The President's Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli

 

Becki Maddock reviews

 

The President’s Gardens

by Muhsin al-Ramli

 

Translated by Luke Leafgren

 

Maclehose Press, April 2017

ISBN: 9780857056788, 352 pages. Pbk £12.99. Kindle: £8.99.

 

 

Abdullah despised hatred

 

“In a land without bananas, the village awoke to nine banana crates, each containing the severed head of one of its sons . . . Each head had a story. Every one of these nine heads had a family and dreams and the horror of being slaughtered, just like the hundreds of thousands slain in a country stained with blood since its founding.” So begins this tale of three friends, which also tells the story of Iraq, from before the Iran–Iraq War to the aftermath of the US invasion. Al-Ramli explores themes of friendship, family, loyalty, morality, humanity, secrets and destiny through a nonlinear narrative, which weaves together the stories of several individuals to tell an epic, multi-generational tale of a village and of a nation.

Abdullah, Tariq and Ibrahim are three friends, all born in the same Iraqi village in 1959. Known as the ‘Sons of the Earth Crack’, “they would almost never be seen apart from each other until destiny separated them in the days of the Iraq-Iran War.”

Tariq, nicknamed “the Befuddled”, is a cleric, who enjoys good living. He makes the necessary accommodations with the regime authorities and prospers in the village.

Ibrahim, “the Fated”, is one of the heads in the crates. His catchphrase is “Everything is fate and decree”, and he names his daughter Qisma, meaning fate. The relationship between Qisma and her father exemplifies the clash of the generations. Qisma rebels against her father and against his acceptance of his fate. With the arrogance and optimism of youth Qisma changes her name to Nisma and strives to shape her own destiny, pinning her hopes on a young officer. But Ibrahim’s fatalism has a limit and his apparent compliance with regime’s wishes hides a secret and a bravery even he did not know he possessed.

Abdullah Kafka, who acquired his nickname through his tendency to philosophical pronouncements, is a device employed by the author to reflect on Iraq’s situation. For example, he writes that “if Abdullah Kafka had spoken about this incident, he would have said: ‘It was on the third day of the month of Ramadan, 2006. According to ancient history, that was when a strange amorphous blob with a giant body and a small head, called America, came from across the oceans and occupied a country named Iraq.’ ” Abdullah, the “prince of pessimists”, is called up to fight against Iran and is captured. Following his return after years in captivity he is content to sit all day in the same seat in the corner of the village café.

The shocking discovery of the severed heads on page one grabs the reader’s attention. Al-Ramli then goes back in time to introduce us to the three friends, and the other villagers and to describe the events that have led to this tragic, gruesome delivery. The dramatic opening of the first chapter is then reprised in chapter 27 and the consequences are revealed.

It takes some time for the novel’s action to reach the gardens of the title, where Ibrahim secures work as a gardener at one of the President’s many luxurious palaces. The luxury of the palace and gardens contrasts sharply with the lives of ordinary Iraqis, and with the horrors Ibrahim encounters there. The President’s murder of a musician epitomises the senseless destruction of beauty and culture that Iraq has witnessed in recent years. Although the novel’s Iraqi context naturally leads the reader to imagine that the ruthless, apparently crazy president is Saddam Hussein, Al-Ramli intentionally leaves the leader unnamed, thereby allowing him to represent the brutality of any dictatorship.

The President’s Gardens was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2013. It is the third of Al-Ramli’s novels to be translated into English.

Al-Ramli’s last novel, Dates on my Fingers, focuses on the experience of Iraqi exiles, whereas The President’s Gardens is set in Iraq and exposes the reader to the horrors of Iraq’s recent history through the experiences of the villagers. However, readers who enjoyed Dates on my Fingers will likely also enjoy The President’s Gardens. Both novels tell the story of Iraq in a poetic, philosophical style, and feature autobiographical elements, as do the majority of Al-Ramli’s writings.

Muhsin al-Ramli is a novelist, poet, translator and academic who writes in both Arabic and Spanish. He was born in Sudayra in northern Iraq in 1967 and went into exile in 1993 after the government’s persecution of his family, including the execution of his brother in 1990. He currently lives in Madrid. The President’s Gardens is dedicated to Al-Ramli’s own murdered relatives.

Al-Ramli hopes to introduce his readers to his native Iraq and his people, to personalise the familiar news stories, to make the victims individual human beings, not mere numbers. His novels describe Iraq’s history as lived by its people, through its people. He uses his characters to comment on events. Examples include Ibrahim discussing the invasion of Kuwait with his friend Ahmad:

“Ahmad said: ‘It’s a depravity for them to kill people as they retreat and surrender!’

“Ibrahim said: ‘It was depravity to invade our brothers and our neighbours.’

“Ahmad said: ‘You know we aren’t the ones who did that, and that anyone who refused was sentenced to death.’ ”

And this comment on the effect of sanctions: “The international sanctions hurt the common people most even as they consolidated the government’s power.”

Al-Ramli’s touching and heart-breaking work exposes the senselessness of war and lays bare the torturing and murdering of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The tone is not overtly angry, as one might expect and therein lies its power. It is a story of the Iraqi people that touches the heart and gives a human face to the news reports. Perhaps Al-Ramli shares his character’s perspective . . . “Abdullah did not hate. He despised hatred and found no meaning in it. Hatred was just another burden on the soul. He wanted peace, nothing more . . .”

 

Published in Banipal 59 - The Longlist (Summer 2017) 

Reviewed by Becki Maddock

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