I'd always enjoyed writing and so, when I was 16, I took a creative writing course. The final project was to write a short story based on a newspaper article and in the style of an author we liked. I found a story about Saddam Hussein and I decided that that would be my source material. As for the author, it was no question I was going to imitate Gabriel Garcia Marquez and try to write in the magical realist tradition. I recently stumbled upon this story and decided, why not share it?! Sure, its young and sophomoric, but I still liked it upon rereading it.
Over the weekend, the crows had pecked through the screens of the presidential palace, one of the four hundred that had been built, and, with their wings, disturbed the stagnant time inside. On Monday morning, the city woke from its lethargic state by the sound of multiple gunshots, and the desperate flapping of wings above, and clangorous clatter of birds hitting the metal roofs of the palace, and the dull thudding of the small bodies on the cobblestone pavement below, and then by the languorous smell of dead crows’ corpses baking in the sun. It was six thirty in the morning and the heat was already unbearable.
The soft morning breeze that blew through the city smelt of a great man dead and rotting in his grandeur. The news came later by telegraph: the old President was dead. They had found him, it said, the morning servants, chewed away by time in his secret bed, wearing the same denim uniform he always wore and in the same position he always was. He looked frail, they said, and all the people tried to imagine what he looked like, when he was frail, but none could because no-one was old enough to remember what he looked like before he came to power.
It was rumored that he grew up in a small village to a poor family and that his brutality began since the time when his brother had some food left over on his cardboard plate and the young president-to-be asked his brother to please share with me, and the brother refused so the young president-to-be got his knife and during the night went to his brothers bed and cut his brothers tongue out, then cut it up into little pieces and fed it to his brother so you can see how this tastes you bastard, is it not enough for you, eat up now, you filthy cur, but no one in the city was old enough to remember this time and everyone was much too old and too tired to search through the endless Library of Our Holy President or to read through the 19 volume biography written by the President under the supposed name of Ibrahim al Habad, a work that was required reading for all politicians, military personnel, and lawyers, and the penalty for failing the comprehension test is death, they would say.
The giant fortress on the outskirts of our city now only seemed a sepulcher of the President’s memory and no more a place of public execution, hanging, and torture. Only then, when the President had died, did we dare go in without attacking the crumbling walls of reinforced stone, as the more resolute had wished, and without using canons to knock the main door off its hinges, as others had proposed, because all that was needed was for someone to give a push and the great armoured doors that had resisted the Legion of Nations during the buildings’ heroic days gave way. And then we saw the reality of our President; an absolute horror.
We first crossed the courtyard: all across the courtyard, where the paving stones had given way to the underground thrusts of weeds, we saw the disorder of the dead diplomats in their brightly colored robes and their lifeless political proposals; we saw an imperial document mail truck full of colored fungi and pale irises among the unresolved briefs whose normal course had been slower than the pace of the driest lives; we saw the bed of roses, now dead, and among the asphyxiating camellias and the butterflies we saw the royal tank in good shape under dusty cobwebs, all painted with the colors of the flag.
Then we stepped through the door of the palace: it was like entering the atmosphere of another age because the air was thinner in the vast lair of power, and the silence was more ancient and things were harder to see in the decrepit light. We did not have to knock down the door, as we had thought, for the main door seemed to open by itself with just the push of a voice. We went up to the main floor along a bare stone stairway where the opera house carpeting had been torn by the maggots, and from the first vestibule on down to the private bedrooms we saw the ruined offices and protocol salons through which the brazen crows flew or walked, eating the maggots that were eating the velvet curtains and nibbling at the trim on the chairs; we saw heroic portraits of saints and soldiers thrown to the floor among broken furniture; we saw a dining room that had been eaten up by nature; the music room profaned by the crows breakage; the chess tables destroyed and the felt on the billiard tables cropped by the crows, and through the numerous windows we saw the broad and sleeping animal that was the city, still innocently unaware of the historic Monday that was beginning to come to life.
And then we entered the room of the President, which, until then, only a few people of privilege had come to know. We smelled the crows carnage for the first time, we caught their age old asthma, and guided ourselves by the putrefaction of their wing flaps to a portrait of him, in his denim uniform, with insignia, leather boots, and sliver gloves, older than all old men and all old animals on land or sea, as he was stretched out on his chair, face up and proud, his right arm supporting his head, as he sat day after day after day of his ever so long life as a solitary despot.
The room was filled with mirrors and his portrait was reflected on every wall and on the ceiling and on the floor and there were thousands of him, not just one, millions of detailed copies in light, one behind the other, one behind the latter, one behind the third and one behind the one in front of it. When we looked at his face we realized that it was impossible to recognize him, even though the portrait was untouched by the crows, because none of us had ever seen him and even though his profile was on both sides of all coins, on postage stamps, on condom labels, on the cover of all books, on all clothes and all foods, and even though his engraved picture with the flag across his chest was displayed at all times in all places, we knew that they were copies of copies of copies of copies of portraits that were always considered unfaithful because he had never let anyone see him, except his dignitaries, his morning, early-afternoon, afternoon, mid-afternoon, early-evening, evening and night servants and his trusted military officers, if they can be trusted because nothing is more dangerous to me than trust.
