The List: Five literary leaders

One of the sources for Sacha Baron Cohen’s film The Dictator, released this week, is reported to have been Saddam Hussein’s romance novel Zabibah and the King (2000). This tale of a medieval Iraqi king and a commoner is one of a number of novels and poems he wrote. Here are five other leaders who embraced literature.

1. Marcus Aurelius

Meditations (c.AD180)

The 12 books of Meditations, chronicling the life of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, combine personal reflections with his thoughts on Stoic philosophy. Partly written while he was planning military campaigns at Sirmium, the emperor’s writings have been compared to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s and St Augustine’s Confessions.

2. Kim Jong-Il

On the Art of the Cinema (1973)

With a 20,000-strong film collection, Kim Jong-Il’s life-long obsession with the medium makes him unique in the history of Stalinist dictators. On the Art of the Cinema, written during his time as culture minister to his father and predecessor Kim Il-Sung, stresses the importance of film to the fulfilment of the younger Kim’s Juche philosophy, along with a proselytisation of the benefits of method acting.

3. Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

Mullah as Mystic (1989)

The leader of the Iranian Revolution and the man responsible for issuing a fatwa on Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini maintained a lifelong engagement with social, political and mystic poetry. Mullah as Mystic relays an account of a protagonist becoming “ill through love”, abandoning the mosque and seminary after having been “awakened by the hand of the tavern’s idol”.

4. Muammer Gaddafi

Escape to Hell and Other Stories (1998)

Written two years after his near-assassination at the hands of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in 1996, Escape to Hell, described by one critic at the time as “a philosophical fiction”, combined both essays and short stories on his vision for an agrarian utopia. Portentously, the title essay of the collection incorporates a complaint that “the tyranny of the masses is the cruellest kind of tyranny”.

5. Saparmurat Niyazov

Ruhnama (Book of the Soul) (2001)

The late President for Life of Turkmenistan, responsible for renaming calendar months after members of his family, intended the book as the “spiritual guidance of the nation”. Niyazov said reading Ruhnama would increase a reader’s intelligence by a factor of three, and guarantee an entry to heaven.

Books: Libya after Gaddafi

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