Bad Politics, Worse Prose

From suicidal astronauts to bestiality, you can learn a lot about what makes the world's worst tyrants tick from the terrible books they write.


Dictator: Muammar al-Qaddafi
Oeuvre: Hallucinogenic stream of consciousness 

When it comes to literary ventures, embattled Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi is best known for his 1975 political treatise the Green Book, which lays out the foundation for Libya’s jamahiriya system of government and is supposed to be required reading for all Libyans. But for those looking for additional insight into the dictator’s mind, his follow-up publication, Escape to Hell, is the way to go — if you can get past the incoherent stream-of-consciousness prose, described by one reviewer as “a lump of uneven, partially digested literary cud.”

Escape to Hell is billed as a collection of short stories and essays, but most readers have found it lacking even the basic ingredients of plot or content. One of the most bizarre stories is called “The Astronaut’s Suicide.” It tells the story of an astronaut who returns to Earth from a long stay in space, finds he can’t adjust to normal life, and kills himself. It’s meant to be a children’s book. Another piece titled “Stop Fasting When You See the New Moon” both praises and derides Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s proclamation about when Ramadan would occur for allied Islamic forces during the first Gulf War (a decision traditionally left to Islamic scholars).

Some themes do emerge from the mess. Qaddafi rages against urban decay and Islamic fundamentalism. Reviewers have noted how “environmentalism, tradition and enlightened interdependence are high on his list of virtues,” especially in his yarns on the beauty of Bedouin life in the desert. He really does hate the city, though:

This is the city: a mill that grinds down its inhabitants, a nightmare to its builders. It forces you to change your appearance and replace your values; you take on an urban personality, which has no colour or taste to it…. The city forces you to hear the sounds of others whom you are not addressing. You are forced to inhale their very breaths…. Children are worse off than adults. They move from darkness to darkness…. Houses are not homes — they are holes and caves…

Yesterday a young boy was run over in that street, where he was playing. Last year a speeding vehicle hit a little girl crossing the street, tearing her body apart. They gathered up her limbs in her mother’s dress. Another child was kidnapped by professional criminals. After a few days, they released her in front of her home, after they had stolen one of her kidneys! Another boy was put into a cardboard box by the neighbourhood boys in a game, but was run over accidentally by a car.

No wonder he prefers staying in tents in the desert.


Dictator: Saddam Hussein
Oeuvre: Erotic allegorical fiction

While the United States was planning and executing an invasion of his country, Saddam Hussein spent the final weeks before the war working on a plot of his own — a historical novel describing an ancient tribe repelling an attack from foreign invaders. It would have been the capstone in a remarkable literary career. Saddam’s debut novel, Zabiba and the King, was published in 2000 and was followed by three more novels: The Fortified Castle (2001), Men and the City (2002), and Devil’s Dance, the book supposedly completed just one day before the U.S. invasion and, smuggled out of Iraq by one of Saddam’s daughters. The novels were popular in Iraq (though perhaps not by choice), and the last one has even been translated into Japanese.

Zabiba and the King, the first novel, was released anonymously, but critics quickly fingered Saddam (or, at least, his ghostwriters) as the probable author. It became a bestseller, with lavish praise from the Iraqi press. The Iraqi National Theater even produced a musical based on the novel, promoted as the country’s “biggest production ever.”

The novel is an allegorical love story, set in Arabian Nights-era Iraq, about a beautiful woman, Zabiba, who falls madly in love with a king named Arab and then teaches him about Islam and how to run a country. Zabiba’s abusive husband is supposed to represent the predatory United States invading and pillaging an innocent Iraq. Not so coincidently, King Arab and his creator share the same birthplace, Tikrit.

Saddam’s literary prowess is shadowed by his stilted prose, a fondness for profanity, and blatant attempts to use his political enemies as the central villains of his stories. According to the Guardian, the English translation contains repeated uses of the word “asshole” to describe the evil husband. It also features a bizarre bestiality sex scene:

Even an animal respects a man’s desire, if it wants to copulate with him. Doesn’t a female bear try to please a herdsman when she drags him into the mountains as it happens in the North of Iraq? She drags him into her den, so that he, obeying her desire, would copulate with her? Doesn’t she bring him nuts, gathering them from the trees or picking them from the bushes? Doesn’t she climb into the houses of farmers in order to steal some cheese, nuts and even raisins, so that she can feed the man and awake in him the desire to have her?

The book’s English translator believes the bear is supposed to represent Russia.

Now, thanks to British satirist and actor Sacha Baron Cohen, of Borat fame, Hollywood will soon release an adaptation of Zabiba and the King, with Cohen in the role of King Arab. The Dictator is due out in May 2012, billed as “the heroic story of a dictator who risked his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed.”

