The Art of Tyrants in the Middle East

Tuesday 11 July 201701:02 pm
In the Arab world, poets and artists have parodied despots in several guises. Sometimes, the representation is anonymous, as it is with the street art that appeared almost overnight in cities that witnessed the Arab Spring uprisings, depicting dictators as buffoons or freaks. Other times, the subject matter is never explicitly named, as in Qabbani’s poem “The Rooster,” where the tyrannical figure is rather personified by a “sadistic” rooster who tortures and rules over the hens in a “fascist” fashion. “Dictator literature,” a genre based on the portrayals of dictatorship, is not as prominent in the Middle East and North Africa as it is in Latin America (as exemplified by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch and The General in his Labyrinth). However, there are works from the region addressing the tyrants of the day, from Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Najem to Iraqi poet Muzaffar Al-Nawwab, who paid the price for their candor in various ways. But there is another side to dictator literature besides opposition and resistance: Dictators producing their own literature, works that are often a reflection of the nation they control and a national guide for shaping their subjects. For dictators, it is not enough to exercise an urge to control by writing or painting, constructing a malleable world wrought through an exacting vision. Often, they go the extra step and integrate their “artwork” into official, nation-building exercises that design molds for their subjects. While Hitler’s and Franco’s paintings, as well as Stalin’s poetry, are well-known dictator trivia, the literary and artistic oeuvres of these Middle East and North African despots are less recognized.

Saddam’s Romance Novels

It turns out the dictator who has murdered entire communities, imprisoned potential dissidents, and tortured countless Iraqis is also a romance novelist. Saddam has written four novels that span the genres of romance, biography, and war. Zabiba and the King is a romance novel symbolizing Iraq’s relationship with global powers and a powerful, wise king (read: Saddam). Men and the City is a biographical novel tracing the rise of the Ba’ath party. The Fortified Castle provides further national allegories via romance. And, Get Out, Damned One is a novel of foreign invaders and Arab liberators. But creative control over tawdry romances and political metaphors was not enough: Saddam forced his books into Iraq’s school curriculum, to teach all of the country’s students to read the nation and the world as he did – essentially to train youth in his vision of national identification: paranoid, provincial, and misogynist. Whether true or not, his books were even hailed as bestsellers in Iraq. This nation-building exercise apparently runs in the family, since Hussein’s uncle, as mayor of Baghdad, published in 1974 the treatise Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: The Persians, Jews, and Flies, and also succeeded in integrating it into the national curriculum by forcing schools to buy several copies each.

Khomeini’s Mystic Poetry

The revered and detested religious figure, who publicly called for the execution of his countrymen, and most infamously, Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, was also a mystic poet. Khomeini is a prolific author of about 200 texts on religion, ethics, philosophy, politics, and government, some of which have shaped governance of the Islamic Republic. His body of work remains untranslated for the most part. But Khomeini’s poetry, even though composed as early as his adolescence at school, remained largely unpublished until his death when a volume was collected and also translated into English. It is believed that another poetry collection was published post-revolution but was pulled by his supporters for fear it would detract from his role as a statesman. Wine of Love is a collection of irfani, or mystical poetry often produced by Shiite religious teachers. This poem, first published in English by the New Republic after Khomeini’s death in 1989, uses standard symbols of mystic poetry to synthesize religious and romantic love – wine , love, beauty, beloved – which seem jarringly at odds with the conservative figure who rendered drinking punishable by lashes: 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.

Qaddafi’s Surrealist Stories

If you got a headache or felt dizzy for any reason, even if that was when you were looking for a shirt for your son that cost one dinar at the state-owned markets, but had found it now for twenty dinars at a private shop, which made you hurry back to the state-owned market only to find that it had gone. So you had to go back to the private shop, but only to find that the price had gone up to twenty-five dinars during your absence for five minutes – Hajji Hassan confirms that he has got a medicine herb for such giddiness, which he had extracted from the grass and numerous plants on the village common... In the guise of praise, "Stop Fasting When You See the New Moon" mocks Genetal Schwarzkopf's declaring the beginning of Ramadan during the Gulf War (a decision usually left to Islamic scholars). Ultimately, Qaddafi’s ramblings are so meandering that his attempts at sarcasm and satire fall way off the mark.

Saif al-Islam Qaddafi’s Paintings

While Qaddafi’s son is not as prominent as his father in the craft of tyranny over Libyans and their resources, he has also been charged with murder and torture on behalf of his father’s regime. Qaddafi’s literary praise of the desert in contrast to the decay of the city in Escape to Hell nearly comes to life in the paintings of his son whose oeuvre is essentially dedicated to scenic depictions of the desert or still life of the natural world. But it is not easy to pin down Saif’s genre as his work ranges from the decorative kind you find in a Dubai dentist’s office, to the surreal and garishly painted vintage finds that pop up in a garage sale. In the same vein, paintings decorated with the iconography of his father perhaps may find value for those with quirky pop-cultural ironic leanings, though that is surely not Saif’s intention. Some of his paintings, in fact, feature gruesome conflict mementos, a jarring aspect of his life in Libya, which he relates in earnest. In his painting “The Challenge”, Saif shows his father’s disembodied figure in the sky confronting “neo-crusaders”, represented by three Christian figures. In The Art Newspaper, Saif is quoted as saying a small object glued to the canvas was part of a bomb, dropped by a US aircraft on his family home in Tripoli in 1986. He is also quoted as saying that the painting War is influenced by the Balkans in the late 1990s: “The painting portrayed a ship and the sea. Then a civil war broke out in Kosovo, which shattered the picture and its theme. The sea unleashed itself, anger fell from the sky, which came up against a stream of blood.”

Gulf Princes and Poetry

The ultimate Arabic art form, poetry, sees a myriad of attempts from princes in Gulf countries, ranging from the most eloquent to the excruciatingly bad and infantile. There have been various failed attempts these days by many a Gulf royal, and, as authoritarian as they are, one of course cannot compare them to Saddam, Qaddafi, or Khomeini, as they are more representative of their subjects’ interests and aspirations. The most prominent royal remains the late Prince Abdullah al-Faisal, whose poetry lives on through songs by celebrated artists such as AbdelHalim Hafez, Omm Kalthoum, and Mohammad Abdel Wahhab.  
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