The President was dead and we knew it because, even though the world went on, the mail was delivered, and the municipal band played its silly retreat of waltzes on Monday proclaiming the greatness of the President (at gunpoint, as usual) under the dusty streetlights of the main square, the night before we saw a crow contemplating the sunset on the presidential balcony, just imagine, a crow on the balcony of the nation, what a shitty country, and we could not even think we had dreamt it because the crow took a shit on the balcony and it is still there, baking in the sun.
Until now the President had been everywhere: in the dark corners of our rooms, in the shadowy alleys on the streets, on the other side of the shelf in the Library, where we could not see him but he could see us, in the back of the movie theater, in the darkest recesses and crooks of our minds, and also hiding just behind our eyelids so he could see what we were doing and he was always watching, always listening, always judging, always controlling our every move through the fear that we would displease him. He controlled everything in the country, even the way we bathed, and now he was dead and the country was beginning to slowly fall apart because we didn’t know what to do.
Our lives had been controlled for as long as we knew and now, that we finally had the freedom we wanted and longed for so much, we did not know how to work the fields of the President, when to go to church and sing in praise of the President, when to watch the television and think our President is so good and caring and kind and great and all knowing and all powerful because the television told us to and we could not say the words to the night prayers because our President was dead and saying divine spirit preserve the strength of the President, divine spirit give the President good health, divine spirit see to it that the President has all that he wants so that he is happy, divine spirit, even you answer to the President amen, because we felt that somehow this was inappropriate and would anger him and he would all of a sudden wake from his death and personally begin shooting the people who had said the words and mocked him.
In that room, behind the painting, we found a journal, not written by the President but written by the President, and when we opened its pages we all turned and looked around and some of us went to close the doors so that the President wouldn’t see us (and some of us covered the eyes of the President in the painting because we felt that, somehow, the painting of the President would begin to yell at us). And then, the life of the President began to become as clear as a summer sky. And we cried.
Everyday in the morning the self proclaimed President, field marshal and general of all the countries’ military units and Great Father to all its people, would wake up at six twenty five exactly and would eat his breakfast which had been flow in fresh from a secret location around the world five hours ago, and had then been sent to his nuclear scientists where it had been X-rayed and tested for poisonous chemicals and impurities and radiation and then it had been taken to his European trained chefs who would, under the careful supervision of cameras and military personnel, prepare and cook his meal amid the racket of pans and pots, the clatter of dishware and utensils and clamor of what are you doing now and make sure everything is prepared just as the general likes it because the President could kill anybody with a simple look to his soldiers and sir, yes sir we will do as you command and bang, the ring of the gunshot and the sound of the blood spattering the ground would fill the ears of the President, but the body never fell to the floor because the soldiers always ran and caught the body before it hit the marble and dirtied the red carpet with its pain. After he ate, he would walk by himself along the many labyrinths of the fortress he was in and he would think what am I going to do today and then he went swimming for half an hour in one of the many pools because I am the embodiment of the Divine One here on Earth, or so he believed, and water is mine to command, or so he believed, so he kept fountains that were created by artists who worked without stopping for food nor sleep until he was satisfied with the design and he kept indoor streams to show the people of this desert country that he was who he said he was because he had thousands of tonnes of water when then country had only hundreds.
After swimming he ran 84 laps. We tried to imagine the old President urging himself through a fixed number of laps each morning, jogging in a simple jogging suit of imported Chinese silk, breathing hard, his lungs shriveled and shrunk from age and asthma, pushing himself, everyday with a little more effort, his thinning gray hair, dyed black every two weeks, drowned in sweat, his feet falling heavier on the ground at an uneven pace and that repetitive thump-thump thump-thump sound, interrupted by the splash of a missed step hitting the shallow water in the center of the room every so often, mixed with his labored breathing filled the rectangular room that was his jogging space.
The President had been in power for 23 years, four months, one week, three days and six hours but to us it seemed as if he was the President before we were born and he would be the President after we died, because during his reign, time had no real meaning to us: sometimes a year would pass and we couldn’t remember anything from what had happened and sometimes a second lasted a century. It was said that on the night he took power, he invited council leaders and hundreds of party members of the old government to a dinner party. The walls of the royal palace were all draped with long, Taiwanese silk drapes colored a sickening green and blood red and all the guards at all the entrances were dressed in full issue military uniform and the carpets had been removed and a new, opera-house red carpet was rolled from the dais, down the cavernous audience room, through the reception hall, down the stairs and to the door. Ten minutes after the gates had opened, all four thousand people invited had entered the palace and the doors were closed and locked, effectively sealing all means of escape. The President, entered through the large doors before they were closed and slowly, solemnly, wearing a denim uniform, leather boots, a dull brass insignia and silver gloves walked on the center of the red carpet, head held high, shoulders down, chest pushed out, hands behind his back, not acknowledging anyone, staring ahead, and headed straight for the dais. He reached the dais and stood there until a wave of shhh passed over the crowd and all of a sudden it was quiet.
