Zabiba and the King: The 2000 Romance Novel ... Written by Saddam Hussein

The cover of the English edition of the book.
The cover of the English edition of the book. Publishing/Amazon

“When she walked, his heart was ready to burst out of his chest to catch up with her, fall before her, and fly after her in order to find out where she was going and to serve as a bright lantern for her.”

So begins the love affair at the heart of Zabiba and the King, a romance novel about a mighty ruler who falls for a spirited commoner. It was published in Iraq in 2000, and it was written by Saddam Hussein. Yes, that Saddam Hussein.

A “Boring and Incoherent” Bestseller

Though it’s technically unconfirmed that the former Iraqi dictator authored the book, there’s no shortage of circumstantial evidence to suggest that he did—or, at the very least, that he heavily guided a ghostwriter. As Ofra Bengio wrote in a 2002 article for the Middle East Quarterly, Hussein had previously expressed a desire to produce his own literature, and Zabiba and the King (or Zabibah, in the original edition) was published anonymously. According to its introduction, the author wrote it because Hussein had requested works on different aspects of Iraqi existence, and they chose to remain nameless “out of humility, like the sons of Iraq who sacrifice their lives and their valuables and never talk about their great deeds.”

After its release, critics couldn’t seem to muster a single negative word about what Bengio calls a “boring and incoherent” book, and The New York Times reported that the Iraqi media even went so far as to consider it an “innovation in the history of novels.” The rather unmerited abundance of praise—and suspicious lack of opposition—gave rise to rumors that Hussein himself had spun the tale, and it soon became a bestseller. At 1500 dinars, or less than $1, it was also a major bargain. And, if the back cover was to be believed, all proceeds went to "the poor, the orphans, the miserable, the needy, and [to other] charities."

Light on Romance, Heavy on Allegory

A play based on the novel, performed at the al-Hussein Culture Center in Amman, Jordan, in 2002.Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

Then, there’s the story itself. While Zabiba spends many nights tucked away in the privacy of King ‘Arab’s castle, the amorous pair has nothing on Lady Chatterley and her lover. “Their bodies were so close to each other that they almost touched, and the king kissed her on the forehead” may be the raciest display of affection in the entire novel. In this romantic tale, the couple at the center engages in lengthy conversations about the political atmosphere of the ancient kingdom, pontificating about what it means to be a good ruler and pondering how the nation might honor ‘Arab after he dies. He actually does die at the end, but the story doesn’t continue long enough for readers to find out much about his legacy.

In its entirety, Zabiba and the King functions as a detailed allegory of Iraq during Hussein’s regime. He, of course, is King ‘Arab, and Zabiba represents the Iraqi people. “I am the daughter of my people,” she says in the English translation of the novel. “Though I am fortunate and proud to be loved by the king, the traditions and appearances that the people do not embrace cannot appeal to me.”

Throughout the story, the lovers resist attacks from villains who conspire to overthrow ‘Arab, violate his paramour, or both. The most shocking of these events is the rape of Zabiba by her estranged husband, Hezkel, who is plotting a revolt against ‘Arab. It’s also the least subtle, in allegorical terms: Hezkel is widely believed to symbolize the United States, and his assault is a metaphor for the U.S. invasion of Iraq during the Gulf War. ‘Arab rallies his troops against Hezkel and the other rebels, and both Zabiba and Hezkel perish in the fray. The battle takes place on January 17—the date that the U.S. launched its first missiles in Baghdad in 1991, also known as Operation Desert Storm.

Secret Messages and Stolen Art

While U.S. officials hardly needed a novel to reveal Hussein’s resentment over being run out of Kuwait, they did hope it might shed light on Hussein’s notoriously secretive administration. Members of the CIA meticulously combed through the story looking for insight.

“The book is a kind of dirge,” one official told The New York Times. “The king is talking about his death. Every time I read the book I feel for the king. This is what Saddam wants the people to do—feel for him.”

The CIA’s interest in the novel engendered a fair amount of publicity, which eventually reached the ears of a Canadian artist named Jonathon Earl Bowser. He was shocked to find that the novel’s cover image—a woodsy idyll with a goddess at its center—was an exact replica of his own painting The Awakening. “To state the matter simply,” he wrote on his website, “this printing of Zabibah and the King (with The Awakening on the cover) is a blatant infringement of copyright (but also kind of hilarious).”

The original cover of Zabiba and the King, using Bowser's artwork.Eloff777, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

After a London-based fan shipped him a copy, he realized that three of his other paintings were printed inside the book. Unfortunately, Bowser’s lawyers explained that there wasn’t anything he could do unless Hussein published Zabiba and the King in North America, which he never did. (And when an English edition was eventually released in the U.S., the publisher chose a photo of Hussein himself for the cover.)

As for Hussein, he seemed to be satisfied with the success of the book, either as a piece of propaganda or perhaps just as a public diary for his innermost ruminations. He followed it up with three more novels: The Fortified Castle; Men and the City; and Begone, Demons. They’re all very allegorical.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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How Lolita Author Vladimir Nabokov Helped Ruth Bader Ginsburg Find Her Voice

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016.
Supreme Court of the United States, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The road to becoming a Supreme Court justice is paved with legal briefs, opinions, journal articles, and other written works. In short, you’d likely never get there without a strong writing voice and a knack for clear communication.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg learned these skills from one of the best: Vladimir Nabokov. Though most famous for his 1955 novel Lolita, the Russian-American author wrote countless works in many more formats, from short stories and essays to poems and plays. He also taught literature courses at several universities around the country, including Cornell—where Bader Ginsburg received her undergraduate degree in the early 1950s. While there, she took Nabokov’s course on European literature, and his lessons made an impact that would last for decades to come.

“He was a man who was in love with the sound of words. It had to be the right word and in the right word order. So he changed the way I read, the way I write. He was an enormous influence,” Ginsburg said in an interview with legal writing expert Bryan A. Garner. “To this day I can hear some of the things that he said. Bleak House [by Charles Dickens] was one of the books that we read in his course, and he started out just reading the first few pages about the fog and Miss Flite. So those were strong influences on my writing.”

As Literary Hub reports, it wasn’t the only time RBG mentioned Nabokov’s focus not only on word choice, but also on word placement; she repeated the message in a 2016 op-ed for The New York Times. “Words could paint pictures, I learned from him,” she wrote. “Choosing the right word, and the right word order, he illustrated, could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea.”

While neither Dickens nor Nabokov were writing for a legal audience, their ability to elicit a certain understanding or reaction from readers was something Ginsburg would go on to emulate when expressing herself in and out of the courtroom. In this way, Nabokov’s tutelage illuminated the parallels between literature and law.

“I think that law should be a literary profession, and the best legal practitioners regard law as an art as well as a craft,” she told Garner.