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The Tyrant

by Yussef Elguindi

The Tyrant is a monologue that imagines a Middle East (Egyptian) leader captured and brought to America to face trial in the manner of the Panamanian leader Noriega—or Saddam Hussein, to some extent. It is a direct address to the audience.

An empty stage apart from a chair, a projector, and a table with a pitcher of water and a glass. Habib is present when the lights go up. He wears a suit. He surveys the audience. Then, HABIB, in an accent.

In this fox hunt, it would appear the hounds have gathered around me…and how happy you all seem to be. A guilty pleasure, I’m sure. Invited to attend this—what would you call this? And from which you’re meant to—what exactly? Learn? I think this is the point of the exercise today. You have come to observe—this observation being part of my punishment. Don’t be embarrassed if you’re just here to gloat. I understand the attraction in that. I have done the same. Been much too pleased in the discomfort of people I have not seen eye to eye with. And yes, as it has been reported, I would sometimes go into the prison cells of my enemies and point out to them that they are not where they hoped to be.

Seeing one’s enemy fall is really a delightful feeling.

It is such a pleasure, in fact, that if you have no enemies, I would suggest you go out and make some. And then do something to bring them to their knees. Really. It is so much better than sex. To be full of such righteousness in dealing with an enemy. And then to believe that righteousness exists for the sake of other people, a whole nation.

It is no longer personal revenge, you see. You’re doing it for the good of the country. Tyrants, if this is what I am now called, are actually, if you will follow this reasoning for a second, overly helpful people. In that they are willing to shoulder so much. To the point where, yes, people may feel bullied by that helpfulness. Your helpfulness can overstay its welcome.

So I would like to begin this by saying, yes, I became too full with this hubris of feeling I was doing good for other people. And from this arrogance, I became…shall we say, blind to a number of things. Let me write this down.

He goes to the projector and writes with a black marker.

You’ll be surprised by how truthful I will be with you today. I only ask that you show me the same honesty in return.

Writes, “arrogance/hubris.”

I am sorry this projector is an antique. I have to tell you, your prisons here: not so much. My observations of how you punish people don’t really say good things about you, to be frank. With the amount of bull droppings I heard from you about human rights, I had imagined a very different place. There: “arrogance/hubris.” First confession.

And let me say this: Though they have said my honesty today will decide my final sentencing, it is not for that reason I will be frank. In being honest about myself, I must tell you, I will have to be honest about you, too. They could not have dragged me out here if it was just to make a public spectacle of myself. I came out here to make a public spectacle of you, too. So be warned, you are part of this story.

Now: At first I think, why not be like Cleopatra? She would not allow herself to be paraded down the streets of Rome. A queen forced to kneel before her new master? Impossible. We see what happened with the last dictator you went to war with. You find him in a hole and then parade him on TV with a doctor shining a light into his mouth like he is cattle, or a slave. I think, Habib, this is not for you. I ask, is it fear of death that prevents me from putting a gun to my head?

No. Death is not what scares me. What scares me most is that I sink into history without a proper accounting of what is what. You and I need to settle accounts before you bury me in this dustbin of history.

And don’t worry: I know I am famous for making four-hour speeches but this will be a very short one as I have been given a time limit. Plus, they serve dinner at a strict time here with no exceptions. Also, please know that I hold no anger toward you individually. I know I could laugh with each one of you, if we were alone together. I love Americans. You are a unique species. The rest of us, we live on a different planet, but you…you occupy the space of the elected. For the moment, anyway. Tomorrow, who knows. You may end up feeling what we feel. But for now, you are—how shall I put this—your insides are not bruised the way ours are. This block we go around, you have not been around it as many times as we have. For over five thousand years of recorded history, we have gone around this block. We built the fucking block. But you, you feel a little separate from us, no?

