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The Bard of Baghdad

Against all advice, a theater vet and two precocious teens team up to bring Saddam Hussein's first novel to the stage.

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The year before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Dale Goulding was on a personal mission to reach Saddam Hussein--or at least his literary agent. The veteran Chicago director and cofounder of the European Repertory Company had made up his mind to adapt Saddam's first novel, Zabiba and the King, for the stage, though he knew getting his hands on the book would be no easy task.

Like Hitler with his paintbrushes, Saddam is that rare genocidal dictator with a muse. He has four novels attributed to him, and he's reportedly now writing poetry in prison. His literary ambition may even be stronger than his survival instinct. According to some reports, while the Americans were invading he was holed up finishing another book, Be Gone, Demons!

Saddam may not have written every word of his books. Mujiba Al Anizi told the London Daily Telegraph that her husband, a professional writer, was given Saddam's notes and three days to complete Zabiba and the King. (He died mysteriously two months after the book appeared on Iraqi shelves, and she believes he was killed because of his connection to it.) Still, Saddam claimed this book as his own, suggesting he stood behind its content.

Zabiba, a heavy-handed allegory set in both ancient and contemporary times, tells the story of a burgeoning love affair between an introspective, selfless philosopher king and Zabiba, a noble peasant woman and "daughter of the People." Zabiba lives near the palace of the greedy, malevolent Jewish emir Hezkel, and she's married to one of his allies, a depraved unnamed hooligan. Her husband, who disguises himself and rapes her, is part of a plot by foreigners, merchants, and Jews to overthrow the king. When she finds out she rushes to the king's palace to fight alongside him. She and her husband are killed, but the king is victorious. He decrees that every year on the anniversary of the battle--January 17, the same as Operation Desert Storm--people shall gather and throw rocks on the husband's grave.

It's hardly surprising that Saddam would write an anti-American, anti-Jewish book, and the dozen or so reviews you can find in English dismiss Zabiba as an amateurish, megalomaniacal agitprop soap opera. Yet strangely enough, it has a decidedly prodemocracy slant. Large sections consist of a discussion between the two title characters about the best way for the king to dismantle his monarchy and bring democracy to Iraq. He may lay all the blame for his nation's troubles on foreigners, capitalists, and Jews, but in the end he turns his country over to the people.

When Zabiba and the King appeared in Iraq in late 2000 it didn't have a byline, just the cryptic label "a story by its author." It was acclaimed by the state-run press and established Iraqi literary figures, probably because most people were sure the author was Saddam. As one Iraqi author told the BBC, "Writers did not dare do otherwise. Who would dare criticize his work and stay alive?"

For some time Dale Goulding had wanted to direct a series of plays written by people famous for other things, including Our God's Brother, written in 1944 by the future Pope John Paul II when he was just Karol Wojtyla, a member of an underground theater company in Krakow. Goulding is also a left-leaning skeptic, and after 9/11 he wanted to do something to cut through the hyperbolic American rhetoric that had labeled Saddam and large swaths of the Arab world evil.

Soon after Zabiba was published, Iraqi television announced plans to turn it into a 20-part miniseries. Then in April 2002, as part of countrywide celebrations of Saddam's 65th birthday, the National Theater of Iraq presented an elaborate musical adaptation of the tale, written by Palestinian-born poet Adeeb Nasir--the biggest production in the company's history.

When Goulding heard about this he thought the novel might be exactly what he'd been looking for--it might offer a broader picture of Saddam's politics and beliefs and might even make the despot human. He wasn't the only one trying to get a fix on the dictator by looking at his writings--the CIA had already translated Zabiba as part of a psychological profile.

Goulding had a hard time finding a copy. He dug around in university libraries and bookstores that carried Arabic titles and scoured the Internet, where he came across the Web site for Babil, Iraq's state-sponsored newspaper. He e-mailed its editor, Saddam's son Uday, but got no response. He even tried the CIA. "They at least e-mailed me back," he says. "They wrote--I wish I'd saved it--'We are too busy fighting a war on terrorism.'"

In December 2002 a professor at the University of Chicago, who Goulding says doesn't want to be identified, suggested he try Cornell University's library. It had a copy of the original novel in Arabic, and the staff agreed to lend it to him through the Chicago Public Library. He photocopied the 160-page book, then began asking around in the local Arab community for someone who'd be willing to translate it. The university student he finally found, who he says also doesn't want to be identified, produced a literal translation in six months for a few hundred dollars. "He really wants to promote Arab literature," Goulding says, "although I'm not sure this book is the way to do that."

Translation in hand, Goulding started talking up the idea of a play with theater colleagues, asking what they thought. "The response I received was one of morbid curiosity," he says, "that it was all a fascinating and foolhardy enterprise."

Then Goulding happened to have a meeting with Josh Solomon, the 19-year-old cofounder of One Theatre, who'd asked Goulding to direct something with his company. They knew each other through Solomon's stepmother, Luda Lopatina, who'd directed several European Repertory productions, and Goulding was impressed by what Solomon had already done.

Solomon, who grew up in Skokie and Lincolnwood, began his career at 15, producing and directing The Wiz in East Garfield Park, next door to the Rockwell Gardens housing project. He recruited 21 of his high school friends to play in the orchestra all summer without pay and persuaded 56 neighborhood preteens who'd never done theater to rehearse five days a week. The show's four performances sold out even though the auditorium wasn't air-conditioned. "When we got done with that I thought, 'I can do anything,'" Solomon says. "Maybe every 15-year-old thinks that. But I'm 19 now, and I definitely still think that."

