A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
One of the earliest Arabic translations of the novel The President by the Guatemalan writer Miguel Ángel Asturias was published in Baghdad in the mid-1980s, 40 years after its original publication in 1946. The urban legend was that the publishers and press control authorities, at the height of Saddam Hussein’s rule, dealt with the publication not in terms of its high literary value nor its sharp political content that denounces tyranny and oppression, but for its title, which encapsulates one of Saddam’s titles, ‘The President’. Had they read it beforehand and realized its content, they would not have allowed it to be printed, published or circulated. Instead, they thought it was a novel written by a foreign author with the purpose of glorifying the president, not destroying the image of the dictator.
For decades, ruled by a small, wealthy and corrupt political class, the ‘Banana Republics’ in Latin America were used by the CIA as a backyard for their dirty politics, including installing and supporting corrupt rulers. During this time, the literary scene became the ground for radical experimentation, which continued to thrive for years after the fall of the regimes. Themes of dictatorship were the main preoccupation for leading authors in the continent, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez in The Autumn of the Patriarch, Mario Vargas Llosa in The Feast of the Goat, and decades earlier, Ángel Asturias in The President. Others followed later, such as Luisa Valenzuela in The Lizard’s Tail and Tomás Eloy Martínez in The Perón Novel. These writers created their own legacy of the dictator novel, reintroducing the world to their stories with a unique mood and fascinating blend of myth and historical facts, now known as magical realism. The term was first coined in the 1920s in German art circles, but later acquired its literary status as a genre closely associated with Latin American writers. After Ángel Asturias won the Nobel Prize in 1967, the term gained popularity as a form of writing that was free from the conventions of its predecessors, the critical realists, social realists and even the neo-realists.
It was a short 15 years later, in 1982, that the Latin American novelist, Gabriel García Márquez, would receive the Nobel Prize for his literary work. This included his well-known novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch, which delves into the world of tyranny, as well as the novel, General in his Labyrinth, which documents the last months of exile of the South American leader, Simon Bolivar, who briefly united part of the continent under Gran Colombia. Some consider this novel to be another approach to the theme of dictatorships through the history of revolutions.
In 2010, Peruvian novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa, author of The Feast of the Goat and Paradise on the Other Corner, was also awarded the Nobel Prize, once more bringing a generation of Latin American writers and magical realists to the forefront.
For decades, Arab region dictatorships have been reinforced as a synonym to tyranny. Originally founded when military elites became an alternative to traditional monarchies in the aftermath of the Second World War, their long lasting transit was made possible under the umbrella of revolutionary legitimacy and its residual slogans. At the time, the region’s redrawn borders, along with the rise of independent nation states and their new rulers, led many Arab countries through a series of soft and hard military coups. Within six decades, military leaders had managed to make their countries synonymous with their names. They ruled the security apparatuses with iron fists, inheriting power one after the other until the early 1990s, when the global balance of power shifted, and consequently they sought to have their sons succeed them.
Had it not been for the peoples’ uprisings in 2011, and their powerful repercussions, which are still affecting countries that thought they had survived the political earthquake, they would have accomplished their father-son rule. This was the case with ‘Assad’s Country’, where the ‘minor’ son succeeded his father after an arbitrary constitutional amendment to lower the minimum age for presidency. At the time, the decision received welcoming applause at the parliament!
If we exclude the novel Saddam Hussein’s World, published in 2003, no other literary work, as far as I know, has attempted to address the image of the Arab dictator. There are a few references in some texts; however, they are not the subject of focus, and if they are, they are mostly written from a symbolic angle and are quite ambiguous. Although Saddam Hussein’s World by Mehdi Haider (likely to be a pseudonym, and perhaps referring to more than one writer) only covers a small part of Saddam’s biography and life, it was able to produce a highly coherent and dazzling narrative structure, based on historical facts and figures that are suffused with imagination. Throughout, Haider dives deep into the psychological and cultural components of the man, which ultimately led to the production of the ruler who Iraqis lived under for more than two decades.
In most of Ali al-Muqri’s novels (Black Taste, Black Odor, Hurma, The Handsome Jew, and Adeni Incense), a neglected Yemen – with its pluralism and cultural diversity, class, religious, ethnic and gender differences – is vivid and present across different times, places and contexts.
However, in The Leader’s Country, another place appears. The story unfolds, told by a single first person narrator, in a linear narrative set in a tight timeline and within confined space. The writer created these limitations and transcends them by cultivating multiple characters to enrich the narrative structures in the novel. Mainly, the narrator’s biography runs parallel to the protagonists’ – combining his biography as a writer with that of the leader whose biography is being written.
