In the program (Mawad Fi el-Mahjarموعد في المهجر)
The iraqui writer Muhsin Al-Ramli
Shown: Thursday, July 9th, 2009
and it was repeated: Friday, July 10th, 2009
Translated by: Carolina Cármenes
Towards Spain alongside difficult dreams
In between cultural compromises,
Towards Spain alongside difficult dreams
This ink spilled on your papers
is the blood of my country.
This light pouring out of your screens
Is the sparkle in the eyes of the children of Basora.
This one that is sobbing in the darkness of his exile
The narrator: The poet, only he can put himself face to face with the world and show it its errors, only he can, with a few witty words, undress and give away politicians, who are able to light up a war as easily as they light up their cigarettes, whenever they see potential benefits for themselves. And in the heart of Madrid we find the Spanish/Iraqi poet Muhsin Al-Ramli declaiming:
No to the party of military men on the roof of my house.
No to the executioner that you have proposed
or are going to propose.
No to the bombs of your liberty falling over the heads of my people
No to liberating Iraq from me or me from him.
I am Iraq.
Muhsin Al-Ramli: The most beautiful part of my life is that my parents were complete opposites. My father was a self-taught man, stubborn and determined, and my mother was a woman that represented tranquillity and tolerance. I learned from my father that that which makes a man and gives him more importance is his wisdom and his service to others. A person is more valuable every time that he expands his knowledge and every time that he is more useful to other people.
My father addressed the government of the time by himself and asked to build a school in the village, and once he was granted permission, he built a school in one of our plots of land; he built it himself out of mud. He himself was the founder of the school and of the mosque in the village. With that, I learned about the value of knowledge- for he read, and he had taught himself how to read.
One’s worth is determined by their knowledge and their service to others.
We are nine children in our family. I have three brothers and five sisters. My brothers have also had a big influence over me, in particular, my deceased brother and known writer Hassan Mutlak Almost all of my brothers and I are educated and had the chance of pursuing our studies, for my father was greatly interested in our education.
My dream was to become an actor. I wished to study drama, and in fact, when I was in secondary school, I created with my group of friends a drama club, and we managed to perform a few easy playwrights for some of the villages nearby. But my father, being a religious man as he was, conservative and strict, especially when it considered our family, forbade it. During those times, any type of artist was thought to be something similar to a dancer or a clown, so my family said to me: “No! We will disown you if you leave, we firmly refuse to see the son of Mr. Mutlak dancing on television.”
Whenever I wanted to clear my mind and think, or whenever I felt upset, I would make my way to the river and I would sit down on one of the rocks and would submerge my feet in the water, and I would sit there, thinking and contemplating the flow of the water. That time, I realised that the time had come for me to decide what it was that I wanted to study, and I could postpone it no longer for if I did, I would be forced to fight in the Iran-Iraq war, and it was something I didn’t particularly want to do. I started to consider journalism, for it seemed to be similar with what I really wanted to study but unfortunately couldn’t. Then by chance, my friend Ibrahim Hassan Nasser, who was also a writer and who was killed in the war a few years later, stopped by and told me: “You don’t need to study journalism to be a journalist as long as you have the ability to write. Moreover, the majority of universally known journalists are famous because of their talent, not because of their studies. But in order to be a journalist you must, like every intellectual, speak a second language.” He was right in his words, but I despised the English language and ran away from it, so I tore apart the idea of learning it and told him: “I cant stand the English language” and he replied: “How about Spanish?”
At that time, the eighties, what was known as the Boom of Latin-American novels had just been written, and had also just been translated into Arabic as the works of Garcia Marquez or works of Vargas Llosa and others, with which we were all very impressed. My friend then asked me: “How would you like to be able to read “A hundred years of Solitude” in its original Spanish version?” and I answered: “That would be amazing”.
The execution of my brother, Hassan Mutlak, took place in 1990 for his participation in the coup d’état against the regime of the time. The consequences and torture that individuals receive by the regime for this kind of situation are well known, and the family of the victim suddenly find themselves in a very delicate situation, as did we. If you were a civil servant, or public officer, you were immediately thrown out of the country, especially if your position was somewhat important, but you would suffer pressure from every side even if you weren’t a public officer.