My gift to you this evening is to please feel this superiority—freely, without guilt. Do not let your high moral standards interfere with the enjoyment of watching another man squirm in front of you. And those of you who might sympathize with me to see a human being, never mind a former leader of a people, to see a human being have his dignity stripped away from him, don’t. I used to tell my opponents, those times I would hear of them being asked to give us information in ways they said were painful and undignified, I would say to them, we have aspirin for the pain. And as far as dignity goes, it is something you either have or you don’t.

Nobody can take that away from you. If you scream like a girl, that is you being you. I am man enough to stand under the glare of your contempt. You cannot strip me of anything because I know who I am. For instance, if you, madam (to someone in the audience), wanted to slap me in the face, you could do so. You will see I am the same man before and after the slap. There would be no loss of my dignity.

Gets close to her.

In fact, please be so kind as to go ahead and slap me. Permission given. A large, red light goes on accompanied by a blaring sound.

Ah. Not allowed. It seems we have a referee for my talk with you this evening. No matter. But just so you know, as much as some people want to see me humbled like a dog, it cannot happen. On the other hand (again, close to the audience), if I was to slap one of you, I think you would crumble like that!

He snaps his fingers. Again, the red light comes on accompanied by the sound. He backs away.

And why is this? Why am I able to stand my ground regardless of what you do to me? Humbly I would suggest, and this will sound more like this arrogance I have just confessed to, it is because, and I do not say the word lightly, “Destiny.”

He lets the word sink in.

Destiny tapped me on my shoulder, and not you. Trust me, this is not a gift. If Destiny passes you by, then give God thanks. For to be a leader is to be like an ox burdened with a yoke. It is funny to me that in this time of my greatest humiliation, when I am to stand before you like a beaten servant, it is to tell you that my calling was, to be a servant. Destiny said, “Habib, your life calling is very simple: you will serve others for the rest of your life. Not the playboy you want to be. No, you are to humble yourself before your people.” This is what I have felt all my life.

And like a servant, my masters, my people, chose to spit on me; and beat me; and accuse me of treating them like shit, when I was the one swallowing all the shit on their behalf, your shit, that you shoveled into my country, for thirty plus years I swallowed on their behalf. And now, this. But I am not crushed by this.

You cannot crush me. Because a servant stands and falls with his master. They do not understand that when they slap me, my people slap themselves right back. They really don’t know what they’ve done. The ungrateful little humars. “Donkeys” in English. I serve them, and they bend me over?

Well, my message back to them is very simple: Fuck you, too. Let me write that down:

He writes, “Fuck you, too. Love, your President.” He says the words as he writes them.

Fuck – you – too – love – your – president.

To the audience.

And you, too, to be frank. You live in this perfect bubble called America but you get to live in this bubble because of people like me. I am your man abroad. I protect you from the mad fanatics who say you’re the problem. I say, fuck you, too.

Writes. “Fuck you, America, you ungrateful little cocksuckers.”

Fuck you, America, you ungrateful little cocksuckers.

He heavily underlines the word “cocksuckers.”

Enough.

I don’t want to lose my cool here. Let’s keep this pleasant.

And on top of everything, I’m not allowed to smoke. Well, aren’t you all just so healthy. And perfect. Please excuse me if I occasionally sink into Third World negativity. Sometimes your perfectly enlightened world feels like red fire ants crawling up my behind. Enough. Slight beat.

Back to being made an example of for your edification.

He writes, “I served my people.”

“Service.” Yes. So unfashionable. What could he mean, the liar. Surrounding himself with all that pomp and ceremony and then daring to say he served his people. A servant indeed, riding around in limousines with whole roads closed off so he can pass by. When was the last time a servant ever commanded an army, or had his picture hung everywhere?

About that. My portraits.

There’ve been complaints that my image was always everywhere you looked in my country. Billboards, offices, streets.

With the slide projector, he projects images of his outsized portraits.

First of all, am I so ugly that that’s a problem?

Another slide/portrait.

Does this face make your stomach turn?