The leader shaped the country, which he dominated through repression and tyranny, and cast into his own mold. Only one voice, his own, would impose its rule with instruments that he operated in the most perverse ways. He even changed the name of the country from ‘Irasibiya’, an acronym for the countries of Iraq, Syria and Libya, to ‘The Leader’s Country’.
In his final days of rule, he wanted his ‘revered’ biography to be written by the country’s renowned writers, among them the narrator in the text, who is an acclaimed novelist. The writer-narrator agrees to glorify the leader and participate in writing the biography out of necessity and desperation. His wife, who is severely ill, asks him to accept the invitation to write as part of a specialized secret committee.
The secrecy in writing the text is like a conspiracy that both parties have agreed to and want, for different reasons. The novelist does not want to ruin his literary reputation or, as he says in the novel, “Any statement that links me to this leader will damage my reputation in literary circles.” At the same time, the leader does not want anyone to know that the novelist has written the biography, or participated in drafting it. The spread of such news would cast doubt across the cultural milieu, not just on this biography, but also on all the books written by the leader. People will think that there is someone who is writing on his behalf, and certainly, this acclaimed novelist will be among those accused of doing so, as the narrative eventually reveals.
Here we have to first grasp the eternal dilemma in the relationship between the intellectual and power. It reflects a historical affliction, which cannot be disengaged from, and is a manifestation of the shackles on cultural consciousness. It is a reciprocal relationship based on need, which can easily be justified by the numbed conscience of the weaker party, who in this case, and always is, the intellectual.
In this case, the intellectual’s need is for money to treat his sick wife, and the leader’s need is for his biography to be written by an experienced ghostwriter. However, before it became his need, it was originally his daughter, Shaima, who proposed the novelists’ name to her father after reading one of his earlier novels. The novel told a story of deprivation, sensuality and sexual rebellion. It awakened her own sense of sexual frustration, which she could not fulfill within the institution of marriage, nor outside of it. As a result, she felt an affinity to the novel and its writer, whom she later secretly marries, gifting him a pure gold statue of her father. He was unable to melt it inside the country during her fathers’ rule, out of fear of being exposed, and could not smuggle it out after his death and the subsequent takeover of the airport, and the whole country, by the rebels. It appeared to him that the statue had turned into dirt, like the body of the leader, which was urinated on by passers-by after he was killed in a sewer and put on display.
The leader was weary of the titles that were bestowed on him, because of their multitude and generality, but he felt that there was something new about the ‘Revered’ title proposed by the novelist. It could be used in the content of the biography, which was not meant to be similar to any other biography (Oedipus, Nero, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Nabeul, Bolívar, Guevara, or the American Presidents from George Washington to Obama), which the novelist wrote before the commission. It was meant to enhance his biography – already represented, published and praised across dozens of books, films, paintings, television series, poetry collections, and novels throughout the country.
The narrator-writer wanted the biography, for which he proposed the title Al-Aqd Al-Jaman fi Sirat Al-Mubajal Al-Hamam (The Biography of the Revered One), to be composed of 99 chapters, the number of beads on a misbaha, and the number of Allah’s names. To make it stand out, he asked the committee to add one more and make it 100 chapters, each with a unique title. The middle would contain the most important part and title, the greatest masterpiece. The leader had surpassed all that was holy, because he is greater than was and greater than ever will be because he is: is the Forgiving / Revered / Long-awaited / Inspiring / Courageous / Leader / Revolutionary / Fighter / Commander/ Knowledgeable / Promising / Immortal / Magnificent / Majestic / Delightful / Illuminator / Initiator / Changer / Everything / Solution / Lord, and here he was keen to note that the title means ‘Lord’, as in ‘Head’ of a house or tribe, so that people do not think it is synonymous with God. He was afraid of how people would understand these titles, and that their interpretations would stray. He feared people, but he certainly did not fear God, otherwise he would not have referenced his names and attributes, and even used synonyms that went far too close to the limits.
When signs of an uprising began to appear in the country, the discussions of the committee members in charge of writing the biography started to change. Suddenly they were discussing elections, democracy, justice and good governance. One fanatical member said that the people are not fit for freedom, and that democracy is a conspiracy. Why would he run for president when he is president? He was using the same formulations the leader used to describe and justify himself.