He stood there, proud, silent for a moment too long, the interest of the audience in the palm of his hand now, and he stood there, full of vanity, the silence now was almost unbearable, and he stood there, running the entire speech in his head and making last minute revisions so that it would have the most powerful effect, and he stood there, thinking what idiots these people are letting me stage my ascendancy like theatre, letting me play Napoleon, and he stood there until he finally spoke in a calm, pleasantly commanding voice:
“There has been a betrayal,” he said.
“There are traitors among us.”
And then, with theatric precision and drama, the doors burst open and the council’s secretary-general, naked, bruised and battered, was brought in the room and taken to the dais where he started naming names. As he fingered members of the audience, armed guards grabbed over three thousand ‘traitors’ and ‘escorted’ them from the hall. When one man shouted he was innocent, the President screamed back: “Get out!” and later, before the public execution of all the ‘traitors’, the President had the tongue of the man cut out so he could not speak and had his fingers hammered so he could not write and had his eyes pierced with hot iron so he could not see and give something away and had his ears filled with hot wax so that he could not hear anything and do this in front of all the ‘traitors’ so that they know not to do anything I don’t want them to do or I’ll not spare them and make sure you cut his tongue last so that they can all hear his screams and whip whoever covers their ears. All the executions were videotaped and made into a movie and videotapes were circulated around the country so all could see how their President had saved them from the threat of the other nation.
At first we all rejoiced when we had heard the news: the President, God bless him and his kindness, had saved us from this ugly plot. The President was showered with flowers and cheers as he drove his black convertible luxury car through our mud-streaked, dust covered streets and we all saw him standing there, in his car, standing tall, standing proud, waving at us, his hands covered in those elegant silver gloves he always wore, and he was smiling and acknowledging us with nods of his head giving us the age old, historically repeated, dust covered illusion that he cared for us.
There were some of us who said that the President was evil and that we should not obey him because he is lying to you, using you in order to get what he wants and the next morning those few mysteriously disappeared and the town forgot them until a month later they came back, looking as if they had been in a battle, and they would stand up in crowds and declare their love for the President and they would preach that you must understand that he has been sent by the Divine One to guide us and lead us and show us how good life is and if we please him and give him our unceasing loyalty and faith it will be the same, no, even more appreciated than if we were to give it to the Divine One.
The President then thought of creating The Channel on the TV and on The Channel you are going to play all songs and poems and stories and art in praise of me and they are to be shown to the public non-stop so that they can all see how great I am and then he changed the national anthem so that it was a song in praise of him and then he added a new course in school, a course that would teach the children about him and his greatness, and then he changed the morning, afternoon and bed-time prayers so that the people will all pray for me and to me because that’s all they’re good for anyway.
Then, the war with the other country began.
Our life did not change: we still lived in poverty while inane violence raged around us everyday. During the eight years that the war lasted we simply waited in boredom for the enemy troops to leave our city when they invaded it because no matter how cruel they were and no matter what they did we knew that our glorious President would save us and lead us rightly in this war and we had the conviction that we would win because the preacher told us that the Divine One is on our side and that the President was His embodiment here on Earth. The President encouraged us to fight through The Channel and he went out during the most desperate times and led his troops over enemy territory himself, fighting bravely and honorably (though he sometimes seemed to fall to the ground dead and then nobody knew anything of the President until the very next day when he came out to stare across the state from his balcony, looking unhurt.)
The war ended and the President appeared on The Channel and he said that he was grateful at how we had helped win the war and to show my gratitude I am going to send military troops to each city so that you will be protected by them in case anybody attacks you, my good people. The troops arrived and asked for a place to stay, a personal chef and women to go around and when some of us objected we were told that if we wanted protection we would have to do as they said.
