A sneak peek at this year’s UNC Summer Reading program

My mole at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has uncovered what might be UNC-CH’s book selection for this year’s Summer Reading Program for incoming freshmen. Readers will recall the program created a nationwide stir last year with its selection of Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’án, which focused on the 35 most approachable suras in the religious text.

What follows is the text, which I received on April First of this year, of UNC-CH’s possible selection announcement:


Carolina Summer Reading Program 2003: Zabibah and the King


The Carolina Summer Reading Program is designed to introduce you to the political life of Carolina. Required of all new undergraduate students (first year and transfer), it involves reading an assigned book over the summer, writing a one-page response to a particular subject, participating in a two-hour discussion, and sharing your written response with others. Other goals of the program are to stimulate discussion, to engage a current topic that the faculty feel comfortable discussing, and to provide a shared experience for incoming students. Mostly it’s for headlines during the summer doldrums.

Using basically the same selection criterion behind last year’s unparalleled success, this year’s selection is Zabibah and the King, reportedly written by Saddam Hussein (reportedly translated by Peter Arnett).

About The Book

Zabibah and the King is a romantic allegory about a heroic king who falls in love with a poor, married woman. The king is Hussein, of course, and the woman represents the Iraqi people. She is married to a brutal man, a symbol of Western culture. While she and the king enjoy numerous (but chaste) encounters, her cruel husband takes her away and rapes her. Outraged, the king declares war on the husband and his supporters. In the ensuing conflict both Zabibah and her husband are killed — on January 17, the day of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. The king winds up dead, too.

Zabibah and the King provides insight into its author’s introspection, deep-seated morality, and legitimate philosophy of government. Through Zabibah we learn that “The people need strict measures so that they can feel protected by this strictness” and “Rape is the most serious of crimes, whether it is a man raping a woman or invading armies raping the homeland or the usurpation of rights.”

The Discussions

Zabibah and the King has been exceedingly popular in Iraq, selling over one million copies (it’s mere coincidence that government officials refused to process citizens’ paperwork until they purchased it). Westerners for years have been alternately puzzled, attracted, concerned, and curious about the great tyrannical tradition of Iraq. These feelings have been especially intense since the tragic events of September 11. Zabibah is not a political document in any sense, but as a romantic allegory it passionately evokes political, social, and cultural ideas that are different from but no less valid than our own, raising questions that will be timely for college students and nostalgic hippies under any circumstances.

Students and discussion leaders from all backgrounds will find plenty of topics of interest in Zabibah and the King, but the Carolina Summer Reading Program has listed several focal points for discussion:
1. Is oil a justifiable reason for rape?
2. What became of Zabibah’s husband when he acted unilaterally with all his friends against the king? What happened to Zabibah? Doesn’t that tell you something? Hmm?
3. How would the United States be better, or different, if it invoked strict measures that protect Americans with strictness?
4. Why do all the principal characters have to die, and how does their fate reflect the book’s lack of an analog for the United Nations?

Ordering Information

The book is available for 4,000 dinars (approx. $2) from:

Ba’ath & Bodyworks Books, VX & More
Beneath the Camouflage
Few Miles Outside Tikrit, Iraq

Students whose lives are changed by this book are invited to check out the author’s second novel, Impregnable Fortress, rumored to be his last. They are also encouraged to check out Iraqi TV’s 20-part Zabibah miniseries. Also, the Baghdad theater still features a Zabibah play, despite earlier, erroneous media reports it had bombed.