Another slide/portrait.

Wouldn’t someone look at that instead and think: I can go to bed easy tonight knowing someone is watching over me? Not everyone has a television or computer. I’m sorry we have to use such blunt advertising. But that’s what these are. These portraits were advertisements for the service I provide. They are saying, wherever you are, I’m here to serve you. Or my team is. I will admit that in practice this looks like either a) Big Brother is watching you; or b) it makes me out to be a megalomaniac.

But it only seems like megalomania if you’re not used to it. In my country, this is like hanging a family portrait. All over the house. A reminder that I am like a big brother; or a father; and you can count on me to be there for you. We’re very emotional in my country. We like to feel close to each other. We don’t have this Western attitude of every man for himself. Here you celebrate the individual. The cowboy alone on his horse. The single hero standing alone. Everyone’s alone here. No wonder pharmaceuticals grow big with all the depression this brings on. We may be miserable for other reasons but at least we’re miserable together. Hence the need for these portraits. Which are really of the office I hold, not of me, per se.

He shows another outsized portrait of himself.

Now, this has led people to say I am too much like a father; treating our citizens like kids. And? Would you let your child drive a car before he’s ready? We have too much illiteracy and ignorance where I’m from. Those in the know need to be responsible and lead their big family out of this ignorance. Otherwise, I would rightly be accused of being an irresponsible father, and letting anarchy rule our house.

The other way is your way, of course. You treat your citizens like statistics. Everything is so cold and unloving in your country. You put on the smiling face and say, “Welcome,” but really you’re showing people out the door all the time. Look, there is a simple difference between our peoples that you need to know: We like strong leaders where I come from. We know we live in a dangerous neighborhood. We want someone who can kick the ass when necessary. We want baba or daddy, because we want to know we’re safe. And like all good fathers everywhere, sometimes I had to be strict. And so, to these accusations of torture and human rights abuses, etc. Let me get to that.

Perhaps takes a sip of water.

Do you mind if I leave these up?

Three or four portraits remain projected onto the wall. Though it could also be one portrait, in which case “these” would be changed to “this.”

This is not vanity. There is just no visual stimulation in my prison cell. You really are more progressive when it comes to torture. Really, you have my respect. I have been taking mental notes of your well-researched techniques for breaking a man down. We never had the funds to explore such exquisite methods. But I approve; it’s working. I don’t feel quite myself. Imprison a man alone long enough and he will jump at a chance to fraternize even with his own lynch mob. It’s really amazing how you Americans continue to celebrate your values when your misdeeds make the people you accuse look like amateurs. I am in awe of your self-delusion. You are unhappy with your lying politicians but still you have faith in your own goodness. Slavery; the genocide of the Indians; the wars you wage. I would respectfully ask you at what point do you good people become liable for the crimes done in your name? By the people you elect. I don’t mean to be accusatory when we seem to be getting on so well, but you are here to shove a broomstick up my ass, so to speak. I would like to break that broomstick in half and share it with you.

Speaking of which: a videotape was released—

Perhaps he takes another sip of water.

—showing an officer of mine shoving a stick up a prisoner’s anus. Also other images of people suffering at the hands of my security forces. All right. I will dispense the weakest excuse but it’s true: There are those in this audience who perhaps run big companies. Do you always know what your employees are up to? You’re liable for their actions, yes, but do you know? I know this is the argument of a weak leader so I won’t press it. But I would hear of the actions of my security forces sometimes, and I would say to the people who do this, “Really? This is what you do when you run out of ideas? What are you, a child, that you go to the poopy area? Or you try and drown a man? Or electrocute him?” I am personally against this. I know I said bringing an enemy to their knees is a pleasure but less so if you do it with a stick. Using the mind to break a man apart, that is using your imagination. By means of the mind, that civilizes the art of persuasion from something barbaric to something that would not offend even you. Even “violence” has its dos and don’ts. Do try and make the man cooperate. Don’t be an animal as you go about doing it. We don’t have the money to fully train people like you, but your way is our ideal. The way you simply strip a man naked, put him in a cramped cell alone, make him stand for extended periods, tying his limbs, stressing them with surgical hits, keeping a bright light on with music blaring; slamming him into walls, this is the way to do it. Do this for weeks, months, even a few days, and he’s no longer a man. We aspire to be like you in many ways, and hope one day we will leave our childish sticks and stones and adopt your more refined methods.