At the time I was serving the mandatory military service, which lasted for three years and which I completed from 1989 to 1991. Only once you had completed the military service did the Iraqi government allow you to travel, therefore, once I was done, I went to Jordan, without knowing anybody there and with only a hundred dollars in my pocket. I took on any job that came my way, and after a while, I slowly integrated myself into the national Jordanian press. I would translate articles and write for newspapers, and this start allowed me to meet and befriend many great people. As a matter of fact, most of my best friends now are Jordanian. I entered their homes, their cultural centres and I even performed in their national festival of Irbid in 1993 or 1994, yet my situation there was still complicated due to my status as an undocumented immigrant as well as the lack of jobs available.
Since I was a graduate in the Spanish language, thanks to a friend, Abdul Hadi Sadoun, who was in Madrid at the time, I decided to send him all of my documents and transcripts so that he could send them to the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, where I was accepted. This is how I came to Spain.
The Narrator: When the young Muhsin Al-Ramli explained to his professors at the university in Madrid and that he was planning to write his thesis on “the influences of Islamic culture on Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, they all smiled in a sympathetic yet ironic way, for they thought, what else could he add, how can he being an Arab dare to write his thesis on the most important novel ever written in Spanish, on which more than half a million studies had been made in the past four hundred years? A few years later, these same professors awarded him his doctorate degree with honours, in Spanish, SOBRESALIENTE “CUM LAUDE”, and they praised him for his great job in which he did indeed successfully add more to the novel, and in which he made it very clear that Cervantes, having had lived in Algeria for a long time as a prisoner, had been greatly influenced by the Islamic culture, the same way the character of Don Quixote had been influenced by chivalrous stories in the novel.
Muhsin Al-Ramli: Sometimes I feel as if I was born a teacher, because ever since I was young I loved to teach. I would often set up a library or a study room and there I would teach my cousins, my nephews or my friends, and when I finished university, I also taught a class of bulletproof armour usage in the military for a while, focusing on how to operate tanks and other combat vehicles.
I was also a teacher at a school in Iraq for a period of time, and here in Spain, I taught at the Iraqi school in Madrid, which was built for the children of the Arab community of Madrid. Later on, I also taught Arabic and Arabic culture classes as well as writing workshops at the Williams School in Madrid.
For the past five years though, I am a university professor, giving classes about the Arabic language as well as culture at Saint Louis University, and at this university I also teach Islamic studies, drama, as well as Spanish literature, special classes about Don Quixote, but at this point in time I am currently focusing on teaching Arabic, which along with Spanish, is my area of expertise.
This university is considered to be one of the oldest American universities in Madrid, for it has been here for over 17 years and in it we find students from almost all the nationalities in the world, although the majority are Americans. It’s a well-known university in the United States, which has campuses in many places all over the world, including here in Madrid. At the university they teach both in English and in Spanish, since the majority of international students that come to this university come in order to learn, or to improve, their Spanish. As well as Spanish, the university also offers many different majors, ranging from the sciences to the languages, as well as humanities and such.
There was always great interest for the language and culture of the Arabic world by the rest of the people, but recently, this interest has been growing more and more each day now that the Middle East is becoming more popular in various ways. Whether for good news or bad news, the Middle East appears in the news almost daily, and foreigners want to understand why and for what reasons the things that happen in this region of the world happen. Also, tourism in this part of the world has risen, and now not only do tourists want sun, beach and luxurious hotels, their curiosity about the culture of this world, their traditions and their ways, has also increased, leading many to explore it. People want to know how Arabs think, how they eat, how they sleep, how they live, how they dream, and every time, the amount of people who travel to Arab countries increases. This is why I say that Arabic countries should take advantage of the experience that their citizens who live in the west, or elsewhere, experience, for it is them who know how to represent and pass on our culture the best way, they are much better than publicity itself, for their role is even more important than the role politicians play in showing everybody the wonders of the Arab world. It is us that give a broader, more real, human and cultural view of the Arab world. Most people have bad impressions of Arabs due to what they see in the news; therefore it is our responsibility to show that we are not all the same way we are typically portrayed by the media. I believe that Arab countries need to emphasize teaching their language, because there are many people all over the world who are interested in learning Arabic and learning about Arabic culture. I find it surprising that the League of Arab States has not taken the time to prepare at least a few easy-to-read, simple books about the Arab language, in which easy explanations are given in many different languages and which would facilitate learning Arabic. What I, as a teacher have noticed, is that there are very few books that teach Arabic in a simple way, so it is difficult for Arabic teachers to successfully teach, for we have to put in extra effort, to get to know each student and their level individually as well as their learning rate in order to be able to teach them Arabic. I really think that it is very important that Arab countries take the initiative to prepare such books, in order to encourage foreigners to learn our language.
