Dictators tend to be colorful people. They’re constantly alone, afraid of lots of weird things, and really paranoid everyone’s going to kill them. They have absolute power but their egos are eggshell thin. They’re fragile, volatile and worry all the time. Or maybe they’re just a little crazy from the non-stop high of having absolute power.
A look back at other dictators shows that all of them have strange quirks. For example, Hitler refused to eat meat but thought it was fine to take meth every day. Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was so obsessed with JKF that he sent someone to collect the air around the late president’s grave. Duvalier though the air would help him control JKF’s spirit. Spoiler alert: that didn’t work. Muammar Qaddafi’s crush on Condoleezza Rice rivals anything we’ve ever seen come out of Hollywood.
And that’s just the beginning. The deeper you look at dictators, the more bizarre you realize they are. They’re all a little bizarre. Saddam Hussein was no different.
1. He penned a best-selling romance novel
His book was originally published anonymously, but everyone knows Hussein wrote “Zabiba and the King“. In the decade between its publishing and the Gulf War, the Iraqi dictator encouraged Iraqi artists to tell stories fabricated stories about the “idyllic life” of citizens in Iraq. He wanted to “bring the feats of the ‘Mother of All Battles’ home to the people.”
Typical of an ego-driven dictator, the author of the book claimed he wanted to remain anonymous … all the while feeding leaks to the news. Iraqi newspapers started to report that Hussein might be the author and the legend was born. The novel became an immediate bestseller. Then it was turned into a musical spectacular. We’re not sure if we’d ever be able to sit through that performance, though.
The CIA believes the book was probably ghostwritten with Hussein’s guidance.
2. He received a UNESCO award for raising Iraq’s quality of life
Hussein served as the Ba’ath Party vice-chairman from 1968 to 1979. In that time, he created a nationwide literacy program, setting up reading circles in Iraq’s cities. Missing these classes was punishable by three years imprisonment.
He built roads, schools, and hospitals and carved out a public health system that was tops in the region. The UN’s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization honored his achievement in helping to eradicate illiteracy in his country.
Then, in 1979, he seized power. His actions in the coming years would make his development work look like a planned deception.
3. A Saddam-like character was featured in a Justice League comic
In a 1999 comic book, the Justice League of America – Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Arrow, and others – watched as UN weapons inspectors were ejected from the rogue Middle East nation of Kirai. Meanwhile, a well-meaning but naive new member of the League name Antaeus kills the dictator (who looks a lot like Saddam) of the country rather than do things the JLA way.
The country descends into a multi-faction civil war, ethnic conflict, regional powers exerting military influence, and a battlefield for the ongoing fight between Sunni and Shia Islam.
This was in 1999. If only President Bush read DC Comics.
4. He wiped out an entire civilization
Saddam accused Iraq’s Marsh Arabs of colluding with the Iranians during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. In order to kill them all easier, he drained the legendary marshes – once thought to be the biblical garden of eden. The 9,000-square kilometer area was slowly dwindling to 760 by the time of the 2003 American invasion.
The people inhabiting those wetlands were either killed or forced to flee Saddam’s paranoid wrath. After the dictator’s ouster, the Iraqis destroyed the dams preventing water from flowing back into the wetlands and its ancient inhabitants started to return.
In 2016, UNESCO named the wetlands a World Heritage Site.
5. Hussein pledged $94 million to help America’s poor
Well before September 11, 2001, changed the future of American foreign policy and the day before President George W. Bush took office, Saddam Hussein sought to send $94 million to the United States. The reason: “humanitarian aid for the “homeless and wretched Americans living in poverty.”
6. He received the key to the city of Detroit
The year he took power in Iraq, Hussein received a congratulatory note from Reverend Jacob Yasso in Detroit. The dictator sent Yasso and his congregation of Chaldean Christians $250,000. Chaldeans are a sect of Christianity with roots in modern-day Iraq.
Saddam invited Yasso to come to Baghdad for a meet and greet. Yasso decided to gift the Iraqi dictator with the key to the city of Detroit, courtesy of then-Mayor Coleman Young. As a way of saying thanks, Hussein then gave the church another $200,000.
7. He hated Froot Loops
The personal jailer for Saddam, while he was a prisoner, fell to U.S. Army Spc. Sean O’Shea, a Pennsylvania National Guardsman. O’Shea mopped the floors in Saddam’s cell, served him meals, and was essentially a sort of valet for Saddam Hussein.
The old man gave him advice on everything from women to home remedies. One of the few times O’Shea ever “saw him look defeated” was when the jail ran out of Raisin Bran Crunch and had to serve the guy Froot Loops. The dictator hated them.
(Read more about Spc. O’Shea’s life with Saddam over at GQ)
8. He offered to debate George W. Bush on live TV
In an effort to prevent the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, the dictator offered to debate U.S. President George W. Bush on live TV. In a three-hour interview with CBS News, he offered a satellite link-up to debate the U.S. President.
“I am ready to conduct a direct dialogue – a debate – with your president,” CBS quoted Saddam as saying. “I will say what I want and he will say what he wants.”
The White House said the offer wasn’t a serious one but Hussein reiterated his stance.
“This is something proposed in earnest out of my respect for the people of the United States and the people of Iraq and the people of the world. I call for this because war is not a joke.”
9. He commissioned a Qur’an written in his own blood
Despite the fact that using blood to write a Qur’an is considered haram – forbidden – in every sect, branch, an offshoot of Islam, that never stopped Saddam Hussein. He commissioned one on his 60th birthday. Calligrapher Abbas Shakir Joudi wrote 6,000 verses and 336,000 words of the Qur’an using 50 pints of blood over the course of two years.
If you’re a blood expert who questions if it’s possible to give that much blood over two years, you aren’t alone. A blood donation expert once estimated it would have taken at least nine years to safely donate that much blood. That sort of thing never stopped Saddam Hussein either.
10. Young Saddam was raised by a single mother and wanted to be a lawyer
Saddam was raised by his mother after his father popped smoke one day. His dad was a shepherd, so there’s no real telling where he went. But the major male influence in Saddam’s life was his uncle, who was a member of the Ba’ath Party. Saddam’s brother died from cancer. Then his mom couldn’t afford to take care of him. So, Saddam got shipped off to live with his Arab nationalist uncle and a dictator was born. Saddam eventually went to Egypt to study law. But that was only after a failed assassination attempt on the sitting Iraqi president, Abd al-Karim Qasim.
When Qasim was ousted for good in 1963, Saddam the educated lawyer returned to Iraq and the Ba’ath party.