Now, to the heart of the matter: Do you seriously think there aren’t people out there who want to hurt you? You Americans. In the West. Hurt you badly.

Of course, you know this. There are people in this world who want to extinguish your lives. Why? Because. Fill in the blanks. Because you wear low necklines. You watch movies that have women who wear low necklines or go around with G–strings that leave their buttocks on display. Or because they feel your values are shoved down their throats. You offend them. You offend their religion; or you bomb them, and invade them. Blah blah, whatever. There is a bogeyman. He is not a fantasy of some corrupt politician out to stir the crowds for votes. You want the real world to be filled with grays and ambiguities, and things you can discuss over wine. In reality, I’m sorry to inform you, there are people who hesitate only in wondering how to kill you. Knife, gun, or bomb? Which is more macho? They truly, deeply want to attack us. You and me. I put myself in your company because—well—were it not for the fact that I am your prisoner, I’m sure I would be your dinner guest. Not only because we are political allies, but I know you’d love me, believe me. You don’t appreciate that because of the lies you’ve been told about me but well, never mind about that now. Anyway, I know some of you think you can sit down with these people and talk them out of their bad thoughts; or persuade them to put aside their bombs and discuss their concerns over a cappuccino. Everyone is redeemable, you think, yes? Surely we don’t live in Hollywood films where villains plot and rub their hands in glee at the evil they have planned?

It is the nature of privilege—yours—to think this way. I applaud you for it. We want your ideas of utopia to poke our real world now and again. I am a big supporter of the arts; and the imagination. These portraits you see were actually commissions. But while you dream up symphonies and poetry there is someone like me who must guard the gates of your homes and cinemas, because some people take great offense at your free-thinking. You think my censorship was bad. Wait until you see what these guys want to ban. And I only censored to keep the peace. But these people? They hate the very things that make life worth living for us. They think, and I’m sorry I return to the image of the anus—so there might be something to my team’s fixation on this area—but it’s like their whole life is this tightly locked asshole and they want to project that onto the rest of us. They want to lock up life and bury it. They’re afraid of it. Of fresh ideas. The free spirit; and I’m not just talking of religious fanatics. Any group that has a strict division of ideas that must march in lockstep. These people want to tell you what to think, how to conduct the smallest things of your life. They don’t want you to be you. They want you to be them. Liberty makes them pee in their pants. Really—

He holds up a fist to indicate a tight sphincter.

They are the sphincters of life. Perhaps I’m wrong to think my men were brutes. Perhaps they are good psychiatrists applying a kind of physical therapy to open up these men. I helped keep these fanatics away from my people and from you.

Lets that settle, then,

It is a tricky business fighting fire with fire…And yes, fire will sometimes leap the fence and hurt those you don’t intend to hurt. And the difference between good fire and bad is hard to distinguish sometimes. One of my favorite quotes, “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you,” is very true. Staring into the abyss will hurt you.

But this is the burden I took on while my people worked to put food on their table. It was my job to take on this darkness threatening them, knowing I will be touched by it. And I was. You should have seen me before all this. I was the life of the party. And charming. You would have loved me, as I said. And sweet. I was like Mary Poppins. With a security service. In fact, I am more like all the characters Julie Andrews ever played than anything you might imagine. Wasn’t she always instructing people? Giving the kids a little smack on the bottom? Helping the medicine go down with a spoonful of sugar? That’s me. You can’t believe the propaganda against me. I am closer to Julie Andrews than I am to Pol Pot. Really. The guards should be playing “Do- Re-Mi” in the background. Look, look, my friends. Can’t we just say I am guilty of something and move on? Who goes through life without being guilty of something? I am just a good guy with bad press. My people genuinely applauded me for a long time. This should have been my logo:

He goes to the projector and draws a happy face.

