New Iraqi literary king is not-quite anonymous

Forget Danielle Steel. And Andrew Lloyd who?

To hear the Iraqi media crow, the literary sensation of the day is an anonymous novelist, who - wink, wink - also rules with an iron fist.

Iraqi television is hailing what's widely considered Saddam Hussein's second book: "The Impregnable Fortress" as a "great artistic work." The curtain is also coming up on a musical, based on his first novel. And a TV miniseries is under production.

Still, the most avid readers of Mr. Hussein's latest tome may not be Iraqis, but spies.

The publication is awaited with anticipation by Western intelligence officials who will deconstruct it for insight into the dictator's mind-set and possible intimations of mortality.

The title may be a not-so-subtle message to President Bush that he is wasting his time if Iraq is next on his target list in the war against terrorism.

Readers can expect to be gripped by a story of the "fight against evil," according to Iraqi television. Last week, viewers in Iraq were shown the book's cover, which was graced by the picture of an alluring woman. Teasingly, the novel does not bear the author's name but the gushing official promotion is a giveaway.

If Hussein's first "anonymous" novel, published last year, is anything to go by, the new work will be another supposedly morale-boosting allegory of his confrontation with the evil West, combining romance, patriotism, and adventure with frank sexual passages.

Its launch comes as the Iraqi National Theatre is preparing an extravagant musical version of Hussein's debut novel, "Zabibah and the King," about a sympathetic and popular king with a firm hand.

Sound like anyone the Iraqi public knows?

First published last year, it has been adapted for the stage by a poet and has an all-star cast that will presumably have more to fear if they fluff their lines than actors in less authoritarian countries.

It is being touted as Iraq's biggest stage production and is receiving the sort of hype in the state-controlled press that the Western media gave the Harry Potter film. But some Iraqis, after more than a decade of sanctions and increasingly nervous about a new American offensive, are unimpressed by Hussein's dabbling in the arts.

"He's announcing his second novel when the people don't have enough to eat. He looks like someone who doesn't care," says an Iraqi writer living in London.

The first novel, "Zabibah and the King," tells the tale of an introspective king who falls in love with a married commoner, Zabibah, who represents the Iraqi people. She has a cruel, estranged husband, who serves as a metaphor for Iraq's Western enemies and their Arab allies.

The husband rapes her on January 17, the day the US-led coalition launched the Gulf War against Iraq to liberate Kuwait.

Along the way, the King reveals his insecurities, pondering his death and succession, and asking Zabibah at one point: "Do the people need strict measures" from the leader? She replies: "Yes, your majesty. The people need strict measures so that they can feel protected by this strictness."

Humility was the reason given for Hussein's coyness in refusing to claim authorship, although it has not prevented him from having his statue or his portrait on many city street corners. The revenues from both novels will go to the poor and the needy, the Iraqi press reports.

The CIA has reportedly concluded that Hussein did not write "Zabibah and the King," but that he closely supervised its production and filled it with his own ideas and words. The language bears more than a passing resemblance to Hussein's defiant rhetoric.

"Here I am, Iraq, the land of prophets. We will only bend before God. Evil be to the cowards and lackeys," declares the preface.

Unlike the CIA, many Iraqis doubt that their president relied much on the services of ghost writers. "The King speaks to Zabibah in the way Hussein might address a member of his Revolutionary Command Council," an Iraqi businessman in Jordan scoffs. "The language is as tortuous as his speeches, and the subject matter is very egotistical."

Earlier this year, a Canadian artist earlier accused Hussein of stealing his copyrighted artwork for the first book's cover, which portrays a beautiful woman surrounded by butterflies and doves.

Hussein is long said to have literary ambitions. Although he did not attend school until he was at least eight, he later read voraciously, taking a particular interest in biographies of historical figures, including Joseph Stalin.

With the help of a prolific ghost writer, he has penned scores of articles and tracts on a variety of subjects ranging from weighty discussions on socialism to advice on personal hygiene: men should bathe once a day and women twice daily.

Hussein would not be the first Arab leader to dabble in fiction. Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi wrote a well-received collection of children's stories in 1996. Entitled "The Village is the Village, the Land is the Land, the Suicide of the Spaceman and Other Stories," it sold 100,000 copies within two weeks of its publication, and a leading Egyptian newspaper hailed Colonel Qaddafi as an "outstanding story-teller."

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