zabiba, who is depicted on the cover of the president's novel with flowing gown and hair "against a backdrop of the arches of Babylon", has been nicked. As the Canadian "goddess art" painter Jonathan Earl Bowse complains on his website, "I did not authorise the Iraqi president to publish my work in this way. A serious infringement has occurred here, and I believe copyright is a principle worth defending. But it seems unlikely anything can be done about it, so I am trying to view the story in a humorous light."