Saddam’s writing career didn’t end with the U.S. invasion. He continued to compose poetry from his Baghdad prison cell after he was sentenced to death. His poem “Unbind It” is believed to contain his last written words:

All people, we never let you down
And in catastrophes, our party is the leader.
I sacrifice my soul for you and for our nation
Blood is cheap in hard times
We never kneel or bend when attacking
But we even treat our enemy with honor…

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Dictator: Kim Jong Il
Oeuvre: Revolutionary film criticism

If North Korean propaganda is to be believed, Dear Leader is the world’s most prolific writer. Kim Jong Il claims to have written 1,500 books — and that was just during his college years. Highlights include his 1974 On the Art of Opera: Talk to Creative Workers in the Field of Art and Literature, 1983’s Let Us Advance Under the Banner of Marxism-Leninism and the Juche Idea, and Our Socialism Centered on the Masses Shall Not Perish, published in 1991. But the most well-known opus from this life-long film buff is probably On the Art of the Cinema, published in 1973 and available for $27.50 on

According to B.R. Myers, author of several books about North Korea, Kim’s books aren’t actually meant to be read. “This is not a country like China where citizens are expected to read and learn by heart a dictator’s work,” Myers says. “In North Korea, it’s more about reading about the dictator’s life. If you actually ask North Koreans about the content of Kim Jong Il’s writings, they know very little and they get embarrassed about that.”

On the Art of the Cinema calls for a “revolutionary transformation of the practice of directing.” Tips include: “If the characters’ behavior in a given situation is determined by the whim of the writer, and not by their own will and conviction, they will not seem like living people and will fail to arouse a genuine emotional response.” Another of his books, The Cinema and Directing, describes, in the meandering, repetitive totalitarian-ese employed by Kim throughout his oeuvre, the connection between Juche and directing:

In film directing, the basic factor is also to work well with the artists, technicians and production and supply personnel who are directly involved in film-making. This is the essential requirement of the Juche-inspired system of directing. This system is our system of directing under which the director becomes the commander of the creative group and pushes ahead with creative work as a whole in a coordinated way, giving precedence to political work and putting the main emphasis on working with the people who make films. This system embodies the fundamental features of the socialist system and the basic principle of the Juche idea that man is the master of everything and decides everything. Hence, it fully conforms with the collective nature of film-making and the characteristic features of direction.

Kim Jong Il’s books are written primarily to be showpieces for the regime, for display in libraries and museums. “When the regime really has something to say, it expresses it directly and concisely,” Myers says. “When there’s nothing much to say, that’s when they slip into this boring, turgid style.”

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Dictator: Joseph Stalin
Oeuvre: Georgian pastoral odes

Before Joseph Stalin was known for murdering millions of his own people, the Soviet dictator was a locally famous Georgian poet who wrote flowery odes to nature and working-class heroes. Young Ioseb Dzhugashvili’s work was considered good enough to be included in prestigious literary journals of the time and Georgian anthologies. According to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin, the dictator’s poems became minor Georgian classics even before he took power — some were even unwittingly memorized by schoolchildren all the way up through the 1970s (Stalin typically published anonymously). His rhapsodic invocations of Georgia’s rolling lush landscape, as in the poem “Morning,” were beloved by nationalists and read as a rebuff to czarist repression:

The pinkish bud has opened,
Rushing to the pale-blue violet
And, stirred by a light breeze,
The lily of the valley has bent over the grass.

The lark has sung in the dark blue,
Flying higher than the clouds
And the sweet-sounding nightingale
Has sung a song to children from the bushes

Flower, oh my Georgia!
Let peace reign in my native land!
And may you, friends, make renowned
Our Motherland by study!

Stalin’s poetry was fairly standard for early 19th century romantic poetry, as biographer Robert Service notes in Stalin: A Biography, if a little juvenile. “It wasn’t very original,” Service says. “I don’t think it’s very good, personally. It’s very conventional, the imagery is very standardized and rather self-indulgent.… He’s not one of the great poets.”

Stalin largely gave up writing his own poetry after he took power, but he pursued his love of verse in other ways: In the 1940s, he translated and edited Georgian poetry into Russian, memorized poems by Nikolai Nekrasov and Alexander Pushkin, read translations of Goethe and Shakespeare, and could apparently recite Walt Whitman’s work from memory. Supposedly, when Nobel Prize-winning poet and novelist Boris Pasternak was on a list of execution targets, Stalin said, “Leave that cloud-dweller in peace.” “He had really romantic yearnings,” says Service.

Stalin’s poetry is not widely read today, a notable exception being among talented Georgian parrots.