In between cultural compromises,
worrying about exile and writing as a refugee
The Narrator: Don Quixote once said that everyone is the son of their actions and fruit of their virtues. This is one of the truest phrases said by Cervantes’s mill-fighting hero.
Less than 15 years ago we could have found the young Muhsin Al-Ramli in this very park in order to spend the night, for he was poor and alone, and could not seem to find the beginning of a promising path to a new life.
In these types of terrible circumstances and conditions, it seems justifiable for the average person to just give up and become a vagabond, but Al-Ramli, who had previously been in Jordan, did not give up, and instead, made up a path on his own in order to accomplish his goals. He built his own path and started fresh in every way: academically, morally and culturally, and considers every morning to be a valuable gift which should be accepted and taken advantage of and which we should confront without any hesitation or regret.
Muhsin Al-Ramli: At the beginning, I came here and I found myself in a precarious situation, for I only had 200 dollars with me. Along with this, at the time, my Spanish was not very good, for I had learned it the academic way which is different from the Spanish that is spoken in everyday life, and due to my years of military service and lack of practice, I had lost some of it as well. Along with this, upon my arrival to Spain, I was issued a student visa, when what I really needed was a job. Spain was facing great levels of unemployment at the time, not only for immigrants but also for Spanish as well, and I, having a student visa, not a working visa, found it impossible to get a job and faced very hard times.
I came to Spain with three Iraqi friends, and slowly, we started to help each other. We went from sleeping during the day in parks, to renting a small apartment for the three of us. This way, whenever one of us found a job, the rest of us could live, and that way we were helping each other to survive. I remember one summer when our fridge broke down and we could not afford to repair it…
Being an Iraqi immigrant is much harder than being an immigrant from any other country in the world, for imagine how difficult communicating with your family back home is, and that just for the fact of being Iraqi, you will never receive any news, or any good news at least, from back home. Your family will not be able to help you financially when you need it because their situation is usually worse than yours, and since I did not receive any scholarship or any other type of financial help, I could not bring myself to asking my family for money when I knew what situation they were in.
At first, my arrival to Spain was just as my arrival to any other country would have been; my interest was primarily on the culture of the place, and I soon began to look for places and opportunities for me to engage in this culture and learn from it. But my friend Abdul Hadi Sadoun and I did not find them. We began to look for centres or associations for Arabs and Arabic culture here, but we only found a few small and quite insignificant ones, for the bigger and more significant centres were found in other French or English speaking countries, since there were very few Arab intellectuals here in Spain. Therefore, my friend and I felt an obligation to start some sort of project to stimulate the Arabic community here and so we started a magazine and editorial called “Alwah”, although our financial situation was very difficult. At the time, he worked at a café in a small hotel while I worked at a bazaar, and although money was scarce, we felt a certain necessity to create this, to contribute, we just could not not make culture, we wanted to create something through which we could spread our culture.
With this and with the improvement of our Spanish, we began to interact with the Spanish cultural world, engaging in as many activities as we possibly could, following each cultural movement and occasionally translating everything that we could.
We soon began to earn money by translating documents from Spanish to Arabic, and it soon became a profession as well as a cultural compromise. Slowly, we began doing other things. I worked at the theatre and at the cinema as well, I even wrote a script, but unfortunately it was not shot due to the high budget it would have required. Abdul Hadi Sadoun and I also took part in a short clip called “Makbara” which took place at the Muslim cemetery here, and which deals with Iraq. It makes sense that Iraq plays a role in everything I have done so far, for it is a part of me and everything I do.
