THE PRESIDENT’S GARDENS: MUHSIN AL-RAMLI
For many of us, Iraq as an entity is summed up by the images of air strikes on the news and by the rhetoric of politicians and military leaders. It is a place that for all my life has seemed profoundly ‘other’: my earliest memories of seeing war on television are of the Gulf War, when I was five years old. So I came to this book with curiosity, hoping to learn more about the people who have suffered such an existence. Written by the expatriate Iraqi author Muhsin Al-Ramli, it’s a haunting, often horrific tale of three close friends in a rural community, whose lives intersect with the tragedy and chaos of their country.
The opening sentence is worth quoting, because it sums up the flavour of the book: its matter of fact style hiding the horror within. It is 2006 and, ‘.’ One of these heads belongs to Ibrahim, one of a close-knit trio of friends who have been inseparable ever since boyhood. Now, as his two companions Tariq and Abdullah come to terms with their friend’s murder, each in his own way, we look back into the past to follow the paths that these three young men took, which led them from their happy boyhoods to this bleak morning in the village square.
I should note, at this point, that while Al-Ramli’s story is not autobiographical, it is woven together from real events told to him by various people, while his own brother – a celebrated poet – was murdered by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1990. This is a land where fiction is simply a plaster covering the raw, unhealed agony of brutalisation which every family has experienced. In that sense alone, this is a book that should be read.
From childhood, each of the three boys has had a very distinct personality. Tariq, the beloved son of the local imam, has always been relaxed and charming; Abdullah, whose ‘parents’ found him as an abandoned baby on their doorstep, has an innate melancholy which has led to his nickname ‘Kafka’; while Ibrahim, the son of a self-professed war hero, is gentle and resigned to his fate or (a name he gives to his own daughter). Ibrahim and Abdullah go off to do their military service while Tariq, as an imam and teacher, is exempt; and, at first, they simply enjoy the chance to get away from home and see the world. But that world is changing and, as these three young men grow to adulthood, the international situation becomes ever more fraught. Their President enters into war against Kuwait, a war that expands to encompass the entire region and which brings foreigner powers in with their air strikes and their bombs. Suddenly these young men are no longer playing at war, but caught up in a terrifyingly brutal reality.
The descriptions of war in this book are harrowing. Columns of refugees – women and children – are gunned down from the skies; mines blow men to pieces; and in one scene, almost hallucinogenic, Ibrahim comes round from unconsciousness to see a dog with a man’s head beside him – realising, then, as dream comes back to reality, that it’s a dog carrying a severed head. When, in peacetime, Ibrahim is rewarded for his war service with a coveted job in the President’s own gardens, he thinks at first that he is in paradise, a world of roses and wonders. But gradually he comes to realise that this is only horror by another name, hiding behind a mask.
Yet this is also a story of a community carrying on despite its circumstances: an extended family of villagers who share each other’s hopes and secrets, who care for one another and offer much-needed comfort in dark times. It’s a tale of fathers and sons, and the desire to do well by one’s family; a tale of mothers, grandmothers and daughters; a picture of a group of simple yet resilient people struggling to understand their times and, perhaps, to change with them. And it’s for that picture of community that Al-Ramli’s story resonates so powerfully with me. Here is a village which might have been transplanted from any country (with a few cultural tweaks), and in getting to know the people of this little settlement, we grow to care about them. Thanks to Luke Leafgren’s elegant translation, the prose has a dignity and poise which, as I’ve said, makes the tragic moments all that more affecting.
Powerful and thought-provoking, this novel gives a clearer picture of the recent history of the countries in the Gulf, and helps us to look beyond the simplistic propaganda of ‘liberation’ peddled by our Western governments. It is not an easy book to read. It should not be. Yet it is never polemical. Highly recommended as a rare chance to see the recent conflicts from another perspective; as a way to comprehend the full nature of the tragedy inflicted on the Iraqi people; and an insight into the comparable experiences of refugees in our own time.