Wikimedia Commons

Dictator: Saparmurat Niyazov
Oeuvre: Spiritual meditations

Some writers are their own worst critics. Not the late Turkmen autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov who reportedly instructed Turkmen youth that in order to go to heaven, they must read his book three times a day. “A person that reads Ruhnama becomes smart … and after it, he will go to heaven,” Niyazov, also known by the honorific title Turkmenbashi (Leader of All the Turkmen), told the country’s young people at a concert celebrating a national spring holiday.

Over the course of his reign, which began after the dissolution of the Soviet empire and ended with his death in 2006, Niyazov established the kind of personality cult that turned Turkmenistan into, in the words of the New Yorker‘s David Remnick, “a cruel blend of Kim Jong Il’s North Korea and Frank L. Baum’s Oz.” During Niyazov’s reign, Turkmen doctors had to take an oath to Turkmenbashi, the first month of the year was redubbed Turkmenbashi, and most books were banned from stores and schools. But not Ruhnama, a 400-page collection of Niyazov’s thoughts on Turkmen identity, philosophy, and history, which was “written with the help of inspiration sent to my heart by the God who created this wonderful universe.”

According to Ruhnama, “the Turkmen people has a great history which goes back to the Prophet Noah”:

Allah made the Turkmens prolific and their numbers greatly increased. God gave them two special qualities: spiritual richness and courage. As a light for their road, God also strengthened their spiritual and mental capacity with the ability to recognize the realities behind events. After that He gave His servants the following general name: TURK IMAN. Turk means core, iman means light. Therefore, TURK IMAN, namely Turkmen means “made from light, whose essence is light.” The Turkmen name came to the world in this way.

“However peculiar the results may be, the rationale arose from reality,” says Fred Starr, a professor at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies and chairman of the Central-Asia Caucasus Institute. “I think [Turkmenistan’s leaders] felt that things were really coming apart in a dangerous situation and they needed anything that could rally the country together. This text was what the president himself designated as an instrument for doing that.”

At the height of Niyazov’s reign, Ruhnama was everywhere: in schools, in government offices, and on state-run television, which was once devoted exclusively to promoting his work. The month of September was even renamed Ruhnama.

Today, the book no longer has the same grip on Turkmen society that it once did. New wealth, especially in the form of a natural gas pipeline to China, is providing the country with new rallying points. “It’s being respectfully relegated to the past,” Starr said. “There are still copies all over the place, but the country has moved on.”

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Dictator: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
Work: Persian mystical poetry

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini may have been a revolutionary leader, overthrowing the Pahlavi dynasty of Iran in 1979 and establishing an Islamic Republic with himself as supreme leader. But he was also a poet, inspired by centuries of Persian poetry like that written by famous Sufi mystic poets such as Rumi, who composed allegorical love poems notable for their use of music, dance, and even alcohol (despite it being banned by Muslim law) to express the rapture and hunger associated with both romantic and religious love.

This is just one of the reasons that “startling” is a word used more than once by critics describing Khomeini’s work. Khomeini is, after all, the leader responsible for both the establishment of a theocratic regime dedicated to religious purity and calling for the assassination of writer Salman Rushdie for publishing a novel deemed offensive to Islam.

“For many, his poetry was a revelation,” says journalist Baqer Moin. “Khomeini employed the customary symbolism, allusions, metonymy, and other literary tools and metaphors such as wine, love, beauty, beloved that one does not associate with an Ayatollah under whose rule the wine drinkers were flogged and the lovers punished.”

But Khomeini’s verse, such as this poem published first in English by the New Republic after his death, can seem surprisingly secular:

Open the door of the tavern and let us go there day and night,
For I am sick and tired of the mosque and seminary.
I have torn off the garb of asceticism and hypocrisy,
Putting on the cloak of the tavern-hunting shaykh and becoming aware.
The city preacher has so tormented me with his advice
That I have sought aid from the breath of the wine-drenched profligate.
Leave me alone to remember the idol-temple,
I who have been awakened by the hand of the tavern’s idol.

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, was taken by both the poem’s content and style. “Given what the West has thought of Khomeini, the lyricism of the poem and its radical, law-threatening mysticism are startling,” he told the New York Times that same year. “The tyrant turns out to have been a religious intellectual in the fullest sense.”

Khomeini deepened his interests in poetry and mysticism as a young man studying in the Shiite holy city of Qom. In the madrasa, other types of art like music and painting were forbidden. Poetry was not, and students, including Khomeini, used it as a way of dealing with the absence of other outlets for sensual expression in their lives.

During Khomeini’s lifetime, his poetry was only known among a small circle of followers and friends. Grand ayatollahs are not supposed to be poets. According to Moin, the Quran “looks at poets as misguided, and Khomeini had problems with the traditionalist clergy in the 1940s who accused him of heresy because of his interest in teaching mysticism and writing about it.”

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Suzanne Merkelson is an editorial assistant at Foreign Policy.

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