(trailer and shots of the short clip Markbara)
Muhsin Al-Ramli: I look at myself and I describe myself mainly as a writer, although I can say that I have had certain success as an academic, poet, actor and playwright, but I believe that the best word that I can use to describe myself, which is also the word that describes my greatest dream, is the word “writer”. In my opinion, to a writer, their most important work is almost always their last one. I have written a book, “Scattered Crumbs”, which in its English version has won a prize and has been translated from Spanish to English and French. But my latest work is “Dedos de Datiles”, which translated into English would be “Date Fingers”, and for me, this novel is the one that I feel closest to my heart, for I have expressed in it my own memories and experiences as an Iraqi in general and as an Iraqi in Spain. In it I have expressed my view on these two cultures, the similarities and differences between the west and the east, between dictatorship and liberty, the traditional and the modern, and about the question of immigrants as well. The feedback and critics I have received for this novel have been good so far, and soon it will also be published in Arabic.
With respect to the translations I have written, apart from my books, I would not be exaggerating if I said that I have translated hundreds, if not thousands of other short texts, and all of them were of the literary genre. Translation from one language to another for me is a second mission. I find it necessary, and at times I also find myself obliged to translate, because although my main mission and dream is to dedicate myself exclusively to creative writing and literature, I understand that part of my duty is to translate from Spanish to Arabic and vice versa because I am fluent in both, and I find it important for me to complete this service between the two languages and the two cultures.
I feel that my brother’s name, Hasan Mutlak, and the legacy he left behind are now my responsibility to keep and carry on, not only for me, but for my people as well. Hassan was one of the best Iraqi writers of the time and his assassination in 1990 affected me for the rest of my life. I have always been influenced by him, I am a student of Hassan Mutlak and I feel that I owe him everything I know, for when the Iraqi regime decided to take away his life, they deprived the world of a great voice, and I feel its my responsibility to bring out this voice again. I have been living my whole life for two people, for myself and for Hassan Mutlak, and for this very reason I have posed on myself the challenge of bringing together and publishing everything he wrote, and in this way rebel against the regime that wanted to silence him.
I returned to my village in 2004 for 20 days out of a sudden decision in order to see my family and friends. Upon my arrival, I realised that once you are an immigrant, you will always be an immigrant. For my family and friends I was a different person, and for me, they had all changed, my town had changed and I realised then, that I had also changed. Once you are an immigrant, you become a foreigner even in your own country. Ever since I left Iraq the first time, I never informed my parents of the difficulties I was facing in Spain, I never let them know when I needed money, when I was hungry, when I was sick, and of course I can imagine how hard all of it would have been on my family had I told them about it. Another difficulty about leaving and the most painful of difficulties is to find out that while you were gone, members of your family as well as loved ones passed away. While I was in Spain, my mother as well as my older sister and brother Husein died. We are a very close family and all of us are very emotional, and what makes this whole situation even worse is that in their last moments of breath, all three of them asked to see me, “we want to see Muhsin” they said. And of course, when you aren’t able to fulfil their very last wish and it rests in your hands, this hurts you inside forever.
Because I didn’t see my mother’s death and the death of my other loved ones with my own eyes, sometimes I feel that they are still alive, its as if their death is just an extension of their absence, and it is only when you stop to think about the fact that they are really gone that their death replays itself a thousand times in your mind. Its like you miss them, and since you have been away for a long time and didn’t witness their deaths with your own eyes in order to make sure that they really died, you keep on missing them, and it is only when you remember that they are really dead that it seems as if they have died all over again.
The Narrator: But now his small and beautiful family will be able to close this gap that rests in his heart. The love from his wife, of German and Spanish blood, and the sweetness and tenderness from his daughter Sara, who learns Arabic from her father, German from her mother and Spanish at school, so that this way she can become a citizen of the world. So that she can live wherever she pleases, as easily as pronouncing her name in all different languages is, and this way save herself from all the suffering of the dilemma that tearing yourself from something implies, from all the suffering that destiny dragged her father through, between a painful and impossible fatherland.
Muhsin Al-Ramli cannot forget and will not forgive the people who killed his brother and destroyed Iraq and forced him go into exile. Perhaps this is why his pain resurfaces each time and stays, because if he forgives and stops feeling like a victim, then he will have lost the fight that he has been fighting his whole life. We are left with the feeling that this victim will return to Iraq in the near future in order to contribute to the new Iraq being built, creative, safe and free, but for now, forgiveness is not easy, and the big fight requires time, so until then, we will wait for you dear Ramli, we will wait.
النص بالعربية على هذا الرابط
La traducción del texto al español está en este enlace:Carolina Cármenes and Muhsin Al-Ramli