The List

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.

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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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The List

The Mind of Muammar

What can we learn from reading the Libyan dictator's Green Book?

Since Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's Green Book was published in three installments -- in 1975, 1976, and 1978 -- every Libyan child has had to study it in school; but many, perhaps most, Libyans make fun of it in secret. Western analysts have tried to tease out the book's logic on governance, searching for clues to the intellectual influences on Libya's eccentric strongman, but this is perhaps an overly optimistic endeavor. As Diederik Vandewalle, a professor at Dartmouth College, expert on Libya, and editor of Qadhafi's Revolution 1969-1994, puts it: "A lot of it is pretty convoluted; it's not a book so much as a collection of aphorisms."

In the early 1970s, shortly after he came to power in a 1969 military coup, Qaddafi began to give speeches laying out his ideas on "Arab socialism," or how he thought the ideal Arab state should be governed. Libya at the time was very much a divided, tribal society, Vandewalle explains; but ideas of pan-Arabism were beginning to take hold in the region, following Gamal Abdel Nasser's 1952 ascension to power in Egypt. Qaddafi's 1970s speeches also included, as his book does, recurrent themes of what Vandewalle terms "anti-Westernism, the value of Arab society, and prescribed roles that people in a society should play."

Whose thinking directly influenced Qaddafi's writing? There are very few external references in the text. Qaddafi, who spent his childhood near the small desert settlement of Sirte, studied at a Muslim elementary school and later under a private tutor before enrolling in the Libyan military academy in 1961. "A lot of Western intellectuals once tried to put a gloss on him," says Vandewalle, "finding passages that to them appeared to reference earlier works and asking, 'Is this a reference to Rousseau?' But that's silly. Qaddafi has never been a very well-read man. He was not very well-educated. The Green Book is pure homespun ideology."

With that, dear reader, we present to you some of the Green Book's greatest hits. Najla Abdurrahman, an FP contributor and Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, whose parents emigrated from Libya and who has spent much time back in the country observing Libya from the ground up, has provided some contextual information about life in Libya today. No doubt the country has changed over the past four decades, but Qaddafi's required reading hasn't.

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Qaddafi on democracy:

"The mere existence of a parliament means the absence of the people, but true democracy exists only through the participation of the people, not through the activity of their representatives. Parliaments have been a legal barrier between the peoples and the exercise of authority, excluding masses from power while usurping sovereignty in their place...

"The Green Book presents the solution to the problem of the instrument of governing. It indicates for the people the way to pass from the eras of dictatorship to the eras of genuine democracy. This new theory is based on the authority of the people, without representation or deputation. It realizes direct democracy in an orderly and effective form. It differs from the older attempt at direct democracy, which could not be applied in practice and which was frivolous."

Although seen in the West as a ruthless autocrat, in Qaddafi's own mind he is an avatar of an idealized form of mass democracy, eschewing the confusing bureaucracy of a representative system. The official Arabic title of the Libyan state includes the term jamahiriya -- a word that Qaddafi made up, which he says comes from the word for "republic." A rough translation of jamahiriya would be something akin to "state of the masses." As such, Qaddafi insists that he has no official position in Libya; he claims that he stepped down from power in 1977 and that the people rule themselves.

Few in Libya, perhaps not even his close clique of hard-line supporters, believe Qaddafi's assertions, but as Abdurrahman points out, his leverage as unofficial supreme leader is hard to contest, given that he controls the country's military and, until recently, virtually every facet of life in the country.


Qaddafi on free speech:

"The natural person has freedom to express himself even if, when he is mad, he behaves irrationally to express his madness. The corporate person is also free to express his corporate identity...

"Any newspaper owned by an individual is his own and expresses only his point of view. Any claim that a newspaper represents public opinion is groundless."

Before Qaddafi came to power, several independent newspapers existed in Libya. All have since been shut down. For many years, there was only one state-run TV station in Libya, which aired, as Abdurrahman relates, mainly soap operas and historical dramas featuring people riding horses, living in tents, and singing in the desert -- reflections of Qaddafi's idealized notion of a pre-modern Bedouin society. (When official guests come to visit, Qaddafi insists on meeting them not in his palaces, but in a tent in the desert.) Of course, "that is not at all what Libya is like today," Abdurrahman says; those who can afford satellite dishes try to pick up international channels instead.

A few years ago, Qaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, started a second TV station airing somewhat more contemporary programming, but his father later had it shut down. Saif did succeed in starting and keeping alive two newspapers, but despite initial optimism about them in the West, the papers hardly publish any news critical of the government.


Qaddafi on gender:

"The physical structure, which is naturally different between man and woman, leads to differences in the functions of their different organs which lead in turn to differences in the psyche, mood, nerves, and appearance. A woman is tender. A woman is pretty. A woman weeps easily. A woman is easily frightened. In general woman is gentle and man is tough by virtue of their inbred nature. To ignore differences between man and woman and mix their roles is an absolutely uncivilized attitude...

