Longlisted author interviews
An interview with Muhsin Al-Ramli
2 January 2013
*When did you begin writing The President's Gardens and where did the inspiration for it come from?
- I began writing it in 2006 after receiving the news of the murder of nine of my relatives, who were fasting on the third day of Ramadan. The people of the village found only their heads in boxes of bananas, with their identity cards. So I dedicated the novel to their souls. That was a huge shock to me. It horrified me and made me weep and to start with, writing the novel was a reaction [to this event] undertaken without planning or a clear vision. So I put it aside in the hope of achieving an old ambition, that of writing a novel encompassing what ordinary people have suffered through the violent tragedies of Iraq in its modern history, a novel like The Bridge on the Drina by the Yugoslav novelist Ivo Andric, which relates the history of his country over generations and in which the bridge is the focal point unifying the different events and periods of the book. Another motivation for writing is that when I have taken part in cultural activities and events in many countries, I have seen the difficulty people have in understanding the complexity of the Iraqi situation and I have felt extremely sad and angry when the world press reports Iraqi victims as though they were merely numbers, so I went and gathered information systematically. I travelled to Syria to meet my brother and his son there to ask them for more details. I did not go back and begin writing again until the end of 2008, after reading an old, short piece of news about someone who used to work burying anonymous executed people in Iraq and who secretly kept something belonging to them, whether it was a card, bill, watch or ring. He would record some of their personal characteristics and information about where they were buried. After the fall of the regime, he helped many families to find the remains of corpses of their lost ones.
*Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you completed it?
- Yes, about four years, but that was not continuous writing. I would write and then stop to write other things, then return to the novel, search for more information and go back to it, asking advice from friends, and so on. It was written in four places: I began in Madrid and carried on in Granada and Iraq where I went for a short time and did more research. I finished the first draft in Asturias in northern Spain. After that, I did various revisions in Madrid, so it was begun and finished there, where I live.
*How have readers and critics received the novel?
- The novel has been received far better than I expected. The critical views expressed reassured me that it was technically solid. Readers' views, which are the most important, made me feel that this novel had conveyed the message I intended. I received calls and letters from readers who follow my writings, who said that 'this is the novel we have been waiting for you to write'. Others said: 'We now understand what was going on in Iraq and the reasons for what is happening now'. Some confessed that their view had completely changed, after they had previously been sympathetic towards the ousted dictator of Iraq and supported him against his enemies. Some on social networks wrote about their hope that rulers and ruled would read it so that the whirlpool of violence in this Arab world of ours would become calmer, after we experience something of humanity. Amongst other calls, there was someone from Iraq thanking me because I had managed to express their pain.
*Do you have a literary project planned for the future?
- To write a new novel, of course. I have started preparing for it now. I would like it to be about love this time and to be different in language, style and technique from The President's Gardens, since the subject is different, although Iraqi pain will also be present in some form. But I want it to be a deep exploration of love and beauty within this destruction.
*Published in (The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF)), 2 January 2013.
Novel: The President's Gardens: Set during the last fifty years of Iraqi history, this novel tells the story of three friends, exploring how ordinary people have been affected by historic events such as wars, the blockade of Iraq and the invasion of Kuwait. It examines the gap between the lifestyle of those in power and ordinary citizens. During the chaos of occupation, one of them loses his life, like so many caught between loyalists of the old and new regimes. The President's Gardens helps the reader understand the complexities of the successive tragedies besetting the ‘land between two rivers’. The gripping story is told with humanity, and life is somehow the victor despite all the obstacles.
Author: Muhsin Al-Ramli, is an Iraqi academic and translator, born in the village of Sudera in northern Iraq in 1967. He has lived in Madrid since 1995 and received his doctorate in literature and philosophy there from Madrid University. He writes in both Arabic and Spanish and published his first work in 1983. Over the years he has worked as a writer, correspondent and cultural editor and has translated a number of Spanish literary works into Arabic (including Cervantes), as well as translating Arabic works into Spanish. He is the founder, publisher and co-publisher of the cultural review Alwah (the only Arabic cultural magazine in Spain) and currently works at Saint Louis University, the American university in Madrid.