As 'The Dictator" starring Sacha Baron-Cohen hits a screen near you this week, we are reminded that when it comes to Middle East despots, art really does imitate life. Here are six quirky facts about the familiar Middle Eastern dictators, eccentrics, extravagance, and oddities included:
1. Saddam Hussein, The Poet
In addition to being a bloody and cruel dictator, Saddam Hussein was a self-taught novelist and poet. During his time in power, he wrote four novels and published many verses of poetry. His most famous work – apparently, however, written with the help of ghost writers – is called “Zabbibah and the King.” It tells the story of a commoner-girl named Zabbibah married to an 8th century ruler of Iraq, who is very cruel and rapes her. Undoubtedly, a truly uplifting story.
Published in 2000, the book is rumored to have inspired Sacha Baron-Cohen's movie. . It is doubtful Saddam would approve.
2. Zine Abedine Ben Ali, Ice Cream Aficionado
The French are phenomenal at making food. It is a universally held truth. However, for deposed and exiled former Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben-Ali, the love of a certain type of French food went beyond mere culinary admiration. Indeed, during his time in power, Ben-Ali had his favorite brand of expensive French ice cream flown from St Tropez to Tunisia every day by charted plane. Even a seasoned Russian oligarch would have trouble justifying such an ordinate expense.
Of course, such extravagance was paid for by Ben Ali and his family’s constant plundering of Tunisian state coffers. It is even alleged that his family’s assets still stand at $4 billion, stored in secret foreign bank accounts,despite the dictator’s exile and disgrace.
Now that Ben Ali resides in Saudi Arabia, he probably need it even more to cope with the stifling desert, no pun intended.
3. Muammar Gaddafi, Fashion Muse
Gaddafi and fashion had a torpid, passionate affair lasting over 60 years. His unique style and flair made him the most flamboyant and eccentrically dressed dictator. He would wear anything, from shiny lycra to sportswear, from tailored suits to billowing Jedi-esque robes. The man – in spite of his many brutalities – was incredibly watchable from a fashion viewpoint, as noted in this 2009 Vanity Fair slideshow.
However, his clothes were also props for his theatrical manner and personality. As reporter Marie Colvin described her first meeting with him in 1986: "Gadaffi summoned her at 3am from her hotel bed. She was taken underground and left alone in a room. “The door opened. In walked Gadaffi, dressed in a red silk collarless shirt, white silk pyjama trousers and lizard-skin slip-ons. Over it all he wore a gold cape. He turned, locked the door, put the key in his pocket and said, ‘I am Gadaffi.’ I remember saying to myself, ‘No kidding.’ But I think I was just stunned.”
4. Ayatollah Khomenei, The Garlic Lover
Ayatollah Khomenei was arguably the man who most changed the world during the 20th century. He was a powerful figure, with charisma and strength that made him into the fearsome theocrat that he was.
However, his power was devolvedfrom his highly ascetic personal life. He had no time for the opulence, majesty, or luxury of the Shahs. There was nothing more reflective of this puritanical mindset than his diet, which consisted not of rich, fancy, or foreign foods, but of yogurt, garlic, and onions. Yummy.
5. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, PhD
On the theme of another far less remarkable Iranian leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insists the people refer to him as ‘Doctor Ahmadinejad’ by all who speak to him.
Interestingly Ahmadinejad, who does has a PhD from the University of Tehran, is not an expert in Politics, or International Relations, or Business, but in Traffic Management. One might argue that being an academic expert in the flow of cars is hardly grounds for Presidential success; although when considering Tehran’s crowded streets, it is certainly an art and a science in Iran.
6. More Gaddafi, Lover of Female Bodyguards
Back to Gaddafi and his preference for female guards. Such was the fear of assassination borne by Libya’s late leader, that he insisted his personal bodyguards be female. This, he argued, was because they would be free from tribal ties and more protective towards Gaddafi.
On foreign trips, he was frequently seen surrounded by a bevvy of beauties, whose actual physical appearance ranged from the stunning to the downright pudgy. Gaddafi’s seemingly mad choice in terms of outerwear also apparently extended to his personal clique of bodyguards. However, all of them adhered to a strict code of mascara, lopsided berets, a random array of different uniforms, and compulsory virginity. Fun.
Since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, many of his former bodyguards have gone under ground. But in August 2011, five of them emerged to say that working for Gaddafi was anything but a dream job. Indeed Gaddafi, his sons, and other high-ranking officials allegedly raped them over the course of their service.