That fall, when he was a junior, Solomon and his friend Sam Rosen incorporated One Theatre, which has since done professional productions of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and The Baker's Wife, and started a training program for young actors.

Goulding had seen all of Solomon's shows. "He's extremely talented," he says. "When Northlight laid off people in their scene shop, he put them on payroll and opened his own shop. He brought in a Broadway actor [Peter Kevoian] for The Baker's Wife. He gets things done."

When they met, Goulding showed Solomon the list of plays he wanted to do. "I've studied theater, but I didn't know anything on the list," says Solomon. "When he told me about Zabiba I was like, 'Holy cow--this is the play we need to produce.' You know, the Patriot Act wasn't that old, freedom of speech was being threatened left and right. I would have produced Mein Kampf in the 30s--you should know your enemy."

With Solomon on board, Goulding sat down to turn the convoluted book into a play. "When I first read it my response was, 'Oh, God,'" he says. "We don't speak or think in parables." He reads the book's opening passage: "'Is not Iraq or its mountains or the plains of Najaf, the nation of prophethood of Noah, peace be upon him, that was the second era after Adam, prophet of God, peace be upon him. . . .' So I basically took the essence of what he was saying--the Garden of Eden was in Iraq, Noah was in Iraq, da da da."

He lifted large pieces of dialogue verbatim but cut the novel's introduction, which describes how the king was banished from his kingdom as a child but finally ascended to the throne with the help of a popular uprising. He also jettisoned the old woman who serves as a narrator and added a "chorus of ancients"--Abraham, Rachel, Saladin--to comment on the action. And instead of flip-flopping indiscriminately between ancient and contemporary times, he streamlined everything into a kind of poetic present. "I restructured the story lines in a more Aristotelian way that we might more easily comprehend," he says. "OK, I westernized it."

Goulding's adaptation focuses primarily on the book's long debates about the nature of governance and the legitimacy of the king's rule. Again and again, Saddam seems to be indicting himself as an ironfisted, self-serving ruler. Zabiba, who embodies unassailable wisdom, repeatedly questions his materialism and self-imposed isolation. "How can one say they love freedom and build a palace without windows?" she asks him. When he insists it's necessary for security, she responds, "The dark corners will aid your enemies and mute even your own screams should traitors attack. You are used to this palace because you . . . sacrificed your nature."

The king is convinced that someday everyone in his palace, "the wives, concubines, courtiers, military, servants and cooks," will rise up against him. If they do, Zabiba suggests, he'll have only himself to blame--for being an eagle in the midst of doves. She likens him to a political snake-oil salesman, saying, "If you eliminate all competition you must be selling some bad goods." She even accuses him of oppressing her: "You deprive me of my freedom and do not allow me to express myself."

These drawn-out philosophical debates seem a bit dry on the page, but Solomon's quick to point out that the show will also have music and belly dancing. And Goulding insists that the implications are fascinating. Throughout the debates the king is obsessed with the idea of dismantling his monarchy and establishing some sort of quasi-Marxist democracy, with free elections and a redistribution of wealth. "Saddam makes the argument that no country has progressed from tribalism to democracy without going through a period of dictatorship," Goulding says. "He sees his period of dictatorship as creating nationhood, carving a nation out of diverse religious and tribal groups, almost like Tito did in Yugoslavia. If the king prematurely introduces democracy Iraq will revert to a tribal society. And you can't really argue with that."

One has to wonder how one of the world's most autocratic rulers, fond of suppressing the slightest dissent with torture and bullets, could write such a book. "It's difficult to say what Saddam was up to," Goulding says. "It may be easier to dismiss his literary ambitions. The concept of the warrior-poet is important in the Arab world, so if Saddam wants to transcend the role of thug-dictator he has to enter the pantheon of poets."

In the end Goulding didn't change his view of the man much. "During this process I've had to suspend my critical thinking on Saddam and believe his stated motives," he says. "But I believe he was a shrewd, brutal dictator who would have embraced anything which perpetuated his leadership, paid any blood price for his own interests."

Solomon says that Zabiba and the King has complicated his feelings about Saddam. "I have a little relationship with him now," he says. "I already had a relationship with him, from the media and my fellow Americans--a relationship of pretty much hate, like the hatred of a comic-book bad guy. I still have a lot of hate, but disappointment as well. He is, at some level anyway, an artist. To me, that really changes things. Only a human being could be an artist. He's less of the comic-book villain and more a real human being gone bad."

Goulding and Solomon plan to open their show, with Goulding directing, in January 2006. One Theatre's seven-person board of directors unanimously voted down the idea, and Solomon's father tried to talk him out of it. But Solomon and Rosen, who agreed to coproduce, are pushing ahead anyway. They want it to be a commercial production, so they intend to form their own limited liability corporation, then take on the daunting task of finding investors willing to fork over roughly $200,000 on the gamble that Saddam's tale will turn a profit.

"We're going on the theory that (a) people are very curious and will come out to see what kind of piece Saddam Hussein actually wrote," says Solomon, "and (b) people will appreciate that we are flexing the muscles of the First Amendment."

What if he can't find the money?

"We'll fund it ourselves," he says. "Perhaps a bare-bones production. I've been called many times in the past a blind optimist."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Salah Malkawi--Getty Images.

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