Then the President began his parades that lasted for five years, seven months, three weeks, and one day. At first he drove around the torn country in his black convertible luxury car, and there are films of him standing tall, waving and smiling in his car; then he began to have the suspicion that someone might try to throw rocks at him so he changed the car to a hardtop luxury military vehicle, and there are pictures of him waving and smiling from inside the car; then he began to think that someone might try to shoot him so he changed his car to a armored military van, and there are public records that he was waving and smiling from behind the reinforced fiberglass window; then he began to have the conviction that someone might throw grenades at him so he exchanged his armored military vehicle for a tank, and there was a TV on the outside of the tank showing him inside the tank waving and smiling; then he began to have the belief that someone would launch missiles against him so he stopped going on the parades and barricaded himself in the palace but he always sent a tank with a man wearing silver gloves inside it and a TV outside on the tank playing a videotape of him waving. Soon he began to allow only a certain number of people to see him and be in his presence, mainly his concubines, his trusted generals, his secretaries and the important members of The Party, and it was very often that he would torture these people to find out whether or not they were plotting something against him.
The President then ordered that 400 palaces be built, each different from the other, each having a central room that would have all walls covered in mirrors and the floor, ceiling and walls of this room would be made of five meter thick steel and make a labyrinth around the room damn it because I don’t want anybody to ever find me he would shout to his architects over a cell phone.
The building of the palaces took four years during which the President never went out. He asked for reports of the state of the country everyday and nobody dared lie to him because it was common knowledge that the President had secret powers and he could tell when you were lying or thinking bad thoughts about him so evidently when he heard of the rumor that several bureaucrats were accepting bribes he had a fit of rage during which he smashed statues, mirrors, paintings and television sets and ripped important files with statistics and numbers and letters of political significance (which he later ordered his two secretaries to rewrite from the pieces that were still legible and from their memory) and he beat one of his concubines when she tried to calm him; the fit of rage turned into a fit of insanity and he began screaming incoherently and he fell to the floor and writhed around as if in agony and he began frothing at the mouth and then he stopped and there was a silence around the room and everyone present at the spectacle stood in anxiety asking themselves with their eyes is he dead but nobody dared touch him or even move a muscle until the Imperial Doctor, who was led down through the labyrinth to the room with a blindfold on, arrived and put some pills in the Presidents mouth and told everyone that we have to wait patiently about half an hour because the drugs work slowly and everyone breathed easier because he will live the doctor said as money was put in his hand and a blindfold on his head and he was being led out of the room, through the labyrinth and left at the door of the palace with no phone, no water, and no food around for miles and with a muffled go north for an hour and you’ll reach the town.
When the President woke up he looked around at the damage, wiped his face with his sleeve, stood up and straightened his denim uniform, put on his silver gloves and said:
“Let’s go pay these bureaucrats a visit.”
He was there at each and every arrest and he was the one to read the charges and sentence them to death by way of hanging. The entire Party was ordered to attend the hanging and all those who did not attend were accused of not attending because they were in league with the already accused and so were charged with treason and sentenced to death by way of hanging. The prisoners were marched out in the courtyard with sacks tied over their heads. Everyone was struck with horror as the President appeared on the balcony and ordered that all the prisoners be lowered in the noose because I don’t want their fucking necks snapping, that’s right, I want them to suffer for betraying me. The Lt. General of the Presidents’ troops turned away and vomited in disgust during one of the hangings. The President saw this as an act of weakness so the man was stripped of his rank, his saving were all confiscated, his homes were all bull-dozed leaving him, his wife and his children on the street and, just for good measure, his two eldest sons were thrown in prison for the rest of their lives.
At around this time we had finished building the 400 palaces and he now began his routine of sleeping in a different palace each night so that he could not be assassinated in his sleep. The head architect, a German, was brought before the President and the President shook his hand. When he was left at the door to wait for his car to be brought, the architect looked out at desert and said to himself in Arabic with a thick German accent:
“The man is already dead inside; he only waits for physical death. He is only a walking corpse. Can you imagine it?”
Then the President had the idea that he wanted to conquer a nation so he chose one with the strongest military force in the region and he declared war. He had gambled that the rest of the world would not care about this; he was wrong. The League of Nations gathered its forces and the President, who had captured enemy soldiers and tied them onto his tank to be used as human shields, told his troops to fight and nothing else. He did not lead them into this war, but he let them fight, he let them be overwhelmed. And he lost.
The President knew that he was now being hunted by the League of Nations and he did not want to be humiliated in front of anyone so, without the smallest hesitation, he took his gun from its holster, pressed it against the roof of his mouth and shot himself in his secret bed wearing the same denim uniform he always wore and in the same position he always was in. This happened last Friday. On Sunday and Saturday the Presidential troops walked out of their building and told everyone to get to work. We knew something was wrong. On Sunday evening the troops left.
This is where the journal ends and this is where the first half of our lives ends. We walk out of the presidential room and through the palace’s devastated rooms and through the courtyard and finally we walk out through the gates and we look out at the desert and on this historic Monday we will see if our spirit has survived, we will see if we can live without the President. We close our eyes and feel the sunlight dancing on our skin and the hot sand beneath our feet. We take a deep breath of an air we have not breathed for a long time, an air that does not carry the stench of the President.
And now, we will go. We will go and, finally, we will try to live.