‘The Little Dictator,’ by Yasmeen Hanoosh

By Yasmeen Hanoosh

Translated by Levi Thompson

In the morning, in the desolation of the bleak village, by the shallow irrigation canal that extends from the western bank of the Tigris to the humble field of his boorish stepfather, sat the boy, barefoot, under the shade of a meager palm tree. He imagined himself sitting on a gilded throne, like those of the kings he saw on pages of newsprint that the hot, dust-laden Simoom wind sometimes carried over the orchard paths. He grabbed a dried up branch that he found beside his earthen throne and began writing on the hard ground. He imagined drafting a chapter of the everlasting constitution of his brutal rule, inscribing a new title in the very middle of the torpid earth. 

{The Chapter of Treason and Betrayal}

Forty years before he began practicing these solitary rituals at his grand palace in the capital, he made resolutions—while shooing the flies off his face—about all sorts of issues in that chapter. Issues he would recycle in fresh flavors and new fonts on television screens and the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and around the necks of many of those he charged with capital crimes.

He liked to make lists of rhymed phrases and enjoyed imagining their echoes resounding in the mouths of the masses, heroes who would sacrifice their lives for him, exalted widows, and orphans mesmerized by their glorious leader whose genius speeches they would recite and praise for ages following each revelation. He imagined issuing proclamations they are obliged to memorize by heart. He smiled as he pictured his people mixing up his words with the Code of Hammurabi, the sayings of the Prophet and those of the Prophet’s cousin Ali, and even sometimes verses of the Qur’an. He decided to quickly write all these sayings down here by the canal and on the tree trunks to preserve them until he could find the notebooks, folders, and willing hearts to transmit them. Then he could terrify people with them before laying out the pillars of his new revolutionary plan, with which, God willing, he would rule over them in the near future.

Schemes of the schemers

Machinations of the machinaters

Agitations of the agitators

Aggression of the aggressors

He repeated the pairs of terms, feeling proud of the regularity of their form and consistency of the rhymes; indeed they were “the Sayings of the Leader of Historical Necessity.” He smiled at the thought and lingered for a while by the canal, protecting his elegant expressions from the trampling water buffalo and the bird droppings. No one noticed his absence when he slept there until dawn.


Yasmeen Hanoosh is Iraqi-born fiction writer, literary translator, and professor of Arabic literature at Portland State University. Yasmeen is the author of the monograph The Chaldeans: Politics and Identity in Iraq and the American Diaspora  (I.B. Tauris, 2019)and the short story collection Ardh al-Khayrat al-Mal’unah (The Land of Cursed Riches, Al-Ahliyyah Press, 2021). Her second collection, Atfal al-Jannah al-Mankubah (Children of Afflicted Paradise) has been translated and excerpted in English, Spanish, and Italian. Yasmeen’s English translations of Arabic fiction have appeared in various literary journals and publications, including World Literature TodayBanipalArabLit Quarterly, and The Iowa Review. Her translation Closing His Eyes (Abbas), received the NEA translation fellowship (2010). Her translation of Scattered Crumbs (al-Ramli) won the Arkansas Arabic Translation Prize (2002) and has been since excerpted in a number of publications and anthologized in Literature from the Axis of Evil: Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Other Enemy Nations (2006). 

Levi Thompson is Assistant Professor of Persian and Arabic literature at the University of Texas at Austin, where his research focuses on modernist literary developments outside of Europe. Levi’s first book, Re-orienting Modernism in Arabic and Persian Poetry, will appear with Cambridge University Press. He has published translations of poetry from Arabic and Persian with UT Austin’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies publications program, InventoryTransferenceJadaliyya, and ArabLit Quarterly

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