The composite images of Arab rulers, and their fragments, became the raw material for creating the protagonist in the Leader’s Country. Al-Muqri knew how to link them in an uncanny way, while bringing in familiar biographical facts. The protagonist was present at times in the person of Saddam Hussein, who worked throughout his rule to avenge his personal history and comrades, some of whom he felt marginalized by when he was poor. He alludes to his brutality and obsession with security, recruiting many family members as informers for the security apparatus and pitting them against each other. In other moments, the protagonist conjures up Hafez al-Assad, whose desire for power developed to a much greater complexity. He wanted Syria to be associated with his person, and ordered his name and image to be present in everything: in kindergartens, schools, colleges, libraries, streets, airports, and at the forefront of the Ba’ath Party.
From Yemen, the protagonist appropriates the Imam, who spread rumors about his ability to command djinn, saying he has hundreds of them who regularly spy on ordinary citizens. He took advantage of the arrival of radio, an unfamiliar device at the time, and let it play from a hidden place in his majlis. Prominent community members who were invited would later help spread the rumor. Similarly, the protagonist succeeds in spreading rumors that he has the ability to command what he calls the ‘Immortal Sun’, which is connected to a revealing star capable of exposing people’s secrets and thoughts.
In a later scene, the narrator pauses at the 33rd chapter of the biography. He wants to recall the person of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for the same number of years. Thirty-three is a figure that symbolizes perfection, the age of leadership and wisdom at its peak; but the writer wonders, can one say that the dictator – any dictator – or let’s say revolutionary, leader and commander, after reaching the age of perfection, retreats to the lowest of places?
The image of the dictator in the Leader’s Country takes its fullest form in the person of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s most famous ruler. His strange persona went beyond what his people could imagine – he often dressed in embellished clothing and long shoes with transparent heels that were decorated with snakes and skulls. Given the history of his endless unity initiatives, he was known among his biographers, and within his regime, as the ‘Great Unifier’.
The protagonist, too, had created the greatest of all unities, a unity that is unbreakable and strong. His cohesive unit held together with the might of a powerful commander, a nation in the hands of a leader, a nation that is the spirit of its leader, who is its unifier, its creator, its ‘Great Creator’. Later he thought of calling his commanding sun a ‘Black Sun’, rather than the white ‘Immortal Sun’, with its revealing star capabilities. The reason for this was because he thought it would bring him closer to the ‘women of Africa’, whom he highly admired. On one occasion, one of the continent’s presidents had referred to him as the ‘Emperor of the Universe’. Little did this president know that the ruler wouldn’t like that because he saw himself greater than any emperor. He perceived himself somewhere between God and Prophet, as Abu al-Yumn (a member of the writing committee and a colleague of the old leader) recalled while laughing. He had become more daring in voicing his criticisms to everyone. Earlier he would only voice such thoughts to a few people outside of his home, and never to his family who had turned into informants.
Gaddafi was the first Arab ruler to form an all-women cadre of bodyguards, unofficially referred to as ‘The Amazonian Guard’. In the novel, they are the bearers of the leader’s secrets and the most loyal to him. Those who were by far the most loyal, he would marry to men in his inner circle. One example was Nawara, whom he married to his personal writer. Later she would control him and take charge of the household. He, the great author, who had no rival in political, economic, social and even historical and literary writing.
Samah (the writer-narrator’s wife) died in poverty, forgotten in Cairo, after she failed to get treatment, at the same time that the leader was killed, and the narrator finally started to refer to him as tyrant.
“He died a million deaths after the people rejected him, and arrived at that terrible end. After being found in a sewage pit, they hung and crucified him on an iron pole and then forcibly removed his nails, cut off his toes and hands, castrated him, then blinded his eyes. They did not listen to his pleas and cries for help and instead hung him once more, and finally fired countless bullets into his body. Then they tied him to the back of a car and drove through streets, parading him between rotting piles of garbage that had not been lifted since the onset of the revolution.”
“He was killed and chaos spread throughout the country. Eventually everyone stood against everyone else, screaming meaninglessly without end. It appeared that the revolution had meant coming closer to death than to life, and the bullets had to be released, not just from their guns, but from their bodies, as long sighs and heavy breaths.”
In the revolution, the leader lost his life, and the narrator (the intellectual) lost all his hopes for money he had dreamed of in return for writing the biography of a tyrant, which refused to be written, except for in blood.
Mohammed Abdul Wahab al-Shaibani is a Yemeni poet and writer. He is the author of four poetry collections and has been writing on public affairs issues for years. Al-Shaibani is also a regular contributor of literary criticism essays, currently under publication in two separate books.
* The Leader’s Country is a novel by Asli al-Muqri published by al-Mutawassit, Milan, July 2019.