Instead of my portraits everywhere, this should have been what they saw.

Removes his portraits and draws more happy faces in their place.

If I ever get back into power, I will put up these instead. I will personally see to everyone’s happiness. I’ll have my police knocking on every door to ask if people are happy. And if not, why not? The pursuit of happiness, like you. I will hunt it down till everyone has a piece of it.

But instead of doing that, you drag me here like a modern-day Cleopatra and parade me. How like an empire you behave; as much as you like to think you’re not. So like you to get all cozy with leaders and then dump them. Don’t you have any morals? Do you even know what’s being done in your name? To this day? My God, the privilege of being you. Having the power to outsource your darkest deeds so you don’t have to look in the abyss. We do it for you and then get attacked for doing it. All so you can continue your pursuit of happiness, and amusing yourselves to death while we get bent over. Well, fuck you, too!

Warning sound and red light come on.

Oh shut up! I am the president of a country! You think you can step on me like shit? You brought me down! Not my people!

The door swings open. He turns to see it.

Ah. At last. Now watch. They will take me out and beat me. You will see how they treat me here. I will not go quietly! Come in and show your true face! Show them how you treat your prisoners here— well, come on. Show your faces to these people.

No one comes.

These guards. Like thugs everywhere. No heart. No mind even.

American accent.

“Just doing my job.”

Back to regular accent.

Your efficiency is inhuman! At least we put heart into our punishing. You? Like robots. All ticktock and no heart. Come in here, damn you! Let them see how you treat a leader who inspired a nation!

He goes to the door to look out, if he hasn’t done so already.

Do you see the mind games they play? You see how they want to drive me mad first? Turn my reasoning into tapioca pudding, like the crap I am served, if I’m good…

Oh I see. I am to return to my cell on my own. Like a dog they are trying to train me. Sit. Stand. Eat. Do you see? A dog!

I demand an escort back to my cell!

The lights start dimming. Small pause.

Was I not honest enough? Did I not confess to everything? It is you who is not being honest with them.

I see…I see…From now on it is to be this way. I was warned it would come to this. All lights and sounds. And commands. No contact. I am to be starved of human contact. Good, good. Take a man who lives off the love and respect of a people and deny him even a hello. You are so very good at this. How inspiring. How like amateurs we were.

To the audience.

Do you see how it works? Do you…?

Sincerely appealing to his audience.

I was your man…You don’t want to get rid of me. Some people’s demands should never be given in to. My people do not have the character for freedom. They are on a course they do not understand. After wanting food on the table they have no ideas after that. They’ll ruin everything. And their ruin will come to your shores. It will come to your shores!

As the lights dim further, a single shaft of light coming through the door will illuminate the stage. To the prison staff:

You are just going to shut the lights on me?

Small pause.

Cleopatra was so smart. You cannot stick around when the end comes. When the end has come for you, you should not be there to see it. You cannot be there to witness your end. The disrespect is intolerable.

Small pause. To the audience. Gathering his dignity.

I hope you have been sufficiently entertained by this spectacle. You, on the other hand, have been a very disappointing audience.

He goes to the door.

Too late you will understand my place in your lives.

Too late.

But you cannot rob me of my memories. I know my accomplishments. No one can enter my head and imprison me there. I am free where it counts. It is you, your lives, what you do not understand about how you are able to have this life you live. You are the ones locked up.

He steps out into the hallway.

In here.

Taps his head.

In here is where it counts. In here…I will always be President. President for life.

From the hallway, he looks out at the audience. The last light goes out. Blackout.

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