Around 2000, the Iraqi government and Saddam Hussein commissioned authors to submit novels about the everyday struggles of the Iraqi people for government publishing. One such novel, Zabiba and the King was published anonymously and became particularly popular with its tale of a medieval ruler who falls in love with a common woman. The dictator eventually saves the woman from her vicious husband that she no longer loves, but not before she is raped by him in a forest. The thing is… it’s widely believed to have been written under Saddam Hussein’s influence by ghostwriters, and the entire book is a thinly veiled allegory for the history of Iraq and the USA’s relationship. The lovingly firm dictator is obviously Hussein, with Zabibah representing the Iraqi people, and the husband stands in for the USA. There are a number of details that make this obvious, and a number of stylistic, logistic, and philosophical reasons the CIA believes Saddam was involved in its writing (though not solely responsible as some believe).
Sacha Baron Cohen has just signed a $20m deal to adapt this book into a comedy.
The $58m dollar movie will be the actors next film, and it will see him again being directed by his Borat and Bruno cohort, Larry Charles. The official logline runs as such…
“The film tells the heroic story of a dictator who risked his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed. It is inspired by the best selling novel “Zabibah and The King” by Saddam Hussein.”
…but I would invite you to take a look at this nearly 10 year old NYTimes article which details the CIA’s strange discovery and investigation of this book, and the oddly emotional (and yet completely transparent) allegory that Hussein may have constructed for this book. There is a ton of humor to be mined from this, no matter how it’s approached. The book has been a TV series and a musical in Iraq, and doing a straight staging of it that emulates either of those is ripe with culturally-insensitive comedy. They could also take it on more in the style of Borat and Bruno, with the pseudo-documentary feel and improvisational texture- though the stricter narrative might make that tougher. Ultimately I think we’ll get something like Springtime For Hitler that is done with a straight face, just with an obviously ridiculous doofus in the center of it all.
Now we’ve covered this project before, but at that point the Zabiba connection wasn’t known and it was supposed to be another Borat-like trip through America. Perhaps the dual-role element for Cohen is still a part, or perhaps the Zabiba source material will serve as the catalyst for the dictator’s trip… who knows at this point?
Behind this is the usual crew of Alec Berg, Jeff Schaffer, and David Mandel writing the film with Cohen, and newcomer Scott Rudin (Social Network, True Grit) will be producing the film. This is a serious project, with serious money, and serious people behind it- all in the name of a ridiculous goddamn book written by a dictator who we all watched be executed on a cell phone. Seems pretty much perfect for Cohen to tear apart.
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