"Woman is female and man is male. According to a gynecologist, woman menstruates or suffers feebleness every month, while man, being a male, does not menstruate and he is not subject to the monthly period which is a bleeding. A woman, being a female, is naturally subject to monthly bleeding. When a woman does not menstruate, she is pregnant."

On paper, Libya's laws are fairly egalitarian, at least compared with many Arab states, as Abdurrahman points out. Women are allowed to drive and work; indeed, more women graduate from universities in Libya than men. Yet others forms of social restrictions and discrimination are firmly entrenched. According to an extensive report from Human Rights Watch, the Libyan government has established numerous so-called "social rehabilitation" facilities, where girls and women dubbed as vulnerable -- financially or morally -- have been held in detention for years without appeal.

For his own part, Qaddafi has long seemed obsessed with gender. He has spoken sporadically about women's "rights" over the years -- and also, confusingly, about their prescribed place in society. Apparently, he has also sought out experts on the female anatomy (one of the few explicit references to an outside source of any sort in the Green Book is "according to a gynecologist"). Famously, he surrounds himself with a corps of all-female bodyguards.

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Qaddafi on race:

"The black race is now in a very backward social situation. But such backwardness helps to bring about numerical superiority of the blacks because their low standard of living has protected them from getting to know the means and ways of birth control and family planning. Also their backward social traditions are a reason why there is no limit to marriage, leading to their unlimited growth, while the population of other races has decreased because of birth control, restrictions on marriage, and continuous occupation in work...

"Now comes the black race's turn to prevail."

Qaddafi's views on race are confusing, to say the least. As Vandewalle points out, it was after Qaddafi felt rejected by leaders of other Arab countries -- who suspected he might be more than a loose cannon -- that he focused on forging allegiances with sub-Saharan Africa. Today, Qaddafi has much better ties with the African Union, which he chaired in 2009, than with the Arab League, which recently supported the U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized the intervention in Libya. At the same time, he has continued to express racist, highly stereotyped views of African people.

Of course, the mixed feelings are mutual: See Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's essay for FP, "The Qaddafi I Know," for some interesting takes on the difference between black Africans and Qaddafi.

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Qaddafi on equality:

"The skillful and industrious have no right to take hold of the share of others as a result of their skill and industry. But they can benefit from these advantages. Also if a person is disabled or lunatic, it does not mean that he does not have the same share as the healthy in the wealth of the society.

"The vehicle is a necessity both to the individual and the family. Your vehicle should not be owned by others. In the socialist society, no man or any other authority can possess private vehicles for the purpose of hiring them out, for this is domination of the needs of others.

"Land is no one's property. But everyone has the right to use it, to benefit from it by working, farming, or pasturing."

Qaddafi's economic ideas -- which bear shadows of Karl Marx, whether or not he ever read Marx -- revolve around the notion that no one should work for anyone else, a theme often returned to in the Green Book, because then the employers have power over the employed. Instead of wageworkers, all men and women should be partners. In theory, Qaddafi espouses hyper-utopian equality.

In reality, as Libya's unofficial leader, he has erected elaborate palaces for himself and his family, but done little to tend to the basic needs of the people or infrastructure of the country. The roads are bad; the schools are bad; the hospitals are bad. "There's so much neglect," says Abdurrahman. Many people in need of basic medical treatment travel abroad, even to countries with lower per capita GDP levels, such as Tunisia, because of the relatively superior health care there. Despite his prescriptions for a property-less society, in practice Qaddafi is known for confiscating farmland on a whim, forcing families to move and engendering seething resentment over generations. As for his notion that no one should own their own vehicles, the Libyan rebels in their pickup trucks have apparently not heeded this advice.


Qaddafi on spectator sports:

"Sport is like praying, eating, and the feeling of warmth and coolness. It is stupid for crowds to enter a restaurant just to look at a person or a group of person eating; it is stupid for people to let a person or a group of persons get warmed or enjoy ventilation on their behalf. It is equally illogical for the society to allow an individual or a team to monopolize sports while the people as a whole pay the costs."

Given the fact that Libya fields national and club soccer teams and Olympic athletes, this proclamation against the phenomenon of spectator sports -- of fans rooting for a team or cheering on star athletes -- seems puzzling. One explanation, suggests Vandewalle, may be that this is a kind of subtle anti-Western declaration, or perhaps another expression of Qaddafi's egalitarian notion of people participating in all forms of society equally.

Another potential explanation, which Abdurrahman suggests, is this: "Qaddafi is a jealous man; there are no celebrities in Libya -- no intellectuals, no well-known artists or athletes. Qaddafi craves absolute attention; you can see it in the things he says, the things he wears. He doesn't want to ever share the spotlight." Indeed, when Libya's soccer team does compete against other national teams, announcers are forbidden from reading aloud the Libyan players' individual names.